Mexico's Drug War

Posted on November 20, 2008


Originally published on


In recent years, Mexico’s drug cartels have waged increasingly violent battles with one another as well as with the Mexican government. Upon taking office in December 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon deployed thousands of federal troops in an aggressive crackdown on drug-related violence. Yet death tolls continue to rise. There were more than 2,500 drug-related deaths in 2007, and the yearly toll rose to more than 4,000 by the end of 2008. Murders and street gun battles are only part of a more entrenched problem that includes corrupt police forces and a lackluster judiciary. Experts say recent police and judicial reforms are a step in the right direction, but such reforms will take time to implement. Meanwhile, increased and sustained cooperation from the United States is seen as necessary to stem drug-related violence.

Severity of the Drug Trafficking Problem

About 90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States is trafficked through Mexico, according to the State Department’s 2008 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Mexico’s extensive cocaine trade is controlled by cartels based in border areas and along the southeast coast. Three groups–the Sinaloa Cartel, the Gulf Cartel, and the Tijuana Cartel–have waged an increasingly violent turf war over key trafficking routes and “plazas,” or border crossing areas.

Violence reached acute levels in 2006 and has only worsened since then; decapitations became common and cartels began disseminating videos documenting gruesome deaths-“narco messages”-to threaten rival cartels and government officials. While initially the majority of violence was between cartel members, in the past two years, police officers, journalists, and politicians have become frequent targets of drug killings. In May 2008, for instance, Mexico’s acting federal police chief was killed in a drug hit.

Deploying the Military

In December 2006, Calderon deployed roughly thirty-six thousand troops to work with the federal police in nine states, including Michoacan, Guerrero, and the so-called Golden Triangle of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua. These troops eradicate crops, gather intelligence, conduct raids, interrogate suspects, and seize contraband.

Prior to Calderon, Presidents Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox also involved the military in combating drug traffickers. These initiatives “succeeded in generating a temporary sense of improved citizen security,” writes Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America in a November 2007 briefing paper. “Ultimately, these efforts have faltered in the face of basic laws of drug supply and demand,” she says.

Some experts say Calderon didn’t have any other good options for tackling the drug cartels. Police corruption is pervasive at the federal, state, and local levels, but the army is regarded as well-trained and disciplined. Furthermore, the Mexican public respects the military. “The military and the church are the two most respected institutions in Mexico,” says David A. Shirk, director of the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute and editor of a recent book on judicial reform in Mexico. Since the public outcry over a 1968 student protest that the army was sent in to suppress, the military has shored up its reputation by maintaining distance from the public. As a result, unlike in many Latin American countries, the military abstained from political involvement in the 1970s and 1980s.

Some analysts say that deploying the army to tackle drug violence has made it vulnerable to the same corruption infecting the police. “Given the weakness of the police system, involving the military was understandable,” says Meyer. “But the police and the military aren’t interchangeable bodies.”

Other Security Tactics

While the military offensive has captured public and media attention, the Mexican government is pursuing other counterdrug initiatives, including:

  • Extraditions. In 2007, Mexico extradited eighty-three alleged criminals to the United States, included the head of the Gulf Cartel. This marks a significant increase over the sixty-three extraditions in 2006, according to the Congressional Research Service.
  • Eradication and interdiction. Mexico has intensified its efforts to eradicate marijuana, dismantle labs for making illegal methamphetamine, and interdict cocaine shipments. The International Narcotics Control Report notes, however, that overall marijuana and opium poppy eradication decreased in 2007, as aerial eradication responsibilities shifted from the attorney general’s office to the military. In 2007, Mexico dismantled some twenty-six meth labs (up from ten in 2002).
  • Combining federal security forces. Calderon spearheaded a 2008 constitutional reform that will merge the Federal Preventive Police (PFP), a civil force under the public security ministry, and the Federal Agency of Investigation (AFI), currently part of the attorney general’s office. AFI agents perform intelligence gathering, similar to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the United States. The PFP is responsible for maintaining public order; it does not currently have investigative abilities.
  • Public security reforms. Calderon proposed a package of public security reforms (StratFor) to Mexico’s Congress in September 2008, including the creation of a national criminal database and a department to oversee coordination among police forces and anti-corruption efforts. The focus on tracking flows of information, money, and people is important, says John Bailey, professor and director of the Mexico Project at Georgetown University.
  • Judicial reforms. In June 2008, Congress passed a series of constitutional reforms that overhaul criminal procedures in Mexico. The reforms include oral trials with public proceedings, sentencing based on the evidence presented during trial, and the creation of a group of judges that can rule quickly on requests for search warrants. Prior to these reforms, Mexico used a written trial procedure that could drag on for years. Shirk calls these reforms “very innovative” and says they have the potential to transform the rule of law in Mexico. The reforms are so extensive they could take eight years to implement, writes Eric L. Olson of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute in a June 2008 paper (PDF).

Assessing the Results of Calderon’s Efforts

While there are some signs of progress, violence is still on the rise and high-level government officials are increasingly targeted. Analysts say that there used to be a de facto agreement between traffickers and the government that the traffickers would kill one another, and the government would stay out of the way. This is no longer true, reports Alma Guillermoprieto in the New Yorker. Now, drug traffickers are using gruesome killings to send a message of narcoterror. “We’re seeing a transition from the gangsterism of traditional hitmen to paramilitary terrorism with guerrilla tactics,” Luis Astorga, a drug trafficking expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told the Houston Chronicle in May 2007. Astorga claims drug cartels have increased their recruitment of army deserters who employ paramilitary killing tactics (from 2000 to 2006, more than one hundred thousand soldiers deserted). Calderon has tried to keep expectations low, stressing the fight against organized crime will be a long one.

According to a 2008 poll in Mexico City’s Reforma newspaper, 53 percent of Mexicans think the government is losing the fight against the drug cartels. U.S. law enforcement officials, meanwhile, say there is evidence the cartels have started to penetrate cities across the United States (LAT).

Long-Term Prospects for Mexico’s War on Drugs

Opinions vary as to the best way to tackle the long-term battle against drug trafficking, but experts agree the first step is purging widespread corruption in the police and judiciary. As this 2007 Global Integrity report documents, Mexico’s judges are often intimidated when they try to prosecute drug cases. Police are compromised by the law of “plata o plomo,” a choice between accepting bribes from a criminal organization or being killed, writes the Power and Interest News Report. There are more than 1,600 different municipal, state, and federal police forces in Mexico, most of which are governed by state or municipal authorities. Until recently, Bailey says the government didn’t even know who was in a particular police unit (the government is now working to identify all police with fingerprint databases and interconnected state and municipal records). “Police is the caboose of the whole reform of the state,” he says.

Bailey thinks it could take decades for the police to improve enough to successfully combat organized crime. Shirk is more optimistic, but warns not to expect a “V-day for the war on drugs” in the next five years. Meyer, of the Washington Office on Latin America, argues that given the drug war’s cross-border nature, any long-term strategy must include the United States.

The Merida Initiative: U.S.-Mexico Counter Drug Cooperation

The Mexican government says the U.S. failure to curb drug demand limits its ability to crack down on drug trafficking. In 2007, President Calderon and President George W. Bush agreed to cooperate on counternarcotics efforts. Their meeting resulted in the Merida Initiative, a three-year, $1.5 billion plan to combat drug trafficking in Mexico and Central America. The initiative, which passed the U.S. Congress in June 2008, does little to address U.S. demand for drugs that transit Mexico. It allocates $400 million in 2008 to purchase equipment such as helicopters; to expand Mexico’s telecommunications infrastructure and its ability to monitor airspace; to strengthen existing programs to professionalize Mexico’s police; and to provide advanced technologies to Mexican law enforcement agencies. Of the 2008 funding, 41 percent is allocated to purchase helicopters and surveillance aircraft, writes Ray Walser of the Heritage Foundation. Prior to the passage of the Merida Initiative, Mexico received $40 million a year for anti-drug efforts from the United States (Colombia, by comparison, receives $600 million per year). Much of that went to information-sharing and training of Mexican law enforcement.

The United States views the Mexican government’s efforts favorably. “The Calderon Administration’s courage, initiative and success have exceeded all expectations,” says the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. However, many experts believe the United States should be doing more to address its domestic demand for narcotics, as well as to provide training to Mexican law enforcement agencies. By the end of 2008, U.S.-Mexico counterdrug initiatives remained fragmented among federal, state, and local levels. A 2008 CFR Latin America Task Force report recommends that the United States improve technical and financial assistance to Mexico’s police forces, stressing that the Merida Initiative does not allocate sufficient funding to such assistance.

Some analysts also stress that the United States should be doing more to curb arms trafficking from the United States into Mexico. The gun laws in border states have a loophole allowing individuals to purchase weapons without a background check. As a result, the weapons trade along the border is very lucrative (Portfolio).

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