Mexican Drug War

Mexican Drug War
Part of the War on Drugs

Mexican soldiers during a confrontation in Michoacán in August 2007
Date11 December 2006 (2006-12-11) – present (9 years, 11 months, 3 weeks and 6 days)
LocationMexico (particularly the states of Baja California, Durango, Sinaloa, Guerrero, State of Mexico, Chihuahua, Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Veracruz, Coahuila, Jalisco, San Luis Potosí, Nayarit, Zacatecas, Oaxaca, Morelos, and Sonora)[1]

Conflict ongoing



 United States


Civilians' Self-defence Groups.[5]

Supported by:
 United States


Guerrilla groups:

People's Revolutionary Army[16]

Sinaloa Cartel[17]

Supported by:
Mexican Mafia[18]
[19][20][21][22][23][24] MS-13[25]
Los Rastrojos[27]
Usuga Clan[28]
Sicilian Mafia[29]
Chinese Triads[30][31][32][33]
 Venezuela (alleged)[34][35]

Los Zetas[17]

Supported by:
The Office of Envigado[40] (semi-defunct)
Los Urabeños [41][42]
Hermanos de Pistoleros Latinos[43]
Hezbollah (alleged)[45][46][47]
Commanders and leaders
Mexico Enrique Peña Nieto
Mexico Vidal Francisco Soberón Sanz
Mexico Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda
Mexico Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong
Mexico Jesús Murillo Karam (2012-15)
Mexico Mariano Francisco Saynez Mendoza (2006-12)
Mexico Guillermo Galván Galván (2006-12)
Mexico Marisela Morales (2011)
Mexico Sergio Aponte Polito[48]
Community Police leaders (with official support from the government as of Jan 28. 2014):[5]
José Manuel Mireles Valverde (POW)[49]
Hipólito Mora[50]
Estanislao Beltrán[51]
Alberto Gutiérrez (aka. Comandante 5)[52][53]
Ismael Zambada García (Fugitive)
Joaquín Guzmán Loera  (POW)[54]
Juan José Esparragoza Moreno (Fugitive)
Homero Cárdenas Guillén (possibly dead)
Ignacio Coronel Villarreal 
Antonio Cárdenas Guillén 
Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez  (POW)
Nazario Moreno González 
Omar Treviño Morales  (POW)
Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano  
Miguel Treviño Morales  (POW)
Arturo Beltrán Leyva  
Héctor Beltrán Leyva  (POW)
Luis Fernando Sánchez Arellano  (POW)
Isidro Esparza  (POW)
Vicente Carrillo Fuentes  (POW)


  • 260,000 soldiers[55]
  • 35,000 Federal Police[56]

 United States

  • Unknown number of Marshals and agents
  • Flights for "Dirtbox" cell phone signal tracking[2]
+100,000 individuals[57][58][59]
Casualties and losses


  • 395 servicemen killed
  • 137 servicemen missing[60]
  • 4,020 Federal, State, and Municipal Police killed[61]

United States:

  • 1 Marshal wounded[2]
  • 511 U.S. civilians killed[62]
  • 58 reporters killed[63]
  • ≈1,000 children killed[64][65]
12,456 cartel members confirmed killed[66]
121,199 cartel members detained[67]
8,500 cartel members convicted[68]

Total killed: 164,000+[69] (various estimates): 83,191 during Felipe Calderon's administration;[70] 23,640 in the first 14 months of Enrique Peña Nieto's administration[71]

  • 62 killed in 2006[72]
  • 2,837 killed in 2007[72]
  • 6,844 killed in 2008[72]
  • 11,753 killed in 2009[72]
  • 19,546 killed in 2010[73][74]
  • 24,068 killed in 2011[75][76][77]
  • 18,061 killed in 2012 (by October 31, 2012)[78]
  • 23,640 killed in 2013 (through to March 2014)[71][79]

Total displaced: 1.6 million (as of 2012)[80]

The Mexican Drug War (also known as the Mexican War on Drugs; Spanish: guerra contra el narcotráfico en México)[81] is the Mexican theater of the Global War on Drugs,[82] an ongoing low-intensity[83][84] asymmetric war[85][86] between the Mexican Government and various drug trafficking syndicates. Since 2006, when intervention with the Mexican military began, the government's principal goal has been to put down the drug-related violence.[87] Additionally, the Mexican government has claimed that their primary focus is on dismantling the powerful drug cartels, rather than on preventing drug trafficking, which is left to U.S. functionaries.[88][89][90]

Although Mexican drug cartels, or drug trafficking organizations, have existed for several decades, their influence has increased[91][92] since the demise of the Colombian Cali and Medellín cartels in the 1990s. Mexican drug cartels now dominate the wholesale illicit drug market and in 2007 controlled 90% of the cocaine entering the United States.[93][94] Arrests of key cartel leaders, particularly in the Tijuana and Gulf cartels, has led to increasing drug violence as cartels fight for control of the trafficking routes into the United States.[95][96][97]

Analysts estimate that wholesale earnings from illicit drug sales range from $13.6 to $49.4 billion annually.[93][98][99]

By the end of Felipe Calderón's administration (2006–12), the official death toll of the Mexican Drug War was at least 60,000.[100] Estimates set the death toll above 120,000 killed by 2013, not including 27,000 missing.[101][102]


Given its geographic location, Mexico has long been used as a staging and transshipment point for narcotics and contraband between Latin America and U.S. markets. Mexican bootleggers supplied alcohol to the United States gangsters throughout the duration of the Prohibition in the United States,[94] and the onset of illegal drug trade with the U.S. began when the prohibition came to an end in 1933.[94] Towards the end of the 1960s, Mexican narcotic smugglers started to smuggle drugs on a major scale.[94]

During the 1970s and early 1980s, Colombia's Pablo Escobar was the main exporter of cocaine and dealt with organized criminal networks all over the world. When enforcement efforts intensified in South Florida and the Caribbean, the Colombian organizations formed partnerships with the Mexico-based traffickers to transport cocaine through Mexico into the United States.[103]

This was easily accomplished because Mexico had long been a major source of heroin and cannabis, and drug traffickers from Mexico had already established an infrastructure that stood ready to serve the Colombia-based traffickers. By the mid-1980s, the organizations from Mexico were well-established and reliable transporters of Colombian cocaine. At first, the Mexican gangs were paid in cash for their transportation services, but in the late 1980s, the Mexican transport organizations and the Colombian drug traffickers settled on a payment-in-product arrangement.[104]

Transporters from Mexico usually were given 35% to 50% of each cocaine shipment. This arrangement meant that organizations from Mexico became involved in the distribution, as well as the transportation of cocaine, and became formidable traffickers in their own right. Currently, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel have taken over trafficking cocaine from Colombia to the worldwide markets.[104]

The balance of power between the various Mexican cartels continually shifts as new organizations emerge and older ones weaken and collapse. A disruption in the system, such as the arrests or deaths of cartel leaders, generates bloodshed as rivals move in to exploit the power vacuum.[105] Leadership vacuums are sometimes created by law enforcement successes against a particular cartel, so cartels often will attempt to use law enforcement against one another, either by bribing Mexican officials to take action against a rival or by leaking intelligence about a rival's operations to the Mexican government or the US Drug Enforcement Administration.[105]

While many factors have contributed to the escalating violence, security analysts in Mexico City trace the origins of the rising scourge to the unraveling of a longtime implicit arrangement between narcotics traffickers and governments controlled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which lost its grip on political power starting in the late 1980s.[106]

The fighting between rival drug cartels began in earnest after the 1989 arrest of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, who ran the cocaine business in Mexico.[107] There was a lull in the fighting during the late 1990s but the violence has steadily worsened since 2000.

PAN party Presidents

Before the year 2000, the center-to-left wing PRI party ruled Mexico for around 70 years. During this time drug cartels expanded their power and corruption, and anti-drug operations focused mainly in marijuana and opium crop destruction in mountain regions, any form of large-scale and high-profile military operations against their core structures in urban areas was never done, until the year 2000 regime change, when the right wing PAN party gained the presidency and started a crackdown on cartels in their own turf.

Presidency of Vicente Fox

Mexican soldiers tracking criminals' marks in August 2010

In 2000 President Vicente Fox sent military troops to Nuevo Laredo to fight the cartels. It is estimated that about 110 people died in Nuevo Laredo between January and August 2005 as a result of the fighting between the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels.[108] In 2005 there was a surge again in violence as the La Familia Michoacana drug cartel established itself in Michoacán.

Presidency of Felipe Calderon

On December 11, 2006, then newly elected President Felipe Calderón sent 6,500 Mexican Army soldiers to the state of Michoacán to end drug violence there. This action is regarded as the first major retaliation made against the cartel violence, and is generally viewed as the starting point of the Mexican Drug War between the government and the drug cartels.[109] As time passed, Calderón continued to escalate his anti-drug campaign, in which there are now about 45,000 troops involved along with state and federal police forces.[110]

Drug sources and use


Drug traffic routes in Mexico

Mexico is a major drug transit and producing country. It is the main foreign supplier of cannabis and an important entry point of South American cocaine[111] and Asian[33] methamphetamines to the United States.[93] It is believed that almost half the cartels' revenues come from cannabis,[112] but cocaine, heroin, and (increasingly) methamphetamine are also traded.[113]

The U.S. State Department estimates that 90% of cocaine entering the United States is produced in Colombia[114] (followed by Bolivia and Peru)[115] and that the main transit route is through Mexico.[93] Drug cartels in Mexico control approximately 70% of the foreign narcotics flow into the United States.[116]

Although Mexico accounts for only a small share of worldwide heroin production, it supplies a large share of the heroin distributed in the United States.[117]


The prevalence of illicit drug use in Mexico is still low compared to Canada and the United States,[118] however with the increased role of Mexico in the trafficking and production of illicit drugs, the availability of drugs has slowly increased locally since the 1980s.[118] In the decades before this period, consumption was not generalized – reportedly occurring mainly among persons of high socioeconomic status, intellectuals and artists.[118]

As the United States of America is the world's largest consumer of cocaine,[119] as well as of other illegal drugs,[120] their demand is what motivates the drug business, and the main goal of Mexican Drug Cartels is to introduce narcotics into the US.

The export rate of cocaine to the US has decreased following stricter border control measures in response to the September 11 attacks.[118]

This has led to a surplus of cocaine which has resulted in local Mexican dealers attempting to offload extra narcotics along trafficking routes, especially in border areas popular among low income North American tourists.

Drug shipments are often delayed in Mexican border towns before delivery to the US, which has forced drug traffickers to increase prices to account for transportation costs of products across international borders, making it a more profitable business for the drug lords, and has likely contributed to the increased rates of local drug consumption.[118]

With increased cocaine use, there has been a parallel rise in demand for drug user treatment in Mexico.[118]


Main article: Poverty in Mexico

One of the main factors driving the Mexican Drug war is the willingness of mainly lower-class people to earn easy money joining criminal organizations, and the failure of the government to provide the legal means for the creation of well paid jobs. From 2004 to 2008 the portion of the population who received less than half of the median income rose from 17% to 21% and the proportion of population living in extreme or moderate poverty rose from 35 to 46% (52 million persons) between 2006 and 2010.[121][122][123]

Among the OECD countries, Mexico has the second highest degree of economic disparity between the extremely poor and extremely rich.[124] The bottom ten percent in the income hierarchy disposes of 1.36% of the country's resources, whereas the upper ten percent dispose of almost 36%. OECD also notes that Mexico's budgeted expenses for poverty alleviation and social development is only about a third of the OECD average.[122]

In 2012 it was estimated that Mexican cartels employed over 450,000 people directly and a further 3.2 million people's livelihoods depended on various parts of the drug trade.[125] In cities like Ciudad Juarez, up to 60% of the economy depended on illegitimate money making.[126]

Ineffective educational system

Illiteracy and lack of education have haunted Mexico for much of its history. In 1940, 58% of all Mexicans over the age of six were illiterate; in 1960, 38% were illiterate.[127] The 1960 national census found that as to all Mexicans over the age of five, 43.7% had not completed one year of school, 50.7% had completed six years or less of school, and only the remaining 5.6% had continued their education beyond six years of school.[127]

More recently, researchers from the World Economic Forum have noted that despite Mexico's relatively high investment of 5.3% of its GDP in education as of 2009 (31st out of 134 economies), the nation's primary education system is ranked 116th, thereby suggesting "that the problem is not how much but rather how resources are invested".[128] The WEF further explained: "The powerful teachers union, the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), the largest labor union in Latin America, has been in large part responsible for blocking reforms that would increase the quality of spending and help ensure equal access to education. Poor teacher performance and learning outcomes are associated with the SNTE-dominated, centralized collective bargaining for many work rules[.]" The result of the high levels of poverty, lack of well paid jobs, government corruption, and the systemic failure of Mexico's schools has been the appearance of los ninis, an underclass of several million dropouts who ni trabajan ni estudian (neither work nor study), of whom many ended up as combatants on behalf of the cartels.[129]

However, teachers unions argue that they oppose being tested and graded on their students' performance[130] with universally standard exams that do not take into account the socio-economic differences between urban and under-equipped rural schools, which has an important effect on the students performance.[131][132][133][134] Also, teachers argue that the legislations are ambiguous, only focus on the teachers, without touching the Education Ministry, and will allow more abuses and more political corruption.[135][136][137][138][139]

Mexican cartels


The birth of most Mexican drug cartels is traced to former Mexican Judicial Federal Police agent Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo ("The Godfather"), who founded the Guadalajara Cartel in 1980 and controlled most of the illegal drug trade in Mexico and the trafficking corridors across the Mexico–U.S. border along with Juan Garcia Abrego throughout the 1980s.[140] He started off by smuggling marijuana and opium into the U.S., and was the first Mexican drug chief to link up with Colombia's cocaine cartels in the 1980s. Through his connections, Félix Gallardo became the point man for the Medellín Cartel, which was run by Pablo Escobar.[141] This was easily accomplished because Félix Gallardo had already established an infrastructure that stood ready to serve the Colombia-based traffickers.

There were no cartels at that time in Mexico.[141]:41 Félix Gallardo was the lord of Mexican drug smugglers.[141] He oversaw all operations; there was just him, his cronies, and the politicians who sold him protection.[141] However, the Guadalajara Cartel suffered a major blow in 1985 when the group's co-founder Rafael Caro Quintero was captured, and later convicted, for the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena.[142][143] Félix Gallardo afterwards kept a low profile and in 1987 he moved with his family to Guadalajara. According to Peter Dale Scott, the Guadalajara Cartel prospered largely because it enjoyed the protection of the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS), under its chief Miguel Nazar Haro.[144]

"The Godfather" then decided to divide up the trade he controlled as it would be more efficient and less likely to be brought down in one law enforcement swoop.[141]:47 In a way, he was privatizing the Mexican drug business while sending it back underground, to be run by bosses who were less well known or not yet known by the DEA. Gallardo convened the nation's top drug traffickers at a house in the resort of Acapulco where he designated the plazas or territories.[141]

The Tijuana route would go to the Arellano Felix brothers. The Ciudad Juárez route would go to the Carrillo Fuentes family. Miguel Caro Quintero would run the Sonora corridor. The control of the Matamoros, Tamaulipas corridor—then becoming the Gulf Cartel—would be left undisturbed to its founder Juan García Ábrego. Meanwhile, Joaquín Guzmán Loera and Ismael Zambada García would take over Pacific coast operations, becoming the Sinaloa Cartel. Guzmán and Zambada brought veteran Héctor Luis Palma Salazar back into the fold. Félix Gallardo still planned to oversee national operations, as he maintained important connections, but he would no longer control all details of the business.[141]

Félix Gallardo was arrested on 8 April 1989.[145]

Major cartels

Los Zetas

Main article: Los Zetas

In 1999, Gulf Cartel's leader, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, hired a group of 37 corrupt former elite military soldiers to work for him. These former Airmobile Special Forces Group (GAFE), and Amphibian Group of Special Forces (GANFE) soldiers became known as Los Zetas and began operating as a private army for the Gulf Cartel. During the early 2000s the Zetas were instrumental in the Gulf Cartel's domination of the drug trade in much of Mexico.

After the 2007 arrest and extradition of Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the Zetas seized the opportunity to strike out on their own. Under the leadership of Heriberto Lazcano, the Zetas, numbering approximately 300, gradually set up its own independent drug, arms and human-trafficking networks.[146] In 2008, Los Zetas made a deal with ex-Sinaloa cartel commanders, the Beltrán-Leyva brothers and since then, became rivals of their former employer/partner, the Gulf Cartel.[147][148]

In early 2010 the Zetas made public their split from the Gulf Cartel and began a bloody war with Gulf Cartel over control of Northeast Mexico's drug trade routes.[149] This war has resulted in the deaths of thousands of cartel members and suspected members. Furthermore, due to alliance structures, the Gulf Cartel- Los Zetas conflict drew in other cartels, namely the Sinaloa Cartel which fought the Zetas in 2010 and 2011.[150]

The Zetas are notorious for targeting civilians, including the mass-murder of 72 migrants in the San Fernando massacre.[151]

The Zetas involved themselves in more than drug trafficking and have also been connected to human trafficking, pipeline trafficked oil theft, extortion, and trading unlicensed CDs.[150] Their criminal network is said to reach far from Mexico including into Central America, the U.S.A and Europe.[150]

On 15 July 2013, the Mexican Navy arrested the top Zeta boss Miguel Treviño Morales.[152]

Sinaloa Cartel

Main article: Sinaloa Cartel
Sinaloa Cartel's Plaza Bosses in May 2013

The Sinaloa Cartel began to contest the Gulf Cartel's domination of the coveted southwest Texas corridor following the arrest of Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cárdenas in March 2003. The "Federation" was the result of a 2006 accord between several groups located in the Pacific state of Sinaloa. The cartel was led by Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, who was Mexico's most-wanted drug trafficker with an estimated net worth of US$1 billion made him the 1140th richest man in the world and the 55th most powerful, according to his Forbes magazine profile.[153] He was arrested and escaped in July 2015,[154][155] and re-arrested in January 2016.[156] In February 2010, new alliances were formed against Los Zetas and Beltrán-Leyva Cartel.[147]

The Sinaloa Cartel fought the Juárez Cartel in a long and bloody battle for control over drug trafficking routes in and around the northern city of Ciudad Juárez. The battle eventually resulted in defeat for the Juarez Cartel but not before taking the lives of between 5000-12,000 people in drug related violence.[157] During the war for the turf in Ciudad Juarez the Sinaloa Cartel used several gangs (e.g. Los Mexicles, the Artistas Asesinos and Gente Nueva) to attack the Juárez Cartel.[157] The Juárez Cartel similarly used gangs such as La Línea and the Barrio Azteca to fight the Sinaloa Cartel.[157]

As of May 2010, numerous reports by Mexican and US media claimed that Sinaloa had infiltrated the Mexican federal government and military, and colluded with it to destroy the other cartels.[158][159] The Colima, Sonora and Milenio Cartels are now branches of the Sinaloa Cartel.[160]

Gulf Cartel

Main article: Gulf Cartel
Mexican Army raids a Gulf Cartel's house at Matamoros, Tamaulipas in 2012

The Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo), based in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, has been one of Mexico's two dominant cartels in recent years. In the late 1990s, it hired a private mercenary army (an enforcer group now called Los Zetas), which in 2006 stepped up as a partner but, in February 2010, their partnership was dissolved and both groups engaged in widespread violence across several border cities of Tamaulipas state,[147][161] turning several border towns into "ghost towns".[162]

The Gulf Cartel (CDG) was strong at the beginning of 2011, holding off several Zetas incursions into its territory. However, as the year progressed, internal divisions led to intra-cartel battles in Matamoros and Reynosa, Tamaulipas state. The infighting resulted in several arrests and deaths in Mexico and in the United States. The CDG has since broken apart, and it appears that one faction, known as Los Metros, has overpowered its rival Los Rojos faction and is now asserting its control over CDG operations.[163]

The infighting has weakened the CDG, but the group seems to have maintained control of its primary plazas, or smuggling corridors, into the United States.[163] The Mexican federal government has made notable successes in capturing the leadership of the Gulf Cartel. Osiel Cardenas Guillen, his brothers Antonio Cárdenas Guillén, Mario Cárdenas Guillén, and Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez have all been captured and incarcerated during Felipe Calderón's administration.

La Familia Cartel

Main article: La Familia Michoacana

La Familia Michoacana was a major Mexican drug cartel based in Michoacán between at least 2006 and 2011. It was formerly allied to the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, but split off and became an independent organization.[164]

In 2009–10, a counter-narcotics offensive by Mexican and U.S. government agencies produced the arrest of at least 345 suspected La Familia members in the U.S., and the incorrectly presumed death[165] of one of the cartel's founders, Nazario Moreno González, on December 9, 2010.[166] The cartel then divided into the Knights Templar Cartel and a José de Jesús Méndez Vargas-led faction, which kept the name La Familia. Following the cartel's fragmentation in late 2010 and early 2011, the La Familia Cartel under Méndez Vargas fought the Knights Templar Cartel but on June 21, 2011 Méndez Vargas was arrested by Mexican authorities[166] and in mid-2011 the Attorney General in Mexico (PGR) stated that La Familia Cartel had been "exterminated,"[167] leaving only the splinter group, the Knights Templar Cartel.[168][169]

In February 2010, La Familia forged an alliance with the Gulf Cartel against Los Zetas and Beltrán-Leyva Cartel.[147]

Tijuana Cartel

Main article: Tijuana Cartel

The Tijuana Cartel, also known as the Arellano Félix Organization, was once among Mexico's most powerful.[170] It is based in Tijuana, one of the most strategically important border towns in Mexico,[171] and continues to export drugs even after being weakened by an internal war in 2009. Due to infighting, arrests and the deaths of some of its top members, the Tijuana Cartel is a fraction of what it was in the 1990s and early 2000s, when it was considered one of the most potent and violent criminal organizations in Mexico by the police. After the arrest or assassination of various members of the Arellano Félix clan, the cartel is currently headed by Luis Fernando Sánchez Arellano, a nephew of the Arellano Félix brothers.

Knights Templar

The Knights Templar drug cartel (Spanish: Caballeros Templarios) was created in Michoacán in March 2011 after the death of the charismatic leader of La Familia Michoacana cartel, Nazario Moreno González.[172] The Cartel is headed by Enrique Plancarte Solís and Servando Gómez Martínez who formed the Knights Templar due to differences with José de Jesús Méndez Vargas, who had assumed leadership of La Familia Michoacana.[173]

After the emergence of the Knights Templar, sizable battles flared up during the spring and summer months between the Knights Templar and La Familia.[174] The organization has grown from a splinter group to a dominant force over La Familia, and at the end of 2011, following the arrest of José de Jesús "El Chango" Méndez Vargas, leader of La Familia, the cartel appeared to have taken over the bulk of La Familia's operations in Mexico and the U.S.[174] In 2011 the Knights Templar appeared to have aligned with the Sinaloa Federation in an effort to root out the remnants of La Familia and to prevent Los Zetas from gaining a more substantial foothold in the Michoacán region of central Mexico.[175][176]

Map of Mexican drug cartels presence in Mexico based on a May 2010 Stratfor report[177][178]
  Disputed territories

Alliances or agreements between drug cartels have been shown to be fragile, tense and temporary. Mexican drug cartels have increased their co-operation with U.S. street and prison gangs to expand their distribution networks within the U.S.[99] On March 31, 2014, Enrique Plancarte Solís, a high-ranking leader in the cartel, was killed by the Mexican Navy.

On 6 September 2016, A Mexican police helicopter was shot down by a gang, killing four people. The police were conducting and operation against criminal groups and drug cartels in Apatzingán, including the Knights Templar Cartel, a suspect.[179]

Beltrán-Leyva Cartel

Main article: Beltrán-Leyva Cartel

The Beltrán-Leyva Cartel was a Mexican drug cartel and organized crime syndicate founded by the four Beltrán Leyva brothers: Marcos Arturo, Carlos, Alfredo and Héctor.[180][181][182][183] In 2004 and 2005, Arturo Beltrán Leyva led powerful groups of assassins to fight for trade routes in northeastern Mexico for the Sinaloa Cartel. Through the use of corruption or intimidation, the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel was able to infiltrate Mexico's political,[184] judicial[185] and police institutions to feed classified information about anti-drug operations,[186][187] and even infiltrated the Interpol office in Mexico.[188]

Following the December 2009 death of the cartel's leader Arturo Beltrán Leyva by Mexican Marines the cartel entered into an internal power struggle between Arturo's brother, Héctor Beltrán Leyva, and Arturo's top enforcer Edgar Valdez Villarreal.[189] Meanwhile, the cartel continued to dissolve with factions such as the South Pacific Cartel, La Mano Con Ojos, Independent Cartel of Acapulco, and La Barredora forming and the latter two cartels starting yet another intra-Beltrán Leyva Cartel conflict.[189]

The Mexican Federal Police considers the cartel to have been disbanded,[190][191] and the last cartel leader, Héctor Beltrán Leyva, was captured in October 2014.[192] while the Mexican government is offering a US$2.1 million bounty.[193][194]

Juárez Cartel

Main article: Juárez Cartel

The Juárez Cartel controls one of the primary transportation routes for billions of dollars' worth of illegal drug shipments annually entering the United States from Mexico.[195] Since 2007, the Juárez Cartel has been locked in a vicious battle with its former partner, the Sinaloa Cartel, for control of Ciudad Juárez. La Línea is a group of Mexican drug traffickers and corrupt Juárez and Chihuahua state police officers who work as the armed wing of the Juárez Cartel.[196] Vicente Carrillo Fuentes headed the Juárez Cartel until his arrest in 2014.

Since 2011, the Juárez Cartel continues to weaken;[197][198] however, holds presence in the three main points of entry into El Paso, Texas. The Juárez Cartel is only a shadow of the organization it was a decade ago, and its weakness and inability to effectively fight against Sinaloa's advances in Juarez contributed to the lower death toll in Juarez in 2011.[199]

On September 1, 2013, Mexican authorities arrested the alleged Juárez Cartel leader Alberto Carrillo Fuentes, alias Betty la Fea (Ugly Betty) in the western state of Nayarit without any resistance.[200] On October 9, 2014 Mexican forces captured Vicente Carrillo Fuentes in Torreón, Coahuila.

Cartel propaganda

Cartels have been engaged in religious propaganda and psychological operations to influence their rivals and those within their area of influence. They use banners or "narcomantas" to threaten their rivals. Some cartels hand out pamphlets and leaflets to conduct public relation campaigns. Many cartels have been able to control the information environment by threatening journalists, bloggers, and others who speak out against them. They have elaborate recruitment strategies targeting young adults to join their cartel groups. They have successfully branded the word "narco", and the word has become part of Mexican culture. There is music, television shows, literature, beverages, food, and architecture that all have been branded "narco".[201]


Alternative to cartels, are the paramilitary groups who work alongside them to provide protection. This protection began with a focus on maintaining the drug trade; however, paramilitary groups now secure other valuable industries such as oil and mining. It has been suggested that the rise in paramilitary groups coincides with a loss of security within the government. These paramilitary groups came about in a number of ways. Firstly, there have been large waves of elite armed forces and government security experts who have left the side of the government and joined the side of the cartels, often with large bribes and an opportunity for types of wealth they may not receive in government positions. The paramilitary group, the Zetas, used military personnel to create one of the largest paramilitary groups in Mexico. Some of the elite armed forces members who join paramilitaries are trained in the School of the Americas. These paramilitaries have begun out of a deregulation of the Mexican army who has been slowly replaced by private security firms.[202] Paramilitaries, including the Zetas, have now entered uncharted territories. They protect not only drug cartels but also many other financially profitable industries such as oil, gas, kidnapping, and counterfeiting electronics. There has been a complete and total loss of control by the government and the only response has been to increase army presence, notably an army whose officials are often paid off or are already on the drug cartels payroll. The United States has stepped in to offer support in the “war on drugs” by the way of funding, American training and military support, and transforming the Mexican judicial system to parallel the American system.[203]


Smuggling of firearms

AK-47 (locally called Cuerno de chivo, Spanish for "goat horn", for its curved magazine)
M4 Carbine with grenade launcher (locally called Chanate, Mexican Spanish for "great-tailed grackle")
Beta C-Mag double drum magazine (locally called Huevos de Toro, Spanish for "bull testicles") on an M4 Carbine
Colt AR-15 A3 Tactical Carbine

Mexicans have a constitutional right to own firearms,[204] but legal purchase from the single Mexican gun shop in Mexico City is extremely difficult.[205] Firearms that make their way to Mexico come from the American civilian market.[206][207] Most grenades and rocket-launchers are smuggled through Guatemalan borders, as leftovers from past central-American conflicts.[208] However some grenades are also smuggled from the US to Mexico [209] or stolen from the Mexican military.[210]

The most common weapons used by the cartels are the AR-15, M16, M4, AK-47, and AKM assault rifles. Handguns are very diverse, but the FN Five-seveN (dubbed Matapolicias or Cop-killer by criminals)[211] is a popular choice due to its armor-piercing capability.[212] Grenade launchers are known to have been used against Mexican security forces, H&K G36s and M4 Carbines with M203 grenade launchers have been confiscated.

Gun origins

Some researchers have asserted that most weapons and arms trafficked into Mexico are not from gun dealers in the United States, but instead come from either government personnel who defect to the cartels, or are sourced from Central American black markets.[207] There is also strong evidence for the opposite conclusion, indicating that many of the traceable weapons come from American weapons markets and festivals that do not have regulations for the buyers, and there is a geographic coincidence between the supposed American origin of the firearms and the places where these weapons are seized: Mainly in the Northern Mexican states [213] Most grenades and rocket-launchers are smuggled through Guatemalan borders from Central America.[208] However some grenades are also smuggled from the US to Mexico [209] or stolen from the Mexican military.[210] DHS officials have stated that the statistic is misleading: out of approximately 30,000 weapons seized in drug cases in Mexico in 2004–2008, 7,200 appeared to be of U.S. origin, approximately 4,000 were found in ATF manufacturer and importer records, and 87 percent of those—3,480—originated in the United States.[214][215]

In an effort to control smuggling of firearms, the U.S. government is assisting Mexico with technology, equipment and training.[216] Project Gunrunner was one such efforts between the U.S. and Mexico to collaborate in tracing Mexican guns which were manufactured in or imported legally to the U.S.[217]

In 2008, it was falsely reported that ninety percent of arms either captured in Mexico or interdicted were from the United States. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and others have dispelled these claims, pointing that the Mexican sample submitted for ATF tracing is the fraction of weapons seized that appear to have been made in the U.S. or imported into the U.S.[214][215]

In 2015, Official reports of the U.S. government and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and explosives (ATF) revealed that over the last years, Mexican cartels improved their firearm power, and that 70% of their weapons come from the U.S. Many of those guns were manufactured in Romania and Bulgaria, and then imported into the U.S. The Mexican cartels acquire those firearms mainly in the southern states of Texas, Arizona and California. After the United States, the top five countries of origin of firearms seized from Mexico were Spain, China, Italy, Germany and Romania. These five countries represent 17% of firearms smuggled into Mexico [218]

Project Gunrunner

ATF Project Gunrunner has a stated that the official objective is to stop the sale and export of guns from the United States into Mexico in order to deny Mexican drug cartels the firearms considered "tools of the trade".[219] However, in February 2011, it brought about a scandal when the project was accused of accomplishing the opposite by ATF permitting and facilitating "straw purchase" firearm sales to traffickers, and allowing the guns to "walk" and be transported to Mexico. Several of the guns sold under the Project Gunrunner were recovered from crime scenes in Arizona,[220] and at crime scenes throughout Mexico,[221] resulting in considerable controversy.[222][223][224]

One notable incident was the "Black Swan operation" where Joaquín Guzmán Loera was finally captured. The ATF corfirmed that one of the weapons the Mexican Navy seized from Guzman's gunmen was one of the many weapons that were "lost" during the Project Gunrunner [225]

Many weapons from Project Gunrunner were found in a secret compartment from the "safe house" of José Antonio Marrufo "El Jaguar", one of Guzman's most sanguinary lieutenants. He is accused of many killings in Ciudad Juarez, including the notorious massacre of 18 patients of the reahabilitation center "El Aliviane". It is believed that Marrufo armed his gunmen with weapons purchased in the United States.[226]

The operation

Main article: Operation Michoacán

Operation Michoacán

Although violence between drug cartels had been occurring long before the war began, the government held a generally passive stance regarding cartel violence in the 1990s and early 2000s. That changed on December 11, 2006, when newly elected President Felipe Calderón sent 6,500 federal troops to the state of Michoacán to end drug violence there (Operation Michoacán). This action is regarded as the first major operation against organized crime, and is generally viewed as the starting point of the war between the government and the drug cartels.[227] As time progressed, Calderón continued to escalate his anti-drug campaign, in which there are now about 45,000 troops involved in addition to state and federal police forces. In 2010 Calderón said that the cartels seek "to replace the government" and "are trying to impose a monopoly by force of arms, and are even trying to impose their own laws."[228]

Mexican Marines during an operation against a drug cartel at Xalapa, Veracruz

As of 2011, Mexico’s military captured 11,544 people who were believed to have been involved with the cartels and organized crime.[229] In the year prior, 28,000 individuals were arrested on drug-related charges. The decrease in eradication and drug seizures, as shown in statistics calculated by federal authorities, poorly reflects Calderón’s security agenda. Since the war began, over forty thousand people have been killed as a result of cartel violence. During Calderón’s presidential term, the murder rate of Mexico has increased dramatically.[230]

Although Calderón set out to end the violent warfare between rival cartel leaders, critics argue that he inadvertently made the problem worse. The methods that Calderón adopted involved confronting the cartels directly. These aggressive methods have resulted in public killings and torture from both the cartels and the country’s own government forces, which aids in perpetuating the fear and apprehension that the citizens of Mexico have regarding the war on drugs and its negative stigma. As cartel leaders are being removed from their positions, either in the form of arrest or death, power struggles for leadership in the cartels have become more intense, resulting in enhanced violence within the cartels themselves.[231]

Calderón’s forces concentrate on taking down cartel members that have a high-ranking in the cartel in an attempt to take down the whole organization. The resulting struggle to fill the recently vacated position is one that threatens the existence of many lives in the cartel. Typically, many junior-level cartel members then fight amongst one another, creating more and more chaos. The drug cartels are more aggressive and forceful now than they were in the past and at this point, the cartels hold much of the power in Mexico. Calderón relies heavily on the military to defend and fight against cartel activity. Calderón’s military forces have yet to yield significant results in dealing with the violent cartels due in part to the fact that many of the law enforcement officials working for the Mexican government are suspected of being corrupt. There is suspicion that cartels have corrupted and infiltrated the military at a high level, influencing many high-ranking generals and officers. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission has received nearly 5,800 complaints regarding military abuse since the beginning of the drug war in 2006. Additionally, the National Human Rights Commission has completed nearly 90 in-depth reports since 2007, addressing the many human rights violations towards civilians that have occurred while the military officers were actively participating in law enforcement activities.[232]

Violence in May 2012 in which nearly 50 bodies were found on a local highway between the Mexico–United States border and Monterrey has led to the arrests of 4 high-ranking Mexican military officials.[233] These officials were suspected of being on the cartel payrolls and alerting the cartels in advance of military action against them. Such actions demonstrate that Calderón’s significant military offensive will continue to reveal mixed results until the military itself is rid of the corrupting influences of the cartels whom they supposedly aim to persecute.

Escalation (2008–12)

A Mexican Army technical equipped with a Mk 19 grenade launcher at a random checkpoint

In April 2008, General Sergio Aponte, the man in charge of the anti-drug campaign in the state of Baja California, made a number of allegations of corruption against the police forces in the region. Among his allegations, Aponte stated that he believed Baja California's anti-kidnapping squad was actually a kidnapping team working in conjunction with organized crime, and that bribed police units were being used as bodyguards for drug traffickers.[48]

These accusations sent shock waves through state government. Many of the more than 50 accused officials quit or fled. The progress against drug cartels in Mexico has been hindered by bribery, intimidation, and corruption; four months later the General was relieved of his command.[234]

On April 26, 2008, a major battle took place between members of the Tijuana and Sinaloa cartels in the city of Tijuana, Baja California, that left 17 people dead.[235]

Mexican Marines during an operation against Los Zetas

In March 2009, President Calderón called in an additional 5,000 Mexican Army troops to Ciudad Juárez. The United States Department of Homeland Security has also said that it is considering using state National Guard troops to help the U.S. Border Patrol counter the threat of drug violence in Mexico from spilling over the border into the US. The governors of Arizona and Texas have encouraged the federal government to use additional National Guard troops from their states to help those already there supporting state law enforcement efforts against drug trafficking.[236]

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, Mexican cartels are the predominant smugglers and wholesale distributors of South American cocaine and Mexico-produced cannabis, methamphetamine and heroin. Mexico's cartels have existed for some time, but have become increasingly powerful in recent years with the demise of the Medellín and Cali cartels in Colombia. The Mexican cartels are expanding their control over the distribution of these drugs in areas controlled by Colombian and Dominican criminal groups, and it is now believed they control most of the illegal drugs coming into the U.S.[237]

No longer constrained to being mere intermediaries for Colombian producers, Mexican cartels are now powerful organized-crime syndicates that dominate the drug trade in the Americas.

Mexican cartels control large swaths of Mexican territory and dozens of municipalities, and they exercise increasing influence in Mexican electoral politics.[238] The cartels are waging violent turf battles over control of key smuggling corridors from Matamoros to San Diego. Mexican cartels employ hitmen and groups of enforcers, known as sicarios. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reports that the Mexican drug cartels operating today along the border are far more sophisticated and dangerous than any other organized criminal group in U.S. law enforcement history.[237] The cartels use grenade launchers, automatic weapons, body armor, Kevlar helmets, and sometimes unmanned aerial vehicles.[239][240][241][242] Some groups have also been known to use improvised explosive devices (IEDs).[243]

Casualty numbers have escalated significantly over time. According to a Stratfor report, the number of drug-related deaths in 2006 and 2007 (2,119 and 2,275) more than doubled to 5,207 in 2008. The number further increased substantially over the next two years, from 6,598 in 2009 to over 11,000 in 2010. According to data of the Mexican government, the death numbers are even higher: 9,616 in 2009, 15,273 in 2010, coming to a total of 47,515 killings since their military operations against drug cartels began in 2006, as stated in the government's report of January 2012.[243][244][245]

On 7 October 2012, the Mexican Navy responded to a civilian complaint reporting the presence of armed gunmen in Sabinas, Coahuila. Upon the navy's arrival, the gunmen threw grenades at the patrol from a moving vehicle, triggering a shootout that left Lazcano and another gunman dead and one marine slightly wounded.[246] The vehicle was found to contain a grenade launcher, 12 grenades, possibly a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and two rifles, according to the Navy.[247] The Navy managed to confirm his death through fingerprint verification and photographs of his corpse before handing the body to the local authorities.[248] Lazcano is the most powerful cartel leader to be killed since the start of Mexico's Drug War in 2006, according to Reuters.[249]

This death came just hours after the Navy arrested a high-ranking Zeta member in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Salvador Alfonso Martínez Escobedo.

The apparent death of Lazcano may benefit three parties: the Mexican Navy, who scored a significant blow to organized crime with the death of Lazcano; Miguel Treviño Morales, who rose as the "uncontested" leader of Los Zetas; and Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel and the main rival of Los Zetas. El Chapo is perhaps the biggest winner of the three, since his primary goal is to take over the smuggling routes in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, the headquarters of Treviño Morales.[250] If the body hadn't been stolen, it would also be a symbolic victory for Felipe Calderón, who can say that his administration took down one of the founders and top leaders of Los Zetas and consequently boost the morale of the Mexican military.[251]

Analysts say that Lazcano's death does not signify the end of Los Zetas. As seen in other instances when top cartel leaders are taken out, fragmenting within the organizations occur, causing short-term violence. Los Zetas have a line of succession when leaders are arrested or killed, but the problem is that most of these replacements are younger, less-experienced members who are likely to resort to violence to maintain their reputation.[252]

Torres Félix, one of the leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel was killed in a gunbattle with the Mexican Army in the community of Oso Viejo in Culiacán, Sinaloa early in the morning on 13 October 2012. His body was sent to the forensic center and was guarded by military-men in order to prevent his henchmen from snatching the body.[253][254]

After the shootout, the military confiscated several stashes of weapons, ammunition, and other materials.[255]

Prior to his death, Torres Félix was a key figure and major drug trafficker for Ismael Zambada García and Joaquín Guzmán Loera, Mexico's most-wanted man.[256]

Effects in Mexico


By the end of 2013, the estimated number of killed in the Mexican Drug War was in excess of 111,000 people.

Through 2012, the number of killed by November was at 18,161.[257]

Through 2013, the number of killed by November was at 10,929.[258]


Count of murders in Mexico's drug conflicts

The Mexican attorney general's office has claimed that 9 of 10 victims of the Mexican Drug War are members of organized-crime groups,[259] although this figure has been questioned by other sources.[260] Deaths among military and police personnel are an estimated 7% of the total.[261] The states that suffer from the conflict most are Baja California, Guerrero, Chihuahua, Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Sinaloa. President Calderón's government is currently fighting the traffickers, especially in his home state of Michoacán, but also including operations in the states of Jalisco and Guerrero, and in 2009 drug-related violence increased considerably in Sonora.

By January 2007, these various operations had extended to the states of Guerrero as well as the so-called "Golden Triangle States" of Chihuahua, Durango, and Sinaloa. In the following February the states of Nuevo León and Tamaulipas were included as well.

Seizures and arrests have jumped since Calderón took office in December 2006, and Mexico has extradited more than 100 people wanted in the U.S.

On July 10, 2008, the Mexican government announced plans to nearly double the size of its Federal Police force to reduce the role of the military in combating drug trafficking.[262] The plan, known as the Comprehensive Strategy Against Drug Trafficking, also involves purging local police forces of corrupt officers. Elements of the plan have already been set in motion, including a massive police recruiting and training effort intended to reduce the country's dependence in the drug war on the military.

On July 16, 2008, the Mexican Navy intercepted a 10-meter long narco submarine travelling about 200 kilometers off the southwest of Oaxaca; in a raid, Special Forces rappelled from a helicopter onto the deck of the submarine and arrested four smugglers before they could scuttle their vessel. The vessel was found to be loaded with 5.8 tons of cocaine and was towed to Huatulco, Oaxaca, by a Mexican Navy patrol boat.[263][264][265][266][267]

One escalation in this conflict is the traffickers' use of new means to claim their territory and spread fear. Cartel members have broadcast executions on YouTube[268] and on other video sharing sites or shock sites, since the footage is sometimes so graphic that YouTube will not host the video. The cartels have also hung banners on streets stating their demands and/or warnings.[269]

The 2008 Morelia grenade attacks took place on September 15, 2008, when two hand grenades were thrown onto a crowded plaza, killing ten people and injuring more than 100.[270] Some see these efforts as intended to sap the morale of government agents assigned to crack down on the cartels; others see them as an effort to let citizens know who is winning the war. At least one dozen Mexican norteño musicians have been murdered. Most of the victims performed what are known as narcocorridos, popular folk songs that tell the stories of the Mexican drug trade—and celebrate its leaders as folk heroes.[271]

Murders in Mexico since 2006 related to drug trafficking activities

The extreme violence is jeopardizing foreign investment in Mexico, and the Finance Minister, Agustín Carstens, said that the deteriorating security alone is reducing gross domestic product annually by 1% in Mexico, Latin America's second-largest economy.[272]

Teachers in the Acapulco region were "extorted, kidnapped and intimidated" by cartels, including death threats demanding money. They went on strike in 2011.[273]

Government corruption

Mexican cartels advance their operations, in part, by corrupting or intimidating law enforcement officials.[48][117] Mexican municipal, state, and federal government officials, along with the police forces, often work together with the cartels in an organized network of corruption.[94] A Pax Mafioso, is a specific example of corruption which guarantees a politician votes and a following in exchange for turning a 'blind eye' towards a particular cartel.[94]

The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) reports that although the central government of Mexico has made concerted efforts to reduce corruption in recent years, it remains a serious problem.[274][275] Some agents of the Federal Investigations Agency (AFI) are believed to work as enforcers for various cartels, and the Attorney General (PGR) reported in December 2005 that nearly 1,500 of AFI's 7,000 agents were under investigation for suspected criminal activity and 457 were facing charges.[117]

El Azul is a Sinaloa Cartel drug lord. He is a former Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS) agent.

In recent years, the federal government conducted purges and prosecution of police forces in Nuevo Laredo, Michoacán, Baja California and Mexico City.[117] The anti-cartel operations begun by President Calderón in December 2006 includes ballistic checks of police weapons in places where there is concern that police are also working for the cartels. In June 2007, President Calderón purged 284 federal police commanders from all 31 states and the Federal District.[117]

Under the 'Cleanup Operation' performed in 2008, several agents and high-ranking officials have been arrested and charged with selling information or protection to drug cartels;[276][277] some high-profile arrests were: Victor Gerardo Garay Cadena,[278] (chief of the Federal Police), Noé Ramírez Mandujano (ex-chief of the Organized Crime Division (SEIDO)), José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos (ex-chief of the Organized Crime Division (SEIDO)), and Ricardo Gutiérrez Vargas who is the ex-director of Mexico's Interpol office. In January 2009, Rodolfo de la Guardia García, ex-director of Mexico's Interpol office, was arrested.[279] Julio César Godoy Toscano, who was just elected July 5, 2009 to the lower house of Congress, is charged with being a top-ranking member of La Familia Michoacana drug cartel and of protecting this cartel.[280] He is now a fugitive.

In May 2010 an NPR report collected allegations from dozens of sources, including US and Mexican media, Mexican police officials, politicians, academics, and others, that Sinaloa Cartel had infiltrated and corrupted the Mexican federal government and the Mexican military by bribery and other means. According to a report by the U.S. Army Intelligence section in Leavenworth, over a 6-year period, of the 250,000 soldiers in the Mexican Army, 150,000 deserted and went into the drug industry.[281]

The 2010 NPR report also stated that Sinaloa was colluding with the government to destroy other cartels and protect itself and its leader, 'Chapo'. Mexican officials denied any corruption in the government's treatment of drug cartels.[158][159] Cartels had previously been reported as difficult to prosecute "because members of the cartels have infiltrated and corrupted the law enforcement organizations that are supposed to prosecute them, such as the Office of the Attorney General."[282]

Impact on human rights

Mexican soldiers detain cartel suspects in Michoacán, 2007

The drug control policies Mexico has adopted to prevent drug trafficking and to eliminate the power of the drug cartels have adversely affected the human rights situation in the country. These policies have given the responsibilities for civilian drug control to the military, which has the power to not only carry out anti-drug and public security operations but also enact policy. According to the United States Department of State, the police and the military in Mexico were accused of committing serious human rights violations as they carried out government efforts to combat drug cartels.[283]

Some groups are especially vulnerable to human rights abuses collateral to drug law enforcement. Specifically in Northern Border states that have seen elevated levels of drug-related violence, human rights violations of injection drug users (IDUs) and sex workers by law enforcement personnel include physical and sexual violence, extortion, and targeting for accessing or possession of injection equipment or practicing sex work, although these activities are legal.[284][285][286] Such targeting is especially deleterious because members of these marginalized communities often lack the resources and social or political capital to vindicate their rights.[284][285][286]

Immense power in the executive branch and corruption in the legislative and judiciary branches also contribute to the worsening of Mexico's human rights situation, leading to such problems as police forces violating basic human rights through torture and threats, the autonomy of the military and its consequences and the ineffectiveness of the judiciary in upholding and preserving basic human rights. Some of the forms of human rights violations in recent years presented by human rights organizations include illegal arrests, secret and prolonged detention, torture, rape, extrajudicial execution, and fabrication of evidence.[287][288][289]

Drug policy fails to target high-level traffickers. In the 1970s, as part of the international Operation Condor, the Mexican government sent 10,000 soldiers and police to a poverty-stricken region in northern Mexico plagued by drug production and leftist insurgency. Hundreds of peasants were arrested, tortured, and jailed, but no major drug traffickers were captured.[290]

The emergence of internal federal agencies that are often unregulated and unaccountable also contributes to the occurrence of human rights violations. The Federal Investigations Agency (Agencia Federal de Investigación-AFI) of Mexico had been involved with numerous human rights violation cases involving torture and corruption. In one case, detainee Guillermo Velez Mendoza died while in the custody of AFI agents. The AFI agent implicated in his death was arrested but he escaped after being released on bail.[291]

2011 Mexican protests against cartel violence and government disregard

Similarly, nearly all AFI agents evaded punishment and arrest due to the corrupt executive and judiciary system and the supremacy of these agencies. The Attorney General's Office reported in December 2005 that one-fifth of its officers were under investigation for criminal activity, and that nearly 1,500 of AFI's 7,000 agents were under investigation for suspected criminal activity and 457 were facing charges.[117][292] The AFI was finally declared a failure and was disbanded in 2009.[293]

Ethnic prejudices have also emerged in the drug war, and poor and helpless indigenous communities have been targeted by the police, military, drug traffickers and the justice system. According to the National Human Rights Commission (Mexico) (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos-CNDH), nearly one-third of the indigenous prisoners in Mexico in 2001 were in prison for federal crimes, which are mostly drug-related.[294]

Another major concern is the lack of implementation of the Leahy Law in U.S. and the consequences of that in worsening the human rights situation in Mexico. Under this U.S. law, no member or unit of a foreign security force that is credibly alleged to have committed a human rights violation may receive U.S. security training. It is alleged that the U.S., by training the military and police force in Mexico, is in violation of the Leahy Law. In this case, the U.S. embassy officials in Mexico in charge of human rights and drug control programs are blamed with aiding and abetting these violations. In December 1997, a group of heavily armed Mexican special forces soldiers kidnapped twenty young men in Ocotlan, Jalisco, brutally torturing them and killing one. Six of the implicated officers had received U.S. training as part of the Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFE) training program.[295]

Impact on public health

As a result of "spillover" along the US-bound drug trafficking routes and more stringent border enforcement, Mexico’s Northern Border states have seen increased levels of drug consumption and abuse, including elevated rates of drug injection 10 to 15 times the national average.[284][296][297] These rates are accompanied by mounting rates of HIV and STIs among injection drug users (IDUs) and sex workers, reaching a 5.5% prevalence in cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, which also report STI rates of 64% and 83%, respectively.[284] Violence and extortion of IDUs and sex workers directly and indirectly elevate the levels of risk behavior and poor health outcomes among members of these groups.[284][298] Marginalization of these vulnerable groups by way of physical and sexual violence and extortion by police threatens the cross-over of infection from high-prevalence groups to the general population.[284][299][300] In particular, decreased access to public health services, such as syringe exchange programs, and confiscation of syringes, even in view of syringe access and possession being legal, can precipitate a cascade of health harms.[301][302][303] Geographic diffusion of epidemics from the Northern Border states elsewhere is also possible with the rotation of police and military personnel stationed in drug conflict areas with high infection prevalence.[284][299][300]

Journalists and the media

The increase in violence related with organized crime has significantly deteriorated the conditions in which local journalism is practiced.[304] In the first years of the 21st century, Mexico was considered the most dangerous country in the world to practice journalism, according to groups like the National Human Rights Commission, Reporters Without Borders, and the Committee to Protect Journalists. Between 2000 and 2012, several dozen journalists, including Miguel Ángel López Velasco, Luis Carlos Santiago, and Valentín Valdés Espinosa, were murdered there for covering narco-related news.[305][306][307]

Offices of Televisa and of local newspapers have been bombed.[308] The cartels have also threatened to kill news reporters in the U.S. who have done coverage on the drug violence.[309] Some media networks simply stopped reporting on drug crimes, while others have been infiltrated and corrupted by drug cartels.[310][311] In 2011, Notiver journalist Miguel Angel Lopez Velasco and his wife and son were murdered in their home.[312]

About 74 percent of the journalists killed since 1992 in Mexico have been reporters for print newspapers, followed in number by Internet media and radio at about 11 percent each. Television journalism only includes 4 percent of the deaths.[313] These numbers are not proportional to the audience size of the different mediums; most Mexican households have a television, a large majority have a radio, but only a small number have the internet, and the circulation numbers for Mexican newspapers are relatively low.[314][315][316]

Since harassment neutralized many of the traditional media outlets, anonymous blogs like Blog del Narco took on the role of reporting on events related to the drug war.[317] The drug cartels responded by murdering bloggers and social media users. Twitter users have been tortured and killed for posting and denouncing information of the drug cartels activities.[318] In September 2011, user NenaDLaredo of the website Nuevo Laredo Envivo was murdered allegedly by the Zetas.[319]

In May 2012 several journalist murders occurred in Veracruz. Regina Martinez of Proceso was murdered in Xalapa. A few days later, three Veracruz photojournalists were tortured and killed and their dismembered bodies were dumped in a canal. They had worked for various news outlets, including Notiver, Diario AZ, and TV Azteca. Human rights groups condemned the murders and demanded the authorities investigate the crimes.[307][320][321]

Murders of politicians

Since the start of the Mexican Drug War in 2006, the drug trafficking organizations have slaughtered their rivals, killed policemen, and now increasingly targeted politicians – especially local leaders.[322] Most of the places where these politicians have been killed are areas plagued by drug-related violence.[322] Part of the strategy used by the criminal groups behind the killings of local figures is the weakening of the local governments.[322] Extreme violence puts politicians at the mercy of the mafias, thus allowing the cartels to take control of the fundamental government structures and expand their criminal agendas.[322]

In addition, because mayors usually appoint local police chiefs, they are seen by the cartels as key assets in their criminal activities to control the police forces in their areas of influence.[323] The cartels also seek to control the local governments to win government contracts and concessions; these "public works" help them ingrain themselves in the community and gain the loyalty and respect of the communities in which they operate.[323] Politicians are usually targeted for three reasons: (1) Political figures who are honest pose a direct threat to organized crime, and are consequently killed by the cartels; (2) Politicians make arrangements to protect a certain cartel and are killed by a rival cartel; and (3) a cartel simply kills politicians to heat up the turf of the rival cartel that operates in the area.[324]

Massacres and exploitation of migrants

The cartels engage in kidnapping, ransom, murder, robbery, and extortion of migrants traveling from Central America through Mexico on their way to El Norte (the United States and Canada). Sometimes the cartels force the migrants to join their organization and work for them. Mass graves have been also discovered in Mexico containing bodies of migrants.[325] In 2011, 177 bodies were discovered in a mass grave in Tamaulipas, the same area where the bodies of 72 migrants were discovered in 2010.[326] In a case in San Fernando, Mexico, most of the dead had "died of blunt force trauma to the head."[327]

The cartels have also infiltrated the Mexican government's immigration agencies, and attacked and threatened immigration officers.[328] The National Human Rights Commission of Mexico (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) said that 11,000 migrants had been kidnapped in 6 months in 2010 by drug cartels.[329]

Human trafficking

There are documented links between the drug cartels and human trafficking for forced labor, forced prostitution, and rape. A wife of a narco described a system in which young girls became prostitutes and then were forced to work in drug factories.[330] Circa 2011, Los Zetas reportedly began to move into the prostitution business (including the prostitution of children) after previously being only 'suppliers' of women to already existing networks.[331]

The U.S. State Department says that the practice of forced labor in Mexico is larger in extent than forced prostitution.[332] Mexican journalists like Lydia Cacho have been threatened, beaten, raped, and forced into exile for reporting on these facts.[330]

Effects internationally


Improved cooperation of Mexico with the U.S. led to the recent arrests of 755 Sinaloa cartel suspects in U.S. cities and towns, but the U.S. market is being eclipsed by booming demand for cocaine in Europe, where users now pay twice the going U.S. rate.[95] U.S. Attorney General announced September 17, 2008 that an international drug interdiction operation, Project Reckoning, involving law enforcement in the United States, Italy, Canada, Mexico and Guatemala had netted more than 500 organized crime members involved in the cocaine trade. The announcement highlighted the Italian-Mexican cocaine connection.[104]

In December 2011 the government of Spain remarked that Mexican cartels have multiplied their operations in that country, becoming the main entry point of cocaine into Europe.[333]

In 2012 it was reported that Mexican drug cartels had joined forces with the Sicilian Mafia, when Italian officials unearthed information that Palermo’s black market, along with other Italian ports, was being used by Mexico’s drug cartels as a conduit to bring drugs to the European market, in which they had been trafficking drugs, particularly cocaine, throughout the Atlantic Ocean for over 10 years to Europe.[334]


The Mexican Army crackdown has driven some cartels to seek a safer location for their operations across the border in Guatemala, attracted by corruption, weak policing and its position on the overland smuggling route.[335][336] The smugglers pick up drugs from small planes that land at private airstrips hidden in the Guatemalan jungle. The cargo is then moved up through Mexico to the U.S. border. Guatemala has also arrested dozens of drug suspects and torched huge cannabis and poppy fields. The U.S. government sent speedboats and night-vision goggles under a regional drug aid package.

In February 2009, Los Zetas threatened to kill the President of Guatemala, Álvaro Colom.[337] On March 1, 2010, Guatemala's chief of national police and the country's top anti-drugs official was arrested over alleged links to drug trafficking.[336] A report from the Brookings Institution[338] warns that, without proactive, timely efforts, the violence will spread throughout the Central American region.[339]

According to the United States government, Los Zetas control 75% of Guatemala through violence, political corruption and infiltration in the country's institutions.[340] Sources mentioned that Los Zetas gained ground in Guatemala after they killed several high-profile members and the supreme leader of Los Leones, an organized crime group from Guatemala.[341]

West Africa

At least nine Mexican and Colombian drug cartels have established bases in 11 West African nations.[342] They are reportedly working closely with local criminal gangs to carve out a staging area for access to the lucrative European market. The Colombian and Mexican cartels have discovered that it is much easier to smuggle large loads into West Africa and then break that up into smaller shipments to Europe – mostly Spain, the United Kingdom and France.[342] Higher demand for cocaine in Western Europe in addition to North American interdiction campaigns has led to dramatically increased trafficking in the region: nearly 50% of all non-U.S. bound cocaine, or about 13% of all global flows, is now smuggled through West Africa.[343]


The Mexican Army has severely curtailed the ability of the Mexican drug cartels to move cocaine inside the U.S. and Canada, prompting an upsurge in gang violence in Vancouver, where the cocaine price has increased from $23,300 to almost $39,000 per kilo as both the U.S. and Canadian drug markets are experiencing prolonged shortages of cocaine.[95] As evidence of this pressure, the U.S. government says the amount of cocaine seized on U.S. soil dropped by 41 percent between early 2007 and mid-2008.[95] Since 2009 Vancouver, British Columbia became the main Mexican drug cartels' center of operations in Canada.[344]

United States

The U.S. Justice Department considers the Mexican drug cartels to be the "greatest organized crime threat to the United States."[345] During the first 18 months of Calderón's presidency, the Mexican government has spent about $7 billion USD in the war against drugs.[346] In seeking partnership from the United States, Mexican officials point out that the illicit drug trade is a shared problem in need of a shared solution, and remark that most of the financing for the Mexican traffickers comes from American drug consumers.[347] On March 25, 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that "[America's] insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade", and that "the United States bears shared responsibility for the drug-fueled violence sweeping Mexico."[348]

U.S. State Department officials are aware that Mexican president Felipe Calderón’s willingness to work with the United States is unprecedented on issues of security, crime and drugs, so the U.S. Congress passed legislation in late June 2008 to provide Mexico and Central American countries with $1.6 billion USD for the Mérida Initiative, a three-year international assistance plan. The Mérida Initiative provides Mexico and Central American countries with law enforcement training and equipment, as well as technical advice to strengthen the national justice systems. The Mérida Initiative does not include cash or weapons.

Currently, the Mexican drug cartels already have a presence in most major U.S. cities.[349] In 2009, the Justice Department reported that Mexican drug cartels distribute drugs in nearly 200 cities across the United States,[350] including Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.[351] Gang-related activity and violence has increased along the U.S. Southwest border region, as US-based gangs act as enforcers for Mexican drug cartels.[352]

U.S. death toll and national security

This ICE photo shows people under arrest. Officials announced the discovery of a large drug trafficking operation from Mexico into Arizona

U.S. authorities are reporting a spike in killings, kidnappings and home invasions connected to Mexico's cartels, and at least 19 Americans were killed in 2008.[353][354] Another 92 Americans were killed between June 2009 and June 2010.[355]

The U.S. Joint Forces Command noted in a December 2008 report that in terms of worst-case scenarios, Mexico bears some consideration for sudden collapse in the next two decades as the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels.[356] The Joint Forces Command is concerned that this internal conflict will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state over the next several years, and therefore would demand an American response based on the implications for homeland security alone.[356] After the JFC broached this sensitive issue in its 2008 report, several journalists and academics subsequently discussed in print the possibility that Mexico could become a failed state.[357][358][359][360]

The Mexican government was rather irritated with the U.S. government for raising the prospect of Mexico becoming a failed state.[361] In a February 2009 interview with the Associated Press, President Calderon said it was "absolutely false" to label his country a failed state.[362] To smooth over relations with Mexico over this issue, Secretary Clinton personally visited Mexico City in March 2009, followed by a visit by President Obama a month later.[361]

Meanwhile, in March 2009, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said that it was considering using the National Guard to counter the threat of drug violence in Mexico from spreading to the U.S. The governors of Arizona and Texas have asked the federal government to send additional National Guard troops to help those already there supporting local law enforcement efforts against drug trafficking.[236] Calls for National Guard deployment on the border greatly increased after the 2010 murder of Arizona rancher Robert Krentz, possibly at the hands of Mexican drug smugglers.[363][364]

In March 2009, the Obama administration outlined plans to redeploy more than 500 federal agents to border posts and redirect $200 million to combat smuggling of illegal drugs, money and weapons.[365] On May 25, 2010 President Obama authorized deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops to the U.S. border with Mexico to assist with border protection and enforcement activities, as well as help train additional Customs and Border Protection agents.[366] However, as the Washington Office on Latin America has pointed out, in spite of fears that violence in Mexico would spill over the border into the United States, the U.S. southwest border region has remained calm and, in fact, is currently experiencing homicide rates lower than national averages.[367][368]


Vicente Zambada Niebla, a member of the Sinaloa cartel and son of Ismael Zambada García, one of the top drug lords in Mexico, claimed after his arrest to his attorneys that he and other top Sinaloa cartel members had received immunity by U.S. agents and a virtual licence to smuggle cocaine over the United States border, in exchange for intelligence about rival cartels engaged in the Mexican Drug War.[23][24]

According to former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and César Gaviria of Colombia, the United States-led drug war is pushing Latin America into a downward spiral; Mr. Cardoso said in a conference that "the available evidence indicates that the war on drugs is a failed war".[369] The panel of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy commission, headed by Cardoso, stated that the countries involved in this war should remove the "taboos" and re-examine the anti-drug programs. Latin American governments have followed the advice of the U.S. to combat the drug war, but the policies had little effect. The commission made some recommendations to United States President Barack Obama to consider new policies, such as decriminalization of marijuana and to treat drug use as a public health problem and not as a security problem.[370] The Council on Hemispheric Affairs states it is time to seriously consider drug decriminalization and legalization,[371] a policy initiative that would be in direct opposition to the interests of criminal gangs.

Money laundering

Despite the fact that Mexican drug cartels and their Colombian suppliers generate, launder and remove $18 billion to $39 billion from the United States each year,[372] the U.S. and Mexican governments have been criticized for their unwillingness or slow response to confront the various cartels' financial operations, including money laundering.[372][373][374]

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has identified the need to increase financial investigations relating to the movement of illegal drug funds to Mexico.[375] The DEA states that attacking the financial infrastructure of drug cartels has to play a key role in any viable drug enforcement strategy.[375][376] The U.S. DEA has noted that the U.S. and Mexican financial services industry continues to be a facilitator for drug money movement.[375][377]

Following suit, in August 2010 President Felipe Calderón proposed sweeping new measures to crack down on the cash smuggling and money laundering. Calderón proposes a ban on cash purchases of real estate and of certain luxury goods that cost more than 100,000 pesos (about USD $8,104.) His package would also require more businesses to report large transactions, such as real estate, jewelry and purchases of armor plating.[374] In June 2010, Calderón "announced strict limits on the amount in U.S. dollars that can be deposited or exchanged in banks",[374] but the proposed restrictions to financial institutions are facing tough opposition in the Mexican legislature.[372][374]

In 2011, Wachovia, at one time a major U.S. bank, was implicated in laundering money for Mexican drug lords.[378] In a settlement, Wachovia paid federal authorities $110 million in forfeiture.[379] A US Senate report[380][381] from the permanent subcommittee for investigations revealed in July 2012 that HSBC – one of Europe's biggest banks- moved $7 billion in bulk cash from Mexico to the US, most of it suspected to assist Mexican drug lords and US drug cartels in moving money to the US.[382][383] While money laundering problems at HSBC have been flagged by regulators for nearly a decade, the bank continued to avoid compliance. On December 12, 2012, HSBC settled for a $1.93 billion fine.[384]

Drug demand

RAND studies released in the mid-1990s found that using drug user treatment to reduce drug consumption in the United States is seven times more cost effective than law enforcement efforts alone, and it could potentially cut consumption by a third.[385]

In FY2011, the Obama Administration requests approximately $5.6 billion to support demand reduction. This includes a 13% increase for prevention and almost a 4% increase for treatment. The overall FY 2011 counter-drug request for supply reduction and domestic law enforcement is $15.5 billion with $521.1 million in new funding.[386]

Mexican cartel Corruption outside Mexico

Government officials from other countries beyond Mexico have also been targets of Mexican cartel corruption. Some organizations that have allegedly been involved in helping drug cartels (however this does not necessarily apply for the whole institutions) are:

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