Can Mexico Reverse its Spiral into Violence?
After years of the War on Drugs, violence in Mexico is more endemic than ever before. The Red Line's Nik McNally unpacks the factors that have led the Latin American nation to this situation and evaluates the prospects for change moving forward.
Insecurity in Mexico is pervasive and intensifying. Bordering the US and Guatemala, with ports facing Asia-Pacific, Mexico is a major transit country for migrants in the Americas and a gateway for illicit flows of drugs and arms. Since 2006, Mexican governments have largely taken a militaristic approach towards organised crime syndicates, aiming to dismantle them through the capture and assassination of high-profile members.
The result? Mexico’s criminal landscape has deteriorated; from one dominated by a few powerful cartels into a web of factions, where hundreds of criminal groups compete for territory, supply chains, and influence. This development has seen homicides escalate. Mexico had Latin America’s fifth-highest murder rate in 2022, with roughly half of the reported murders occurring in a handful of states where cartels clash over lucrative trafficking routes across the Pacific and to the US.
Such violence thrives under corruption and impunity. Judges, police officers, and politicians accept bribes from cartels to turn a blind eye or actively collaborate. Those who don’t face coercion or worse. In 2022, RSF ranked Mexico as the world’s deadliest country for journalists. Following Colombia, it had the second-highest number of killings of human rights defenders in the region. Dozens of politicians were killed ahead of the 2021 midterm elections, with many of these deaths attributed to cartels. An estimated 93 per cent of crimes go unreported.
Governance and organised crime in Mexico have a history together. Power in the Mexican state was deeply centralised during the 71-year tenure of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). From the 1970s, drug trafficking organisations cultivated networks of corrupt officials to gain distribution rights, market access, and protection, with the PRI even meditating on conflicts between crime groups.
Mexico’s geography further encourages the rule of law to fragment; deserts in the north, jungles in the southeast, mountain ranges throughout, and no network of navigable rivers that favour political and economic integration. The federal government, based in Mexico City, struggles to effectively secure and control territories around the country—but this is not necessarily for a lack of military presence.
In rhetoric, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) favours a socioeconomic, rather than militaristic, response to insecurity. In practice, military spending grew annually by 16 per cent during the first three years of AMLO’s administration and increased by 20 per cent more than initially allocated in Mexico’s budget. Public health, meanwhile, has faced spending cuts. The federal police force, once under the civilian command of the Public Security Ministry, was dissolved and replaced by the National Guard, subordinate to the army.
Militarisation and institutional weakness in Mexico have led organised crime groups to entrench themselves and wreak violence. The policy decisions of AMLO’s government have built on the status quo and deepened insecurity.
Institutional weakness is a theme of AMLO’s presidency. The government has approved reforms to modify and reduce the responsibilities of the autonomous National Electoral Institute. The National Prosecutor’s Office has been uncritical of the government’s attacks on the judicial branch. The National Human Rights Commission has stated its support for the military’s increasing responsibilities over public security and infrastructure, despite the elevated risk of human rights violations that arises when the military plays a prolific role in public life. The Commission was similarly supportive of the government’s electoral reforms.
The choices of AMLO’s government - the centralisation of executive power, military might over socioeconomic support, and the institutional decline arising from the two—have built on past corruption and neglect, preserving an environment where organised crime groups can prosper. But Mexico’s insecurity doesn’t occur just from domestic factors, nor is its violence felt only at home.
Borders and Beyond
At the northern border, evolving patterns of smuggling and migration test relations between Mexico City and Washington. In 2022, more migrants were arrested and deported while attempting to cross the Mexico-US border than any point in over two decades, as violence and political instability drive displacement from Mexico and other nations in the Americas.
The US Supreme Court has blocked President Biden from ending the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, under which the US deports asylum seekers to Mexico as their asylum requests are processed. Mexico has renounced its support for the policy, which Human Rights Watch observes opens asylum seekers to risks of extortion, kidnapping, and other abuses at the hands of cartels in northern Mexico.
Illicit flows of US weapons into Mexico further enable violence. Gun ownership in Mexico is heavily regulated, with one gun shop in the country run by the army. But the weapons find their way: Mexico’s Foreign Ministry estimates that half a million weapons enter Mexico illegally from the US annually. Guatemala is an additional source of arms, both those left over from the Cold War and trafficked from the US. Between 70 to 90 per cent of weapons recovered at crime scenes in Mexico can be traced back to its northern neighbour.
The gun trade fuels the drug trade. Mexico’s cartels are significant buyers of US weapons and have historically paid cocaine suppliers in Colombia with arms. Yet cocaine, though a lucrative source of cartel revenue from Europe and North America, is no longer the most pressing concern.
Mexico’s two dominant cartels, the legacy Sinaloa Cartel and the emergent Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG), increasingly traffic fentanyl to the US. A synthetic opioid deemed 50 times more potent than heroin, the US Drug Enforcement Administration claims to have seized enough fentanyl at the border in 2022 to kill the entire US population. Opioid consumption fuels soaring rates of overdose-related deaths in the US.
From China, and to a lesser extent India, Mexico’s cartels buy the precursor chemicals required to make fentanyl. The Sinaloa Cartel also takes advantage of China’s trade with Africa to smuggle synthetic precursors from countries such as Mozambique and the DRC.
The fentanyl market, currently mostly limited to North America, has the potential to develop elsewhere. Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, has reported the discovery of production facilities and seizures of fentanyl in the EU. In Asia-Pacific, the Sinaloa and CJNG cartels have challenged the supremacy of Chinese triads over the region’s cocaine and methamphetamine markets. Limited anti-crime cooperation between Mexico and Asia-Pacific nations accentuates the risks of violence arising from cartel-triad competition and the entrance of fentanyl into the region.
It’s now a global challenge to curb the increasingly expansionist reach of Mexico’s cartels and stunt supply chains that fuel violence. To accomplish this, Mexico will need to collaborate closely with China, India, the EU, and the Americas region on strategies for crime prevention.
Laying Down Arms
A silver lining: Mexico has diplomacy on its side. Mexico has long observed foreign policy ideals of non-intervention, peaceful dispute resolution, and respect for self-determination—it hasn’t joined an international armed conflict since the Second World War. As such, Mexico balances friendly ties with China, Russia, India, and nations in Latin America while deeply integrated with the US. Therefore, Mexico’s favourably placed to bring Beijing and Washington together on fentanyl and to push for greater hemispheric cooperation to strengthen security and human development.
The US has recently unveiled a $4.2bn private sector investment fund to curb economic migration from Central America’s Northern Triangle through job creation. Yet, corruption concerns have stymied previous rounds of financial investment in the region. Initiatives focused on governance, infrastructure, and institutions should factor more prominently into any strategy for regional aid. Partnerships with the region’s more stable countries—Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama—have been relatively unexplored.
At the border, there are early signs of a deal that will see Mexico commit to reducing fentanyl smuggling in exchange for the US making greater efforts to curb arms trafficking. Details are currently scarce, but the Mexican government’s lawsuits against US gun manufacturers suggest a desired policy direction: greater regulation and monitoring of arms sales and investment in studies, campaigns, and awareness-based initiatives to prevent illicit flows of weapons. The investigation and prosecution of corruption among Mexico’s customs authorities, especially at the US border, should also be a priority.
Building clean judicial, security, and political institutions should take precedence in Mexico’s domestic politics and in hemispheric initiatives to address violence in the Americas.
These are promising but small steps towards the prize outcome of negotiations: democratic opening for sanctions relief. The US and EU have demanded the release of political prisoners, restored press freedom and judicial independence, and, chiefly, free and fair presidential elections in 2024 with independent electoral and observatory bodies. But Maduro is only prepared to make guarantees when all international sanctions on Venezuela are lifted.
Democratic opening and economic recovery in Venezuela are therefore intertwined. Rapprochement must achieve both sanctions relief and guarantees of free political participation to improve living standards in Venezuela, which will be essential to address the displacement crisis.
Colombia, a significant source of cocaine for the cartels, offers lessons for Mexico. President Gustavo Petro’s “Total Peace” plan has seen Colombia refocus away from coca crop eradication and targeting drug trafficking groups with military operations. Instead, Petro has offered coca farmers subsidies to gradually transition away from coca cultivation towards alternative businesses. Petro’s Total Peace plan also involves the partial decriminalisation of drugs and the negotiation of peace and surrender deals with guerillas and drug traffickers. Before Mexico can administer a peace process comparable to Colombia’s pacification of guerillas, analysts observe that it must first build clean and strong judicial, political, and security institutions.
This is a project that AMLO’s successor, due to assume the presidency in 2024, should pursue. The militarisation of security in Mexico has failed to defeat cartels or reduce violence. The undermining of autonomous civil institutions encourages unchecked corruption; the underfunding of public infrastructure opens a vacuum for organised crime groups to provide parallel governance and services to disenfranchised communities, entrenching themselves deeper into Mexican society.
The gradual withdrawal of armed forces, strengthening of civilian forces and access to justice, and multilateral cooperation to prevent trafficking offer a path to reducing insecurity in Mexico. How the next government spends its budget and political capital will decide if Mexico can reverse its trajectory of violence.
Written by Nik McNally.
Edited by Wade McCagh.