Mexico and the Drug Cartels: A History of Fascination


On January 9th, 2016, Rolling Stone published an interview between Sean Penn and Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, head of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel. The fascination that Hollywood, and thus a large part of the western world, has for the Mexican drug cartels and the drug war they are engaging in is anything but recent. Mexico’s drug cartels, as well as widespread violence, money laundering and corruption, are elements which are as closely linked to Mexico’s image as its ancient civilizations. This article will explore the history of Mexico’s drug cartels and the close relationship between drugs and Mexico’s development.

This blog was written in honor of the farewell of Mr. Van Hoogstraten, General-Director of the Carnegie Foundation and Treasurer of The Hague Academy of International Law. By F. de Jonge.

This position of General-Director of the Carnegie Foundation was the concluding chapter of a long and very diverse career which included positions at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Justice. As a result of this versatile career, Mr. Van Hoogstraten acquired experience and knowledge on a multitude of topics, ranging from the Codex Alimentarius on food production and safety, to the legal aspects of the Dutch policy on narcotic drugs. It is in this context that this article is written, to thank Mr. Van Hoogstraten for his service to the Carnegie Foundation and to highlight one of the many interesting aspects of his career.

Mexico in Hollywood

On January 9th, 2016, Rolling Stone published an interview between Sean Penn, an American actor, and Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, head of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel. The Sinaloa Cartel is Mexico’s most powerful criminal organization involved in the drug trade. Guzman had been arrested and convicted on multiple occasions, inter alia for drug trafficking and murder, but twice managed to escape from prison. His second escape was in July 2015. He was captured once more in January 2016, a day before the interview with Sean Penn was published. It was alleged that Guzman was in contact with movie producers and actors to make a biographical movie about his escape from prison, and it was exactly his continuous contact with the outside world that got him captured. The fascination that Hollywood, and thus a large part of the western world, has for the Mexican drug cartels and the drug war they are engaging in is anything but recent. Example: Wikipedia has a page dedicated to movies made about Mexican drug cartels. This fascination stems, according to Hollywood and the general public, from admiration for the drug lords, their cartels and their dangerous yet lavish lifestyles. However, from an international legal perspective the fascination relates to the unique position that Mexico is in: an independent state with a relatively stable government that, to a certain degree, holds control over its entire territory. There is no armed conflict or civil war ongoing in Mexico, yet many different indexes rate Mexico as one of the most dangerous places in the world and crime rates are staggering. Since 2006, it has been estimated that there have been 80.000 crime-related homicides, while around 26.000 persons have disappeared in Mexico between 2006 and 2012. In 2013, 90% of the cocaine that ended up in the USA had passed through Mexico. Between January and March 2013, Mexican law enforcement had seized over 3 metric tons (MT) of cocaine, 1.250 MT of marijuana, 182 kilograms of heroin, over 30 MT of methamphetamine and 1.46 MT of opium gum. During the same period, 22.964 Mexicans and 251 foreigners were arrested on organized crime charges.

Mexico’s drug cartels, as well as widespread violence, money laundering and corruption, are elements which are as closely linked to Mexico’s image as its ancient civilizations. This article will explore the history of Mexico’s drug cartels and the close relationship between drugs and Mexico’s development.

Mexico, Migration and Marijuana (1870-1970)

The origins of the drug cartels and Mexico’s status as a transit country for drug trafficking can be traced back to the end of the 19th century. During this period, Mexico’s northern neighboring country, the USA, was a popular destination for Chinese migrants. Nevertheless, resistance against this influx of Chinese migrants in the USA resulted in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred the majority of Chinese migrants from entering the USA. Consequently, those migrants who had previously hoped to enter the USA settled in Mexico instead - more specifically in Sinaloa, Sonora and Arizona. It was this group of migrants who settled in the borderlands between Mexico and the USA and who introduced opium in the region. While opium was originally imported from Europe, Asia and even the USA, marijuana had been grown in Mexico since the late 1800s. From the beginning of the 20th century onwards, both opium and marijuana were grown in Mexico and subsequently exported to the USA.

Legislative initiatives in the USA, such as the 1909 Opium Exclusion Act and the 1914 Harrison Narcotics Law, to disrupt the import of marijuana and opium only boosted the drug export from Mexico. A similar prohibition of opium import followed in Mexico a few years later, while a general ban on the importation of drugs was adopted in 1923. Only in 1927 did the Mexican government prohibit the exportation of both marijuana and opium, after pressure by the USA to take action against cross-border drug smuggling and in response to numerous incursions into Mexican territory by USA law enforcement agencies, aiming to catch smugglers. The prohibitive legislation did not end the export of drugs into American territory - instead, the drug industry of Mexico boomed and in the 1920s and 1930s, the country held a 15% share in the total opium supply to the USA. Around that time, the first smaller drug cartels and drug lords emerged, who already played central roles in the production and export of drugs and who ensured the loyalty of local authorities. Both the Mexican and USA authorities were unable to put a stop to the growing industry, and in the 1950s and 1960s Mexico was the main exporter of marijuana to the USA and was responsible for 75% and 15% of the USA marijuana and heroin supply respectively. This fortification of Mexico’s position was caused by both a rise in USA demand and a decrease in supply from other countries, such as Turkey.

Cross-border Cooperation and Cocaine (1970-1980)

Nevertheless, cross-border cooperation between the USA and Mexico to combat drug trafficking increased in the 1970s. Through the use of military power and the aerial distribution of herbicides to destroy plantations, Mexico’s share in the USA drug markets decreased dramatically. However, even though crime rates dropped, these combined operations had multiple side-effects, including multilevel human rights violations, extensive internal migration and health consequences related to the use of dangerous chemicals. Most of all, the operations caused uproar in the drug trafficking world: small drug businesses and traffickers were forced to end their operations, while the big organizations became more powerful and resorted increasingly to intimidation, corruption and violence - strongly affecting the Mexican law enforcement. The organizations restructured themselves and discovered a new market: cocaine, brought in from South America and smuggled from Mexico to the USA. It was around this time, at the end of the 1970s, that one of the most important cartels was founded - the Guadalajara Cartel. The founders of this cartel, which included a former police officer and bodyguard, were the only true drug lords in Mexico at the time. This cartel transported both heroin and marijuana to the USA and had close connections with Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar.

The 1980s witnessed a series of events which proved to be of decisive importance for the further development of Mexico’s drug cartels. While the flow of cocaine from Mexico to the USA doubled between 1984 and 1986, the USA government’s desire to curb the drug trade grew equally rapidly. In 1984, the Mexican authorities discovered and destroyed a massive marijuana plantation and storage area in Chihuahua, which held thousands of tons of marijuana. This operation had such an enormous financial impact on the drug organizations that they responded by kidnapping, torturing and murdering Enrique Camarena, an undercover agent of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. This, in turn, lead to the publication of a list containing the names of the most important drug lords by Mexican authorities, the closing of the country’s Federal Directorate of Security which faced allegations of widespread corruption and the arrest of some of the leaders of Mexico’s most important drug cartels. Two of the three founders of the Guadalajara Cartel were arrested in 1985, while the third was arrested in 1989, for the murder of Enrique Camarena. These arrests triggered a reorganization of the Guadalajara Cartel and a division of territory among multiple smaller cartels. Important cartels included the Sinaloa cartel, the Tijuana cartel, the Juarez cartel, the Gulf cartel, the Zetas cartel, La Familia cartel and the Beltrán Leyva cartel. These smaller cartels were managed and controlled by an overarching parent organization, “The Federation”. Even though this system remained in place until the end of the 1990s, rivalries, inter-cartel killings and competing interests caused The Federation to fall apart.

A New Millennium, A New Government (2000-2015)

A major political shift that took place in Mexico in 2000, namely the election of a new President, had an equally considerable impact on the operations of the drug cartels. Since 1929, the Institutional Revolutionary Party had been in power, a political party with close ties to the drug organizations. For 71 years the government had been hierarchical and centralized and had accommodated the drug cartels and drug lords, for example by ensuring that they were subjected to limited criminal investigations. This policy and the close relationship between the government and the drug cartels helped curb the violence. In 2000, Vicente Fox from the National Action Party was elected as the new president. Through his reform of the entire government administration and subsequent eradication of bureaucracy he not only increased the efficiency of the state apparatus, but also severed links between the drug cartels and government authorities – by replacing corrupt officials with people from his own political party. Violence committed by the drug cartels increased, and the government responded by employing military forces to regain some of the control and stability that existed in Mexico before the 2000 elections. Even though the government crackdown was successful in arresting around 79.000 individuals, including several drug lords, the capture of the cartels’ leaders caused an inter-cartel war for disputed territory and an increase in drug-related murder.

During the next elections in 2006, the National Action Party was re-elected and Felipe Calderón became Mexico’s next president. President Calderón continued the fight against the drug cartels, on an even higher level than his predecessor as he developed and implemented a cooperation initiative with the USA. The new president also increased military activity: 45.000 military troops were deployed, together with 12.000 policemen. Large-scale operations resulted in thousands of arrests and seizures, including the capture of several cartel leaders. Nevertheless, the operations were criticized for alleged human rights abuses committed by the military forces and corruption within the army. Furthermore, the Calderón crackdown caused an extensive fragmentation of the drug cartels, and thus to an increase of violence amongst cartels and against civilians, law enforcement and those who dare to criticize the cartels. As stated above, thousands of deaths have been reported during Felipe Calderón’s term as president, while many individuals have disappeared or became victims of other drug-related crimes.

In 2012, after a twelve year hiatus, the Institutional Revolutionary Party came back in power, with Enrique Peña Nieto as the new president. Peña Nieto stated that he would withdraw the military forces and would create a National Gendarmerie instead – classifying the drug war as a law and order concern, not as a national security issue. The aim was to transfer responsibility from the military to the police. Nevertheless, this transfer has not taken place yet and in 2013 the president sent military forces to the state Michoacán. Additionally, even though crime rates were reported to have dropped with 5.4% between 2013 and 2014, the number of victims rose during the same period from 24.5% to 30.8%. This discrepancy can be explained by the percentage of unreported or investigated crimes, which constituted 93.8% of all crimes in that same period.

The Life in Cartel Land

While the war against the drug cartels continues, so does the violence. Between 2006 and 2010, 994 children were killed in the war against drugs. In September 2014, 43 students went missing in the city of Iguala. 11 new disappearances were taking place in Mexico every day in the first three months of 2015. In the summer of 2015, 22 people were killed in a shoot-out between the Mexican army and armed groups – 12 of which were alleged to be either civilians or gunmen who had surrendered. On the 2nd of January, 2016, the newly elected mayor of Temixco was shot dead at her own house. Additionally, in July 2015, the movie Cartel Land was released in theaters. Even though the movie has won multiple cinematic awards, one critic argued that “the film moves so quickly and fluidly and with such unnerving violence that it doesn’t give you much time or space to think through the serious, urgent issues it raises.”

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