May 6, 2019

IntelBrief: Violence in Mexico and the Battle for Control Over Smuggling Routes

FILE - This Nov. 1, 2017 file photo, a woman embraces a girl next to images of murdered women following a Day of the Dead march calling for justice for victims of femicide, in Mexico City. The number of women being murdered in Mexico has risen sharply over the last decade amid the country's drug war (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell).
  • Murder rates in Mexico are again on the rise due to shifting dynamics between the cartels and a struggle for control of lucrative drug trafficking routes.
  • There are several large cartels responsible for smuggling drugs into the U.S.; the most advanced groups have also developed a global reach, in some cases supplanting previously dominant Colombian cartels.
  • Despite increased U.S. border patrols, the cartels are innovative in the way they smuggle drugs across the border.
  • Drug trafficking and the violence related to it present threats to both human and global security, especially as Mexican cartels expand their operations and influence to other regions and countries around the globe.


Mexico has been at war with drug cartels for more than a decade. Felipe Calderon's administration announced a 'war’ on drugs shortly after he came to power in 2006 and while there was some initial success, recent statistics show that murder rates are on the rise. Mexican authorities have arrested 33 of 37 high-level cartel leaders, yet new cartels have formed, while others remain stubbornly resilient. There were more than 28,000 deaths linked to cartels in 2018 – a  significant rise from several years earlier. In the northwestern border city of Tijuana, which last year was labeled the most dangerous city in the world, there were 138 homicides per 100,000 people. The authorities attribute the murders to the conflict caused by shifting dynamics between the cartels as they battle for control over trafficking routes both domestically and across the border into the U.S. In some parts of Mexico, the violence has led citizens to form local vigilante groups in response.

Organized criminal groups continue to smuggle an array of drugs into the U.S.—heroin, methamphetamines, and cocaine. Fentanyl and the precursor chemicals needed to make it are sent from Chinese factories to Mexico, where the cartels prepare the drug and smuggle it across the border, contributing to a massive opioid crisis in the U.S. Several of the most sophisticated Mexican drug cartels, notably the Sinaloa Cartel, previously led by Joaquin' El Chapo’ Guzman, and the Jalisco Cartel, are active in controlling the smuggling and trafficking routes across the U.S.-Mexican border. The most advanced groups have also developed a global reach, in some cases supplanting previously dominant Colombian cartels. Mexican methamphetamine cooks have passed on their knowledge to criminal entrepreneurs in West Africa, teaching them how to set up production laboratories and the methods and techniques of large-scale production. Mexican cartels have the propensity to develop beyond drug trafficking and into more sophisticated transnational criminal organizations. Los Zetas, the deadliest cartel in Mexico and one initially formed with a core of ex-Mexican special forces soldiers, has branched beyond drugs and now smuggles and traffics human beings and weapons. Under the Obama administration, Los Zetas was one of several organizations (along with the Italian Camorra and the Japanese Yakuza) specifically designated as a transnational criminal organization (TCO), which gives the U.S. government special authorities to target these networks.

Tijuana remains a critically strategic location for the Mexican cartels. At the border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana, as many as 70,000 people cross each day, representing an important economic link between the neighboring countries. Cartels have been innovative in how they continue to traffic drugs across the border, even with tighter controls. Schemes adopted by the cartels include the use of mules involving political figures or elderly citizens;  hiding drugs in produce or in the back of vehicles; smuggling drugs through tunnels; and in some cases catapulting them across the border. Mexican cartels also maintain a robust presence in nearly every major city in the United States. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Mexican cartels are the most dominant wholesale heroin traffickers in Chicago and Philadelphia and have solidified a growing presence on the coastlines and throughout the Southwest and Midwest regions of the U.S. 

The power of these cartels and their ability to smuggle drugs into the U.S. show no signs of waning, due in part to the deep connections that exist between cartels and senior political figures in Mexico. These groups are deeply embedded in local, regional and even national politics. The cartels rely on a vast profit margin to regularly bribe government officials and police officers to turn a blind eye to their illicit operations. Drug trafficking and the violence related to it present threats to both human and global security, especially as Mexican cartels grow in influence and expand their operations to other regions and countries throughout the globe.


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