Narco-Politics: How Mexico Got There and How It Can Get Out

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The arrest on August 17 of the leader of Cártel del Golfo (Gulf Cartel), Mario Ramirez Treviño, better known as X-20 as well as the capture this past July of the leader of Los Zetas (The Zetas), Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, the Z-40, are nothing more than superficial achievements for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s eight-month-old administration. [1] [2] As much as the U.S. and Mexican governments celebrate what is described as a successful blow to organized crime, in reality, the arrest will not significantly change Mexico’s current security problems.

The narco-business in the country is much more complex, unlike Colombia, where the 1993 elimination of Pablo Escobar meant the beginning of the disappearance of the power of the Medellin cartel; according to British journalist Ioan Grillo, in Mexico the problem is far more ingrained. [3] Mexico is a dangerously fragmented country—one where a series of illegal networks have been historically intertwined with the government; where federal and military authorities are not always on the same side; and where drug traffic organizations (DTO’s) have been gaining more territory and becoming more powerful, particularly recent decades. Mexico’s geography has become its own curse due to its fertile land, where it is ideal to grow illegal substances and traffic them to U.S. consumers. [4]

The complex nature of the drug war and its deep roots in Mexico’s modern history makes certain that the capture of one individual will not end the battle. The war on drugs can be divided into three historical contexts: the introduction and execution of prohibitionist policies in the United States; Mexico’s role in the transformation of the global drug market; and lastly, the dark side of Mexico’s transition from an authoritarian regime to a democracy. It is imperative that both policymakers in Mexico and the United States comprehend the complexity of the drug war so that the two countries can come up with appropriate strategies to combat organized crime and violence, as the current strategy in Mexico is short-sighted and simply not working.

Chinese Opium, U.S. Prohibitionist Policies, and the Illegal Mexican Market

The debate regarding who is to blame for the emergence of the illegal drug market and the subsequent violence in Mexico has kept the U.S. and Mexican publics sharply divided since its origins in the 1930’s. On the one hand, the United States blames Mexico for the flow of drugs, arguing that the Mexican government is not doing enough to defeat drug cartels. On the other hand, the Mexican population argues that the United States is responsible for the present situation because of its high consumption of drugs. In economic terms, drug trade is a discussion of supply and demand, though in reality the emergence of the illegal drug market in Mexico has always been linked to the introduction and execution of prohibitionist policies in the United States and internal political circumstances in Mexico. [5]

The intensified emergence of narco-trafficking by illicit organizations in Mexico is directly correlated with the rise in demand for substances prohibited in the United States. Narco-trafficking along the Mexican-U.S. border first began when Chinese immigrants to North America (mostly to Sinaloa, Mexico) brought with them opium from Asia. In 1880 Washington and Beijing agreed on prohibiting the bilateral trafficking of the substance. Sinaloa, nevertheless, continued to be one of the main production centers for opium poppies, a production center that later extended to the States of Chihuahua, Sonora, and Durango. [6]

Major wars have contributed to the increased production and trafficking of drugs in Mexico, as well as consumption in the United States. The supply of opium declined in Asia and Europe at the same time that deaths and injuries in World War II increased the demand for the pain-numbing substance. For this reason, the increased demand for opium in the United States as a means to treat wounded soldiers became an incentive for production in Mexico. Thus, World War II motivated the expansion of opium poppy cultivation, and made opium Mexico’s first mass-produced illicit cash crop. [7]

U.S. prohibition in the 1920’s added alcohol to its list of illicit substances along with marijuana, opium, and heroin; however, demand for these products continued. [8] In effect, prohibition led to the creation of organized crime, which saw an opportunity in the illegal, yet increasingly popular, market. Furthermore, Mexico became a paradise for brothels and bars, drinking and smoking, making their cities, especially Ciudad Juárez, cradles for the birth of an extensive system of illegal trafficking. Studies authored by George Grayson, Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, highlight the case of Sam Hing, a Chinese immigrant to Mexico who became the first drug lord in the country. He was then succeeded by a couple—Ignacia “La Nacha” Jasso and her husband Pablo “El Pablote” Gonzalez—who headed the first local cartel, selling and marketing marijuana throughout the Southwest of Mexico. [9]

The problem with prohibitionist policies, as stated by International Studies Professor Monica Serrano, from El Colegio de México, is that it has destabilizing effects. When the state prohibits the trade of certain goods and services without popular support from society, illegal markets can be created. [10] The prohibitionist policies had a highly negative impact on the future of both Mexico and the United States, as the policies fostered the rise and consolidation of organized crime in both countries. The sale of such contraband as alcohol and drugs during the Prohibition Era prepared Mexican drug dealers to profit from the escalating drug trade in the beginning of the 1940’s. [11] The fatal flaw resulting from prohibition was that the policies could not practically be implemented, and thus an extremely profitable illicit market was created, and was prepared to adapt in whatever way was necessary to stay alive. 

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Yesterday Colombia, Today Mexico: The Change in the Global Market

Regarding Mexico’s role in the changing global market, in “Two Nations Indivisible” Shannon K. O’ Neil, a researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, makes a very assertive analysis that in the past Mexico only played a minor role in the production and distribution chain of cocaine as an alternative transit route to the then-dominant Caribbean routes in the 1980’s. [12] This was because thirty years ago, Colombia used to dominate the wholesale production and distribution of cocaine. This dominance began to take a different form in the 1980s and 1990s, as the United States poured billions of dollars into securing its southeastern shore facing the Caribbean, by working closely with Colombia to go after the kingpins, such as the aforementioned Pablo Escobar, and dismantle large cartels. [13] As a result, the illegal drug industry shifted to the next best situated alternative for trade and transit: Mexico. Mexicans looked to profit from this shift by becoming more logistically involved in trade and demanding greater payments to their Colombian counterparts. By the 1980’s, the Mexican drug cartels had fully emerged.

Today, Mexican drug cartels dominate the business by working with international producers (mostly from South America) and by supplying, transporting, and distributing nine out of ten kilos of cocaine headed to the United States. [14] According to the Associated Press, as of 2011, Mexican cartels reside in an estimated 1,200 U.S. communities, up from 230 in 2008, and they further control much of the increasing drug trade to Europe, Russia, and Latin America. [15] Narco-traffickers are protected by their organizations, which are well armed, technically sophisticated, and, much to the dismay of the civilian population, increasingly violent.

The Dark Side of Mexico’s Democratization

If the presence of drug-propelled organized crime in the region goes back to the 1930’s, then the lingering query is why it has become an extremely violent matter in the past few decades. The answer can be summarized in two words: broken pacts. For a long time an agreement existed between federal authorities and criminal organizations, but these have disappeared in recent years. The objective of this “unholy agreements” was to avoid the consolidation of the drug-traffickers as an autonomous power, and to prevent the worst possible effects of this large and powerful illicit market.

The Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), that ruled the country for over seven decades, became the authoritarian institution that controlled the bilateral relations between DTO’s and state authorities. The relationship began during Prohibition in the United States, and by the end of World War II, PRI party officials and drug traffickers had established a cemented relationship and had standardized the informal rules of the game. In exchange for a cut of the profits, local and national security officials agreed not to meddle in the affairs of DTO’s, and assured them that the subsequent PRI governments would continue to guarantee a safe and lucrative transit for the traffickers. [16] In his book, “Mexico, Narco-Violence and a Failed State?” Professor Grayson thoroughly analyzes how the rules between DTO’s and the authorities were established. Through bribery, criminal organizations were protected by the local police authorities and military commanders, and sometimes even by senior civilian authorities, such as state governors. As a result, DTO’s bribed high-ranking officials, both military and civilian, with sums that sometimes reached as much as $250,000 USD. These bribes were then given to representatives of the federal government, and the funds were then forwarded upward in the chain of command. In exchange, authorities allocated plazas or specific areas where DTO’s were able to produce, store, and ship their narcotics. In addition, traffickers had to follow a three-option system of a $1 million USD pay-off to the authorities for an area in the middle of the country, $2 million USD for a coastal zone, and $3 million USD for a U.S.-Mexico border crossing. [17]

While hard to believe today, DTO’s actually were peaceful, operating under a code of territorial and familial respect. Drug organizations would not target families from other cartels, and if a DTO needed to cross the territory of another, they would ask for permission, known as derecho de piso. If granted, traffickers would pay a fee for the right of transit. Ultimately, the understanding between authorities and drug traffickers meant that cartels did not sell drugs within the country, target innocent people, or disrupt the process or production of competitors. [18] The relationship between the PRI and the criminal organizations came to an end during the late 1980s and early 1990s when the former authoritarian party started to lose control to the opposition, the National Action Party (PAN).

When President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (PRI, 1988-1994) accepted the election of opposition mayors and governors, the rules of the game started to change. Now local traffickers had to approach the new governments to establish the agreements, as the newly elected opposition authorities disregarded old arrangements. As a result, DTO’s faced two decisions: to step in and renegotiate more lucrative deals with the new police and politicians, or to engage in violence against them and the other DTO’s who were attempting to take over their prior trafficking territory.

With the election of President Vicente Fox (2000-2006), a member of the PAN, Mexico’s history of a one-party political machine came to an end. The collapse of the central rule gave Mexican states, police forces, and bureaucratic systems more autonomy, leading to a deep divide between the different levels of administration. This decreased interaction between institutional actors allowed the cartels to begin dictating their own rules for their illegal trade. [19] Unaccustomed to smoothly working together in Congress to pass legislation, the three major political parties (the PRI, PAN and the Democratic Revolution Party, PRD) were unable to reach agreements, and therefore could not effectively react to government corruption and organized crime, all of which worked in the criminals’ favor. [20]

Fox’s successor and fellow PAN member, President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) famously declared a war against drugs within Mexico, ordering the internal deployment of the Mexican military. Under an aggressive strategy that relied heavily on the armed forces, his administration captured or killed two-thirds of the criminals on Mexico’s most wanted list. With the arrest of cartel leaders and the break of political bonds, as well as the on-going fight for power and territorial control among drug traffickers, the nation erupted into the highest levels of DTO-related violence in Mexican history. The U.S. policy of strengthening the border led DTO’s to shift to other “businesses” like extortion, kidnapping, and smuggling, which made the Mexican population both targets as well as prime customers of the cartels. New cartels, like The Zetas, were derived from older ones like the Gulf Cartel, creating a new standard of extremely violent tactics where the members of these cartels proved that they are capable of resorting to the most violent and inhumane actions possible in order to satisfy their greed and lust for power.

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Presidential Strategies: Different Rhetoric, Same Execution

During Calderon’s administration, more than 20 drug kingpins were captured, thanks to his offensive strategy that saw the deployment of more than 50 thousand members of armed forces to restore the government’s presence in urban and rural areas throughout the country. [21] Unfortunately, Calderón learned the hard way that the capture of drug lords like Arturo Beltrán Leyva (The Beltrán Leyva Cartel), Nazario Moreno (Cartel La Familia Michoacana), Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén (Gulf Cartel), and Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano (The Zetas) does not end criminal activity, but instead only serves as a conduit for increased violence. For example, according to the online news agency Latin News, the recent July 26 attacks in the Mexican state of Michoacán saw drug cartels fight against federal police and local self-defense militia for territorial control. The violent shootout resulted in 42 deaths. [22]

Just like the hyrdra in Greek mythology, that grew two more heads after each one was cut off, Mexico is fighting a battle against an expanding and changing beast where the ideology of the DTO does not end with the capture of one leader, but is continued by their heirs who emerge as new leaders. For example, Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales was the Zeta successor after the October 2012 assassination of Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, and with Treviño Morales’s arrest, it may not come as a surprise that his leadership will pass to his brother, Ángel Treviño Morales, better known as Z-42. [23] This is a battle that one Mexican president is not going to easily be able to solve in one six-year presidential term, as taking down one powerful man does very little to transform the nature of the drug trafficking problem between Mexico and the United States.

The current administration of Enrique Peña Nieto has stated that its strategy is to take an approach contrary to that of former president Calderón, and one more step towards the better use of intelligence agencies, rather than turning to military confrontation. [24] Nevertheless, his actions speak quite differently, as he ultimately seems to be doing the same thing as Calderón: going after the drug lords.

How to Fix It

The central issue, however, appears to be that past presidents have failed to hit at the heart of the drug trafficking organizations. According to Edgardo Buscaglia, Special Advisor to the United Nations in organized crime, by not attacking the nature of their patrimony, the most fundamental solution is not implemented, allowing these organizations to continue to thrive. [25] In other words, DTO’s are determined to expand their patrimony, which is undoubtably derived from illegal activities. Their biggest achievement is to hide themselves in the legal economy through the formalization of the resources they obtain from committing crimes. Sending the military and the police force to take back the streets is only going to work if at the same time the government dismantles the patrimony of  millions, and often billions, of dollars into the hands of Mexican criminal groups. When the DTO’s start to worry that their funds and businesses might be sought after by government authorities, they will no longer be able to finance more corruption and violence.

Furthermore, Buscaglia asserts that in order for DTO’s to stay in business, they need to be protected by a three-pillar formula consisting of powerful businesses, tainted politicians, and public officials. Together, these three act as a shield of steel that keeps them untouchable and enables them to continuously grow. In her book Los Señores del Narco (The Narco Lords), brilliant Mexican reporter Anabel Hernández identifies not the kingpins, but Mexico’s powerful businessman and politicians as being the original  masters of the narco-business, who through their networks have developed thriving enterprises with absolute impunity. [26] The problem is not that Mexico does not possess the intelligence or institutional means to stop organized crime from growing; it is that these elite groups have managed to block them.

The Hidden Power of the Elites

The previous sections have provided a brief overview of drug trafficking in Mexico. The assumption by the general population in both Mexico and the United States is that the core of the drug trafficking problem is the power of DTO’s, such as the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel and The Zetas, but this is only part of the equation. The other half is the influences of elite businesses led by a group of powerful monopolies and families in Mexico that have historically been the puppeteers pulling the strings of Mexican narco-politics.

According to Buscaglia, the resistance and the government’s inaction are rooted in the fact that elite Mexican businesses tend to be the primary financers of political campaigns. [26] For politicians, stopping these practices would be like shooting themselves in the foot, leaving the political decisions and the state institutions vulnerable and at the mercy of DTO’s. This political protection constitutes one of the most fundamental tools in the expansion of the narco-business. Countries like Italy and Colombia, who have suffered from internal corruption in the past, have confronted the problem by applying measures against the judges, the police, and their own elites in order to fight impunity. [28] However, in Mexico there seems to be no serious attacks against corruption. One only sees victory footage of the capture of criminal leaders that keeps the hopes of the population high, but generally does not actually work towards changing the realities on the ground.

The reality is that there is no easy way out for the business and political elite. The only solution is to combat the corrupt networks from within the very institutions that for years have contributed to the criminal networks and the deaths of countless innocent Mexican citizens. Most importantly, this requires not allowing these groups and powerful businesses to finance their political campaigns.


If President Peña Nieto decides to follow Calderón’s strategy, all that Mexico can look forward to for the next five years of his administration is a scenario that little differs from what many lived through under Calderón. Pacts with criminal organizations can no longer be a legitimate option, and if Mexico wants to start dictating the rules of the game, it has to stop allowing DTO’s to seduce the country’s business and political elite. The new administration must take a risk and understand that criminal money cannot be a legitimate part of the legal economy. Mexico does not need to take back the streets; it needs to take back the control of the state’s governability by strengthening its institutions and stopping impunity by punishing those who sell the lives of citizens over crooked deals with criminal organizations. This strategy, together with a social policy against the consumption of drugs, should prepare the country for a new period of social stability. Today, Mexico has two options: it can either consider to provide responsible rule to its citizens or it can collapse.

Pamela F. Izaguirre, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

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[1] “Actualiza 1- México captura a líder narco de cartel del Golfo,” Reuters, August 17, 2013,

[2] “Capturan al Z-40, máximo líder de los Zetas,” Animal Político, July 15, 2013,

[3] “Los Zetas han cambiado las reglas del narcotráfico en México: Grillo,” Animal Político, June 10, 2012,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mónica Serrano, “Narcotráfico y gobernabilidad en México,” Pensamiento Iberoamericano (México D.F.: Centro de Estudios Internacionales de El Colegio de México).

[6] George W. Grayson,” Wars, Prohibition, and the Antecedents of Narco Churches,” in Mexico Narco-Violence and a Failed State? (USA New Jersey:Transaction Publishers 2011) 19-33.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Shannon K. O’Neil, “Mexico’s Rising Insecurity: A Real Illness With The Wrong Prescription” in Two Nations Indivisible (USA, New York.: Council on Foreign Relations, 2013) 123-137.

[9] Grayson, Wars, Prohibition, and the Antecedents of Narco Churches,19-33.

[10] Monica Serrano, “Narcotráfico y gobernabilidad en México.”

[11] Grayson, Wars, Prohibition, and the Antecedents of Narco Churches, 19-33

[12] O’Neil, “Mexico’s Rising Insecurity: A Real Illness With The Wrong Prescription,” 123-137.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “AP Impact: Cartels Dispatch Agents Deep Inside US,” Associated Press, April 1, 2013,

[16] O’Neil, “Mexico’s Rising Insecurity: A Real Illness With The Wrong Prescription,” 123-137.

[17] Agustìn Ambriz “Arèvalo Gardoqui: La sombra del narco,” Proceso, May 7 2000, 40.

[18] Grayson, Wars, Prohibition, and the Antecedents of Narco Churches, 19-33.

[19] O’Neil, “Mexico’s Rising Insecurity: A Real Illness With The Wrong Prescription,” 123-137.

[20] Grayson, Wars, Prohibition, and the Antecedents of Narco Churches, 19-33.

[21] “Principales capos muertos o detenidos en sexenios de Calderon,” Terra Noticias, October 16, 2012, calderon,7c1e1dbc7f34a310VgnVCM5000009ccceb0aRCRD.html.

[22] “Peña Nieto’s moment of truth in Tierra Caliente,” Latin News, July 26, 2013

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Anabel Hernández, “ Los señores del narco,” in Los Señores del Narco (México D.F.: Grijalbo, 2010) 539-588.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.