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Mexico: A Parallel Cartel State?

29 Oct 2019

On 17 October, a prolonged and bloody shootout between Mexican security forces and cartel members was triggered following the detention of Ovidio Guzman Lopez. The fighting killed 13 people and resulted in the operation being suspended. The Mexican authorities lost a battle in their own country against the cartels… is this the new status quo?


On 17 October, a prolonged and bloody shootout between Mexican security forces and cartel members was triggered following the detention of Ovidio Guzman Lopez, the son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who is currently serving life plus 30 years. Almost as soon as the famous drug lord’s son was in custody, the Sinaloa Cartel had mobilised and were exchanging fire with Mexican troops throughout Culiacan, the capital of the state of Sinaloa. As the fighting began to intensify, killing 13 people, and dragged on, Lopez junior was released, and the operation suspended. The country’s defence secretary stated that this decision was taken in order to save lives.

Regardless of how politicians’ phrase it, the whole operation was a disaster for the Mexican government. The country, its people, its neighbours and, most importantly, the drug cartels saw the government, with its newly formed national guard, try to take on the Sinaloa Cartel and lose.

Never has the government been beaten so publicly, so easily and so humiliatingly as they were on the streets of Culiacan.

Indeed, since 2006, when the Mexican Army was first mobilised to fight the drug gangs, shootouts between the Mexican authorities and cartel members have been common. The Mexican government has even suffered some public failures before when El Chapo himself escaped prison in 2015. However, never has the government been beaten so publicly, so easily and so humiliating as they were on the streets of Culiacan.

The failure has brought the President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), and his drug strategy into focus. Thursday 17 October’s embarrassing defeat came after an already bad week for the government; in addition to the battle for Culiacan, at least 13 police officers were shot and killed during an ambush in the western state of Michoacán on 14 October. The next day, 15 people, including 14 civilians and one law enforcement official, were killed in a shootout near the city of Iguala, Guerrero.

It is now vital for the government to fight back, AMLO’s strategy is under pressure and the government will need to be seen to combat this blatant disregard for the state’s authority. However, AMLO has not followed this path, instead, doubling down on his promised strategy and not contesting the apparent control that the Sinaloa Cartel, and others, have over large swathes of the country.

It remains to be seen how long the Mexican government can allow the cartels to gain more and more power. Since 2006, the nominal start of the Mexican governments war on drugs with the “Kingpin Strategy”, there have been years of targeted arrests of key leaders with the collapse or near-collapse of traditionally strong cartels such as the Guadalajara cartel, the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas; yet, crime rates are now at an all-time high, drug transportation continues and cartels seem to be diversifying their criminal enterprises. The government, therefore, looks to be losing the war.

The aim of the “Kingpin Strategy” was the elimination of cartel leaders dominating Mexico. At the time the strategy was a popular one and had been employed by other drug enforcement units elsewhere, the most notable case being the campaign to end Pablo Escobar in Colombia, which largely contributed to the demise of the Cali cartel. However, while the removal of the head of an organization can irreparable weaken a cartel and achieve the intended goal, it has led to widespread power vacuums in Mexico, allowing for rival groups to move in and take over illegal operations. This has only resulted in more violence and increasingly more sophisticated and resilient cartels.

Indeed, said violence in-country is now at levels three times higher than those in 2006. Homicide rates in Mexico are now the highest since records began with cartel violence the largest driver of the country’s criminality. This latest incident will only increase pressure on the government, with cartels appearing to hold more control over the country than the federal government.

AMLO political promises

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is popularly known as AMLO, came to power with a controversial “strategy for peace” to combat Mexico’s drug problem. Under this campaign promise, all Mexicans involved in drug production and trafficking would be given amnesty. It was hoped that this strategy would help reduce the numbers of those involved in the drug trade and, in turn, calm the fighting over territories and even, eventually, diminish the drug trade to levels that could easily be combated by the Mexican authorities.

This strategy would also be combined with the creation of a Mexican National Guard, created by merging elite parts of the Federal Police, Military Police, Navy, Chief of Staff’s Guard and other top Mexican Security agencies. The National Guard would then, finally, be given a legal framework to do the job they have been doing for years.

The key component to make the whole strategy work, however, was economic growth and social welfare. Indeed, the entire strategy revolves around economic growth, a growth that has not been forthcoming. This would give the poorer Mexicans the economic opportunities that will steer them away from the lure of the cartels. Thus weaken the cartels and making the job of the authorities easier in the longer run.

Despite the relative simplicity of the plan, there was some confusion even before it began; members of AMLO’s administrations stated the real criminals would not receive pardons, instead, these would focus on those from lower-income backgrounds, poorer farmers and young people. Basically, the amnesty was actually aimed at lower-level members of cartels and the drug trade, as a way to avoid people ending up in jail for drug possession. Given that much recruitment of cartel foot soldiers exists in prisons, it was hoped that this approach would have a double-edged effect and also stem recruitment amongst incarcerated individuals as well as weakening the entry-level recruitment process in Mexico’s impoverished areas.

The Cartels

Recruitment is vital for Mexican cartels, as they often operate as extremely complex criminal businesses, with low-level recruits normally feeding into the cartel’s main business enterprise, narcotics. Cartels have been operating in Mexico for well over a century and without significant violence occurring. However, in 2006, the Mexican government started actively prosecuting cartels with military force. Since then, violence has skyrocketed.

This prosecution has made the actual composition of cartel groups in Mexico is extremely complex. Where there was once only a small number of cartels, there are now numerous groups each affiliated or fighting in multiple ways, a factor almost directly related to the Mexican government’s drug war. The nature of their criminal networks makes understanding the constant splintering of groups, battles over territory and criminal hierarchies a challenge. Ultimately, the important factor for clients and travellers to be aware of is that this fragmentation of cartels leads to frequent power struggles, which only adds to the high levels of violence in the country.

mexico cartel map

Cartels run both domestically grown drugs and operate as middlemen for South American drug networks. The narcotics that the cartels chiefly import are cocaine and ephedra. Cocaine is almost exclusively brought in from producers in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru among others. Ephedra, a key component in the illicit manufacturing of methamphetamine (meth), is predominantly brought in from Asia, and the meth is cooked domestically in either Mexico or even the United States. Marijuana is predominantly grown domestically.

Other domestically grown or manufactured products include opium poppies, to make heroin, though this is also imported from places as far-flung as Afghanistan, and fentanyl, which is often passed off as a synthetic substitute for heroin. Both these can be sourced domestically and are extremely popular in the US drug market. This ability to keep the production mostly domestic is highly attractive to cartels, as importing drugs generally causes their profits to be diluted, due to the need to pay the actual producers.

The Sinaloa Cartel, also known as the Guzmán-Loera Organization or the Pacific Cartel (among others), was once termed the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world by the United States Intelligence Community. The cartel operates in the “Golden Triangle”, the states of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua, a region known to be a major producer of Mexican opium and marijuana. Despite the arrest of the Cartel’s most infamous leader, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the cartel continues to be the largest supplier of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana and MDMA, as well as the illicit fentanyl to North America.

Narcotics may be one of the main sources of income for these groups; however, other criminal ventures are also becoming highly lucrative. Illegal mining is a major income bringer, with iron ore being a key source of income for many cartels. The criminal groups are now involved in almost every process: from extraction to transport, processing, storage, permits and finally export. Other ventures such as oil theft and extortion are also lucrative and popular. This is especially true in the country’s north-east where proven oil reserves may now become a popular potential market for cartels.

Elsewhere, kidnappings have also become a means for criminal groups to finance various activities. Kidnappings, especially express kidnappings, hold less risk than drug trafficking or oil theft. These abductions have evolved in recent years, away from the previous tactic of targeting to high profile targets that may achieve a high reward but also carry a high degree of risk of being caught or arrests, to more low-profile targets, with kidnappers seeking smaller payouts in a shorter amount of time. This explains the popularity of express kidnappings and why they have increased so rapidly in the country since 2013.

Solace Global Comment

The Mexican government’s war on drugs can be categorised as a major failure. The continued decapitating of cartel leaderships in past operations, such as with the Guadalajara, Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas have all left fractured groups, contested territory and power vacuums, all of which fuel violence. The Sinaloa Cartel itself has been facing pressure, under El Chapo they had a near hegemony of power, now the CJNG are pressuring them in the Baja California peninsula among other areas of the country.

Regardless of these internal power struggles, these groups all hold access to significant funds from their criminal enterprises, significant clout with local populations through a degree of fear and, as demonstrated in Culiacan, significant military armament to combat the federal government. There will be significant concern in the upper echelons of the Mexican government at the ease with which a cartel managed to retake one of their nominal leaders.

However, the decision on how to move forward will be key. Since the botched raid, AMLO has doubled down on his strategy despite it showing little signs of actually producing the results that the government had hoped. While a change of strategy away from previous administrations has been needed, with Mexico’s murder rate rising above 30,000 in 2018 from around 10,000 in 2006, it remains unclear if this softer approach will actually work, or instead, only play into the cartel’s hands.

The events of 17 October almost cemented the idea that the cartels run a parallel state alongside the Mexican government. Now, regardless of what AMLO says publicly, a show of force, or some way of regaining control, is needed, though the actual impact of this is likely to be minimal. Then, whether AMLO’s approach will produce the results that Mexico wants remains unclear and probably will continue to remain so for the coming years.

For travellers, it is important to be aware that, while most of the violence in Mexico involves cartels fighting other cartels or security forces, civilians and even foreigner nationals can also be caught up and sometimes even targeted. Many cartels now have an extensive arsenal of weapons, many of which are comparable to those employed by the Mexican and even US militaries and law enforcement agencies that they are combating. This allows cartel members to sustain gunfights for prolonged periods over large areas in an almost military-like fashion. These battles pose a direct threat to travellers who can become caught in the crossfire.

Additionally, the collapse of some cartels has made them less capable or willing to successfully carry out international drug trafficking. As such, members of these cartel remnants may focus on more localised crimes, such as kidnapping, extortion, oil theft and carjackings, in an effort to raise funds and gain influence. These crimes pose a higher risk to travellers and companies in the area than the international drug trade, especially should gang members decide to deliberately target travellers for a higher reward.

While some areas of Mexico are considerably safer than others, violence can occur anywhere, especially at night. Violent incidents, which include kidnappings and murders, as well as police operations that can result in prolonged shootouts, continue to happen even in areas generally considered safe. Travellers should, therefore, avoid trouble spots, pay attention to their surroundings and follow common sense security measures when in-country.