Mexico’s Drug War

A Mexican colonel stands in a poppy field before it is destroyed during a military operation in Coyuca de Catalan, Mexico. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

Violence continues to rage in Mexico more than a decade after former President Felipe Calderon launched a crackdown on drug cartels.

Last updated May 25, 2017

A Mexican colonel stands in a poppy field before it is destroyed during a military operation in Coyuca de Catalan, Mexico. (Henry Romero/Reuters)
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.


Mexican authorities have been waging a bloody war against drug trafficking organizations for more than a decade with limited success. Independent researchers estimate that since 2006, the year President Felipe Calderon launched an intensive counternarcotics campaign, drug cartels have contributed to the killings of more than one hundred thousand people, including politicians, students, and journalists. There were nearly twenty-three thousand reported homicides in 2016, although it is unclear how much of this was drug-related.

Over the last decade, the U.S. government has committed more than $2 billion in funding and intelligence resources to supplement Mexico’s counternarcotics efforts, but Washington’s primary focus has been stanching the flow of drugs into the United States and bolstering domestic law enforcement. Meanwhile, gradual moves have been made at the U.S. state level toward legalization and decriminalization of marijuana, one of the primary substances involved in the drug war.

What drugs do the cartels traffic?

More on:


Drug Policy

Border and Port Security

Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) are the largest foreign suppliers of heroin, methamphetamines, and cocaine to the United States, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Mexican suppliers are responsible for most heroin and methamphetamine production, while cocaine is largely produced in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru, and then transported through Mexico. Mexican cartels are also leading manufacturers and suppliers of Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid many times more potent than heroin. U.S. seizures of the drug have soared in the last five years.

The U.S. government says that Mexican DTOs net tens of billions of dollars every year.

The cartels also produce and smuggle vast quantities of marijuana into the United States, but legalization of the drug in some U.S. jurisdictions has diminished cartel profits. As a result, experts note that DTOs are shifting their focus to harder drugs like heroin. By 2017, twenty-eight U.S. states and Washington, DC, had legalized the use of marijuana for either recreational or medicinal purposes, and lawmakers in Mexico were considering legislation to allow use of medicinal marijuana.

The U.S. government says that Mexican DTOs net tens of billions of dollars every year from drug sales in the United States, although estimates vary.  

Which are the largest cartels?

Mexico’s drug cartels are in a constant state of flux. Over the decades, they have grown, splintered, forged new alliances, and battled one another for territory. The cartels that have the greatest impact on the United States, according to a 2016 DEA report [PDF], are:

Sinaloa. Formerly led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who was arrested in 2016 and extradited to the United States in 2017, Sinaloa is one of Mexico’s oldest and most influential cartels. With strongholds along Mexico’s Pacific coast, it has the largest international footprint among its Mexican rivals.

More on:


Drug Policy

Border and Port Security

Jalisco New Generation. The Jalisco cartel splintered from the Sinaloa cartel in 2010. According to the DEA, “its rapid territorial expansion is characterized by the organization’s willingness to engage in violent confrontations” with authorities and other cartels.

Juarez. A longstanding rival of Sinaloa, the Juarez cartel’s stronghold is the north-central state of Chihuahua, across the border from New Mexico and Texas.

Gulf. The Gulf cartel’s base of power is in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas. According to the DEA, the arrests of Gulf leaders in recent years has diminished the organization’s influence.

Los Zetas. Originally a paramilitary group for the Gulf cartel, Los Zetas was singled out in 2007 by the DEA as the country’s most “technologically advanced, sophisticated, and violent” group. It splintered from the Gulf cartel in 2010 and held sway over swaths of eastern, central, and southern Mexico, but it has reportedly lost power in recent years.

Beltran-Leyva Organization. Formed when the Beltran-Leyva brothers split from the Sinaloa cartel in 2008, the organization partners with the Juarez and Los Zetas cartels. Since 2008, all four Beltran-Leyva brothers have been arrested or killed, but their loyalists operate throughout Mexico.

What factors led to their growth?

Experts point to both domestic and international forces at play. In Mexico, cartels have used vast drug profits to neutralize government opposition, paying off judges, police, politicians, and other officials. For decades during the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) seventy-one-year one-party rule, DTOs exploited Mexico’s entrenched politics to create “a system-wide network of corruption that ensured distribution rights, market access, and even official government protection for drug traffickers in exchange for lucrative bribes,” wrote David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego, in a 2011 CFR report.

PRI’s unbroken reign finally came to an end in 2000 with the presidential election of Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN), and subsequent “democratization upended the equilibrium [PDF] that had developed between state actors … and organized crime,” according to a 2017 Congressional Research Service report. “DTO violence directed at the government appears to be an attempt to reestablish impunity, while the inter-cartel violence seems to be an attempt to reestablish dominance over specific drug trafficking plazas,” the report continues.

DTO violence directed at the government appears to be an attempt to reestablish impunity.
June S. Beittel, Congressional Research Service

At the international level, Mexican cartels began to take on a much larger role in the drug trafficking business in the late 1980s, after U.S. government agencies successfully broke up the Caribbean networks used by Colombian cartels to smuggle cocaine. Mexican gangs eventually shifted from being couriers for Colombian DTOs to being wholesalers.

All the while, the United States government, despite conducting a so-called “war on drugs” and other counternarcotics efforts, has made little progress in reducing the demand for illegal drugs. A 2014 Rand Corporation study prepared for the White House found Americans spent about $109 billion in 2010 on illicit drugs, roughly the same amount they spent in 2000.

What did President Felipe Calderon do to counter DTOs?

Calderon declared war on the cartels shortly after taking office in 2006. Over the course of his six-year term, he deployed tens of thousands of military personnel to supplement and, in many cases, replace local police forces. Under his leadership, the Mexican military, with U.S. assistance, captured or killed twenty-five of the top thirty-seven most wanted drug kingpins in Mexico.

But the crackdown on cartel leaders had its drawbacks. President Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration says Calderon’s so-called “kingpin strategy” splintered the organizations, creating between sixty and eighty new, smaller drug trafficking gangs. Succession battles and territorial rivalries between cartels intensified, and violence spread. Criminal organizations increasingly turned to kidnapping and extortion to supplement their incomes. Nearly one hundred mayors and former mayors were killed, along with dozens of municipal leaders, between 2006 and 2016 as cartels vied for political power, according to the New York Times.

The government registered 120,000 homicides over the course of Calderon’s term, nearly twice as many as occurred during his predecessor’s time in office. Because official Mexican government statistics do not single out drug-related deaths, quantifying the precise toll of the drug war has been a challenge. The Justice in Mexico project’s 2017 report on drug violence estimates that organized-crime-style killings make up between one-third and one-half of the total homicides in a given year, depending on the sources used to calculate the figures.

Credit: Claire Felter Source: University of San Diego

What have Pena Nieto’s efforts been?

Pena Nieto, who took office in 2012, said he would focus more on reducing violence against civilians and businesses and less on removing the leaders of cartels. Despite these ambitions, Pena Nieto has relied heavily [PDF] on the Mexican military in combination with the federal police to address violence using “essentially the same operational” strategy as Calderon, wrote Brookings Institution senior fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown in a 2014 report.

After peaking at twenty-seven thousand deaths [PDF] in 2011, homicides declined in the first years of Pena Nieto’s presidency. But 2016 saw an uptick: the government reported nearly twenty-three thousand deaths, up 22.8 percent from the year before. Some experts have attributed this, in part, to the recapture in January 2016 of Guzman and the territorial fights that have ensued in his absence.

What has the toll been on human rights?

Civil liberties groups, journalists, and others have criticized the Mexican government’s war against cartels for years. A 2016 Human Rights Watch report says that Mexico’s security forces have been linked to the extrajudicial killing of thousands of civilians and the disappearances of twenty-seven thousand people since 2006.

Mass protests erupted across the country in 2014 after forty-three students disappeared in the town of Iguala, in the state of Guerrero, following deadly clashes with local police. Mexican investigators found that the police handed the students over to a local drug gang at the behest of the mayor, who had ties to the gang. The incident showed “a failure of the political system to root out close links between the cartels and political parties,” says Mexico-based journalist Ioan Grillo in a 2017 interview.

Compounding human rights issues is the emergence of vigilante groups, known as autodefensas, in recent years. Made up largely of farmers in rural areas, these civilian militias have attempted to fight drug traffickers and restore order to towns, filling in where local police have failed. Though illegal, these groups gained momentum and became a formidable force against the cartels in states like Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Michoacan. Concerns have arisen over whether some of these groups are tied to organized crime or whether they may turn on the people they say they protect.

What assistance has the U.S. government provided?

Through the Merida Initiative, the United States has committed to providing approximately $2.5 billion in funding, technical assistance, and intelligence over more than a decade to increase Mexico’s institutional capacity to address drug trafficking. The United States has provided information and equipment that has helped Mexican authorities capture several high-profile traffickers, including Guzman.

The United States and Mexico renewed this partnership in 2010, which placed a larger emphasis on addressing the socioeconomic factors contributing to the violence. In recent years, the United States has sent unarmed drones to collect intelligence on traffickers, and has also sent CIA operatives and security contractors to train Mexican federal police.

Meanwhile, the United States has ramped up security on its side of the border, increasing the number of agents there [PDF] from around eleven thousand in 2004 to more than seventeen thousand in 2016.

U.S. President Donald J. Trump made immigration and border security centerpieces of his 2016 campaign. Trump has signed executive orders calling for the construction of a border wall between the two countries and increases in border patrol personnel. Some experts worry tensions between the United States and Mexico during Trump’s presidency could affect cooperation on security policy. “What remains to be seen is how well—and in what areas—the United States will be willing to work with Mexico,” said Shirk in a 2017 CFR interview.



A Congressional Research Service [PDF] report details the sources and scope of violence in Mexico's drug war.

A report from the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute [PDF] details the challenges of calculating the toll of Mexico's drug violence, and analyzes shifting patterns in the country's organized crime.

A Wilson Center [PDF] report compiles various policy proposals on how Mexico should combat the drug trade.

Patricio Asfura-Heim and Ralph H. Espach write about the rise of Mexico's self-defense forces in Foreign Affairs.

CFR's Shannon O'Neil discusses the United States' bilateral security relationship with Mexico in this June 2013 testimony before the Senate subcommittee on Western Hemisphere and global narcotics affairs.

Top Stories on CFR

United Kingdom

Brexit supporters argue that the EU threatens sovereignty and stifles growth, while opponents counter that EU membership strengthens trade, investment, and the UK’s standing in the world.

United States

The president's push to "build the wall" fails to grasp the role of modern technology in policing U.S. borders.

Afghanistan War

The United States should avoid a rapid, unconditional exit from Afghanistan but also minimize the costs of staying.