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.
Back to Top

The Drug Conflict Today

President Calderon now has 40,000 soldiers fighting the war on drugs, but kidnappings, beheadings, ... read more »

The Impact of the Conflict and Proposed Solutions

In 2007, President George W. Bush and President Felipe Calderon signed the Merida Initiative, in ... read more »

Most Recent Guides