Losing the War on Drugs, Part II: Mexico & Regional Destabilization

A Crosscurrent of Chaos

Here is a recent bar chart showing deaths in the two main fronts of the ongoing U.S. War on Terror (Afghanistan and Iraq) compared with the Mexican Drug War which has raged since 2006. The Drug War just across our southern border has become a Human Rights Disaster that is not only destabilizing Mexico, but is also now a major national security threat to the U.S. Image courtesy of PBS Frontline.

The Mexican Drug War that has raged ostensibly since 2006 has cost the lives of nearly 100,000 people. Much of the country’s governing capacity has been catastrophically reduced, thanks to the reign of drug cartels. Meanwhile, the country’s economic potential has been sapped, in large part due to the chaos that the transnational criminal groups are causing throughout the country.

There are entire regions of Mexico where the cartels are the real source of power and the Mexican government is simply persona non grata. If they want to reassert their authority, the government often has to resort to extreme military measures that result in further destabilization and major human rights violations. This is a larger scale of what the world witnessed during Colombia’s War on Drugs, as I mentioned earlier.

It’s also similar to what’s going on in poorly governed spaces in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The more powerful that these transnational cartels become, the more brazen they become. And, while many may be disinclined to continue supporting this violent War on Drugs (it should be called the “War on Drug Cartels”), people should understand that drug cartels coexist and often feed off of and empower human trafficking organizations, illegal arms dealers, and, more importantly, international terrorism.

Indeed, as I reported recently, Illegal Immigration is not only limited to Mexican migrants seeking yard work in America, as the cliche goes. In fact, there is a human wave of Illegal Immigrants moving from the Islamic world into the U.S. The movement of these individuals from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia is facilitated by the drug cartels and their attendant street gangs (and “coyotes”) who want to earn money for moving Illegals of all backgrounds into the U.S.

So, while groups like the Sinaloas or Los Zetas are unlikely waging a Jihad upon the U.S., they are looking for low-cost, high-reward ways of enriching their organizations. Indeed, there are actual al Qaeda safe houses on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border where members of this “Terrorist diaspora” stay on their illegal journey through Mexico into the United States. Concurrently, a recent member of the Islamic State was arrested in Ohio who claimed that a major ISIS training camp was operating in an area of the Mexican state of Chihuahua known as “Anapra.” This area is a few short miles away from El Paso, Texas. 

Meanwhile, the Mexican government valiantly tries to resist the drug cartels’ influence over certain areas. While the Mexican federal authorities have had some luck in resisting specific cartels, the problem continues to worsen. A combination of poorly directed resources, mismanagement, and blatant corruption prevents the Mexican government from ending the war decisively in its favor.

Indeed, the corruption of weak local and regional governments has only facilitated the rise of major drug cartels. In much the same way that the Islamic State and Hezbollah act as de facto governments in their respective areas of the world, the drug cartels of Mexico have taken on similar quasi-state statuses in poorly governed regions of Mexico. In such regions, the cartels are able to cheaply mass produce their poisons and move them up through the poorly protected U.S. border with Mexico. This has allowed for products such as Heroin to be sold cheaply. The low-cost of mass-produced Heroin in poorly governed regions of Mexico has led to an epidemic of Heroin use in the United States.

51jmjhb8fklBecause of these compounding problems, the Mexican government has had to make choices on where to concentrate its extremely limited resources in fighting the Drug War in Mexico. As such, Mexican authorities tend to discriminate between two types of drug cartels: the transactional sort and the territorial type. As Nathan P. Jones outlines in his brilliant book on the matter, Mexico’s Illicit Drug Networks: And the State Reaction, transactional cartels are trafficking-oriented drug networks that focus on things like the logistics of moving and selling drugs from one location to another.

Territorial networks, on the other hand, focus on control of a given territory through taxation of that area (i.e. the infamous “protection” money that innocent civilians are forced to pay the cartels dominating those lands). Extortion and kidnapping also become key components of funding these territorial-type of drug cartels. It is these territorial-type of cartels that the Mexican state most heavily focuses on destroying because, as Jones establishes in his book, the territorial cartels “threaten the state’s raison d’être–the ability to govern through the taxation of territory.”

A map of the various drug cartels controlling Mexico and the routes of their illicit substances into Mexico and out into the U.S. This map is from 2012, and while some things have changed, the general tenor of the Mexican Drug War remains the same–further destabilizing the country and the U.S. southwest. Map courtesy of STRATFOR.

While the Mexican government is certainly correct in pursuing these pernicious quasi-state actors, the state’s inability (or unwillingness) to seriously address the transactional-type of cartels (i.e. the much-feared Sinaloa Cartel) is quite disturbing. Whereas territorial drug networks directly threaten a state’s power by challenging its monopoly on force, transactional networks concentrate on the physical trafficking of drugs, money laundering operations, the establishing of front businesses (legitimate businesses that secretly fund illegal activities), and cooperate with the government through varying degrees of corruption.

They also tend to form alliances with other illicit networks. Indeed, according to Jones’ work, “the transactional drug networks that survive [these] periods of conflict between states and territorial networks form alliances with states against their territorial rivals, thus institutionalizing cooperation between the state and the drug networks that hinder long-term democratic consolidation.”

This acts as a corrosive influence on a state and compels the supply-side of the Drug War to continue unabated. Still, though, the Mexicans are not wrong to address the immediate threat of the territorial-type of cartels. These are the groups that are causing the most damage to the region; these are the groups that are destabilizing all of Latin America.

Even when the Mexican federal government does crack down on the cartels as they did with the Zetas (a territorial-type cartel), the government often lacks the understanding that launching offensive operations will not resolve the problem. The Zetas began as a group of highly trained enforcers for the transactional-type Gulf Cartel who broke off their operations and became an independent group.

Because of the Zetas territorial nature (coupled with their advanced military training, as well as their penchant for ruthlessness), the Mexican government came down hard on them. What was the result? The Zetas expanded their operations south of Mexico into the poorly governed state of Guatemala. Now, the Zetas are believe to control upwards of 75% of all Guatemalan drug trafficking routes. 

A Mexican soldiers fighting the Mexican Drug War. Photo courtesy of USA Today.

The Mexican Drug War that has raged for a decade now has spread to the seven small, poorly governed and mostly impoverished Central American states. The Mexican government rightly describes these groups as “paramilitary forces.”

Indeed, the way that they operate and function is more like a quasi-state/paramilitary force. Many have dubbed the Zeta’s moves into Guatemala and beyond as simply, an “invasion.” Like an invading army, these groups have destabilized the local governments, they have terrorized the local populations, and they have displaced many people. In fact, the 2014 refugee crisis of unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. through Mexico in droves was the result of this ongoing invasion of Central American countries. Simply put, these young people are fleeing for their lives.

This is La Beastia, or “The Beast.” It is a train that travels from Central America to Mexico. On it rides hundreds of unaccompanied minors and other Illegal Immigrants all yearning to enter the U.S. Many die. Many more are taken advantage of. This train looks like this because the Mexican Drug War has destabilized Central America.

This chaos must be stopped. The only solution resides in foreign policy: it requires diplomatic, law enforcement, intelligence, and military cooperation at unprecedented levels. Mexico, for all intents-and-purposes, is a Failed (or, Failing) State. It poses a grave security risk to the United States. And, should the U.S. economy make a real recovery any time soon–without having established effective border controls–you can rest assured that Illegal Immigration will see a major net increase.

Indeed, as of 2015, the declining trends experienced from 2008-14 saw a significant reversal. The longer that Mexico sputters along mired in chaos and dominated by drug cartels, the U.S. will never have a respite from the economic dislocations of both the Drug War and Illegal Immigration.

A picture of Mexican Self-Defense Forces in a marketplace in the southern town of Ayutla, Mexico. These groups are not only arising in the southern part of Mexico, but also in the northern tier. Indeed, some local mayors in northern Mexico have been placing official calls for the establishment of Self-Defense Forces.

Lastly, the chaos has become so bad that in the last few years, Mexican citizens in towns that have been overrun by the cartels have taken matters into their own hands. Numerous “Self-Defense Squads” have been formed over the years. In the absence of legitimate state authority, and unwilling to be bullied by the cartels, farmers, shopkeepers, and teenagers have donned black masks, grabbed their shotguns and pistols, and engaged in open warfare against the drug cartels operating in their territory.

In many overrun regions, the local governments have encouraged this activity, in order to stem the rise of the cartels. While this is a noble effort on the part of Mexican citizens tired of being pushed around by heavily armed thugs, the efforts of poorly trained, armed citizens has only exacerbated the wave of violence that is destabilizing Mexico.

The only way to end this destabilization will be to resolve the Mexican Drug War decisively in the Mexican government’s favor. The solution resides in increasing the Mexican state’s capacity to govern. The first thing that must be done, then, is to intensify Mexico’s security.

Winning the Mexican Drug War

The U.S. must build a border wall to curb the flow of illicit substances.

The solution is multi-sided. One thing that the U.S. government must do is to build a wall that closes up many parts of the porous border. This would complicate drug runners’ attempts to sneak into the country. It would raise the cost of doing business for traffickers. Then, the U.S. must take some of its hard-won lessons from the Global War on Terror and apply it to the War on Drugs.

Namely, the U.S. should intensify its military support and training for Mexican forces, it should diffuse greater sums of economic aid to the Mexican state (and ensure that those funds are used to bolster the Mexican military), and it should increase its interdiction and counter-narcotics efforts on both sides of the border.

On the military side, the U.S. should deploy Special Forces elements to train and assist the Mexican government forces in their fight against the cartels. This is known as Foreign Internal Defense (FID). It differs from Counterinsurgency (COIN) methods applied in both the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, in that it would not see American forces directly engaging the cartels in combat.

Instead, it would ensure that Mexican forces are capable enough to resist the cartels and push back against them on their own. Still, the U.S. should expand its Drone Warfare to include operations against cartels. On the Mexican side of the border, it should use force against the cartels. On the U.S. side, it should use those drones for intensive surveillance operations.

The real issue at hand is the difference between the territorial and transactional-type of drug cartels. The territorial types are far more dangerous and are the biggest contributors to the Mexican Drug War. The transactional types very often find that their interests and the Mexican government’s interests are aligned. Remember, the most brutal drug cartel in Mexico, the Zetas, broke away from the Gulf Cartel. They are now at war with both their former employers as well as the transactional-type Sinaloa Cartel.

The first phase of American support for the Mexican government should be assist Mexico in quickly destroying the territorial cartels that are most destabilizing the country and region. Then, the U.S. must redouble its efforts against the transactional elements. However, this can mostly be done on the U.S. side of the border: a combination of addressing the demand-side of the Drug War at home, the aforementioned border wall, an increase in Border Patrol presence on the border, and more effectively chasing down homegrown criminal elements that deal in drugs will help in curbing transactional drug networks.

blog_drone_missileMeanwhile, the U.S. must increase its intelligence capabilities in Mexico. When President Obama took office in 2009, the first thing he did in the Drug War to expand America’s CIA presence in Mexico. Building off of this, the U.S. should start conducting joint-intelligence operations with Mexican intelligence and, potentially, sending the CIA’s expansive paramilitary forces to assist Mexican efforts in defeating the territorial-type cartels.

As for the more transactional-type cartels, the U.S. must intensify its law enforcement linkages with Mexican law enforcement. The only way to end this pernicious type of drug cartel is for Mexico’s leadership to feel that it can effectively curb corruption. In so doing, then, the Mexican government can go after front businesses, money laundering, and all of the other elements that empower transactional-type cartels.

Winning the Mexican War on Drugs?

The War on Drugs is totally winnable. I have previously detailed the need for America to focus its efforts on curbing the Supply-Side of drugs. This article has detailed how drug cartels fraternize and empower terrorism, human trafficking, and illegal arms throughout the world (as well as an assortment of other illegal activities). However, the lynchpin of this issue is the ongoing Mexican Drug War that has claimed upwards of 100,000 lives in the last decade.

It has also destabilized Central America and it is threatening the United States. What’s more, with the implosion of Venezuela, the violence and chaos may yet spread there. If that were to occur, it might end up disaffecting parts of South America. Poor state capacity to govern is what’s encouraging these cartels (as well as higher demand in the U.S.) to do what they have been doing for a decade. Therefore, America must ensure that Mexico can adequately resist and destroy territorial networks whilst placing considerable strain and pressure on transactional cartels.

Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

For those of you reading this with consternation at the “wastefulness” of what I’m proposing; for those who simply want to legalize marijuana and other substances, keep in mind that in the year 2000, according the Centers for Disease Control, roughly 17,000 Americans–many of them children–were killed due to drug overdoses and other illicit narcotic-related injuries.

A year later, in 2001, 3,000 Americans were killed in the 9/11 Attacks. After 3,000 Americans were killed, the U.S. declared a Global War on Terror and initiated two wars that toppled governments and significantly harmed terrorists. Whatever one’s opinion on that war, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein were dealt significant blows. Yet, with just 17,000 Americans having been murdered by drug cartels (either through direct violence or through drug usage), no one seems to care.

Make no mistake, the drug cartels have declared a war on the American people. While the American people may not be interested in waging that war, they should start to realize that if they do not, the problem will only worsen.


  1. Your diagnosis is great but your solutions don’t seem to be founded. The only way that drug violence has been curtailed has been through either decriminalization or direct negotiations and legitimizing drug cartel power as with FARC, though that example isn’t relevant here – the Mexican drug gangs aren’t looking for political power – and with the Peruvian model of just accepting corruption and keeping the civilian deaths to a minimum.

    1, A wall isn’t going to do squat. It might raise coke prices a bit. But including it here seems like an ill-fitting shoe-horned attempt to shill for Trump.

    2, No native-trained forces from the GWoT have done squat on their own. A lot of the drug gangs are armed and staffed from the military: there’s not going to be an indigenous military solution. Arming them would go even worse than arming the Iraqis. It didn’t work in Colombia, and I’m guessing it’d go even worse in Mexico without the wealthy paramilitaries – the local vigilante gangs don’t have the support of the politicians, unlike Colombia.

    3, There has never been a successful attempt to reduce state-side demand for drugs. At best it shifts the customer preference from coke to heroin to meth to coke again.

    Basically the short version is that there isn’t much to be done: these problems are as old and as intractable as the drug war itself, and there’s nothing novel in these proposed solutions that would generate results. If there is a solution to ending the drug war, it’s to declare drugs the victor and move towards mass decriminalization in an attempt to win the peace.


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