Stratfor looks at the drug cartel’s insurgency against Mexico

Summary: Immigration from Mexico was a hot issue in Campaign 2016. An equally serious danger was ignored — contagion to the US from the insurgency of drug cartels against Mexico. Geopolitical infections spread just as biological ones do. Here Stratfor gives us a status report for Mexico’s decade-long war on drugs. A wall will not keep it from spilling into America.


A Decade Into Mexico’s War on Drugs

Lead analyst: Reggie Thompson.
Stratfor, 11 December 2016.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of Operation Michoacan, and to many, the start of Mexico’s deadly war on drugs. But a decade later, the country’s prospects for security and peace don’t seem much better than they did when the massive crackdown on Mexican cartels began in 2006.

Most people point to Felipe Calderon’s presidency as the moment when things began to go wrong for Mexico. In the face of rising crime, and under mounting pressure from the United States to stem the flow of drugs across its southern border, Calderon sent 5,000 soldiers and federal police officers into the streets of Michoacan state, firing the first shots of what would become a long and bloody struggle. But it is neither fair nor accurate to pin the blame for the conflict that ensued on a single decision. Crime-related violence plagued Mexico long before Calderon took office, albeit at a lower level than in the years that followed his declaration of war on the country’s cartels. Moreover, Calderon was not the first president to deploy Mexico’s armed forces against drug lords and their assets; he was just the first to do so on such a tremendous scale.

Mexican cartels

Cartels in the Crosshairs

Operation Michoacan signaled the beginnings of a concerted effort by Mexico City to tackle organized crime. Though day-to-day security tasks normally fell to local police agencies, corruption had become so pervasive at the lower levels of Mexican law enforcement that their federal counterparts — the army, marines and federal police — had to step in to maintain law and order in some areas. Under Calderon’s orders, some 45,000 troops were deployed throughout Mexico each year to combat crime, more than twice the average manpower that Calderon’s predecessor, Vicente Fox, had dedicated to the same cause. Upticks in arrests and killings of cartel members began to noticeably disrupt trafficking activities as crime groups’ capabilities steadily eroded.

But the military’s success came at a price. As Mexican crime groups came under greater pressure from law enforcement, they began to fight back against the government and among themselves, vying for the trafficking routes, recruits and resources that were left. Violence skyrocketed in several of the cities and regions that were vital to the drug trade and other illegal activities.

Treating the Symptoms

Ten years on, the future of Mexico’s security environment looks no more promising than it did at the start of Calderon’s campaign. Still, the intervening decade has brought some positive changes. From a tactical perspective, public safety has visibly improved in the areas that the government targeted because of their rampant violence, such as Ciudad Juarez and parts of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon. Meanwhile, most of the large cartels that once controlled swaths of Mexican territory have splintered as military operations have left them leaderless and riven by infighting.

What has not changed is Mexico’s proximity to the massive market for drugs that lies just north of its border. Despite the heavy blows Mexican officials have dealt to major drug trafficking organizations, the smaller fragments left in their wake have picked up where their predecessors left off. Driven by persistently high demand for the drugs they have to offer, Mexican traffickers have kept supply chains to the United States and beyond running, even as state security forces try to shut them down. Though the power of individual crime groups has faded in the face of continued law enforcement efforts, the scope, location and intensity of violence has ebbed and flowed over the years, rather than declining permanently.

This reality is unlikely to change so long as there are profits to be made. Since the United States and its foreign partners began cracking down on cocaine smuggling routes through the Caribbean in the 1980s, Mexico — situated between Central America and the United States and blessed with well-developed transportation infrastructure — has proved ideally suited to serve as a land bridge for northbound drugs. Though the use of cocaine has sharply declined since the mid-2000s, heroin and methamphetamine have taken over bigger and bigger shares of the U.S. drug market, and both are increasingly produced and transported by Mexican cartels. The emerging preference for heroin and methamphetamine has even hiked up profit margins, since the cartels do not have to buy these drugs from South American producers.

When it began in 2006, Operation Michoacan signaled the start of a concerted effort by Mexico’s government to eradicate organized crime. But a decade in, the country’s security prospects don’t seem much improved.

Mexico drug war
Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images.

A War With No End in Sight

With foreign demand propping up Mexican crime, it is unlikely that Mexico City will retreat from its drug war anytime soon. The country’s cartels pose a threat to national security that is far too great for the government to address on its own. Consequently, Mexico City will continue to rely on Washington’s help, in the form of security training and intelligence sharing, to target cartel members and criminal networks. Perhaps even more important, Mexico’s enduring effort to quash drug trafficking across its borders is a fundamental part of its relationship with the United States. Any attempt to scale down its operations against cartels would immediately meet with pushback from Washington.

Lacking other means of going after the country’s criminal groups, Mexico’s government will keep tasking federal forces with protecting the Mexican public. Over the past three years, Mexico City has tried to create new law enforcement bodies to bridge the gap between the military and local police, since soldiers do not have the writ or capacity to conduct criminal investigations and combat low-level crime. But forming and implementing these organizations will take years, leaving Mexico City with little choice in the meantime but to count on the military to protect its citizens from the criminals in their midst.

In all likelihood, Mexico’s decade-long drug war will continue for decades to come. Fueled by geography and the economics of the illegal drug trade, trafficking and violence will remain a thorn in Mexico’s side and a blemish on U.S.-Mexico relations. Though crime may not linger at the heights the country has seen over the past 10 years, Mexican cartels are central to the global drug market, and for now they have made it clear that they are here to stay.

A Decade Into Mexico’s War on Drugs
is republished with permission of Stratfor.


Reggie Thompson

About the author

Reggie Thompson is a Latin America analyst at Stratfor, where he focuses on political and security developments in the region. He studied political science and communications at Trinity University and holds a master’s in international affairs from Texas A&M University. Mr. Thompson is a native Spanish speaker and has lived and worked in Honduras. See other articles by Reggie here.

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Books about drug cartels’ insurgency against Mexico.

El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency
Available at Amazon.
Available at Amazon.

8 thoughts on “Stratfor looks at the drug cartel’s insurgency against Mexico”

  1. The whole ‘War on Drugs” thing drives me a bit nuts. Focusing on the supply side without reducing aggregate demand is insanity. Increasing profits will prevent supply from going below the critical level and the amount of damage you do to your own and neighboring societies is unsustainable and very, very wrong.

    It is the anti-Boyd philosophy and I cannot imagine Trump changing anything.

    1. Pluto,

      “I cannot imagine Trump changing anything.”

      He might, but in the opposite way as you suggest.

      My guess is that “strong man solutions” will appeal to Trump, as they have to so many earlier US leaders. More laws, greater police powers, more brutal sentences. His appointment of a general to lead Homeland Security – with all the Federal domestic law enforcement agencies — is supporting evidence of this.

      1. Duncan,

        “suggesting Trump’s approach would be authoritarian is his apparent friendship with Duterte, who already is authoritarian.”

        You must be kidding us. Every American president for over a century has been “friends” with tyrants. For generations the Marine Corps worked to install or reinstall tyrants. Since WWII the CIA does most of that.

        Were they all these presidents “authoritarians”?

  2. Pingback: Stratfor looks at the drug cartel’s insurgency against Mexico – Fabius Maximus |

  3. One aspect to keep an eye on is Mexican Drug Cartel penetration of Asia. This already has been happening. Set below are links discussing this.
    Trump intends to renounce the TPP and apparently his Taiwan telephone call suggests his intent to challenge the status quo. The recent Chinese seizure of an American drone further complicates matters.

    No one – including particularly the cartels themselves – knows how this will pan out, but cartels exploit complications and disruptions to insert themselves here and there. But strategically, this means they probably will have the option of responding to Trump bluster by playing a waiting game – so far as North America is concerned – while opening new opportunities in Asia instead.

    Mexico’s feared drug cartels are infiltrating the region:

    1. Mexico’s feared drug cartels are infiltrating the region” in SE Asia Globe.
    2. Mexican drug cartels eye Asian markets“, FT.
    3. How Mexican drug cartels have infiltrated Hong Kong“, South China Morning Post — “Mexican cartels are using Hong Kong to launder money and source chemicals for narcotics trade.”
    4. China becoming money laundering haven for Mexican and Colombian drug cartels“, Fox News.
    1. Duncan,

      Thank you for this interesting list. Here we see in action what I have called the “Darwinian Ratchet”. Intense pressure from the US and Mexican governments has accelerated the evolution of the Mexican cartels. Once they were minor leagues, far behind long-established and powerful organized crime groups such as the Tongs. Now they have a competitive advantage — and are expanding. Globalization in everything.

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