Is there an end to the reign of Mexican cartels?

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Drug cartels have existed in Mexico for many years, but they did not become powerful and violent until the 1990s.

The genesis of Mexican cartels

During the 1990s, the United States government focused on dismantling Colombian cartels. Columbian drug manufacturers seeking safer transit routes turned to Mexico where law enforcement measures were less stringent. This marked the emergence of Mexico as a key player in drug trafficking. Money transformed the cartels from loosely connected groups into the fully-fledged criminal organizations we know today.

Dominant Forces

Three major cartels, the Gulf, Sinaloa, and Jalisco Cartel have emerged as the most dominant forces in Mexico. The Gulf Cartel, dating back to the 1980s, is one of the country's oldest, while the Jalisco Cartel is recognized as the strongest competitor to Sinaloa, with assets valued at over $20 billion.

FILE PHOTO: Mexico's top drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted as he arrives at Long Island MacArthur airport in New York
FILE PHOTO: Mexico's top drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted as he arrives at Long Island MacArthur airport in New York, U.S., January 19, 2017, after his extradition from Mexico. U.S. officials/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY./File Photo

The Sinaloa Cartel, leading the list, has been described by the US government as one of the world's largest drug-trafficking organizations, generating approximately $3 billion in annual revenues. Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the former leader, was arrested in 2014, he escaped and was re-arrested in 2016, and ultimately extradited to the United States in 2017.

What do Mexican cartels do?

They control routes from South America to the United States, dealing in illegal drugs. While some cartels focus on growing marijuana and smuggling it, others specialize in manufacturing methamphetamines and importing precursor drugs, including from countries like China. Additionally, cartels engage in various criminal activities such as extortion of local businesses, kidnappings for ransom, people smuggling, prostitution rings, intimidation, and murder.

They also contribute to a drug overdose epidemic in the United States. Annually, Mexican drug cartels rake in an estimated $19 billion to $29 billion from drug sales in the US.

Death cases

Mexico faces a severe crisis marked by a surge in kidnappings, disappearances, and criminal violence that has left over thirty thousand people dead each year since 2018. President Calderón's term witnessed nearly 50,000 deaths in drug war-related incidents with the Mexican government reporting that a drug war death occurred, on average, every half hour in 2011.

Rise in Mexican cartel violence drives record migration to the US
A window with a bullet impact is seen at a school, which was shut down due to organized crime violence, in the community of El Limoncillo, in Michoacan state, Mexico, February 15, 2022. REUTERS/Stringer NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

By 2018, drug-related homicides peaked at 33,341, and from 2017 to 2020, an average of one journalist per week fell victim to crime-related violence. Moreover, over 200,000 Americans overdosed and died from synthetic opioids like fentanyl from Mexico since 2020.

Combat strategies employed over the years

During Felipe Calderón's presidency from 2006 to 2012, he deployed 50,000 soldiers to confront the increasingly powerful drug cartels, resulting in the elimination of twenty-five of the top thirty-seven drug kingpins.

Subsequently, Enrique Peña Nieto, in office from 2012 to 2018, continued a military-focused approach, witnessing an initial decline in homicides but by the end of his term, the number of homicides had risen to the highest level in modern Mexican history.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who succeeded Peña Nieto, adopted a different strategy, introducing the "hugs, not bullets" policy. Emphasizing poverty alleviation programs, marijuana legalization, a hybrid civilian-police and military force and new sentencing guidelines for drug traffickers.

Despite these efforts, Mexico still reports over thirty thousand crime-related deaths annually, with the 2021 midterm elections marked as the most violent in decades under López Obrador's leadership.

Recent development

The violence of Mexican cartels is still on the rise with most cartels fighting each other to gain control of a territory and kidnappings, killings, and targeted attacks on journalists are still prevalent in 2023. The rise in these activities is driving the migration of Mexican families to the U.S.

Cartel violence in Mexico is driving unprecedented migration of families to the US
Migrants board a bus to be transported to a shelter after being processed, as Mexican families continue to be displaced by cartel violence and are requesting asylum in the U.S., in Nogales, Arizona, U.S. November 11, 2023. REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

The Mexican government announced in June 2023 that it would grant the navy control of Mexico City’s main airport, to combat smuggling.

Republican 2024 presidential candidates, including former President Donald Trump, proposed sending troops or firing missiles into Mexico to battle cartels as the U.S. grapples with the repercussions of their activities.

Is there an end to the reign of Mexican cartels? Studies have revealed that cartels collectively “employ” some 175,000 people in Mexico, making them the fifth largest employer in the country. To effectively combat Mexican cartels, the study suggests decreasing cartels’ ability to recruit new members.

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