The War on Drugs: Mexican Cartels

Mexican Navy seizes drugs and weapons from the Las Zetas drug trafficking organization (Jorge Lopez/Reuters).
Mexican Navy seizes drugs and weapons from the Las Zetas drug trafficking organization (Jorge Lopez/Reuters).

by Akbar Khan
Contributing Writer

In 1971, President Nixon officially declared a “war on drugs.” Four decades later and after $1 trillion in government expenditures, the drug war still rages on with no signs of slowing down.  During Nixon’s time, the big players in the drug scene were the Colombian cartels. It was not until the 1980s, when the United States successfully used Plan Colombia to disrupt Colombia’s drug cartels, that Mexico’s cartels rose to prominence. Today, Mexico’s “narcotraficantes” have established a $25 billion industry and account for a majority of America’s methamphetamine and marijuana supply.

Although former Mexican President Felipe Calderón invested billions of dollars in the deployment of tens of thousands of troops and the reformation of police and judiciary systems, the fight against drug cartels has not made any substantive gains. If anything, Calderón’s militarization of the drug war has only escalated drug-related violence. The Mexican government estimates that since 2006 over 40,000 people have died due to drug-related violence. And even worse, some of Mexico’s cartels are now highly influential in certain territories like Guerrero and along the coast on the Gulf of Mexico, making it harder for the Mexican state to fight them. In some regions where the cartels have eliminated political representation, the Mexican government has effectively lost the monopoly on the use of force – a monopoly which scholars like Max Weber have deemed to be an essential requirement of statehood.

Why has it been so difficult to fight Mexican cartels? 

For one thing, Mexican cartels are quite sophisticated. They are structured and militarized organizations that employ at least half a million people, according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings Institute narcotics expert. The cartels have also demonstrated a high propensity for brutality and terror – a tactic that has enabled them to increase control within Mexico’s institutional framework. In many cases, corpses are dumped in city streets and in extreme cases, the bodies are cut into pieces or decapitated. Reporters, many of whom are consistently the victims of cartel murders, fear fatal repercussions for detailing cartel activities. A survey by Reporters Without Borders lists Mexico as the fourth most deadly country for reporters. This has had a gripping effect on Mexico’s media, as demonstrated by a Juarez newspaper that dedicated its entire front page as a plea for peace to the cartels, according to an Al Jazeera presentation

Furthermore, the Mexican military has struggled to combat the cartels effectively. “Each year, the violence takes on distinct new dimensions,” states Victor Clark Alfaro, a security expert for the Binational Human Rights Center in Tijuana. “It’s like fighting guerrillas — it often defies understanding.”

This transformation of violence is demonstrated by the fact that some cartels, particularly the Caballeros Templarios, consider themselves to be more than simple drug traffickers; they view themselves as resistance fighters (La Resistencia). The very title “Knights Templar” (Caballeros Templarios) refers to early crusaders who protected pilgrims on their passage to Jerusalem. Other cartels substantiate their political motives to displace the government by organizing community events like picnics and barbecues. This demonstrates the cartels’ ability to not only compel violence but to support their efforts with ideological constructs of organized resistance and community welfare.

To top it all off, corruption within the Mexico’s government has severely hampered the war on drugs. Reports of government officials, police officers, and military personnel receiving payments from the cartels have repeatedly surfaced. “A system-wide network of corruption has ensured distribution rights, market access, and even official government protection for drug traffickers in exchange for lucrative bribes” according to a March 2011 CFR report. As one example of the corruption, in 2008, members of SIEDO (Subprocuraduría de Investigación Especializada en Delincuencia Organizada), the attorney general’s office in charge of investigating and prosecuting organized crime, and directors of the federal police were arrested for their ties to the Beltrán Leyva cartel. Noé Ramírez, the former director of SIEDO, reportedly received $450,000 every month for his services to the cartel’s leaders.

Of course, the supply side is only one part of the equation. The undeniable fact is that the demand for drugs in the United States provides an essential market for the cartels. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2010 there was an estimated 22 million Americans ages 12 and older using illegal drugs – nearly 9% of the U.S. population. That is an increase from the 6.7% of the population estimated in the 1999 Survey. With millions of buyers in the United States, Mexican cartels continue to generate a revenue stream that in turn serves to finance their violence and increased capabilities.

With their ability to intimidate, combat, conceptualize, and infiltrate, Mexico’s cartels prove to be a powerful force. But combined with this insatiable demand in America, the cartels become a cemented aspect of U.S. Mexico relations.

A more recent development on the drug war: Mexican cartels have exhibited increasing control in the rural areas of Mexico, namely in southern Mexico.

According to a study by Salvador Aranda in Revista Mexicana de Sociología, places like Michoacan that have not traditionally been in the spotlight of the media for the drug war, have witnessed more militarization and influence from cartels such as the Caballeros Templarios. This has led to changes in the agrarian culture of Michoacan due to the incorporation of the drug trade. 

Jerry Langton, author of Gangland, talks about the many poverty-stricken, indigenous people in Southern Mexico who, feeling alienated by the central government, turn to cartels like “La Familia” for their provision of healthcare and education. This is in contrast with the terror tactics that the cartels use in Northern cities since it demonstrates an ability to garner support by immersing themselves in the livelihoods of the residents.

Despite their increased integration in rural territories, the extent to which the cartels exercise control over their territories is most greatly hindered by divisions amongst the cartels themselves. Mexico’s drug landscape is dominated by several competing cartels but there is no single dominant cartel. As a result, the major cartels must compete for drug routes throughout Mexico and into the United States, which result in deadly territorial battles.

This division demonstrates that while the cartels collectively have a significant voice in Mexico, they do not have complete control over their territories. While much of their influence is leveraged by fear and hostility, their growing aptitude to become integrated into the lifestyle and culture in rural areas like Michoacan should seriously heighten the concern of Mexican and American officials.

Fact and figures from CNN, BBC, PBS, CNS News, Al Jazeera, El Economista, Washington Post and Time. 


Akbar Khan is a third-year Political Science student with a minor in Global Studies. He is an intern at the Burkle Center for International Relations. 



  • A nicely researched article. It spells trouble for Mexico where the writ of the civilian government has weakened in some areas. The tourism in Mexico has been affected in the northern areas already.
    Equally concerning is the drug dependancy in the United States which is rising slowly. Evidently we are not doing enough to combat drug trafficking and minimize cosumption. Two states viz Colorado and Washington have passed referenda to legalize marijuana . It is likely that the demand for the mexican drugs may lessen and the drug business may not remain as lucrative in both countries. Anyhow it will remain a big challenge for decades.

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