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The never-ending Mexican War on Drugs: an overview

By María del Pilar Ruiz (edited by Isabel Leask)-

John Moore/Getty Images

The War on Drugs has been devastating for Mexico; it has led the country down a path of seemingly never-ending violence. Nonetheless, it is important to understand that the consequences of the War on Drugs can be seen in many aspects of public life within the country that are not necessarily related to gang violence.

The infamous War on Drugs officially started in 2006 when Felipe Calderón was the president of Mexico. However, Mexican drug trafficking organizations had existed for several decades prior to this, during -and often in collusion with- Mexico’s notorious Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Consequently, violence in relation to drug cartels already presented a major security problem in Mexico. Calderon’s anti-drug campaign, which was funded by the Bush administration through a billion-dollar programme called the Merida Initiative, consisted of using military troops in addition to federal and local police forces to apprehend the leaders of the cartels.

Although this strategy was deemed effective by some, it soon became clear that by apprehending individual cartel leaders, the government was creating a leadership vacuum within these criminal organisations causing members of the same cartel to violently fight in order to decide who would be the new leader. Indeed, instead of curbing the already-increasing levels of violence, the involvement of the Mexican military and US law enforcement caused this violence to spiral out of control. This was largely due to retaliation from the cartels, extrajudicial killings on behalf of the military and widespread corruption within Mexican political institutions, leading to the deaths of hundreds of Mexican citizens caught up in the violence.

As violence became more widespread across the country, the activity of organised criminal groups, which during the 20th century had predominantly focused on the illegal distribution of determined substances, began to include other activities. Nowadays, most cartels also focus on extortion, kidnapping for ransom, piracy and human trafficking (some migrants coming from the southern border are victims of human trafficking) in addition to selling drugs which has directly affected civilians.

To put things in perspective, since the War on Drugs started, more than 350,000 people have been killed in Mexico. Approximately 10 women are killed each day (a form of extreme gender-based violence termed as femicide) and at least 85,000 people have disappeared since 2006. While some of these victims have been found alive, the majority are still missing.

Mexico’s justice system has been inundated with cases and routinely fails to penalize criminals; the country’s impunity rate is approximately 90% (90% of the felonies committed are not solved and justice is not served). For example, almost seven years after the tragic and notorious Ayotzinapa case, nobody has yet been held accountable for the crime, which is alleged to have directly implicated the state and local government of Guerrero.

The rampant crime wave has affected every area of society and the current strategy of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)- who promised to focus on the root causes of violence rather than arresting and killing criminal leaders like his predecessors- does not seem to be working. Notably, AMLO created an institution known as the Guardia Nacional (National Guard) in 2019 that is made up of officers from the army, navy and federal police as part of a strategy to tackle organized crime, violence, and restore public safety. In the last three years, however, there have been concerns that the creation of this institution has only exacerbated the violence as a result of human rights abuses and corruption within the institution.

The failure of the President’s attempts to tackle violence and corruption has been reflected by the level of involvement that cartels and other organised criminal groups have had in the political violence Mexico has suffered. In the midterm elections held in June 2021, 90 politicians were killed during electoral campaigns. Acts of violence and extortion against local candidates also became more commonplace by criminal groups looking to increase not only their territorial control, but also control over the next local governors to assure that they would be guaranteed access to power and public money.

In addition to the political effects, the violence in Mexico has deeply deteriorated the image of the country; this has had economic consequences for tourism, but also foreign and national investment. For example, some workers and businesses have to pay a quota to members of cartels and other organized criminal groups in order to be allowed to work or operate; this quota, also known as “derecho de piso”, has affected investment especially in the most violent states.

Moreover, it is likely that the social effects of the war will be felt in the years to come. Since it started, children living in the most affected parts of the country have experienced shootings from an early age and have become accustomed to them. It is safe to assume that violence is perceived as a normal event by citizens.

It cannot be denied that the War on Drugs has not only signified a rise in cartel violence, but also a disruption of the fabric of society: corruption, gender violence and human rights abuses have increased dramatically, which in turn, has had profound socio-economic and political consequences, including the collapse of the Mexican justice system.

Having said that, despite the government’s poor track record on tackling crime and violence in Mexico, in recent months there have been attempts to mitigate the violence and corruption through different means. For example, on August 1st 2021, AMLO held a referendum to determine whether former presidents could be prosecuted for corruption which resulted in the Mexican electorate overwhelmingly voting for ‘Yes’. Nonetheless, only 7% of the population voted and therefore it is unclear whether or not this could set an important precedent when it comes to tackling Mexico’s rampant levels of impunity.

In addition, the current administration is focusing on the illegal armament trade coming from the United States in order to reduce the level of gun violence in Mexico. Mexico has sued several US arms companies such as Smith & Wesson and Barrett Firearms, among others who the Mexican government claims are responsible for the deaths of many Mexican citizens. While it is encouraging that such an important topic for Mexico is being discussed, it is still unclear whether the demands made by Mexico are powerful enough to stop the weapons trade from the United States, and it is likely that further bilateral cooperation is needed in order to reach these goals.

In any case, it is clear that the devastating effects of the War on Drugs are still being felt in Mexico today, despite promises of change from those in power. Unfortunately, it is ordinary citizens who often seem to pay the highest price.



Arista, L & Flores, L. (2021). Con 90 políticos asesinados, en 2021, las campañas más violentas desde 2000. Expansión.

Pardo, J & Arredondo, I. (2021). Una guerra inventada y 350,000 muertos en México. The Washington Post.

García, A. (2021). Sólo en los primeros seis meses del 2020 fueron asesinadas 1,844 mujeres en México: Inegi. El Economista.

Forbes Staff. (2021). México reporta más de 85,000 personas desaparecidas desde 2006. Forbes.

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