Mexico’s Drug War: Not Another Colombia – Analysis


By Natalia Cote-Muñoz

The drug war in Mexico grows more brutal daily. It is practically impossible to read news from that country without exposure to a myriad of literal rolling heads, mass graves, shootouts, and grisly abductions. While addressing the Council on Foreign Relations on September 8, 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton qualified the situation in Mexico as “looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago, when the narco-traffickers controlled certain parts of the country.”[i] In fact, both U.S. and Mexican policymakers have proposed tactics based on the Colombian experience. However, one must closely examine the practical differences between the two countries before applying Colombian tactics to Mexico indiscriminately, since in practice many of Colombia’s crime strategies might well be ineffective in the Mexican case.

Inequality, Drugs, and Violence: Colombia 2.0?


On the surface, similarities between the two countries are obvious: both are tainted by the almost uncontrolled presence of organized crime and a quickened tempo of violence. As in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s, urban violence has risen, and criminal groups have proliferated. The news regularly portrays drugs cartels slamming into each other and the state, usually through indiscriminate homicides and massacres that target innocent civilians. Such was the case in Monterrey in August 2011, when gunmen burst into the Casino Royale, burning down the building and killing over fifty people.[ii] In fact, Ciudad Juárez, the most dangerous city in the world, has surpassed Medellín’s homicide rate, reaching 10 to 11 deaths per day.[iii]

Moreover, both Colombia and Mexico suffer from some of the world’s most unequal distributions of wealth. In 1995, Colombia was ranked the fifth most unequal country (of those with available statistics), with a Gini[1] coefficient of 0.57, while Mexico was ranked the eighth worst with a Gini coefficient of 0.52. Between 2006 and 2010, Colombia’s inequality ranked 0.58, while Mexico’s coefficient was 0.52, qualifying them as two of the lowest ranked countries in the world.[iv] This income inequality, partnered with the lack of available jobs, especially living-wage positions, has increased crime as an alternative for earning an income. The profits of drug trafficking are not only high but can also kick in immediately, and many job-seekers are willing to risk the accompanying dangers to obtain a share. It is no wonder that economic inequality has been one of the factors creating fertile ground for the development of criminal organizations.

Furthermore, modern Mexico, like Colombia two decades before, suffers from “chronic impunity,” whereby “corruption, violence and human rights abuse[s] have rarely been punished by the powerful few.”[v] The corruption and poor law enforcement present in both countries have facilitated the growth of organized crime, as well as its proliferation within political institutions. While this “chronic impunity” reveals weakened political systems, it fails to highlight key differences between basic Mexican and Colombian institutions that are crucial for the implementation of anti-corruption and anti-crime policies.

Weak Democracy vs. Corporatist One-Party Rule

Although weakened governmental institutions invite the rise of crime, the weaknesses of the two countries largely occur along different planes. Many would consider that Colombia has had a long history of democracy in comparison to its Latin American counterparts. Colombia has regularly held elections and features a centralized, multi-party system that includes three major, well-represented parties. Centralization and established democratic institutions make it demonstrably easier to reform and reorganize ailing institutions, especially in the areas of the judiciary and law enforcement.

The problems of the Colombian state arose from a flawed governmental presence in rural and low-income urban areas as well as from decades-long unattended land grab and propriety issues. This power vacuum facilitated the rise of non-state actors, such as paramilitaries and guerrilla forces, at the peak of the Medellín cartel’s power. In the 1990s, drug traffickers controlled many neighborhoods in that city, while guerrilla forces controlled up to one-third of the country. Generally, the main problem facing the Colombian state has been the presence of guerrillas rather than organized crime. The presence of guerrillas intermittently shifted the attention of the military and government from the drug cartels to “counter-insurgency.” Despite the fact that guerrillas systematically tax cocaine crops and drug traffickers operating in their area, these groups otherwise rarely cooperate. Increased tension over possession of territories has created a de facto coalition between narco-traffickers, paramilitaries, and the army against the guerrillas.[vi] The paramilitaries in particular have acted as state agents in their fight against the guerrilla forces. It is no surprise, then, that Bogota has managed to settle a deal with the cartels, but yet has failed to make peace negotiations with the FARC and ELN insurgent armies a matter of the highest priority.

Mexican democracy, on the other hand, is relatively new and highly vulnerable. The government has had to deal with the unyielding complexities involved in the nature of the Mexican state that would make the restructuring of that country’s institutions much more difficult. Former administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency, Robert Bonner, describes Mexico’s federal system of law enforcement as having “two federal, 32 state, and over 1,500 municipal police agencies.”[vii] Reformation and reorganization of Mexican multi-crime institutions would thus require a prodigious amount of coordination among fragmented and complex states, municipalities, and the federal layer of government.

Furthermore, Mexico is still emerging from 71 years of single-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI), whose predominating role terminated in 2000. Years of single-party rule created a vertical system of co-optation that expanded across the entire national territory. In other words, the PRI used a ‘clientelistic’ approach, granting favors from the bottom up in order to achieve its goals, as opposed to giving power to particular institutions that would help create autonomy. Although a civilian state and multiple police forces were present in these areas, the PRI’s corporative[2] system lent itself to easy corruption and penetration by organized crime. The presence of such a crime rink is notable in urban areas, especially along the border with the United States, where there are many government officials and thousands of well-armed and strategically placed drug traffickers. According to Fernando Escalante, sociologist at the Colegio de México, once the PRI system slowly dissolved, no particular mechanism was left to co-opt and control the informal sector.[viii]

Also, although there is a small presence of paramilitaries and guerrillas in Mexico, they are nowhere near as visible a factor as in Colombia. Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations are largely centered around urban zones, while the guerrillas are still concentrated in rural areas. Therefore, it is unlikely that they interact as was the case in Colombia. It is also unlikely that guerrillas will make a significant profit out of drug trafficking, since it is not their primary focus. Paramilitary forces in Mexico, such as the Mata Zetas, have appeared not in response to the guerrillas, but rather to drug trafficking organizations. However, these paramilitary groups do not appear to be as well established as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). Thus, Colombia differs from Mexico in that its criminal operators created a war zone in which guerillas and paramilitaries were the largest contributors of violence. In contrast, drug trafficking organizations and criminal gangs were the main contributors of violence in Mexico. The murders in Mexico have served to transmit messages to rival groups and security forces as well as to influence public opinion, but never seem to have had a clear political goal.[ix] In the end, this only exacerbated a climate of insecurity and violence.

Post-Escobar Organized Crime: Less Glamour, More Strategy

Paradoxically, another difficulty that Mexico faces is the fact that the periods of massive drug cartel omnipotence have already passed. Modern-day cartels have learned much from the days of Escobar, and have reorganized themselves very differently since then. By creating a high profile, drug traffickers are more likely to become targets of the state, and are thus more likely to be caught. Pablo Escobar, possibly the most notorious drug lord in history, had an unparalleled thirst for notoriety. His unrelenting ambition caused him to stand for Congress and personally kill selected politicians in public, including presidential candidates, judges, and ministers. Pablo Escobar controlled the Medellín cartel organization and directly benefited from such mayhem and pillaging.

Mexican capos have learned their vocabulary from Escobar’s over-exposure in an attempt to escape a similarly grim fate. In fact, journalist and author of “The Last Narco,” Malcolm Beith, argues that “the cartel leaders in Mexico have historically kept their ambitions in check. Prior to 2006, they rarely, if ever, provoked the state.”[x] Even when the bloodthirsty Arellano Felix brothers went on their killing sprees, they rarely challenged the authorities directly. Many have observed that Mexican capos are more elusive and more difficult for authorities to catch.

The capos’ low profiles have given them the space to create extremely powerful drug trafficking organizations by focusing on business acumen. As Beith describes it, these organizations now rely “on corruption and good business sense (delegation over micromanagement, franchising of operations and, effectively, the encouragement of free enterprise under the umbrella of their organization) rather than pure greed and megalomania,” characteristic of the Escobar era.[xi] For instance, it took years for the authorities to realize that Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera was running the Sinaloa cartel behind the scenes, and he has not been caught to this day after escaping from prison in 2000. In fact, El Chapo has been hiding so effectively that many speculate that he is under the protection of the federal government.[xii]

However, the nature of the Mexican cartels is in no way homogenous. Though some, such as the Sinaloa cartel, have become vertical transnational organizations, other cartels have very distinct profiles. The two most notable cartels, best known for straying from this particular structure, are La Familia Michoacana and Los Zetas. La Familia, which started as an anti-crime vigilante group, quickly took over the methamphetamine business in Michoacán. Many would argue that it is closely intertwined with locals and government officials, and it could be argued that it is a more effective authority than any branch of the government in Michoacán. La Familia not only brings “justice” to the citizens of Michoacán, but also serves as a moral authority through its pseudo-Catholic cult status and punitive morality. The Zetas, on the other hand, are comprised of former elite cadets who forsworn their oath and became renegade members of the drug cartels. These soldiers at first served as the paramilitary death squad wing of the Gulf Cartel, and then split off to form their own criminal organizations. The Zetas are known for being especially bloodthirsty and brutal since they regularly target innocent civilians. In fact, the mass killing of 72 migrants in Tamaulipas in 2010 was attributed to them. Appreciating the different characteristics of individual cartels is a key to understanding how each cartel must be dismantled.

Mexico’s drug cartel situation is considerably different than was the case of Colombia’s in the 1980s and 1990s for the following reasons. First, its drug cartels are increasingly more sophisticated and less homogenous. Second, Mexican cartels are relatively more powerful and more numerous than the Colombian cartels, and third, the cartels are more or less equal to each other in their power and punch.

Mexican authorities are not dealing with centralized drug trafficking organizations such as is the case with the Medellín cartel, but rather with different, complex, and highly structured organizations that do not necessarily depend on the decadence of only one leader. Although the Cali cartel, another main actor in Colombia, followed a different path than its Medellín counterpart— functioning by bribing all the way up to the presidency via different cells that were focused on different areas[xiii]— Cali was taken down after Medellín had been similarly dismantled by the officials. The “kingpin strategy” of hunting down top officials may not be as applicable as it was in Colombia. Mexican cartels tend to be larger and more complex than Colombia’s, but have a roster of equally violent members who do not depend on the kingpin to provide leadership. Instead, the death of the kingpin predictably triggers the violent fracturing of large cartels into still powerful micro-ones, which can lead to wars of succession.

The relative power and the sheer number of Mexican cartels have resulted in a more dangerous and complex situation than existed in Colombia. During the 1980s and 1990s, Colombia’s Medellín and Cali cartels thrived, but also always competed with one another for power. For example, Colombian officials effectively went after the Medellín cartel by making deals with the Cali cartel, which they later dismantled. Breaking up the cartels created a micro-cartel phenomenon in Colombia, resulting in small, less dangerous criminal organizations.

Breaking up cartels provokes a “hydra effect,”which means that for each cartel that the government dismantles, at least two more appear to replace it. At the beginning of the millennium there were only four main players, whereas today twelve major groups and a host of smaller gangs control the drug trade.[xiv] These increasingly divided cartels are still very powerful, and have created more confusion and violence than had been anticipated. The current situation in Mexico at times resembles a criminal free-for-all, and it is often difficult to attribute specific crimes to specific groups. Defeating drug cartels before they can re-form is challenging when the identity of the enemy is unclear at any given time. This means that Mexican drug trafficking groups should be carefully identified first so that they can be properly eliminated. If not, there may be more players, resulting in an all-out war with multiple cartels in coalition with each other. However, going after each cartel one by one might also be more difficult in Mexico since it is not feasible to co-opt ten cartels in the process of dismantling one. Dismantling the cartels should not take the form of a war, so much as an intelligence operation specific to each organization, in which certain cartels are targeted while others become subject to co-optation.

Finally, it is important to note that drug cartels in Mexico do not only profit from trafficking drugs. These criminal organizations also benefit from many other associated activities such as piracy, kidnapping, extortion, and arms and human trafficking as part of their profit base. Although it is arguable that drug trafficking constitutes the main source of their income, these groups have a firm organizational base regardless. Many of these industries are strengthened by the fact that Mexico shares a border with the U.S.

Mexico: So far from God and so close to the United States

The final significant difference between how the drug trade operates in Mexico and Colombia is geographic; Mexico borders the U.S. This geographic feature has two definitive consequences that have not been part of any built-in problem with Colombia. First, not only do drug cartels operate in Mexico, but that country also forms the main migration route into the U.S. from Latin America. Second, Mexico is subject to intensive arms trafficking from the U.S., which fuels the existing drug trade and helps intensify the conflict.

The fact that Mexico is a popular route for drug smuggling into the U.S. makes territorial control an even more important consideration for the cartels than it was in Colombia. In the latter country, the value of territory derived from splitting the major urban areas between the cartels (Cali and Medellín), as well as the rural areas where coca crops were actually cultivated. Both the Cali and Medellín cartels effectively divided territorial jurisdiction within the U.S.; Cali operated mostly in New York while Medellín operated in Miami. They also made use of distinct smuggling routes throughout Central America and the Caribbean, although the cartels did not directly operate them. Once the cartels collapsed, the “micro-cartels” easily adapted and found new pathways.

In Mexico, however, the cartels have direct control of the routing, making the possession of various conduits into the U.S. extremely crucial to the profit margin of the local drug trade. The “middlemen” traffickers are now actual members of the cartel. This is especially notable once cartels divide; the new, rival Mexican cartels are not only fighting for leadership and power, but also for territory and gateways. The importance of turf has made intra and inter-cartel violence bloody, especially near the border with the U.S. There is no room for negotiations over territories when the control of smuggling routes has a direct impact on profits.

Finally, the ease with which assault weapons can be purchased and smuggled into Mexico only heightens the violence. Such weapons are readily available for purchase from legal U.S. gun shops along the border, with many ending up in the hands of large-scale criminal and smuggler gangs. The majority of these weapons are semi-automatic rifles, such as AK-47s. These arms can pierce through the armor worn by police officers, complicating attempts by Mexican officials to combat organized crime. The U.S.’ powerful gun lobby and liberal gun laws only fuel the conflict. Without effective cooperation from the U.S. government to prevent arms smuggling, the brutality of drug cartels is bound to remain at frighteningly high levels.

Colombia: Success or Cautionary Tale?

What many policymakers fail to realize is that the Colombian case was not successful. The suffocation of the Colombian cartels and the closing of drug smuggling routes through the Caribbean only strengthened the role of the Mexican cartels, as that country became the only viable option for transporting cocaine. Once Colombian cartels were weakened, Mexican traffickers formed their own cartels instead of retaining their role as traffickers for the Colombians. These cartels are now not only exceedingly diverse and numerous, but are also in the backyard of the U.S., which further complicates the immigration issue. If anything, the failed results of the Colombian strategy only prove its shortsightedness.

The current, much heated-up conflict in Mexico is simply a different beast than the previous one in Colombia. Firstly, Mexico has a much more complex federal structure than does Colombia and a history of corporatist institutional corruption, which makes reorganization of its institutions very difficult. Secondly, drug cartels are now more sophisticated, varied, and numerous than was the case in Colombia. Finally, Mexico’s proximity to the U.S. makes inter-cartel territorial battles much more brutal, since the seizure of key routes into the country is a main and immediate goal, and arms trafficking is far from being controlled by its across-the-border neighbor. These issues become key features when formulating an appropriate anti-crime strategy in Mexico.

The picture painted of Mexico here is appropriately grim, and calls for immediate attention to the root of the issue. If the U.S. wants to prevent large criminal organizations from threatening the sovereignty of these two neighboring nations, then it needs to attack the root causes of the status quo instead of launching episodic skirmishes against diaphanous symptoms. Even if the problem in Mexico is “solved,” it will be hard to predict what may happen next. After all, “success” in Colombia concentrated the power of organized crime in Mexico. What remains enticing about these criminal organizations is the chance to earn high profits in places where jobs, especially living wage-paying jobs, are scarce. Ironically, the profitability of the drug trade is mostly due to ongoing drug prohibition in the U.S. The punitive nature of U.S. drug policy raises the stakes and cost of drug trafficking. This leads to an exponential multiplier effect in the drug trade, which makes the industry highly profitable. The U.S. must reexamine prevailing drug policies within its borders and at least begin to explore the decriminalization of drugs in order to save its neighbor from the violence caused by organized crime. Policy change is more important than the mere provision of military assistance or territorial interdiction.

References for this article can be found here.

Natalia Cote-Muñoz is a Research Fellow for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs


COHA, or Council on Hemispheric Affairs, was founded in 1975, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a nonprofit, tax-exempt independent research and information organization, was established to promote the common interests of the hemisphere, raise the visibility of regional affairs and increase the importance of the inter-American relationship, as well as encourage the formulation of rational and constructive U.S. policies towards Latin America.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *