Why has the war on drugs in Mexico become so violent?

Written by Rodrigo Hernández Gallegos

The “war on drugs” is not a new to Mexico. As Campos (2010: 381) argues, the regulation of medicines and “dangerous” substances such as marijuana can be traced back to the colonial period. Furthermore, the control of drugs at the federal level was a policy which was present under the revised Constitution of 1919 and in the sanitary policies of successive governments after the Revolution (Campos, 2010: 382). However, I am going to focus on a new phase of the Mexican war on drugs, which arguably started in 2006, and the reasons for its inherent violence.

In this paper, I will argue that this violence has happened because of a fragmentation in the monopoly of violence. This has been fostered by a militarised response in a context of greater relative autonomy of drug trafficking organisations (DTOs), regarding financial resources and power, vis-a-vis the Mexican state.

Rodrigo Hernández Gallegos has a degree in Politics and International Studies from the University of Warwick. He currently works as a consultant in public policy and public affairs. His main research interests are politics, organization, and technology both at the national and international level.

In making this argument, I will first give a brief historical background to contextualise the new phase of the war on drugs. Second, I will discuss how DTOs became financially autonomous from the state because of the evolution of the drug market and the internationalisation of the Mexican economy. Third, I will explain how DTOs increased their power, regarding sovereignty and governability, vis-a-vis the Mexican State, which made them autonomous in those two regards, at least in specific communities and to a certain extent. Then, I will explore how DTOs, as relatively independent social hierarchies, took advantage of the democratic transition to infiltrate state structures. I will also, discuss how this infiltration gave DTOs the capacity to use violence without institutional restraint and how the current dynamics of social mobility might have created a new type of impunity. Lastly, I will examine how the militarised response of the Calderon administration (2006 – 2012) created the right circumstances for the emergence of smaller, more violent criminal organisations.


To understand the Mexican war on drugs, one needs to acknowledge that local elites have always been of great importance when it comes to containing drug-related violence. Since its independence, Mexico has been a decentralised nation (Torres, 1986: 10). It took more than 100 years of conflict between liberals and conservatives to establish a relatively stable central government under Porfirio Diaz and in the years after the Revolution, the decentralised structure of the country became more prominent (see Bastian: 1988; Scott, 2004: 25).

Pereyra (2012: 4) argues that the PRI party was aware of the decentralised nature of Mexico and used a hybrid approach, which combined autonomy for local “caziques” with a certain degree of control from Mexico City, to contain the escalation of violence. Nevertheless, Astorga (2005: 3) argues that the autonomy of local leaders was restricted and therefore, Mexico City had a degree of control over the escalation violence. My argument lies in between these two positions. I argue that the fragile balance that contained violence was based on a series of connections and favours between the central government, local authorities and criminal organisations. Smith (2016) describes this type of agreements as grey zone pacts.

Pereyra (2012: 2) argues that local authorities were more efficient at dealing with drug-related violence. Furthermore, in case there was a certain violent incident that needed to be addressed promptly, Mexico City could put pressure on local governments and drug organisations because of what can be considered a macro network of grey zone pacts that maintained stability. Therefore, it can be argued that the DTOs have always had a relationship with the state although it has changed over time.

After WWII, Mexico implemented several policies against drug trafficking ranging from manual destruction of poppies and marijuana plantations to the use of herbicides (see Weimer: 2011). The implementation of these suggests that the PRI did not have the degree of control over drug trafficking that some advocate. However, it seems that from the late 70’s to the first half of the 90’s the Mexican state was able to centralise the control of drug trafficking to a certain extent. Montero Bagatella (2014: 154) argues that by the 1970’s the largest Mexican cartel and the one in charge of introducing the majority of cocaine to the US was the Guadalajara Cartel, which according to Lupsha (1995: 98), was under the severe influence of the Mexican intelligence agency, the DFS. This link was exposed after the murder of the journalist Manuel Buendía and later by the assassination of the DEA Agent Enrique Camarena Salazar by the members of the cartel in 1985 (Fazio: 1997). The murder of the latter exposed an unprecedented network of interdependence between DTOs and the central government.

Soon after, the DFS was dismantled and President Miguel de la Madrid created a new agency the CISEN (Bolaños Vázquez: 2014). After this incident, there was an increasing pressure by the US and to some extent the Mexican society to make a more extensive effort with regards to the drug trade during subsequent administrations (Salinas, Zedillo, Fox). During these, there was an intensification of conflict between cartels and the state (Pansters 2014:3). A detailed review of this periods is beyond the scope of this essay. Nevertheless, the circumstances that I am about to explore could help us understand not only the intensification of violence after 2006 but the increase in violent clashes between the state and cartels up to that point.

The Expansion of the Drug Market and the Internationalisation of the Mexican Economy

Like the episode with the DFS suggests, cartels have always needed to interact with the state. However, the internationalisation of the economy and the expansion of the drug market changed the dynamics of interaction by giving DTOs the chance to increase their autonomy from the government. These structural changes also incremented the level of competition among them, which fragmented violence further.

By the 1990’s Mexico became a global producer of marijuana and heroin while becoming the world’s largest point of cocaine transit because of several reasons (Chalk, 2000: 40). First, after the closing of the “Ruta del Caribe” cocaine producers were forced to use Mexico as the entrance point to the US market (see Serrano: 2000). Second, the Mexican cartels have moved up the production chain, which has given them more control over the majority of drugs produced in South America (see Santamaria: 2013). Third, the internationalisation of the Mexican economy, exemplified by NAFTA, gave the cartels a significant logistical advantage.

The expansion of the drug market is deeply interrelated with the escalation of violence in Mexico. On one hand, from the 1980’s onward there was an increasing demand for drugs in the US. On the other, Mexican DTOs were increasing their control of the market, fostering a level of competition between them that did not exist before (Lupsha, 1995: 86). Pereyra (2012: 4) offers an explanation for this, in his view, the drug market has a distinctive characteristic which is that even when competition increases there are still new bidders trying to enter the market because of the high price of drugs. This suggests that the financial incentives for entering the market have been big enough, since the early 90’s, to encourage new bidders to appear. It is hard to estimate how much money cartels made during this period, however, in 2011, a report from the US Department of Justice mentions that “Mexican and Colombian DTOs generate, remove, and launder as much as $39 billion in wholesale drug proceeds annually.” (2011: 2).

The expansion of the market and its increasing financial remunerations made the drug market more interconnected and complex which might have made the creation of new organisations involved in drug trafficking harder to control for the state and major cartels. The increase in the number of gangs fostered greater interaction between small and big DTOs. For instance, The Attorney General’s Office (2014) states that in 2014, seven of the nine major cartels had control over or worked with more than 40 gangs.  According to Pereyra (2012: 4), out of this interaction major DTOs were forced to create more grey zone pacts which were not always respected. The breaking of these pacts fragmented violence further and increased competition.

Coincidentally, in 1994 NAFTA was formally put in place. This agreement made trade between the US and Mexico more efficient by making it easier for Mexican products to enter the US market and vice versa, effectively dismantling trade barriers between Mexico, Canada and the US (Dussel Peters, 2000: 5). Therefore, it was a logistical advantage for DTOs in their moment of aggressive expansion. Larue (2000: 38) argues that “The freeing of government controls over goods, services, information and capital has unintentionally encouraged and facilitated both legal and illegal economic activity”. He even goes as far as arguing that NAFTA has made the US-Mexico border a country which has the poly-drug trafficking capital of the world.

It is hard to assess if NAFTA has increased drug trafficking between the two nations as detailed information with regards to this matter is difficult to obtain. However, the US Customs Office acknowledged that NAFTA had made it easier for drugs to enter the US market (Library of Congress: 1998).  Furthermore, the Mexican-US border has become the busiest in the world, making effective checkpoints almost impossible to implement for both governments (Financial Times: 2015). These factors combined gave DTOs an unparalleled degree of autonomy from the state in financial terms (Moloeznik and Suárez de Garay, 2012: 132).

 Sovereignty and Governability

The internationalisation of the Mexican state and the process of integration of Mexico with the global economy, both of which started long before NAFTA, have had an impact on the creation of vacuums of power. For example, from the 60’s and 70’s onwards, the agricultural sector had to focus on exports instead of national consumption which left many sustenance peasants in a marginal situation (Conde, 1992: 277). Furthermore, Desmond Arias and Goldstein (2010), discuss how many marginalised communities were left without government funding because from the mid 80’s onwards, Mexico stopped getting the state revenues it used to, due to structural deficiencies and an economic dependence on oil. Therefore, extending existing vacuums and creating new ones.  To analyse these vacuums and how cartels filled them Foucault’s notions of power are very useful. I am only going to focus on his concepts of governability and sovereignty for this analysis inspired by the work of Pereyra (2012).

Foucault argues that sovereignty was a form of power in the sense of coercion and it was evident when the monopoly of violence was obtained (2009: 35). This power gave a social hierarchy the capacity to decide over life and death, and it can lie on any social hierarchy that has the material resources to control the biopolitics of a particular geographical region and its population (Foucault, 2010: 26).  The control of towns such as La Ruana and Tepaltepec in Michoacan by Los Caballeros Templarios is a good example of how cartels gained the power that I described earlier. In both cases, the Templarios created a system of taxes for security services, similar to policing, and also taxed much of the economic activity (Fuentes Diaz, 2015: 6-7). The providing of security services, in particular, show the degree of their power regarding sovereignty.

The notion of governability, which is also prominent in Foucault’s analysis of the evolution of power in Europe, is also useful to understand the importance of cartels in Mexico. For Foucault (2006: 50), at some point during the XVIII century, the population growth of European societies, and in my view an increasing capacity of collective scrutiny aided by the reduction on the constraints on communication, created a new dimension of power connected to the wellbeing of the overall populous. He describes this dimension of power as governability and it encompasses many fields of social interaction such as labour relations, family relations, etc. Also, this type of power is intrinsically linked with the provision of material resources.  It is also important to consider that; any social hierarchy can hold this form of power. For instance, small municipalities in Mexico such as Badiraguato receive a massive influx of capital by cartels, to develop social projects such as roads and schools. The mayor of Badiraguato goes as far as acknowledging that the first investment for the highway Badiraguato-Perral was provided by Rafael Caro Quintero, one of the founders of the Guadalajara Cartel (Flores: 2013). He also mentions that the way that the government has shown neglect for the municipality, by for example excluding them from the “Cruzada Nacional Contra el Hambre” has left it in the hands of cartels (Flores: 2013). This example shows that cartels have the power of both Sovereignty and Governability in specific areas of the country. Furthermore, we can also see how the lack of state investment in Badiraguato created vacuums of governability.

The vacuums of power created by the retreat of the state, have been filed by cartels that provide capital investment and some degree of stability in marginalised communities (Sanchez and Chacon: 2006). Cartels develop new infrastructure projects such as paved roads, schools and hospitals (Flores, 2013). While also providing essential functions which are usually attributed to states such as policing (Fuentes Diaz, 2015: 6). Furthermore, sometimes local politicians are also financed by cartels which give some communities the protection of local public institutions.

 State infiltration, Impunity, and Social Mobility

The increasing autonomy of cartels, the fierce competition between them and their incremental power, regarding sovereignty and governability, was accompanied by an increasing political competition that resulted in a democratic transition from a one-party system to a multi-party system (Becerra, Salazar, and Woldenberg: 2000). Despite their relative autonomy, cartels still needed the institutions of the state to work properly and they saw this transition as a perfect opportunity to infiltrate them.  Pereyra (2012) and Raphael (2014) explore how this was a period of more political competition not only for positions within the state but also for the means to enter the electoral race which opened even more spaces for infiltration.  Resulting in an unbalanced relation between capital providers (cartels and businessman involved in money laundering) and capital receivers (politicians and policymakers), at both local and, to a lesser extent, the federal level. This level of infiltration gave organised crime an unparalleled sway over the formal institutions of the state (Pereyra, 2012: 4).

In turn, this might have led to a less constrained attitude by cartels, which could act with a large degree of impunity.  Impunity might also be linked to the process of breaking grey zone pacts. Firstly, because some of the informal agreements between cartels became unenforceable and secondly because some of them started to look at the possibilities of expansion to “plazas” controlled by rival cartels which usually generates a violent response. An example of this might be the violent conflict between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Juarez Cartel over the “plaza” of Ciudad Juarez or the conflict between the former and the Cartel del Golfo for the “plaza” of Tamaulipas (Pereyra, 2012: 6). However, the link between impunity and grey zone pacts has not been adequately studied.

The new, Mexico Global Impunity Index, which suggests that 99% of crimes in Mexico go unpunished, highlights the level of impunity in the country (Índice Global de Impunidad en México: 2016). To explain this figure Raphael’s (2014: 70) work is important, he argues that in Mexico the judicial system only works for the top 3% of the population, because this is the only group with the financial capacity not only to influence the judicial decisions but also to enter the legal process.  The failure of the state to impose the rule of law can be a result of the macro network of corruption mentioned earlier, which allows the richest individuals in the country to bend the law to their advantage. However, it is important to acknowledge that impunity is not new in Mexico. Corruption has, for a long time, allowed individuals to influence legal decisions. However, in my view, the current dynamics of social mobility have created a new type of impunity.

The governability vacuum, amplified by the structural changes discussed earlier, is not exclusive to rural areas and exposes a profound systemic problem in Mexico that is as old as the country itself, a lack of social mobility. To further elaborate on this point, the report on social mobility in Mexico published by the Centro de Estudios Espinoza Yglesias is critical. The report shows that Mexico scores very poorly in indicators linked to social mobility, showing that social mobility in Mexico is at best limited (see Campos Vázquez, 2013).

Additionally, Raphael (2014, 187) argues that the only functional instrument for poor Mexicans with low levels of education to achieve social mobility is to join a cartel. While this claim might be an exaggeration of current circumstances, it seems that indeed the fastest way in which a poor peasant in “Tierra Caliente” could reach the income levels of the top 10% of the country is to join a drug trafficking organisation.

It could also be argued that before the internationalisation of the Mexican state, the functioning elevators of social mobility were directly dependent on it. For example, during the 19th century, the army played a very similar social mobility role to that of cartels today as it allowed marginalised individuals with poor access to education the chance to go up in the social scale (Tuckman,2012: p.45). During the 20th century, nationalised state enterprises, trade unions, teachers, and universities also worked as relatively functioning elevators of social mobility (Gonzales Casanova: 1965). However, it seems that the internationalisation of the economy and the state took this governability power away from it in certain areas such as Michoacan to some extent.

Michoacan is a good example of a governability vacuum. According to the INEGI (2013), the Mexican Office of National Statistics, Michoacan is poorer than the national average, with 59.5% of the population living in multidimensional poverty. Also, the percentage of Michoacan’s population living in extreme poverty has risen since 2010 (Quadratín: 2013). These circumstances, which are not exclusive to this state, have given more governability capacity to private enterprises such as cartels as they become the most attractive elevators of social mobility. This characteristic is what makes impunity, in its current form, different from its forms in the past. In the last century, impunity was exploited mainly by members of the dominant social hierarchy, the state. Politicians, businesspeople and to some extent cartels were able to bend the law to their advantage. However, after the PRI lost the monopoly of corruption and social mobility while cartels were gaining more autonomy from, and influence over the state the dynamics of impunity changed. Now, cartels as a competing social hierarchy, at least regarding sovereignty and governability in specific areas, have taken advantage of the old structural deficiencies which gave them and unique capacity to act unscrutinised. Therefore, it could also be argued that this new form of impunity reduced the cost of violence, by eliminating institutional deterrents to its development.

The militarization of the war on drugs

In the context of increasing power, regarding both governability and sovereignty, by cartels and the scale of their infiltration in state structures, the government decided to exert its sovereignty violently.

On the 11th of December 2006, the first major military operation called “Plan Conjunto Michoacan” marked the beginning of the new phase of the war on drugs (El Universal, 2006). The state decided to use the military as it was the only institution where the level of infiltration was not as significant (Bolaños Vázquez, 2014). Although its is not the first time that the army is used in the war on drugs, the deployment of the military in the national territory, since the Calderon administration, has been unprecedented. According to Ramos and Gomez (2008) the state committed more than 45,000 troops to the war on drugs in the first two years of the new phase.

The military response led to, a violent response from both the government and cartels which increased the degree of violence and the frequency of Human Rights violations not only by organised crime but by state forces as well (Amnesty International, 2015). For instance, in 2014, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights received more than 500 complaints about human rights abuses by state forces in Mexico (Roldán, 2015). This shows that the state made the exertion of sovereignty a priority leaving aside the well-being of the population, therefore, extending the already big vacuum of governability in particular communities.

Although I argue that the escalation of inter-cartel conflicts was fueled by the expansion of the drug market, it can also be argued that these were exacerbated by the government’s’ strategy since 2006, which has been focused on targeting high profile individuals within crime organisations. The current administration has so far imprisoned 98 of the 122 most wanted drug lords (Beauregard, 2016). Nevertheless, Casas-Zamora (2010, 7) argues that the main effect that this policy has had is, the disintegration of cartels and their dissemination across the national territory. By `cutting the head’ of particular drug organisations the government fostered instability which increased the number inter- and intra-cartel conflicts. The use of violence became frequent in the succession crises that erupted with the incarceration of cartel leaders. Thus, the federal response disrupted the structural dynamics that had prevailed under the old phase. The grey zone pacts that seemed to be one of the pillars of that structure were one of the most affected.

Guerrero Gutierrez (2011) argues that, due to the high volatility of the structure of medium and large crime organisations, created by the capture of several of its leaders, there were fewer incentives to set up and follow grey zone pacts. This happened because it was impossible to know for certain if the next leader of Cartel X was going to follow the same accords, fostering an environment of violence and uncertainty that might have rendered grey zone pacts useless and ineffective in the eyes of cartels.

The blows to the top of the hierarchical structure of cartels inevitably led to a dispersion within the hierarchy itself, fragmenting violence further. For example, according to a special report by the BBC, in 2006 there were four major cartels and a small number of gangs. In contrast in 2012, there were seven major cartels and more than 20 smaller crime organisations (BBC, 2012). Furthermore, in 2013, a report by the Office of the General Prosecutor acknowledged that there were more than 80 DTOs in Mexico (Contralinea, 2013).

The fragmentation of sovereignty and violence made it harder for the government to control the spread of the latter. Furthermore, smaller organisations that lack the financial and logistical advantages of larger cartels find it harder to make the money required to maintain themselves because the costs of entering the market also involve investing considerable sums of money in security and bribes.  Therefore, they have diversified their operations to other areas such as kidnapping and extortion. For example, in 2013, the INEGI (2015) estimates that more than 120,000 kidnappings took place, a definite increase, from the 51,000 in 2008 (Márques Peña, 2014).

Additionally, there is evidence that suggest that the centre for drug production in the country has shifted from “El triángulo dorado”, located in between the states of Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa and the heart of drug production over the past 60 years, to “Tierra Caliente” in Michoacan (Proceso, 2016). This shift exemplifies the fragmentation of drug trafficking in Mexico.

“Tierra Caliente” is one of the most neglected areas in the country making it a place with an extensive sovereignty and governability vacuum.  Furthermore, it was in this state where the most self-defense groups have emerged largely as a response to the excessive quotas and abuses of the Templarios, who as argued before gained the power of sovereignty in certain towns. The emergence of these also highlights the fragmentation of violence because of the failure of social hierarchies (cartels, autodefensas and the state) to maintain stability. Currently, the area is dominated by small gangs, auto-defensas and cartels. The gangs that operate here do so with a large degree of impunity but also with less respect to grey zone pacts, creating an environment in which violence becomes a way to resolve conflict in the absence of a dominant social hierarchy (Maldonado Aranda, 2012, 20). Michoacan, is only one example of how violence is fragmented, other states such as Guerrero, for instance, have similar circumstances. Furthermore, it seems that there are no signs that the national strategy is going away anytime soon.

The increase in the degree of violence since 2006 is perhaps best exemplified in the number of homicides in the country. According to the INEGI (2016), the Mexican office for national statistics, the total number of homicides went from 10,452 in 2006 to 27,213 in 2011. These figures, however, can only be partly attributed to the response of the Mexican State. In 2007, a parallel war erupted between cartels for the control of the drug traffic to the US. This conflict saw a confrontation between major cartels such as “El Cartel de Sinaloa” and the “Cártel del Golfo” (Pereyra,2012, 5). Furthermore, this became more problematic after the Beltran Leyva cartel separated from the former in 2008 and the Zetas from the latter in 2009-2010, fragmenting violence even further (Pachico, 2013) (Williams, 2010: 25). In my view, however, these conflicts were fueled by the intra-cartel competition fostered by the government´s strategy and the increasing inter-cartel competition created by the expansion of the market.

Furthermore, in response to the new federal policy, Cartels began to target police and army precincts. By 2011, just in Michoacán, more than 60 members of the federal police had been killed, a number that might be relatively higher if we add the death of military troops and local police forces (El Universal: 2011). Another example of the escalation of violence is the murder of local politicians. According to the Association of Social Authorities in Mexico (2015), more than 70 mayors have been assassinated in the last decade. Cartels have also made use of “narcobloqueos” to block the entrance of federal forces to some of the main cities in the country, such as Guadalajara (Ahrens: 2015). These examples show the degree of the fragmentation of violence produced by the militarization of the war on drugs.

Concluding remarks

To summarise, I have argued that the new phase of the war on drugs has become more violent because of a fragmentation of the monopoly of violence enabled by several factors. The expansion of the drug market, because of the relative decline of Colombian cartels, the increase in the demand for drugs in the US and NAFTA, increased inter-cartel competition and the relative autonomy of these social hierarchies vis-a-vis the state. Coincidentally, this period was accompanied by a democratic transition from a one-party rule to a multiparty system which created new spaces for infiltration in government structures which might have increased the capacity of cartels to act unscrutinised. Besides, from the 80’s onwards Mexico underwent a structural transformation that made existing vacuums of power bigger, giving a new generation of more wealthy and connected cartels the capacity to fill them. Thus, creating geographical spaces were the formal structures of scrutiny were absent.

In 2006, the new phase started with a violent exertion of state sovereignty. By using the army in a context of more autonomous DTOs, the escalation of violence became harder to control and as the strategy’s focus was to cut the head of the snake it led to further fragmentation of sovereignty and violence.  It is also important to acknowledge that, this paper has looked at the problem of violence in a rather top-down approach. Therefore, an analysis of the inter-village violence in the line of Malkin (2001) would be very useful to gain a better understanding of the degree to which violence has been fragmented. We can conclude that the Mexican state needs to acknowledge that they have lost the monopoly of violence in the country and that the current strategy has just fragmented violence further. Therefore, the state should aim to create a comprehensive drug policy which should focus not only in how it can regain sovereignty but also governability vis-a-vis DTOs by dealing with the structural factors that increased their autonomy.

Rodrigo Hernández Gallegos has a degree in Politics and International Studies from the University of Warwick. He currently works as a consultant in public policy and public affairs. His main research interests are politics, organization, and technology both at the national and international level.


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