Why are there drug cartels

Domestic conflicts

Karsten Bechle

To person

Karsten Bechle has been working in the area of ​​risk management for several years. He studied political science in Freiburg and Buenos Aires and then worked as a research assistant at the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute (ABI) in Freiburg and at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg.

There is no end in sight to the violence in Mexico. The increasing fractionation of organized crime and the diversification of criminal fields of activity far beyond drug trafficking make the conflict process more and more confusing. The state is mostly helpless in the face of the armed groups.

Villa Unión town hall after a fight between Mexican security forces and cartel members. (& copy picture-alliance, AP Photo / Gerardo Sanchez)

Current situation

The Mexican state appears to be losing the war on organized crime. Around 150,000 people have died since the end of 2006 in the fight by state security forces against criminal organizations and in clashes between rival drug cartels; more than 40,000 people are missing. In 2019, with almost 35,000 murders, a new high was reached for the third year in a row. The trend continued in 2020. Organized crime is responsible for around 60% of murders.

The cause of the high blood toll is not just drug trafficking, but increasingly the increasing fragmentation of organized crime. While a handful of cartels originally fought for control of drug routes and central transhipment points, it is estimated that hundreds of groups across the country are now involved in a wide variety of criminal activities, including murder, kidnapping, extortion, robbery, human trafficking, arms smuggling, prostitution, counterfeiting, product piracy and sales of fuel and gas, which are tapped in huge quantities from the pipelines of the state oil company PEMEX.

This means that new parts of the country are always recorded. In recent years there has been a veritable explosion of violence in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. The locally rooted Cartel de Santa Rosa de Lima (CSRDL) made enormous profits there for a long time by stealing fuel from pipelines and refineries. Central smuggling routes of the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG) also run through Guanajuato, which in a few years has become the most dangerous organization in the country and has spread its influence over large parts of Mexico. A bloody battle for control of the area broke out between the two groups. In early 2019, Mexico's new government declared war on fuel theft and increased pressure on the CSRDL. In August 2020, the leader of the group was arrested. As a result, violence in Guanajuato has increased.

In other parts of the country the state lost its monopoly on the use of force a long time ago. In the hinterland of states such as Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Durango, Michoacán and Guerrero, entire areas are ruled by criminal groups. Trust in the security forces is minimal, which is why groups keep taking the law into their own hands. Numerous vigilante groups have been founded in recent years and declared war on organized crime. However, the boundaries between the two sides are often fluid. At the same time, cases of lynching are increasing, particularly in rural areas and in the low-income suburbs of cities, where the absence of the state is particularly evident.
Areas of influence of the Mexican drug cartels 2015 License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (mr-kartographie)

The state's impotence in the face of organized crime became apparent in October 2019 when security forces in Culiacan arrested a son of "Chapo" Guzmán, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment in the United States a few months earlier. Within a very short time, heavily armed commandos of the Sinaloa cartel hit the city with terror. Roads were closed, vehicles set on fire, security forces attacked and prison inmates freed. The images, which quickly spread via social media, showed the capital of Sinaloa in a state of siege. Faced with the threat of bloodbath, the country's political leadership capitulated and released the criminal.

Causes and Background

The main causes of the drug conflict and the increasing spread of organized crime are the decades-long toleration of criminal activities by the state and its representatives, the resulting erosion of state institutions, the huge profit margins that can be achieved in drug trafficking, the bitter poverty of large sections of the population and the lack of prospects many young people.

The United States, with which Mexico borders a more than 3,000 km long border, is the world's largest market for illicit drugs. Large quantities of marijuana and opium poppies, the raw materials for opium and heroin, are grown in Mexico. Chemical raw materials for the manufacture of synthetic drugs enter the country via the ports in the Pacific. In addition, most of the cocaine produced in the South American Andean countries is smuggled into the USA via Central America and Mexico. Rival cartels engage in a fierce battle for control of the transit routes and major transshipment points.

In 2006, President Felipe Calderón adopted a strategy of open confrontation. The US pledged billions in aid. Since then, the federal police, military and naval units have been at war against the drug cartels. The government has achieved some spectacular successes in the course of the conflict. Many of the most wanted drug lords have been arrested or killed. However, the power vacuum created in this way often led to splits or new foundations, which repeatedly resulted in new waves of violence and contributed significantly to the current fragmentation of organized crime. Many groups have now opened up new sources of illegal income outside of drug trafficking.

The weak institutions of the Mexican state fuel and are further undermined by organized crime activities. Local politicians, administrative and judicial officials and security forces are often bribed, blackmailed or threatened by criminal organizations. Police officers are often poorly trained, underpaid and prone to corruption, especially at the municipal level. The result is an exorbitant level of impunity. Less than 5% of all reported crimes in Mexico result in conviction.

The boundaries between politics and organized crime are often blurred. Since 2006, more than 20 governors have been investigated for corruption allegations. In December 2019, Genaro García Luna was arrested in the United States and charged with drug trafficking. García Luna, as Minister of Public Security during the tenure of President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), was instrumental in the implementation of the war on drugs declared by Calderón. He is accused of having accepted bribes in the millions from the Sinaloa cartel during this period. In return, he is said to have given the organization safe conduct in the smuggling of drug loads; He also provided them with sensitive information about investigations by the law enforcement authorities and passed on findings about rival cartels. [1] A senior military man was arrested for the first time in the United States in October 2020. General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was Minister of Defense during Enrique Peña Nieto's government (2012-2018). He is also accused of taking bribes from a drug cartel.

Processing and solution approaches

The strategy of open confrontation with organized crime, which has been pursued since 2006, has obviously failed. Mexico's current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), ran open doors when he promised a complete realignment of security policy in the 2018 election campaign. To this end, so-called peace forums were held throughout the country with members of victims' associations and civil society. The cornerstones of his strategy were the demilitarization of security policy, the fight against the social causes of violent crime and the liberalization of drug policy. In order to break the cycle of violence, AMLO even brought up the possibility of amnesties.

Two years after he took office, however, no progress has been made. Preventive measures, such as the creation of scholarships for disadvantaged young people, are going in the right direction, but so far have not had any effect. Despite the enormous toll in blood, countless young people continue to serve organized crime, not least because of the lack of prospects.

The creation of a national guard, which replaces the federal police and, in addition to former federal police officers, is largely made up of members of the military and navy, has been heavily criticized by human rights organizations. Instead of taking the military off the streets, as announced, López Obrador is relying even more heavily on the armed forces than his predecessors. The planned liberalization of drug policy has also become quiet. Against the resistance of the USA, the legalization of drug trafficking would not be enforceable due to Mexico's strong economic dependence on its large neighbor in the north.

The most important prerequisite for lasting success in the fight against organized crime would be a sustainable strengthening of Mexican institutions. This is the only way to prevent members of criminal organizations and their vicarious agents in politics, the judiciary and the security apparatus from acting largely unpunished. In addition to better education and decent pay, this would also require more government protection for all those who stand in the way of organized crime. State officials, mayors and journalists are regularly murdered in Mexico. At the same time, the economic and political power of criminal organizations would have to be broken, some of which have invested enormous assets abroad or transferred them to the regular economy of the country and also finance the election campaigns of political parties and politicians through their network of legal companies.

History of the conflict

Since the first half of the 20th century, marijuana and opium poppies have been grown and exported to the USA in the "golden triangle" between the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua. The development of the drug business took place parallel to the 71-year rule of the Party of Institutionalized Revolution (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI). This created a corporatist state with extensive control over vertically organized society. This included a tacit agreement with organized crime: the cartels obeyed the rules of the game of politics and the state apparatus tolerated the illegal drug trade. Important party officials were generously involved in the profits. By the mid-1980s, close ties developed between cartels, politicians and security authorities.

The institutional framework changed with the gradual democratization and decentralization of power. In 2000, the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional, PAN) ousted the PRI from power. The delicate balance between the state and organized crime was shattered. At the same time, the balance of power in drug trafficking had changed. The break-up of the Colombian cartels resulted in Mexican organizations taking over the business in the 1990s. By the turn of the millennium, they had risen to become the most powerful actors in the drug trade. By that time, the Mexican state had lost control of organized crime.


Aguilar V., Rubén / Castañeda, Jorge G. (2009): El Narco. La Guerra Fallida, México: Punto de Lectura.

Beck, Humberto / Bravo Regidor, Carlos / Iber, Patrick (2019): El primer año del México de AMLO, Revista Nueva Sociedad, No. 287, mayo-junio de 2020, pp. 80-97.

Boullosa, Carmen / Wallace, Mike (2016): ¡Enough! The case of Mexico: Why we need a new global drug policy, Antje Kunstmann Verlag, Munich

Heinle, Kimberly / Rodríguez Ferreira, Octavio / Shirk, David A. (2017): Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2016, Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of San Diego.

Esberg, Jane (2020): More than Cartels: Counting Mexico’s Crime Rings, International Crisis Group.

International Crisis Group (2013): Peña Nieto's Challenge: Criminal Cartels and Rule of Law in Mexico, Latin America Report No. 48.

International Crisis Group (2018): Building Peace in Mexico: Dilemmas Facing the López Obrador Government, Latin America Report No. 69.

International Crisis Group (2020): Mexico’s Everyday War: Guerrero and the Trials of Peace, Latin America Report No. 80.

Le Clercq Ortega, Juan Antonio / Rodríguez Sánchez Lara, Gerardo (2016): Global Impunity Index Mexico 2016 (Índice Global de Impunidad México 2016), Fundación Universidad de las Américas Puebla.

Organization of American States (2013): The Drug Problem in the Americas: Introduction and Analytical Report.

Organization of American States (2013): The Drug Problem in the Americas: Scenarios Report.

Weiss, Sandra (2019): Kisses instead of shots. Violence in Mexico is also increasing under the left-wing nationalist government. The president relies on concentration of power and moral sermons, international politics and society.


Animal Politico: Crímen y violencia en México. La guerra que no acaba

Analyzes and reports by the International Crisis Group on Mexico

Insight Crime / Mexico

Justice in Mexico Project

Seguridad, Justicia y Paz

Wilson Center / Mexico Institute