Mexican Drug Cartels Control Over 20% of Mexico, and Own Large Chunks of the Land

It’s no overstatement to suggest that Mexico is being overrun by drug cartels.  For the last two decades, the United States’ southern neighbor has been caught up in a violent drug war that sees Mexican law enforcement and security units often outgunned and outmaneuvered by criminal organizations. Despite solid economic growth thanks to economic integration with the U.S., Mexico still does not appear to have its political house in order.

As its economy has grown, so have opportunities for cartels to profit and consolidate their power. That’s the double-edge sword of promoting an economic growth at all costs strategy to development. Cartels have grown incredibly powerful in the past three decades in Mexico and they’re beginning to challenge the Mexican government when it comes to the exercise of sovereignty. This became clear after cartel gunmen killed police chief Ricardo Barrón Guzmán back in September in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. Additionally, the arrest of the former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos in Los Angeles, California, where he was alleged to have helped cartels smuggle thousands of pounds of heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine into the U.S., has laid bare how corrupt the Mexican government is.

Though it would be simplistic to just focus on the stories that grab headlines. The cartel penetration throughout Mexican society runs very deep. A Washington Post article by Mary Beth Sheridan raised a good point that these cartels are “infiltrating communities, police forces and town halls.” Not only that, but Sheridan observed how a “dizzying range of armed groups — perhaps more than 200 — have diversified into a broadening array of activities.” The Mexico and Central America correspondent added that cartels are “not only moving drugs but kidnapping Mexicans, trafficking migrants and shaking down businesses from lime growers to mining companies.”

The U.S. hasn’t completely ignored what’s going on south of the border. $3 billion in anti-narcotics aid has been sent to Mexico in the last decade to help its law enforcement and military fight off cartels. Even with extensive trade ties and aid being sent to Mexico, drug cartels remain powerful and are expanding their overall reach. Sheridan listed off some alarming statistics regarding the level of instability taking place across the U.S. border:

  • In a classified study produced in 2018 but not previously reported, CIA analysts concluded that drug-trafficking groups had gained effective control over about 20 percent of Mexico, according to several current and former U.S. officials.
  • Homicides in the last two years have surged to their highest levels in six decades; 2020 is on track to set another record. Mexico’s murder rate is more than four times that of the United States.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes to escape violence; the Mexican Congress is poised to pass the country’s first law to help the internally displaced.
  • More than 77,000 people have disappeared, authorities reported this year, a far larger total than previous governments acknowledged. It is the greatest such crisis in Latin America since the “dirty wars” of the 1970s and 1980s.
  • The State Department is urging Americans to avoid travel to half of Mexico’s states, tagging five of them as Level 4 for danger — the same as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The nature of cartel violence in Mexico is intriguing. It is not a coherent insurgency that seeks to overthrow the Mexican state. “We don’t have in Mexico today an insurgent group that says, ‘We will topple the state,’” observed Romain Le Cour, the co-founder of Noria Research, which researches violence and political systems. “In Mexico, you have very, very violent groups which somehow collaborate with the system, because they need the system to actually survive and thrive.” The way cartel violence is carried out throughout Mexico varies from region to region. In some states such as Sinaloa, there is one cartel that calls the shots:

In the northwestern state of Sinaloa, the former turf of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a single cartel has prevailed for years. Even with the drug lord in a U.S. prison, the group’s grip is tight: When the military tried to arrest Guzmán’s son Ovidio last year, scores of gunmen besieged the state capital and authorities let him go.

States like Guerrero have multiple armed criminal syndicates vying for power:

In Guerrero, a state roughly the size of West Virginia, at least 40 armed groups skirmish for domination of towns and businesses ranging from heroin to logging, according to Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst at the International Crisis Group. The situation illustrates the extreme fragmentation of organized crime in some areas.

The drug trade is running on all cylinders in Mexico. Under authoritarian governments, federal officials generally played all sides of the cartel struggle, with state and local authorities also playing ball by taking bribes and letting cartels freely move contraband through their jurisdictions. With how autonomous local jurisdictions have become in Mexico, cartels have had to pivot towards spreading their influence at the state and municipal level. They generally resort to coercion or bribes to make sure local politicians comply.

Given how corrupt Mexico’s justice and law enforcement systems are, cartels and other gangs can operate with virtual impunity. To no one’s surprise, this is why cartels aren’t just conducting business but also taking over territory. In addition, their business is quickly diversifying. On top of the heroin and marijuana production they engage in, cartels are now manufacturing meth in “superlabs” and pressing fentanyl into pills, according to the Washington Post report. To carry out such ambitious operations, cartels will obviously need more territory to keep these labs hidden from the public eye.

It really does not help that Antonio Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is taking the approach of “Abrazos no balazos” (Hugs, not bullets) to tackle the issue of cartel crime.  AMLO thinks social programs will mitigate this kind of insurgency as opposed to a traditional hard power approach to cracking down on cartels. Countries that are incapable of exercising such basic tasks of governance are failed states. Plain and simple. With Mexico quickly approaching a state of institutional implosion, Americans should be pressing their elected officials to immediately put forward serious border security plans that contain Mexico’s cartel violence and not take the risk of having them make their way across our border thanks to weak border enforcement.