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Criminal Violence in Mexico

Updated January 06, 2023
A member of the community police of Guerrero holds up Mexico’s national flag as they march to demand the safe return of 43 missing students in Tixtla, Mexico on November 6, 2014.
Daniel Becerril/Reuters)
People with missing relative take part in a search at a cemetery in Toerreon, Mexico on February 21, 2015.
Daniel Becerril/Reuters
Relatives of 43 missing students hold torches in a march to protest against the government’s handling of the investigation of the case, to mark the nineteenth-month anniversary of their disappearance, in Mexico City, Mexico on April 26, 2016.
Edgard Garrido/Reuters
Guerrero Community Police members patrol the hills in Carrizalillo, Mexico on March 24, 2018.
Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images
Mexican federal police patrol a beach where a shooting occurred a nightclub the day before in Cancun, Mexico on January 18, 2017
AFP/Getty Images
Mexican soldiers stand guard while workers of the Mexican state-owned oil company Pemex and local firefighters work to control a fire believed to have been started in a pipeline due to fuel-theft activity in Tlajmulco, Mexico on April 3, 2018.
Ulises Ruiz/AFP/Getty Images

In the 1980s, Mexico’s crime groups and drug traffickers became organized, assigning distinct regional areas of control for each group and establishing networks and trafficking routes. However, as production and distribution increased, the groups began fighting for territorial control and access to markets, leading to an increase in violence across Mexico.  

The Mexican government officially declared war on criminal organizations in 2006, when former President Felipe Calderon launched an initiative to combat cartels using military force. In 2012, President Enrique Peña Nieto revised the Calderon government’s strategy, shifting efforts away from violent exchanges and toward improving law enforcement capacity and supporting public safety.

However, after the Sinaloa Cartel’s Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was arrested in 2014, re-arrested in 2016, and finally extradited to the United States in 2017, a power vacuum was created within the Sinaloa Cartel, resulting in an accompanying increase in violence between rival factions seeking new territory and influence. Moreover, despite an initial decrease in homicides following Peña Nieto’s reforms, Mexico continued to struggle with corruption and crime-related violence. By 2016, drug-related homicides had increased by 22 percent, with more than twenty thousand killed, and in 2017 a mass grave containing the remains of more than 250 victims of crime-related violence was uncovered in Veracruz State. Since 2006, crime-related violence has resulted in an estimated 150,000 deaths.

Recognizing widespread assertions  that the use of military force has only increased the level of crime-related violence in Mexico—and accusations that the military has committed human rights abuses and carried out extrajudicial killings—then–presidential candidate AMLO promised on his campaign trail to revolutionize the fight against cartels and revert to a civilian-led police force.


In 2007, the George W. Bush administration and Calderon government launched the Merida Initiative to improve U.S.-Mexico cooperation on security and rule of law issues in Mexico, and support for the initiative has continued under the Donald J. Trump administration. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Mexican cartels represent the greatest drug-related threat, supplying heroin, marijuana, methamphetamines, and other drugs, to the United States. Criminal and drug trafficking organizations threaten to undermine the strength and legitimacy of the Mexican government, an important U.S. regional partner, as well as harm civilian populations in both countries. 

Recent Developments

Mexican law enforcement and the military have struggled to curb crime-related violence. In 2018, the number of drug-related homicides in Mexico rose to 33,341, a 15 percent increase from the previous year—and a record high. Moreover, Mexican cartels killed at least 130 candidates and politicians in the lead-up to Mexico’s 2018 presidential elections.

While on the campaign trail, then-candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (often referred to as AMLO) proposed several strategies to combat crime-related violence. After winning the election and assuming office in December 2018, AMLO announced the creation of a new National Guard (a hybrid civilian police and military force) to fight cartels.

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