Mexican Drug War

Mexican Drug War
Part of the War on Drugs
Date11 December 2006 (2006-12-11) – present
(12 years, 3 months, 2 weeks and 1 day)
Throughout Mexico, with occasional spillover across international borders into Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California,[7][8] and also into the neighboring countries of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Belize and Guatemala[9][10]

Mexico Mexico

Consulting and training support by:
United States United States through the Merida Initiative

Colombia Colombia through the National Police of Colombia



Supported by:

Commanders and leaders
Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (2018–present)
Enrique Peña Nieto (2012–18)
Felipe Calderón (2006–12)
Guillermo Galván Galván (2006–12)
Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda (2012–18)
Mariano Francisco Saynez Mendoza (2006–12)
Vidal Francisco Soberón Sanz (2012–18)
José Rafael Ojeda Durán (2018–present)
Ismael Zambada García (Fugitive)
Joaquín Guzmán Loera (Arrested)[11]
Juan José Esparragoza Moreno (Fugitive)
Homero Cárdenas Guillén (possibly dead)
Ignacio Coronel Villarreal 
Antonio Cárdenas Guillén 
Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez (Arrested)
Nazario Moreno González 
Omar Treviño Morales (Arrested)
Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano  
Miguel Treviño Morales (Arrested)
Arturo Beltrán Leyva  
Héctor Beltrán Leyva (Arrested)
Luis Fernando Sánchez Arellano (Arrested)
Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (Arrested)


  • 260,000 soldiers[12]
  • 35,000 Federal Police[13]
100,000+ individuals[14][15][16]
Casualties and losses


395 servicemen killed and 137 missing,[17] 4,020 Federal, State, and Municipal Police killed[18]
12,456 cartel members killed[19]
121,199 cartel members detained[20]
8,500 cartel members convicted[21]
Total casualties:
250,000 killed [22]

The Mexican Drug War (also known as the Mexican War on Drugs; Spanish: guerra contra el narcotráfico en México)[23] is an ongoing asymmetric[24][25] low-intensity conflict between the Mexican government and various drug trafficking syndicates. In 2006 when the Mexican military began to intervene, the government's principal goal was to reduce drug-related violence.[26] The Mexican government has asserted that their primary focus is on dismantling the powerful drug cartels, rather than on preventing drug trafficking and demand, which is left to U.S. functionaries.[27][28][29]

Although Mexican drug trafficking organizations have existed for several decades, their influence increased[30][31] after 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.[32][33] Arrests of key cartel leaders, particularly in the Tijuana and Gulf cartels, have led to increasing drug violence as cartels fight for control of the trafficking routes into the United States.[34][35][36]

Federal law enforcement has been reorganized at least five times since 1982 in various attempts to control corruption and reduce cartel violence. During that same period there have been at least four elite special forces created as new corruption-free soldiers who could do battle with Mexico's endemic bribery system.[37] Analysts estimate that wholesale earnings from illicit drug sales range from $13.6 to $49.4 billion annually.[32][38][39]

The U.S. Congress passed legislation in late June 2008 to provide Mexico with US$1.6 billion for the Mérida Initiative to provide Mexico with law enforcement training and equipment, as well as technical advice to strengthen the national justice systems. By the end of Felipe Calderón's administration (December 1, 2006 – November 30, 2012), the official death toll of the Mexican Drug War was at least 60,000.[40] Estimates set the death toll above 120,000 killed by 2013, not including 27,000 missing.[41][42] Since taking office, Andrés Manuel López Obrador declared that the war was over; however, his comment was met with criticism as homicide rates continued in high numbers.


Due to its 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,[33] and the onset of the illegal drug trade with the U.S. began when the prohibition came to an end in 1933.[33] Towards the end of the 1960s, Mexican narcotic smugglers started to smuggle drugs on a major scale.[33]

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 by land through Mexico into the United States.[43]

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.[44]

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. In recent years, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel have taken over trafficking cocaine from Colombia to the worldwide markets.[44]

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.[45] Leadership vacuums are sometimes created by law enforcement successes against a particular cartel, so cartels often will attempt to pit law enforcement against one another, either by bribing corrupt officials to take action against a rival or by leaking intelligence about a rival's operations to the Mexican or U.S. government's Drug Enforcement Administration.[45]

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 began to lose its grip on political power in the late 1980s.[46]

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.[47] There was a lull in the fighting during the late 1990s but the violence has steadily worsened since 2000.


The dominant party PRI ruled Mexico for around 70 years until 2000. During this time, drug cartels expanded their power and corruption, and anti-drug operations focused mainly on destroying marijuana and opium crops in mountainous regions. There were no large-scale high-profile military operations against their core structures in urban areas until the 2000 Mexican election, 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 training in August 2010

In the year 2000 Vicente Fox, from the right-wing PAN party, became the first Mexican president not to be from the PRI party (that ruled Mexico for 70 years); his presidency passed with relative peace, having a crime index not too different to previous administrations, and Mexican public opinion was mainly optimistic with the regime change, with Mexico even showing a general decline in homicide rates from 2000 to 2007.[48] One of Fox's administration's strongest criticisms arose from its management of the peasant unrest in San Salvador Atenco.

During this time, the Mexican criminal underworld was not widely known, as it later became with president Calderon and his War on Drugs. Key components of the upcoming conflict started to occur, like the Sinaloa Cartel attacks and advance on the Gulf Cartel's main turf in Tamaulipas.

It is estimated that on the first 8 months of 2005 (between January and August) about 110 people died in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas as a result of the fighting between the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels.[49] The same year, there was another surge in violence in the state of Michoacán as the La Familia Michoacana drug cartel established itself, after splintering from its former allies, the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas.

Presidency of Felipe Calderón

On December 11, 2006, the newly elected President Felipe Calderón, from the right wing PAN party, dispatched 6,500 Mexican Army soldiers to Michoacán, his home state, 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.[50] 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.[51]

The government was relatively successful in detaining drug lords; however, drug-related violence spiked high in contested area along the US border such as Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana, and Matamoros. Some analysts, like US Ambassador in Mexico Carlos Pascual, argued that this rise in violence was a direct result of Felipe Calderón's military measures.[52] Since Calderón launched his military strategy against organized crime, there was an alarming increase in violent deaths related to organized crime, more than 15,000 people died in suspected drug cartel attacks since it was launched at the end of 2006."[52] More than 5,000 people were murdered in Mexico in 2008,[53] followed by 9600 murders in 2009, 2010 was violent, with over 15,000 homicides across the country.[54]

By the end of Calderón's presidency his administration statistics claimed that, during his 6-year term, 50,000 drug related homicides occurred,[55] however later revelations showed that more than 120,000 murders happened as result of the his militaristic anti-drug policy.[56]

Presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto

In 2012, newly elected president Enrique Peña Nieto, from the PRI party, emphasized that he did not support the involvement of armed American agents in Mexico, being only interested in military training of Mexican forces in counter-insurgency tactics.[57] Peña stated that he planned to deescalate the conflict, focusing in lowering criminal violence rates, as opposed to the previous policy of an attacking drug-trafficking organizations by arresting or killing the most-wanted drug lords and intercepting their drug shipments.[58]

However, in the first 14 months of his administration, between December 2012 and January 2014, 23,640 people died in the conflict.[59]

In 2013 Mexico saw the rise of the controversial Grupos de Autodefensa Comunitaria (self-defence groups) in southern Mexico, para-military groups led by land-owners, ranchers and other rural businessmen that took up arms against the criminal groups that wanted to impose dominance in their towns, entering a new phase in the Mexican war on drugs.[60] However this strategy, allegedly proposed by General Óscar Naranjo (Peña's security advisor from Colombia),[61] crumbled when autodefenzas started to have internal organization struggles and disagreements with the government, being finally infiltrated by criminal elements, that deprived the government forces the ability to distinguish between armed-civilian convoys and drug-cartel convoys, forcing Peña's administration to distance from them.[62]

Peña's handling of the 2014 Iguala mass kidnapping and the 2015 escape of drug lord "El Chapo" Guzmán from the Altiplano maximum security prison sparked international criticism.[63][64]

A great part of Peña Nieto's strategy consisted in making the Mexican Interior Ministry the solely responsible for public security and the creation of a national military level police force called the National Gendarmerie. In December 2017, the Law of Internal Security was passed by legislation but was met with criticism, especially from the National Human Rights Commission, accusing it gave the President a blank check.[65][66][67][68][69]

Presidency of Andrés Manuel López Obrador

Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the President from the Centre-left National Regeneration Movement party, took office on December 1, 2018. One of his campaign promises was a controversial "strategy for peace", that is to give amnesty to all Mexicans involved in drug production and trafficking as a way to stop the drug trade and the resulting turf violence.[70] His proposed amnesty is still ill-defined.[70] His aides explained that the plan was not to pardon real criminals, like violent drug cartel members, but to prevent other people from following that path, especially low-income people, poor farmers, and young people that may end up in jail for drug possession.[71] President López-Obrador points out that the past approaches failed because they were based on misunderstanding the core problem. According to him, the underlying issue is Mexico's great social disparities which previous governments' economic policies did not reduce. For law enforcement, he promised to do a referendum for the creation of a temporary national guard, merging elite parts of the Federal police, Military police, Navy, Chief of Staff's Guard and other top Mexican Security agencies, intending to finally give a legal framework to the military grade forces that have been doing police work in the last years.[72] Promising not to use arms to suppress the people and announced to free political prisoners. His approach is to pay more attention to the victims of violent crime and wants to revisit two previously taken strategies.[73]

Despite the new government's planned strategy changes,[74] during the first two months of the new presidency the violence between drug trafficking organizations have sustained the same levels as previous years.[75]

However, on January 30, 2019 President López Obrador declared the end of the Mexican war on drugs,[76][77] the President stated that he will now focus on reducing spending,[78] and direct its military and police efforts primarly on stopping the armed gasoline theft rings —locally called huachicoleros— that have been stealing more than 70 thousand barrels of oil, diesel and gasoline daily,[79][80][81] costing the Mexican economy around 3 billion dollars every year.[82]

This strategy of avoiding armed confrontations while drug organizations still have violent altercations has risen controversy.[83][75][84][85] One of the strongest critics of the new estrategy and a firm proponent of continuing the armed struggle, is former right-wing President Felipe Calderon,[86] who originally started the military operations against traffickers a decade ago (in 2006)[87] and whose failed armed strategy to stop cartel violence was also criticised by local and foreign experts, as well as by multiple media outlets.[88][89][90]

Drug sources and use


Map of Mexican cartels' drug traffic routes in Mexico based on a 2012 Stratfor report

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[91] and Asian[92] methamphetamines to the United States.[32] It is believed that almost half the cartels' revenues come from cannabis.[93] Cocaine, heroin, and increasingly methamphetamine are also traded.[94]

The U.S. State Department estimates that 90 percent of cocaine entering the United States is produced in Colombia[95] (followed by Bolivia and Peru)[96] and that the main transit route is through Mexico.[32] Drug cartels in Mexico control approximately 70% of the foreign narcotics flow into the United States.[97]

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.[98]

Since 2003 Mexican cartels have used the dense, isolated portions of U.S. federal and state parks and forests to grow marijuana under the canopy of thick trees. Billions of dollars’ worth of marijuana has been produced annually on US soil. “In 2006, federal and state authorities seized over 550,000 marijuana plants worth an estimated 1 billion dollars in Kentucky’s remote Appalachian counties” Cartels profited from marijuana growing operations from Arkansas to Hawaii.[99]

A 2018 study found that the reduction in drugs from Colombia contributed to Mexican drug violence. The study estimated, "between 2006 and 2009 the decline in cocaine supply from Colombia could account for 10%-14% of the increase in violence in Mexico."[100]


The prevalence of illicit drug use in Mexico is still low compared to the United States;[101] 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.[101] In the decades before this period, consumption was not generalized – reportedly occurring mainly among persons of high socioeconomic status, intellectuals and artists.[101]

As the United States of America is the world's largest consumer of cocaine,[102] as well as of other illegal drugs,[103] their demand is what motivates the drug business, and the main goal of Mexican cartels is to introduce narcotics into the US.

The export rate of cocaine to the U.S. has decreased following stricter border control measures in response to the September 11 attacks.[101][104]

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.[101]

With increased cocaine use, there has been a parallel rise in demand for drug user treatment in Mexico.[101]


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.[105][106][107]

Among the OECD countries, Mexico has the second highest degree of economic disparity between the extremely poor and extremely rich.[108] 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.[106]

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.[109] In cities such as Ciudad Juárez, up to 60% of the economy depended on illegitimate money making.[110]


A problem that goes hand in hand with poverty in Mexico is the level of schooling.[111][112] In the 1960's, when Mexican narcotic smugglers started to smuggle drugs on a major scale,[33] only 5.6% of the Mexican population had education beyond the six years of basic school.[113]

More recently, researchers from the World Economic Forum have noted that despite Mexican economy is ranked 31st out of 134 economies and has a high investment in education ( 5.3% of its GDP ), as of 2009, the nation's primary education system is ranked 116th, thereby suggesting "that the problem is not how much but rather how resources are invested".[114] The WEF further explained: "The powerful teachers union, the 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." 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 youth underclass of school-dropouts who neither work nor study, whom might ended up as combatants on behalf of the cartels.[115]

However, teachers unions argue that they oppose reforms that propose teachers being tested and graded on their students' performance[116] with universally standard exams that do not take into account the socio-economic differences between middle class urban schools and under-equipped poor rural schools, which has an important effect on the students performance.[117][118][119][120] 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.[121][122][123][124][125]

Other Languages
Bahasa Indonesia: Perang Narkoba Meksiko
Bahasa Melayu: Perang Dadah Mexico