Origins of the Mexican Drug Conflict

Guillermo Arias/AP
Army soldiers stand guard by US citizen Eduardo Morquecho, aka "El Lalo," as he is shown to the
press, along with items seized from him during his arrest in Tijuana, Mexico, July 10, 2009.

The Mexican Drug War

For decades, Mexican police and public officials, enticed by bribes or simply intimidated by cartels, ignored the country’s illegal drug trade. After Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon publicly declared war on drugs, a wave of grisly murders, kidnappings and shootouts followed.

President Calderon has seen some success, capturing several cartel bosses, and breaking up various alliances, but his success comes at a price. A greater number of people have died in Mexico’s drug war than have been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the toll continues to rise.

In addition to smuggling marijuana and methamphetamine, Mexico is now responsible for 90 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the U.S.

Origins of the Mexican Drug Conflict

In the mid-1980s, the South Florida Drug Task Force frightened off Colombia’s major Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs), such as the Medellín Cartel, forcing them to find other channels into America. By collaborating with marijuana and methamphetamine smugglers in Mexico who already had a reliable underground network into the U.S., Colombian cartels were able to continue trafficking cocaine.

In December 2006, Felipe Calderon declared a War on Drugs, enlisting the military to lead the battle. Since the beginning of Calderon’s term, violent crime has exploded across the country.

Top Sites for the Origins of the Drug Conflict

PBS Frontline lists the major events in the U.S. War on Drugs from the past 30 years. The timeline discusses Colombia’s reign in the 1980s, and Mexico’s early involvement in the drug trade. In a section titled, “The Business,” read what former cartel members say about their work, including a man who worked for the infamous Arellano-Felix Cartel, also known as the Tijuana Cartel.

The Congressional Research Service provides a PDF report from October 2007 profiling Mexico’s various cartels, their history, alliances and break-ups, including the Juarez, Gulf, Sinaloa and Tijuana organizations. One group, the Zetas, part of the Gulf Cartel, act as “a private army,” comprising deserters from Mexico's special operations units; they are well-trained in conducting high-level operations using the latest technology and weapons.

Time magazine reported in 2007, that President Felipe Calderon dismissed 294 allegedly corrupt police commanders in a “housecleaning” project. “Undertrained and underpaid,” the police are highly susceptible to bribery. In 2008, Calderon’s own antidrug czar, Noe Ramirez, resigned; he was later charged with accepting bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel for informing them of police activities.
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The Drug Conflict Today

President Calderon now has 40,000 soldiers fighting the war on drugs, but kidnappings, beheadings, extortion and other forms of narcoterrorism have created an atmosphere of fear and desperation in many parts of Mexico. A report from the Brookings Institute explains the bind that police officers, judges and public officials are in, forced to choose between “plata o plomo”—translating to “silver or lead,” meaning take a bribe or be killed.

Top Sites for the Mexican Drug Conflict Today

The Los Angeles Times special project, “Mexico Under Siege,” houses comprehensive article archives and an interactive map, alongside profiles of key players and a multimedia gallery.

FindingDulcinea looks at the surge of violence in Mexico and the threat to U.S. border towns and other cities. The article cites the BBC, which explains two divergent views regarding the violence in Mexico. The Mexican government sees it as a sign that the “‘monster’ has been wounded,” and that its aggressive tactics are working. Critics disagree, saying the cartels basically govern parts of Mexico, and violence is merely a by-product of “gang law.”

The BBC provides answers to a list of Frequently Asked Questions about Mexico’s drug war, and notes that, according to government officials, nine in 10 people killed in Mexico are connected to the drug trade or are law enforcement agents. 

NPR interviewed police officers in Juarez, Mexico, the most dangerous city there. According to the 2008 report, the Cartels created a hit list of 22 officers they planned to assassinate; 18 officers were killed in 2008—some were on the list and others weren’t. One lieutenant, who asked not to be named, told NPR he breaks the law by taking his gun home with him and not stopping at traffic lights, because he fears for his life.
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The Impact of the Conflict and Proposed Solutions

In 2007, President George W. Bush and President Felipe Calderon signed the Merida Initiative, in which America promised to spend $1.5 billion to support the war on drugs over a three-year period. The project was criticized for not doing enough to bring about real change, especially to Mexico’s police force.

In recent months, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that America’s demand for illicit drugs and our inability to enforce tighter gun control make us partially responsible for Mexico’s current situation. The Obama administration has pledged support in Mexico's drug war.

Top Sites for the Future of the Mexican Drug Conflict

The Council on Foreign Relations Latin America Task Force reported that a year after the Merida Initiative was signed 41 percent of its funding was spent on air surveillance. The CFR believes more “technical and financial assistance” should have been granted to Mexico’s underpaid police force.

FindingDulcinea reported that three former presidents of Latin American countries wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal demanding international leaders develop a more humane approach to fighting the illegal drug trade. “The war on drugs has failed,” they said. The leaders suggested the legalization of marijuana as a possible reform.

The Brookings Institute offers a report on lessons from Colombia’s drug war, looking at three areas of policy change: cutting drug consumption, re-routing the drug trade and reducing crime. According to the report, criminals in Mexico don’t fear law enforcement because the government is inundated with problems. As a result, “social and cultural restraints on violence have been degraded.”

NPR reported that at a meeting in Mexico, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton blamed America’s “insatiable demand for illegal drugs” and lax gun control policies for feeding the war there. NPR’s interactive map illustrates the presence of drug cartels in 230 U.S cities. View them by state.
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