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Cocaine trafficking in Mexico

  • 9 Pages
  • Published On: 6-12-2023
1. Background

The 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, Mexico saw the common use of drugs, such as marijuana, opiates and cocaine for medical reasons. Doctrines used to prescribed laudanum and opium derivatives, including morphine and heroin and pharmaceuticals including cocaine, coca, wines and marijuana cigarettes. These drugs were available in the pharmacies, hardware stores and popular markets. Addicts were not considered criminals, but ill persons. Poppy culture was in existence in Mexico since the last quarter of the 19th century (Astorga, 1999, p.11).

Drug trafficking originated due to the USA initiatives of opium control and special laws to punish offenders during the first decade of the 19th century. The prohibition on one side of the Mexico-USA border and on the legal commerce created conditions for drug trafficking (Astorga, 1999, p.11).


For the North American market, traffickers transport cocaine from Colombia to Mexico or Central America using the sea routes and by land onwards to the United States and Canada. An estimated 90% of the cocaine entering the US crosses the US/Mexico land border. Texas is mostly used to enter the US (UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 2010).

The US Department stated that the major supply countries of Colombia and Peru and Bolivia use Mexico as the trafficking route for US bound cocaine (Congressional Research Service, 2020). Mexican drug traffickers remain the primary wholesalers of cocaine in the US (Congressional Research Service, 2020).

An October 2020 Reuters’ report states that four of Mexico’s drug cartles, Sinaloa, Jalisco Nueva Generacion, Zetas and Beltran Leyva have become the top buyers and traffickers of cocaine produced by criminal groups in Colombia, which is one of the world’s top producers of cocaine and the income goes to rebel armed groups involved in internal conflict. The Mexican drug cartels are in charge of the buying, trafficking and sale in the United States Nations (Acosta, 2020).

A 2019 Washington Post mentioned that an estimated $500 billion is made by cartel business and the drug traffic just in Mexico coming across to the United States. In 2008, the Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center estimated that Mexican and Colombian drug-trafficking organisations generated, removed, and laundered annually anywhere between $18 billion and $39 billion wholesale drug proceeds. In 2011, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime reported that an estimated drug-related cash flows amounting around US $11 [billion] per year from the USA to Mexico (Rizzo, 2019).

Watt and Zepeda (2012) pointed out that majority of the addicts to narcotics from Mexico lived abroad. Thus, traffickers would have catered to domestic consumers if there was a higher consumption rate in Mexico, This was not the case. The consumption rate in the US was higher and the consumers were wealthier, who were more willing to pay more. Watt and Zepeda (2012) presented this factor a reason for the ineffective and expensive actions against domestic addition. They presented a new aspect into looking at the political relationship between Mexico and its neighbours and their political discourse against the problem of trafficking (Watt & Zepeda, 2012).

The Congressional Research Service 2020 reported that Mexican drug trafficking organisations are the greatest crime threat to the United States. Their activities affect the security of Mexico and the United States. There has been brutal drug-trafficking-related violence committed by such organisations. The violence has also penetrated from the border into Mexico’s interior. (Congressional Research Service, 2020).

2. Enforcement Actions

The conservative government of President Felipe Calder´on (December 2006 - 2012) placed fighting organised crime as its core aim. BY the end of his presidency, approximately 45,000 troops were involved. The action was more focused on arrests and enforcement against traffickers. Major resources were invested in this. However, action on eradicating illicit crop got affected due to diversion of resources to respond to drug trafficking violence (Dell, 2015).

The enforcement action of Felipe Calderon attacked the cartels activities at many levels. Firstly, it dealt with internal inefficiency by dealing with corruption of public officials, which forms the core of cartel power. Many narco-corruption cases related with high-ranking federal officials were taken up. Secondly, it dealt with the operational integrity including in internal security processes, information security processes and physical security processes across the government agencies. Arrests of dozens of corrupt public officials were made. Thirdly, it disrupted the trafficking routes, such as increased security in the ports and tracking of suspicious aircraft (Perkins & Placido, 2010).

The conservative party undertook large-scale efforts to combat trafficking. The crackdown against drug trafficking involved a joint exercise of federal police and military and the Municipal police. The federal police and military conduct drug seizures and high level arrests. Municipal police provide local information for federal interventions against targeted actors. At the time, they act as valuable allies for traffickers. It was observed that the cooperation of the local authorities impacts the enforcement action (Dell, 2015). Dependance of local authurities may be linked with the clearance rate for homicides. The rate is low where only 20% of homicides results in arrests. Where the clearance rates are the lowest, that area is the most violent. Violence reflects attempts of rival traffickers to usurp territories after crackdowns by the government weakened incumbent criminals. Wherever, the conservative government wins, arrests are more. It also diverts drug traffic and increases violence in alternative drug routes (Dell, 2015).

The multi-agencies initiatives including multi-level gathering of information seems to be the key along with stronger internal security and integrity in tackling drug trafficking problems. This approach is also adopted by the US government where the Drug Enforcement Administration , FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and other federal, state, local, and foreign agencies collectively tackled the problem at all levels (Perkins & Placido, 2010).

Special task force such as the National Border Corruption Task Force (NCBTF) is established at FBI Headquarters. It has representatives from all government departments and agencies and they govern the general guidance and programs across the country. Such collective measures have resulted into disrupting and dismantling drug trafficking organisations. They have led to denial of proceeds and seizure of assets. They have also affected their ability to exercise control and to destabilise a region (Perkins & Placido, 2010).

The collective model could also be seen in President Calderon initiatives. Operation Limpieza (Clean Sweep) could be considered an example of such model. The activities of this Operation penetrated the several Mexican government agencies, such as Attorney General’s Office (PGR), Secretariat of Public Security and military leading to arrest of public officials (Perkins & Placido, 2010).

The collective model is also seen in the establishment of the ''Programa de UNODC para el reforzamiento del plan de acción de la estrategia de seguridad en Centroamérica y México'' in 2009. It was adopted by the seven Member States of the Central American Integration System (SICA), and Mexico. The Programme intends to complement the Central America and Mexico Security Strategy Action Plan. There is also a regional Centre of Excellence on Government, Public Security, Victimization and Justice statistics in Mexico established by UNODC and the National Institute of Statistics of Mexico (INEGI). They aim to help strengthen statistics and analytical capacities (UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 2010).

2.1 The problem with the measures

The problem may be found in focus on only the enforcement actions and less focus on securing protection of citizens who are affected by the drug trafficking activities and their violence. It is observed that the military is taking the lead in the actions against the drug trafficking organisations. This means their involvement has become a necessity (McGee, 2013). This means that there is a problem of unifying actions by the state and municipal police forces.

A 2015 Congressional Research Service report found that drug trafficking organisation are more fragmented and competitive than their earlier version of larger and stable organisations, which President Calderón dealth with. Such fragmentation began in 2010. It accelerated in 2011. An array of new and smaller organizations is active and the once smaller groups such as CJNG become larger (Beittel, 2015). The US Department of the Treasury in its press release of April 2015 also confirmed the fragmentation of the organisations. .The new actors have become powerful (U.S. Department of the Treasury , 2015).

The 2015 Congressional Research Service report found that the “kingpin strategy” of the Mexican government that incapacitate top and mid level leaders in major drug trafficking organisations was politically decentralised. This contributed to violent succession struggles; new and small organisations; and new violent criminal groups. Due to this strategy that resulted into fragmentation, high level of violence was seen (Beittel, 2015).

Despite the efforts put in by the government, the Mexican drug cartels have become transnational expanding its control beyond the Mexican borders. In addition to the US, their activities have reached Australia. They have expanded their routes reaching overseas. They have the capabilities to launder millions of dollars from Australia to the US and back (McGee, 2013). This means their coordination and collaboration model is better and stronger than the nations put together. As such, Mexican cartels, such as Sinaloa Cartel, have become primary global distributors of cocaine. They play key roles in international transshipment and distribution of cocaine (McGee, 2013).

Further problem is in form of the criminal diversification of the drug trafficking organisations. The high level increase in violence due to inter-cartel and intra-cartel conflict over who will take the lucrative drug smuggling routes is also accompanied by an increase in other crimes. Along with illicit drug trafficking, the organisation have started profitable crimes, including kidnapping, auto theft, assassination for hire, extortion, controlling prostitution, money-laundering, resource theft, software piracy and human smuggling (U.S. Department of State, 2015).

3. Legal framework and strategy to tackle organised crime of drug trafficking

Mexico has been following a prohibitionist legal discourse. Andrés Manuel López Obrador became the President of Mexico in 2018 and the discourse has changed to ensuring national security. This government formed an elite body comprising military police and naval forces, the federal police and the National Gendarmerie. The government took a legal path recognising the culture of drug consumption. In 2018, it proposed the General Law for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis to regulate the production, commercialisation and consumption of marijuana (Transnational Institute, 2014).

Before the 2018 proposal, the main drug legislation was the General Health Act and the 1994 reforms to the Federal Criminal Code. The 2018 aimed to separate drugs and relevant crimes into distinct categories and to increase punishable offences. Longer sentences ranging between 10 and 25 years were imposed for illegal commercialisation of drugs. Lower sentences were imposed for cultivating drug crops for personal consumption (Transnational Institute, 2014).

There are existing laws, such as the Federal Law Against Organised Crime 1996, which established the preventative detention; or the Law for small-scale selling of drugs 2009, which eliminated penalties for possession for drugs for personal consumption. The law exposed the flaws in the criminal system. There were an increased number of people jailed. Overcrowding problem was prevalent in the prisons. In 2016, a simple possession of illicit drugs constituted the fourth most committed crime. 5,700 people were arrested, which was more than those prosecuted in drug trafficking amounting 3,200. Moreover, consumers were treated as criminals instead of being subjects of public health policy. There were also reports of police third degree abuse of inmates (Transnational Institute, 2014)

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The proposed 2018 regulation permits personal consumption and harvesting of drug plants. The Supreme Court of Justice also supported the regulation. In October 2018, it declared absolute prohibition of recreational use of marijuana unconstitutional. It prohibited commercialisation or the use of other psychotropic substances. The government present the General Law for Regulation and Control of Cannabis in October 2019 (Transnational Institute, 2014).

4. Recommendation

Historically, there has been a common use of drugs for medical reasons. Issues of drug trafficking started when US started influencing nations to impose drug control. The current problem could be viewed in four major segments: i) the existence of drug cartels that have become transnational organisation with abilities to penetrate a nation with violence and money laundering; ii) Mexico has become the main global distribution of illicit drugs; iii) Inefficient laws, regulations and policies to deal with the problem; and iv) insufficient administrative means to deal with the problem.

In this context, policy recommendation will include the following:

4.1 Local support

This report has seen that where there cooperation and participation of local authorities during the initiatives by President Calderon, it disrupted the activities and site of operation of the drug trafficking authorities. Hence, any initiatives must aim to become a part of the local administration programmes. This will help gather inside intel of drug cartels.

While there has been a multilevel agencies effort, such as multilevel measures adopted by the US, for example the National Border Corruption Task Force or the regional Centre of Excellence on Government, Public Security, Victimization and Justice statistics in Mexico, the appropriate collective model should increase its focus in local authorities’ participation. Their contribution in the fight against the drug cartels and organisation would significantly improve the success of operation. For example, more and better intel about the routes and the actors involved could be achieved from local authorities’ support. In forming a united force, better coherence and unified approach could be complete with participation of state and municipal police forces together.

4.2 Focus on individual security and specific fund

The strategy by the government and enforcement agencies has been has been a prohibitionist approach. It has been more of hard fighting the cartels as could be seen where the military has been leading the enforcement actions.

Initiatives by President Calderon were focused on hard stand measures in the state and local forces and administration. His initiatives were also shown to have diverted resources to fighting drug trafficking violence and ignoring eradicating illicit crop. Thus, there is an absence of multi-level effort and sufficient financial and physical resources.

The new policy should shift to security of citizens affected by drug trafficking. Involving more of the local authorities will play a significant role in this area. The measures should give equal importance to security of the nation and local actors.

The state should have a fund specific to fund projects that are people-centered. Security measures must focus on vulnerable people targeted by drug cartels.

4.3 Legal framework not reflect the required enforcement strategy

The General Law for Regulation and Control of Cannabis in October 2019 seem to be in the right part as it separate personal consumption and illicit commercialisation. However, given the complex nature of drug related problem, this regulation may not be able to specifically deal with the problem.

The desired regulation should be two fold. The first aspect may be in line with the 2019 Regulation, which focuses on individual security and regulation of specific funds for that purpose. The second aspect may be specific to drug cartels, gangs and organisations. These two aspects will equally address individual security and prohibitionist approach.

The desired regulation with two fold aspects is called for in context that the drug trafficking activities are diversified in other crime activities. The organisations are fragmented and new and small gangs with ability to conduct severe violence are in existence. This will pose a great difficulty in curbing their activities that are now transnational if there is no law to specifically deal with them.

The current organisations are fluid in nature. They are small and local. The diversification into other crimes, such as kidnapping, and rival conflicts of these groups have higher potential of harming the civilians. As a result, the desired regulation is the need of the hour.

4.4 Political relations with neighbours and affected nations

The first and the main step should be in building close political relations with its neighbours and countries getting affected by drug trafficking, such as Australia and USA.

It was observed that during the Mexican midterm elections in the 2009, the Institutional Revolutionary Party won a substantial victory. The win pointed to a major support shift away from President Calderón. There was a fear that lack of political would dissuade support from president Calderón’s aggressive anti-cartel strategy. They might seek accommodation with cartel bosses that might lead to withdrawal of the military and federal police actions. The lack of confrontation and coercion might lead to major consolidations of cartels (Walser, 2010).

In the context, it is absolutely necessary that whichever party is in power, there must be a political will to place enforceable strategy to tackle the problem in hand. To start with, Mexico must developed a strong political bilateral cooperation with the US, as US is majorly affected by the problem. This is particularly important to address drug trafficking challenges. It is also necessary to address violence that spilled over to the US. The collaboration will ensure that demands at the affected countries are reduced by cutting the access routes. Cutting the access routes is not only confined to drugs but also to firearms supply. The Mexican cartels have access to U.S. guns, bulk currency and other such accessories (Walser, 2010). So, as long as the countries do not commit to improving their domestic issues in relation to the problem, there cannot be any solution. For example, the US can change the law in relation to supply of firearms, so that drug trafficking violence can be reduced. The Mexican government must change its laws to tackle gang formation and operation

Countries affect must strengthen each other physical and intelligence capabilities. A nationwide network for intelligence with local focus network may be able to gather, analyse and disseminate intelligence.

To conclude, a localised effort in terms of individual security and domestic laws to tackle the fragmented groups must be the primary action plan. This must be the driving force for longer term plan and transnational strategy in active political commitment and collaboration.


Acosta, L.J., 2020. Four Mexican drug cartels top buyers and traffickers of Colombian cocaine, official says. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 26 January 2021].

Astorga, L., 1999. Drug trafficking in Mexico: a first general assessment. Unesco-Management of Social Transformations Program.

Beittel, J.S., 2015. Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug. Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress. Congressional Research Service.

Congressional Research Service, 2020. Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations. Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress. Congressional Research Service.

Dell, M., 2015. Trafficking networks and the Mexican drug war. American Economic Review , 105(6), pp.1738-79.

McGee, N., 2013. Mexico, Drug Trafficking Organizations, Realism, and Human Security. PSU McNair Scholars Online Journal, 7(1), p.15.

Perkins, K.L. & Placido, A.P., 2010. U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control: Washington, D.C. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 26 January 2021].

Rizzo, S., 2019. Do Mexican drug cartels make $500 billion a year? [Online] Available at: [Accessed 26 January 2021].

Transnational Institute, 2014. About drug law reform in Mexico. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 26 January 2021].

U.S. Department of State, 2015. 2015 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Volume 1. U.S. Department of State.

U.S. Department of the Treasury , 2015. Treasury Sanctions Two Major Mexican Drug Organizations and Two of Their Leaders. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 27 January 2021].

UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 2010. Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 26 January 2021].

Walser, R., 2010. US strategy against Mexican drug cartels: flawed and uncertain. Backgrounder , 2047 , pp.1-15.

Watt, P. & Zepeda, R., 2012. Drug War Mexico: Politics, Neoliberalism and Violence in the New Narcoeconomy. Zed Books.

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