Drug Cartels in Mexico

Drug Cartels in Mexico

Drug cartels in Mexico are one of the frequently discussed issues in international relations. With the rise of these cartels has come violence such as kidnappings and killings. Individuals at risk have included rival cartels, innocent civilians, as well as specifically migrant workers looking to migrate north to the United States of America. In this article, we shall discuss drug cartels in Mexico. We will examine the history of drug cartels in Mexico, current activities of Mexican cartels, as well as the response by the Mexican government, as well as the American government.

History of Drug Cartels in Mexico

While much of the attention with regards to Mexican cartels has occurred within recent years, there exists a long history of drug cartel activity in the country. Looking at the influence of drug cartels in Mexico, “[m]any Mexican criminal organizations date their origins to the 1960s when the volume of contraband goods being smuggled into the United States achieved significant volumes.  However, as cocaine from South America began transiting the country in the 1970s and 1980s, Mexican criminal organizations grew in importance and complexity” (Dudley, 2012: 1). At the time, the criminal enterprise activity began in Columbia with cocaine. These groups would move the product north to Mexico. It was here that over time, the groups were looking for more of a cut from the drug revenues. In addition, they began to increase their criminal activity, expanding their distribution to America, often outside of the traditional linkages established Columbian criminal organizations.

During the early years of these Mexican cartels, the organizations were smaller in numbers, and relied on corrupt police in the country in order to operate. But this sort of smaller scale activity would not stay this way; over the years, as the groups moved more product, they increased in size, and in turn, they were seen as more of a threat by other drug cartels in Mexico. As a result, each of these groups, in order to protect their respective territories and drug trafficking activities, built up their security through the purchasing of more weapons. This sort of development has altered the criminal landscape with regards to the drug cartels in Mexico, and it is important to understand the effect that this increase in security had. As Dudley (2012) explains:

“The development of the military side of these organizations is significant for several reasons: First, it represented a break from the smaller, family-based models of the past. The transformation was profound. The new paramilitary armies adopted the terminology and logic of the military and their military trainers, some of whom were foreign mercenaries. The organizations began designating “lieutenants” to create “cells,” which included various parts responsible for intelligence gathering and enforcement. These new “soldiers” went through requisite training and indoctrination, then joined the fight to keep other cartels from encroaching on their territory. Alongside their new military side, the cartels’ infrastructure grew as well. They managed safe houses, communications equipment, cars, and weapons–the same type of infrastructure needed for virtually any sophisticated criminal act, from robbery to kidnapping to trade in contraband goods” (5).

Shortly after these developments, they began working to not only ensure their own turf or plazas were protected, but they often  looked to expand their territory and influence in the country. And once they established control over this plaza, if anyone wanted to smuggle drugs or conduct illegal business on the territory, they would have to pay a toll, or what is referred to as a piso to the ruling drug cartel. And in order to contain to maintain their power over these areas, they feel the need to invest in great military might, as well as higher numbers of recruits for their criminal organization.

However, this was costing these groups a great deal of money, and, thus, in order to mitigate some of this, these group leaders would delegate some of the decision-making to their lieutenants (Dudley, 2012). But when the decision making process became more diversified, so did the types of criminal activities that these drug cartels in Mexico were involved in. For example, while drug trafficking is still the primary criminal focus of the Mexican cartels, they have also expanded their activities to include various forms of human trafficking.

One of the drug cartels in Mexico is a group called the Zetas. Early in their history, their main criminal activity was cocaine trafficking. Over the years, as they continued to not only protect their territory, but also to expand into new areas, they furthered their drug (and other illegal) activities into other areas such as human smuggling, along with insurance fraud. As their power and influence increased, they also began charging others piso for their criminal activities. From the piso funds, they build up their organization further, recruiting more members into their organization. Over time, they rivaled other top criminal organizations in the country. And, while they were initially created to protect top members of the Gulf Cartel, over time they not only broke away from them (in 2010), but they began challenging the Gulf Cartel. But while much of the discussion here is on illegal activities of transnational criminal organizations, groups like the Zetas also have expanded into legal enterprises. The Zetas continue to make their money from these forms of taxation, as well as their own activities. 

Comparison to Other Criminal Organizations

The rise of drug cartels in Mexico differs a bit from the history of criminal organizations in Central America. In Central America, many of the organizations go back to the 1980s. It was at this time that the criminal organizations grew during a time when they were recruiting individuals who were rebels, fighting the government. Often, these rebel groups looked to acquire weapons in their rebellion against the state. And “In order to operate in these regions, rebel groups used illegal networks and trafficking corridors to obtain the provisions, arms, uniforms, and other materials they needed to run their wars against the state” (Dudley, 2012: 7). However, over time, as the civil wars continued, the governments expanded their military to fight rebel groups. However, following the end of the civil wars, the government cut back on their military spending and also cut their military size. This led to many “[o]ut-of-work- officers and operatives [who] offered their services to other sectors of the government, or sold their expertise to the underworld or private sector” (Dudley, 2012: 7). In addition, the number of guerrilla fighters who were now out of a role increased. Thus, some of these individuals went into politics, whereas others went into criminal activities. One other factor to consider with regards to the rise of criminal organizations in Central America was the United States policies. As the U.S. government increased their jail sentences for gangs, as well as increased the number of deportations, many who were carrying out illegal operations in the United States became active in Central America, where there were a number of willing individuals that felt they had little alternate economic opportunities (Dudley, 2012).

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