The Mexican territory has been used to smuggle drugs into the US for decades, but since the 1980`s and 1990`s when the US successfully undermined the Caribbean route used by Colombian Cartels, Mexico became the main route for that purpose. The Colombian Cartels had no means to deal with the logistic required to operate within Mexico, this gave rise to partnerships among cartels from both countries. The goal of this essay is to address how drug trafficking organizations (DTO) act within Mexico and its near neighbors.
There are seven big drug cartels in Mexico: a) Sinaloa Cartel, considered the largest one, operating in Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua, but also having branches in Chicago and Buenos Aires; b) Gulf Cartel, that has leverage over the Eastern part of the country; c) Zetas, a former armed wing of the Gulf Cartel that grew independent, it is considered ruthless in its actions and poses a serious threat once it has been recruiting Guatemalan special forces (Kaibiles); d) Juarez Cartel, located in Ciudad Juarez (this city is considered one of the most violent in the world according to latest figures) which borders El Paso, Texas; e) Tijuana Cartel, located close to California and that controls the San Diego route; f) Beltran-Leyva Organization; and g) La Familia Michoacana.
As Vicent Fox took office (drawing to a close seventy one years of PRI rule), the Mexican DTOs had to adapt applying new strategies to smuggle drugs, working together even with the Russian mafia (it is known that the Vory v Zakone has business in México using other DTOs such as Poldolskaya, Mazukinskaya, Tambovskaya and Izamamilovskaya) (BAGLEY, 2001). The arrests and deaths of some cartel leaders led to battles within these organizations, but also among them in order to control larger shares of the Mexican territory and smuggling routes. The situation got more complicated when Felipe Calderon, who succeeded Fox, declared war against the cartels (CALDERON, 2006), increasing the death toll over 35,000 in the last 5 years.
Even though Calderón militarized the conflict, the cartels pose several threats to Mexican institutions, since the beginning of his term, twenty-five mayors have been murdered throughout Mexico, corruption levels are high, and freedom of speech is compromised once many journalists have been killed, kidnapped or had to flee the country. The situation has been under surveillance of the United States. In 2008, the U.S. Joint Forces Command’s Joint Operating Environment paired Mexico with Pakistan as states prone to ‘a rapid and sudden collapse”. In 2009, Michael Hayden, from the CIA, stated that Mexico could become “more problematic than Iraq” (O`NEIL, 2009). Despite these perspectives, the Mexican state is far from being considered a failed state, the cartels don`t want to overthrow the government, but to corrupt it and frighten those responsible for law enforcement. Besides, the state still collects taxes, manages all sorts of public services and it has legitimacy once it holds free elections. Furthermore, so far Mexico has received political support from American politicians, Hillary Clinton included, and funds from the Merida Initiative launched in 2007 between both countries ($ 140 billion).
The US-Mexican cooperation might seem a light at the end of tunnel for solving the issue of DTOs. However, it is important to take into account that in 1990 both countries launched the “Operación Falcón”, afterwards in 1996 it was established the High-Contact Level Group to facilitate the exchange of information, and that in 2005, Fox and Secretary Chertoff revived “Operation Stonegarden”, helping Mexico with funds of $ 400 million. While the US tries to address the issue abroad, it already has to deal with the spillover within its own territory.
Mexican cartels have branches in approximately 230 American cities. While they spread drugs into the US, they foster another smuggling flow: firearms, that became known as “iron river” (it is estimated that 90 percent of guns found with cartel members come from the US). Because of rigid Mexican laws concerning the purchase of guns, these DTOs stock as much weaponry they can in order to build up their private armies on the war for control of the drug business. Despite American laws to halt this situation, the lack of enforcement benefits transnational crime.
So if the war on drugs seems to be in a stalemate, what to do next? The matter has been under debate in Mexico, polls have shown the disagreement of shares of the population against Calderon`s approach, because of the high rates of criminal activity in the country. Among the alternatives at disposal, three are taken into account. First, to target illicit funds, because it is estimated that the drug industry profits some $15 billion to $25 billion every year, for instance, Mexican troops recently seized $ 15,3 million in cash from Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, head of the Sinaloa Cartel. To a more effective approach, Mexican authorities have to work with other governments to dismantle money laundering schemes. Bilateral cooperation with the US has already begun; Calderon has also called upon countries such as Colombia, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica to boost institutional efforts on the war against DTOs (INFOLATAM, 2011).
Second, to maintain an antidrug strategy but reduce the efforts in order to halt the bloodshed that is taking place in the country. However, this option is criticized by the American government and by some Mexican analysts who think that there shouldn`t be a middle ground with DTOs. Finally, to change the current counterdrug policy entirely, which could imply decriminalizing or legalizing consumption, trafficking and the production of drugs. Assessing them all it is possible to state that the first one is being conducted by the government, the second being discussed within the Mexican society and the third is still far from being introduced. What is clear is that this war requires a hemispheric response.
BAGLEY, Bruce. Globalization and Transnational Organized crime: the Russian Mafia in Latin America and the Caribbean. Available at: [http://www.as.miami.edu/international-studies/pdf/Bagley%20GLOBALIZATION%202.pdf]. Accessed on 19/11/2011.
CALDERON, Felipe. President Calderón`s statement during the ‘Presentación del Gabinete de Seguridad’. Available at: [http://www.presidencia.gob.mx/2006/11/presentacion-del-gabinete-de-seguridad]. Access on 17/11/2011.
INFOLATAM. México: plantea Calderón frente común anticrimen em América Latina. Available at: [http://www.infolatam.com/2011/11/16/mexico-plantea-calderon-frente-comun-anticrimen-en-america-latina/]. Access on 20/11/2011.
O’NEIL, Shannon. The Real War in Mexico: How Democracy Can Defeat the Drug Cartels. Foreign Affairs, vol. 88, n. 4, 2009.
Leonardo Miguel Alles is Master in International Relations by the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul – UFRGS (firstname.lastname@example.org)