- Mexican drug cartels are leading suppliers of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and other illicit narcotics to the United States.
- The cartels and the drug trade fuel rampant violence in Mexico, contributing to its tens of thousands of homicides every year.
- Since Mexico launched a war on the cartels in 2006, the United States has provided it with billions of dollars in security and counternarcotics assistance.
Mexican authorities have been waging a war against drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) for more than a decade, but with limited success. Thousands of Mexicans, including politicians, students, and journalists, continue to die in the conflict every year. The country has seen over three hundred thousand homicides since antidrug campaigns began in 2006. In 2018, homicides, many linked to drug cartels, hit a new high of almost thirty-six thousand. This trend continued in 2019, with about ninety murders daily.
Successive U.S. administrations have partnered closely with Mexico in this fight, providing billions of dollars for Mexico to modernize its security forces, reform its judicial system, and make other investments. Washington has also sought to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the United States by bolstering security on its southern border, although a debate has flared over the utility of expanding the physical barrier there.
What drugs do the cartels traffic?
Mexican drug trafficking organizations are the largest foreign suppliers [PDF] of heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine to the United States, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). 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 of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid many times more potent than heroin. U.S. seizures of the drug have soared in recent years.
The cartels also produce and smuggle vast quantities of marijuana into the United States, but legalization of the drug in some U.S. jurisdictions and in Canada has pushed DTOs to refocus on harder drugs, such as heroin, whose demand has skyrocketed with the rise of the U.S. opioid epidemic. Mexican heroin production increased by 37 percent between 2016 and 2017 alone.
Which are the largest cartels?
Mexico’s drug cartels are in a constant state of flux. Over the decades, they have grown, splintered, forged alliances, and battled one another for territory. The cartels that pose the most significant threat to the United States, according to a 2018 DEA report [PDF], are:
Sinaloa Cartel. Formerly led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the Sinaloa Cartel is one of Mexico’s oldest and most influential DTOs. With strongholds along Mexico’s Pacific coast, it has a larger international footprint than any of its Mexican rivals. In 2017, Mexican authorities extradited Guzman to the United States, where he is serving a sentence of life plus thirty years for multiple drug-related charges.
Jalisco New Generation. The Jalisco cartel splintered from the Sinaloa Cartel in 2010. According to the DEA, the “rapid expansion of its drug trafficking activities is characterized by the organization’s willingness to engage in violent confrontations” with authorities and other cartels.
Juarez Cartel. A long-standing rival of the Sinaloa Cartel, the Juarez Cartel’s stronghold is in the north-central state of Chihuahua, across the border from New Mexico and Texas.
Gulf Cartel. The Gulf Cartel’s base of power is in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas. According to the DEA, arrests of its leaders in recent years have 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” DTO. 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 group partners with the Juarez Cartel and Los Zetas. Since then, all four Beltran-Leyva brothers have been arrested or killed, but their loyalists operate throughout Mexico.
What led to the cartels' growth?
Experts point to both domestic and international forces. In Mexico, cartels pay off judges, police, politicians, and other officials using their vast drug profits, which the U.S. government estimates to be worth tens of billions of dollars per year.
The cartels flourished during the decades that Mexico was ruled by a single party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). DTOs created a “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.
The PRI’s unbroken reign finally ended in 2000 with the election of President Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN). With new politicians in power, cartels ramped up violence against the government in an effort to reestablish their hold [PDF] on the state.
At the international level, Mexican cartels began to take on a much larger role in trafficking drugs in the late 1980s, after U.S. government agencies 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.
The U.S. government, despite waging a “war on drugs” and conducting other counternarcotics efforts abroad, has made little progress in reducing the demand for illegal drugs. In 2016, Americans spent almost $150 billion on cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana, 50 percent more than in 2010. Meanwhile, growing use of synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, has led to a public health crisis. More than 90 percent of lethal drugs in the United States come from Mexico.
How are drugs smuggled into the United States?
Most illicit drugs are smuggled from Mexico into the United States through the more than three hundred ports of entry, or legal crossings, which are controlled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Traffickers hide or disguise drugs in passenger vehicles, tractor trailers, and, to a lesser extent, buses and cargo trains.
A smaller percentage is smuggled between ports of entry, along the 1,900-mile southwestern border, an area monitored by the Border Patrol. Mexican traffickers transport drugs across land trails or through underground tunnels that traverse the border. In recent years, cartels have also used drones to transport contraband.
Once in the United States, traffickers deliver drugs to smaller local groups and street gangs—mainly composed of Mexican nationals [PDF] or U.S. citizens of Mexican descent—who manage retail-level distribution in cities throughout the country.
What measures has Mexico taken to stem the drug trade?
Recent Mexican administrations have responded to cartels primarily by deploying security forces, often spurring more violence:
Felipe Calderon (2006–2012). President Calderon declared war on the cartels shortly after taking office. 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 he viewed as corrupt. With U.S. assistance, the Mexican military captured or killed twenty-five of the top thirty-seven drug kingpins in Mexico. The militarized crackdown was a centerpiece of Calderon’s tenure.
However, some critics say Calderon’s decapitation strategy created dozens of smaller, more violent drug gangs. Many also argue that Mexico’s military is ill-prepared to perform police functions. The government registered more than 120,000 homicides [PDF] over the course of Calderon’s term, nearly twice as many as occurred during his predecessor’s time in office. (Experts estimate that between one-third and one-half of the homicides in Mexico are linked to cartels.)
Enrique Pena Nieto (2012–2018). Calderon’s successor said he would focus more on reducing violence against civilians and businesses than on removing the leaders of cartels. Despite these ambitions, President Pena Nieto relied heavily [PDF] on the military, in combination with the federal police, to battle the cartels. He also created a new national police force, or gendarmerie, of several thousand officers.
Homicides declined in the first years of Pena Nieto’s presidency. But 2015 saw an uptick, and by the end of his term the number of homicides had risen to the highest level in modern Mexican history. Experts attribute this to the continued fallout of Calderon’s kingpin strategy and territorial feuds between gangs.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (2018–present). President Lopez Obrador announced that the government’s “war” on drugs is over, saying he would prioritize reducing homicide rates over apprehending cartel “capos.” Citing public health and safety concerns, his administration also released a plan to decriminalize drugs and fund treatment for addicts. Despite campaign promises to demilitarize policing, he deployed a new national guard to boost security, a move critics say echoes his predecessors’ mistakes. In October, forces briefly detained Guzman’s son, releasing him under siege by Sinaloa Cartel members. Some experts say the botched seizure demonstrates the Obrador government’s weakness against organized crime.
What has been the toll on human rights?
Civil liberties groups, journalists, and others have criticized the Mexican government’s war with the cartels for years, accusing the military and police of widespread human rights violations, including torture, extrajudicial killings, and forced disappearances. The whereabouts of the more than thirty-seven thousand people who have gone missing since 2006 remain a mystery.
One of the most chilling examples of these abuses occurred in the southern state of Guerrero in 2014, when more than forty student protestors were abducted and killed. Mexican investigators found that the mayor had directed police to kidnap the students and hand them over to a local drug gang. The incident prompted mass demonstrations. Mexico’s attorney general has also linked police affiliated with Los Zetas to mass murders of Central American migrants in 2011. Migrants are highly vulnerable to cartels, which, U.S. officials say, force them to smuggle drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border.
In recent years, the emergence of vigilante groups [PDF], known as autodefensas, has exacerbated human rights concerns. Made up mostly of rural farmers, 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 became a formidable force against the cartels in states including Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Michoacan. Some observers are concerned that these groups have ties to organized crime and could turn on the people they claim to protect.
What assistance has the U.S. government provided?
The United States has historically provided the bulk of its financial support to Mexico through the Merida Initiative, a security partnership launched in 2007 by President George W. Bush and Felipe Calderon. The Merida Initiative is composed of four pillars:
- disrupting organized criminal groups,
- institutionalizing the rule of law while protecting human rights,
- creating a twenty-first-century border, and
- building strong and resilient communities.
Thus far, the U.S. government has appropriated about $3 billion in Merida aid, including hundreds of millions of dollars to train Mexico’s counternarcotic forces and equip them with helicopters and inspection hardware. While the initiative led to judicial reform, critics say it has failed to root out government corruption and dismantle violent criminal networks. Merida funding has declined in recent years, with President Donald J. Trump’s administration requesting $76.3 million for 2020, 35 percent less than it did for 2018.
The two governments revised the partnership in 2011, placing a larger emphasis on institution-building, including reforms of the police and judiciary, economic development, and social programs. Last May, Lopez Obrador announced Mexico’s desire to see Merida “completely reoriented” toward development programs.
In recent years, the U.S. government has sent CIA operatives and security contractors to train Mexican federal police, and Washington has also sent unarmed drones to collect intelligence on traffickers. Meanwhile, the United States has ramped up security on its side of the border, increasing the number of agents there from some eleven thousand in 2004 to more than sixteen thousand in 2018.
Trump has made border security a focal point of his presidency and promised to erect a wall along the entire frontier with Mexico, only one-third of which is currently fenced. In January 2019, he called the border “a pipeline for vast quantities of illegal drugs,” suggesting a barrier would help curb the United States’ opioid epidemic. However, critics say the administration has made little progress, and experts question whether building out the wall, which could run into the tens of billions of dollars, is worth the cost. A better strategy, some experts propose, would be to deploy more personnel and the latest surveillance technologies, in addition to building some new barriers.
In December 2018, the Trump administration announced a new assistance program with Mexico intended to stem irregular migration and narcotics trafficking, pledging more than $4 billion toward promoting security and creating jobs in southern Mexico. However, Trump has continued demanding that Mexico do more to stop drugs and migrants from entering the United States, threatening tariffs and border closures in recent months. In turn, Mexico deployed twenty-five thousand national guard members to secure its borders, a move some experts say increased violence and diminished federal capacity to fight cartels.
A Congressional Research Service [PDF] report details the scope and activities of Mexico’s DTOs.
A report from the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute [PDF] details Mexico’s drug violence, analyzes shifting patterns in organized crime, and offers policy recommendations.
Steven Dudley writes about the evolving drug trafficking landscape for Foreign Affairs.
ProPublica explores how Drug Enforcement Administration operations contributed to the Sinaloa Cartel’s rise.
CFR’s Shannon O’Neil discusses Mexico’s “biggest crises,” including growing violence, and how the United States can help address them.
Amelia Cheatham contributed to this report.