Armed and Dangerous: The Mexican Drug Wars
Armed and Dangerous: The Mexican Drug Wars

Violent outbursts, related to drug sales and distribution, have been a regular occurrence for many years in Mexico, annually taking the lives of thousands. While a passive approach was deemed permissible throughout the 1990’s and partially into the next decade. A different approach was decided upon in December 2006 when newly elected President Felipe Calderón took office.

An assertive anti-drug campaign was put into effect to systematically dismantle the drug cartels, and to stop the violence. Weak state infrastructure and easy access to small arms have exacerbated the violence over the past several years. Cartel members have found news sources of terror to support themselves.

A 2009 news analysis examined the Mexican drug wars and its global implication. This analysis offers a contemporary review of how the situation progressed and changed over the ensuing two years.

Ineffective Policies & Corruptible Government

In 2008, the Mexican government enacted a vigorous ‘cleanup operation’ intended to purge the ranks of their bureaucracy of corrupted officials who were under the influence of drug cartels.1 These operations led to the arrests of many high level governmental agents including the chief of Federal Police, the ex-director of Mexico’s Interpol office, and two ex-chiefs of the Attorney General’s Organized Crime Division.2

While the goals of this operation were noble, drug cartel members have continued to slowly infiltrate the ranks of government and law enforcement offices at local, state, and federal levels. As recently as May 2010, reports by international academics, politicians, and governing officials have asserted that the Sinaloa Cartel has infiltrated the Mexican federal government as well as the military.3 Elected officials often face grave threats of violence if they do not adhere to the demands of the cartels, with 11 mayors in Mexico having been killed within the first ten months of 2010.4

In March 2009, President Calderon sent an additional 5,000 army troops to the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez to help partner with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in an attempt to curtail cross-border drug smuggling. This attempt to bring stability to the region was hindered, due to the need for an even greater presence of manpower to patrol the region, something that is still a highly contentious topic in the U.S. political system. In 2009, the U.S. justice department released a statement alleging that more than 200 U.S. cities have been compromised by the Mexican drug cartels, including major cities such as Los Angeles and Atlanta.5 6

The Role of Small Arms

The major source of rifles, such as AK-47’s and AR-15s, that the Mexican drug cartels use are primarily from the U.S. The U.S. has a vested interest in curtailing these illegal activities.7 To suppress the violence within the borders of Mexico, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, firearms and Explosives (ATF) enacted a pilot project known as “Operation Gun Runner” in 2005. The aims of this project were to stem the flow of weapons crossing the US/Mexico border to deprive the cartels of their much needed arsenal.8

‘Operation Gun Runner’ had yielded over 600 cases and 1,400 individuals referred for prosecution by early 2009, largely due to the implementation of e-Trace software.9 While these statistics were impressive, a major issue arose in early 2011 that would challenge the effectiveness of such a program.

In January 2011, U.S. Senator Charles E. Grassley made the allegation that the ATF had facilitated over 2,500 sales of firearms to ‘straw purchasers’ in “Operation Fast and Furious”, further facilitating access to small arms for the Mexican drug cartels. This operation was intentionally allowing these purchased guns into the streets of Mexico, and watched to see where they eventually would end up.10 Many of these guns did make it onto the streets of Mexico, as well as territory within the U.S., culminating in the discovery of one of these traced guns at the crime scene of a murdered U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent named Brian Terry, on December 10, 2010.11

Continued Violence & Branching Out

As of October 2011, various factions of the drug cartels in Mexico continue to fully function, with reports on mass executions emerging on a regular basis. In the days spanning September 21-23 2011, nearly 50 semi-nude and tortured bodies were found in the gulf port city of Veracruz, attributed to one of Mexico’s most violent cartel members, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.12 Moreover, since President Calderón began the crackdown on drug gangs in 2006, more than 44,000 deaths have been attributed to drug-related violence.13

Mexico has had some success breaking up the numerous drug gangs in their country; however, the criminals involved have begun branching out into other activities such as extortion. Cases of extortion have seen a 300 percent increase since 2004. At least 80 percent of cases go unreported. 14 Cities such as Acapulco, once a popular tourist destination on the coast of Mexico, have turned into hubs for these new extortion rings. As recently as September 2011, schools in this region have been receiving anonymous notes directed at the administration with one primary demand: ‘Hand over part of your salary to us, or you may die’.15 Security analysts have even made statements such as, “extortion is the best business after international drug trafficking,” highlighting the growing inter-connectivity of participants in both activities. 16

Moving Forward

The threats of drug related violence in Mexico are not going to go away in the near future. Mexico, Latin-America’s second largest economy has already stated that their GDP has been reduced annually by one percent, due to worsening security conditions.17 With violence leaking over into the U.S. border, and drug products being shipped to Europe at unprecedented rates, there is a vocal concern that more must be done to reign in this problem.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, an NGO dedicated to monitoring Latin American policy, has proposed potential decriminalization and legalization of certain drugs, seriously undermining the validity of criminal drug gangs.18 Whether initiatives such as these or the bolstering of law enforcement capabilities will prove to strike the fatal blow to drug gangs in Mexico is yet to be seen. President Calderón’s term expires in 2012, and the decision will fall to the hands of the Mexican citizens to decide how they wish to move forward in their counter-drug policies.

1 Lawson, Guy. “The Making of a Narco State.” Rolling Stone. March 2009.,
2 De La Luz González, Maria. “Ordenanarrestara ex mandos de Interpol.” January 16, 2009.
3 Burnett, John and Marissa Peñaloza. “Mexico’s Drug War: A Rigged Fight?.” National Public Radio. May 18, 2010.
4 Beaubien, Jason. “Mayors Are New Targets in Mexico’s Deadly Drug War.” National Public Radio. October 11, 2010.
5 Conery, Ben and Jerry Seper. “Border violence threatens Americans.” The Washington Times. April 1, 2010.
6 Copeland, Larry and Kevin Johnson. “Mexican cartels plague Atlanta.” USA Today. March 9, 2009.
7 United States Embassy- Mexico.Project Gunrunner: ATF Fact Sheet. 2009.
8 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firemarms and Explosives.Project Gunrunner. 2008.
9 Federal Bureau of Investigation. Fact Sheet: Department of Justice Efforts to Combat Mexican Drug Cartels, 2009.
10 Attkisson, Sharyl. “Gunrunning scandal uncovered at the ATF.” CBS Evening News. February 23, 2011.
11 Newman, Alex. “ATF Linked to Border Agent’s Murder.” The New American. February 23, 2011.
12 Castillo, Eduardo. “Official: Mexico finds 11 bodies in horrified port.” Yahoo News. September 23, 2011.
13 Graham, Dave. “Mexican state ’left in hands’ of drug gang – Calderon.” Reuters. October 15, 2011.
14 Malkin, Elisabeth. “As Gangs Move In on Mexico’s Schools, Teachers Say ‘Enough’.” The New York Times. September 25, 2011.
15 Ibid
16 Ibid
17 Gould, Jens E. “
Mexico’s Drug War Turns Into Terrorism After Grenades.” Bloomberg News. October 20, 2008.
18 Birns, Larry and Michael Ramirez. “Time to Debate a Change in Washington’s Failed Latin American Drug Policies.” April 1 2009.

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