Mexico’s War on Drugs

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Taking a political approach to the Mexican drug wars is essential to understand how power relations amongst the stakeholders within this conflict have shifted over the years and how it has led to this violent escalation. The first part of this political section will analyze Mexico’s political transformation since 2000 and explain how this led to an escalation in 2006. As the war has been going on for 14 years, we will follow this analysis, by looking at the contemporary issues that Mexico’s political institutions are facing. In the final part, we will analyze the complexity of the war on drugs and how it has influenced the various fronts of this conflict.


After the election of Vincente Fox, government agendas were directed towards the transformation of the “highly centralized” (Beittel, 2004, p. 192) and “hyper-presidentialist” (Dresser, n.d., p. 1) institutions that were inherited from the decades-long PRI rule. These changes in the political field aimed especially at improving democracy, however, went parallel with growing levels of violence predominantly in northern and coastal Mexico (Shelley, 1987, p. 213).

In this part, we will investigate how Mexico’s political transformation towards decentralization has exacerbated violence and eventually led to a militarized conflict between the state and the cartels. For a better understanding of how this happened we will use Selee’s analytical understanding of decentralization processes (Selee, 2011) and Abadinsky’s theory, on organized crime that faces increased governmental repression (Abadinsky, 2010). These we will apply to a chronological analysis of the Political Transformation Mexico went through. Before we go on with our analysis it is useful to provide some theoretical framework.

Government Institutions are described as “centralized’ when decision making, policy implementation and enforcement are concentrated in one entity within the political system (Edmonds-Poli & Shirk, 2009, p. 76). Selee’s definition of decentralization in the broad conception of the term goes as follows “the increase in subnational governments’ authority over functions, powers, and resources and in their autonomy in decision-making relative to the national government.” (Selee, 2011, pp. 16–17).

Therefore, as opposed to a centralized government, a decentralized government consists of a system where greater decision-making and authority are granted to lower levels of government (Edmonds-Poli & Shirk, 2009, p. 76). Applying Abadinsky’s theory, which posits that “organized crime members often kill each other when they face increased governmental repression” explains why violence increased when the Mexican government went through a political transformation (Abadinsky, 2010).

During the rule of the PRI, Mexico was experiencing its most centralized era in history and was one of the most centralized countries in Latin America (Selee, 2011, p. 27). Denisse Dresser, a Mexican political scientist, further applied this concept of centralization by Selee on the Mexican context and coined the PRI regime a hyper-presidentialist, hierarchical system. Hyper-presidentialism meaning a political system that is defined by the centralization of all institutions granting the Mexican president unprecedented power for 6 years (Dresser, n.d., pp. 1–2; Edmonds-Poli & Shirk, 2009, p. 77).

This created a very strong hierarchical culture within the political sphere where not following your seniors could have serious consequences, senators had the power to remove governors, the governors had the power to remove mayors (Gonzáles Casanova, 1975, pp. 37–43). This created a tradition of politics where only a small elite held real power which rendered the political system vulnerable to corruption. As an example, multiple UN agreements were signed by the PRI governments in the second half of the 20th Century, agreeing to reduce the outflow of narcotic drugs (Jelsma, 2011, p. 6).

However, the flow of drugs to the US remained unchanged and even increased (Chabat, 2010a, p. 2). It is suspected that the PRI held an informal policy of tolerance towards drug cartels and even protected them (Chabat, 2010c; Guerrero Gutiérrez, 2009; Ponce, 2016b) , which has been proven by numerous prosecutions of corrupt high officials that provided cartels with impunity (Beittel, 2004, p. 192). This policy of tolerance seemed effective as violence levels were kept low, this facilitated the Pax Narcotica (Chabat, 2010a, p. 4). However, the long-term effects of this policy would show to have detrimental consequences as the Mexican cartels’ output of drugs was increasing immensely and so was their power, forming a threat to the rule of law (Selee, 2011, p. 46).

In the late 1980’s the gradual shift towards decentralization started slowly. It eventually accelerated in the years 1994-2000, when sub-national governments where opposition parties were increasing in popularity, were granted more authority giving these political parties foothold in national politics as well (Selee, 2011, p. 51). In the 2000 elections, Mexico reached its turning point with the election of President Fox whose main objective was to use this momentum of decentralization to fight corruption within the political system. His successor President Calderón continued to apply similar policies for decentralization in order to create more checks and balances within the political system moving away from an authoritarian hyper-presidentialist regime to a presidentialist system where the president shares power with other officials (Dresser, n.d., pp. 1–2).

Cartels were depending on the tolerance policy under the PRI to grant them the impunity they needed. However, after the election of Fox, this was no longer the case and cartels were met with retaliation from the government (Chabat, 2010a). As Abadinsky’s theory explains, when organized crime members are faced with an increase of governmental repression, they become more hostile primarily because they fear that members will start cooperating with the law (Abadinsky, 2010). This eventually caused the collapse of the Pax Narcotica. with rising violence levels as a result (Edmonds-Poli & Shirk, 2009, p. 132). As explained by Beittel “To a large extent, DTO violence directed at the government appears to be an attempt to re-establish impunity while the inter-cartel violence seems to be an attempt to re-establish dominance over specific drug trafficking plazas.” (Beittel, 2004, p. 194).


After the long PRI rule, all succeeding government administrations have, parallel with the measures for decentralization, launched numerous anti-corruption campaigns in an attempt to limit dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those entrusted with power (Morris, 2003, p.671). However, two decades later, Mexico still scores only 29 out of 100 on the corruption perception index of Transparency International, where 100 refers to “very clean” and 0 to “very corrupt” (Transparency International, 2019).

It is important to note that, when it comes to defining corruption, its characteristics, origin and dynamics are highly debatable and are highly dependent on the context (Johnston, 2014, p. 9; Nye, 1967, pp. 417–427). Due to the high complexity of the concept, we will not include contemporary debate on the concept of corruption as that goes beyond the purpose of this paper. Instead, to explain corruption in the context of the Mexican drug war, its impact on the rule of law and analyze how it has further exacerbated violence, this part will cover several theories by Gerald Caiden, a researcher on comparative corruption (Caiden et al., 2001), Stephen Morris, an expert when it comes to corruption in Mexican politics (Morris, 2003) and John Bailey, a professor at the university of Georgetown specialized in foreign governance studies (Bailey, 2014).

Morris explains that one approach within corruption studies considers that a culture of corruption is the effect of years of lasting political corruption (Morris, 2003, p. 672). This is applicable on Mexico’s history as decades of PRI have provoked a similar culture of corruption, which at that time seemed to keep levels of violence low, however, in contemporary times, this culture of corruption seems to fuel the opposite (Morris, 2013, p. 29). In order to analyze the consequences of a culture of corruption we will use a structuralist-institutionalist approach by Caiden which posits that when incidents of corruption are revealed, the credibility of regimes decreases, which leads to the loss of confidence in public institutions and the undermining of the regime’s legitimacy (Caiden et al., 2001, pp. 230–241).

Bailey’s theory further explains the gravity of this effect, as weak trust in the regime can lead to “a context that tolerates illegality” (Bailey, 2014, p. 21). This leads to a viscous cycle in which both democracy and the rule of law are getting undermined (Caiden et al., 2001, p. 241). In these broad theories, crime is never seen as a strong influencer of corruption. When examining the Mexican context, however, it is undeniable that crime facilitates corruption and the other way around (Morris, 2019, p. 216). Therefore, in the following part, we will pay attention to the interlinkage of crime and corruption in the context of the Mexican drug war.

Before we start analyzing the dynamics of corruption and crime it is important to first address the tautological issue here. Corruption also falls under the broad concept of crime, but in this paper, we will narrow its definition down to the act of misusing state authority for personal or political gain by state officials of the rule of law. Subsequently, the act of corruption takes many forms such as misuse of power, abuse of human rights, obstruction of justice, electoral fraud, etc (Morris, 2019, p. 210). As stated by Laurie Freeman “corruption can exist without organized crime, but organized crime cannot survive without corruption” (Morris, 2019, p. 12). In other words, crime organizations in Mexico such as DTOs consider corruption as means of conducting business.

By bribing state officials provide DTOs with impunity, information on state operations or rival cartels, or even provide logistical support (America Gatto & C, 2016, pp. 3–29). This is common in Mexican society and it is generally known that “every trafficker has a great many appointed officials and elected politicians on his payroll” (de Mauleón, 2010). Newspaper headlines frequently feature officials getting arrested for corruption. These can be top officials, fighting drugs and DTOs or could be lower officials such as port and prison officials, mayors, law enforcement and journalists (Morris, 2013, p. 30). What cannot be left out in this analysis of corruption in the Mexican drug wars is that in certain circumstances state officials can be compelled to accept bribes of DTOs and forced to take part in corrupt practices.

There are numerous cases where DTOs intimidate state officials by threatening them and/or their families (Lacey, 2008). In legal terms however, the line between corruption and intimidation remains ambiguous (Morris, 2019, p. 218). The danger in the abundance of corruption is that while DTOs are gaining more power it is simultaneously weakening the state’s efforts to confront them (Altman, 2010, pp. 97–123; Dell, 2015, p. 1738). The state’s capacity to enforce the rule of law is diminishing (Morris, 2013, p. 34) which we will look into in the following section.

Due to the great number of corrupt officials in Mexico implies that the state is failing to enforce the rule of law, which is measured by the effectiveness of the judicial system and law enforcement in preserving the law but also themselves being subject to it (Merkel, 2013, pp. 21–47; Soares, 2004, pp. 32–46). The state is presumed to safeguard its monopoly on violence to govern society and protect its citizens. Enforcing the rule of law is its greatest tool to achieve this. (Choi, 2018). However, the institutions of the rule of law, checks and balances and democracy that regulate and restrict state actors to reduce corruption, fail to enforce it.

As explained previously, Caiden’s theory on the effects of exposing corruption (Caiden et al., 2001, pp. 230–241), is applicable to Mexico as its culture of corruption has also taken away trust in, and legitimacy of the institutions fighting crime. This translates in citizens fearing the police and refraining from participating in the reporting and prevention of crime (Soares, 2004, pp. 851–871). This lack of trust in the law, according to Bailey’s theory on trust in politics, ultimately reinforces the culture of corruption present in contemporary Mexican society which creates a society that tolerates illegality (Bailey, 2014, p. 21) and sees the law merely as a tool to be manipulated for own benefit (Yankah, 2012, p. 63). Creating a vicious circle as described by Caiden in which the rule of law is undermined by corruption, leading to more corruption (Caiden et al., 2001, p. 241).

Interaction between Stakeholders

Although the Mexican drug war typically refers to the NIAC between the Mexican government and the cartels, it is important to acknowledge that the war on drugs takes place at more than one front. Therefore, in this part, we will briefly elaborate further on the interactions between the different stakeholders at the various fronts where the conflict leaves its mark.

As the number of cartels has increased over the years (Beittel, 2004, p. 182), so has the competition amongst them. Disputes between cartels over territory, trade routes and political power have provoked a turf war which has left innocent civilians living in the area, mostly northern and coastal Mexico where drug trafficking is most profitable (Rios, 2014, p. 201), vulnerable to the violence that it brings with it (Shelley, 1987, p. 213). Violent crimes, kidnapping, killings and extortion of, mainly, public servants such as teachers, doctors, law enforcers and journalists are part of strategies used by DTO’s to intimidate authorities and rival competitors (Rios, 2014, pp. 212–213).

In 2006 President Calderón started launching aggressive campaigns, assisted by the army and the DEA, to confront cartel leaders as a response to decades of drug-related violence (Chabat, 2010c). However, after several successful campaigns, that had led to the killings and arrest of various cartel leaders, succession struggles within weakened DTO’s led to the replacement of the old cartels with younger, even more violent cartels which displayed the deficiency of Calderón’s strategy (Gutiérrez, 2018; Stratfor Worldview, 2010).

His successor, President Nieto, changed this strategy and focused more on detaining the middle layer of cartels in an attempt to destabilize them and gain more compromising information on cartel activity. He did this with a new armed police force, the gendarmery, which, unlike the army, had the legal permit to investigate crime scenes and arrest people (Felbab-Brown, 2014, p. 19). During his presidency homicide rates dropped, however, at the end they rose to historically high numbers again (Marina Pasquali, 2020).

The increasing violence against and between cartels, parallel to the processes of decentralization, compelled cartels to change their approach to a more assertive one. Maintaining their political power by employing and keeping corrupt politicians in office by manipulating electoral outcomes was the cartels’ main strategy to constrain the government of use the rule of law against them (Ponce, 2019, p. 238). Alongside that, cartels used manipulation and intimidation, primarily at the subnational level of states where the DTO’s are most active (Ponce, 2016a, pp. 62–85) which is manifested in the increase of mayor assassinations since 2007 (Frausto et al., 2015).

As cartels try to increase their involvement in decision-making processes and prevent law enforcement actions of the government so are governments trying to protect themselves from the cartel’s attempts. In other words, they are fighting a two-front war. On one side, they try to keep violence levels low by fighting DTO’s (Ponce, 2019, p. 232), and on the other side, the corruption, as a result of the presence of DTO’s, has to be fought out of the system as well to conduct the war on drugs (Morris, 2013, p. 29). Since President Fox, notable efforts have been made to reforms government structures to end cooperation between corrupt state officials and DTO’s. New institutions such as the Secretary of Public Function (SFP), the Honor and Justice Commissions within police departments and specialized labor review boards were designed to uncover corrupt practices by undertaking drug tests, psychological exams and lie detections. Simultaneously a new generation of state officials and law enforcers are vetted and trained well in fighting DTO’s (Rios Contreras, 2013).


The development of Mexico’s decentralized government has both strengthened democracy and weakened it at the same time. Exposed state officials have no choice but to cooperate with DTOs, leaving the government with less tools to fight a war. Steps to battle corruption have been made but it will take years before Mexico will see the outcome of these changes. Interestingly enough, current left-winged populist President Lopez Obrador has, in 2019, declared the end of the government’s war on drugs. This has spiked the interest of many political scientists and the government’s proposal to decriminalize narcotics has been received with much skepticism as homicide rates are still rising. Needless to say, it will be very interesting to follow the evolutions of the conflict in the following years.


Cite this paper

Mexico’s War on Drugs. (2021, Mar 26). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/mexicos-war-on-drugs/

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