HomeNewsAnalysisHow 100 Years of Failed Drug Policy Gave Rise to Mexico’s Cartels

How 100 Years of Failed Drug Policy Gave Rise to Mexico's Cartels


Many say Mexico's war on drugs began after former President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006, but a new book suggests that the genesis was prohibitive drug policies enacted by the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, a process that was later fueled by an economic trade agreement.

In their book “A Narco History: How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the Mexican Drug War,” authors Mike Wallace and Carmen Boullosa argue the creation of Mexican drug cartels and the violence they have spawned is inextricably linked to proscriptive drug policies developed by the US and later adopted by Mexico.

The prohibition of first opium and then other narcotics in the US and Mexico during the early part of the twentieth century created favorable conditions for criminals to meet the demand for narcotics that had become outlawed. 

“When you establish a policy of prohibition, you also create a black market. And Mexico, being next door, did its best to respond to that market,” Wallace told InSight Crime.

It would take several decades, however, before Mexican drug trafficking groups became highly sophisticated. Here too, the United States would take an active role in fostering the growth of Mexico's first modern drug trafficking organization, the Guadalajara Cartel, the authors argue.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

According to the book, the United States sent discreet shipments of high-caliber weapons to a founder of the Guadalajara cartel, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, during the early 1980s. These guns were later passed on to the US-proxy, the Contras in Nicaragua, to assist in their attempt to topple the left-wing Sandinista regime (something InSight Crime has chronicled as well). In return for this “humanitarian aid” the cartel provided, the US turned a blind eye to the huge quantities of crack cocaine processed in Mexico that were arriving on street corners throughout the United States, the authors say.

Most people, when they talk about the 'Mexican drug war,' are thinking only of the Calderon period, but those six years were a century in the making."

The weakness of state institutions in Mexico at that time -- such as the National Security Directorate (DFS) -- also facilitated the cartel's expansion, the authors argue. 

“The Guadalajara Cartel prospered largely because it enjoyed the protection of the DFS... The DFS provided bodyguards for the capos, [and] ensured drug-laden trucks safe passage over the border by using the Mexican police radio system to intercept U.S. police surveillance messages,” the authors write.

Mexico's Militarization, and NAFTA's Accidental Impact on the Drug War

The militarization of Mexico's drug war and the kingpin strategy are frequently associated with Calderon, but the authors suggest these policies were put in motion much earlier. For instance, former US President George H.W. Bush proposed spending billions on a militarized approach to combat drug trafficking, and signed off on greater border security and US aircraft to fly over Mexican airspace in order to monitor drug trafficking activity. Bush also requested then-Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari capture Felix Gallardo.

The authors argue Salinas accepted US demands in large part because warm relations between the two nations would improve the chances for the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the US, Mexico and Canada.


The strengthening of economic bonds has made it difficult for the United States to sanction Mexico under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, despite ample evidence of drug trafficking groups corrupting state institutions.  

However, NAFTA's implementation in 1994 would inadvertently create even better conditions for drug trafficking groups to expand, the authors say. Bilateral agreements on agriculture under NAFTA made it nearly impossible for small Mexican farmers to compete with subsidized food stuffs imported from the United States, Wallace and Boullosa write. These destitute farmers “found the burgeoning market for marijuana and poppies their only avenue to surviving on the land,” thereby increasing the drug supply available to cartels, they say. The higher number of goods crossing the border also made it more difficult for authorities to detect cartels smuggling drug shipments into the United States.

Other free market policies enabled Mexican gangs as well, the authors suggest. The expiration of the US semiautomatic assault weapons ban in 2004 was quickly followed by high-power weaponry like the AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles appearing in Mexican border cities such as Tijuana, Juarez and Nuevo Laredo, which by 2012 was suffering from sky-high murder rates.

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The authors make a number of arguments that challenge the accepted wisdom on Mexico's drug war. One is that the “war” is relatively new; the authors suggest it is the product of a series of policies implemented by the US and Mexico over the past 100 years.

“Most people, when they talk about the 'Mexican drug war,' are thinking only of the Calderon period, but those six years were a century in the making," Wallace told InSight Crime.

Wallace and Boullosa also propose that the reference to “Mexico's drug war” is actually a misnomer, since the United States has played an equally important part in creating and sustaining the drug war. Mexico's acquiescence to flawed US security policies is a major reason for the growth of cartels, however, the authors stress that corruption in Mexico played an important role as well. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

Finally, the authors argue the snowball effect is in play concerning Mexico's drug war, which began in the early twentieth century but has been building slowly over time. Prohibition was the source of the drug war, Wallace told InSight Crime, calling prohibition, "The mountain spring whose waters fed a river that got bigger and bigger as it ran downhill."

Nevertheless, certain historical events have left an indelible mark on Mexico's drug war. Below, InSight Crime identifies a turning point from each of the past four decades that has helped shape and define the current state of the conflict.

1980s: The torture and killing of DEA Agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena

In 1985, members of the Guadalajara Cartel kidnapped, tortured, and killed undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Camarena while he was on assignment in Mexico. His killing helped push the US Congress to pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act one year later (pdf), which levels sanctions against drug-producing or drug-transit countries that do not fully comply with the United States on interdiction efforts. As noted in the book, this law has created powerful incentives for Mexico -- and other countries in Latin America -- to cooperate with the United States in the fight against transnational drug trafficking. 

The refusal by Mexican authorities to hand over drug trafficker Rafael Caro Quintero -- the suspected intellectual author of Camarena's murder --  to the United States has strained coordination on extraditions between the two countries ever since. Caro Quintero's early release from a Mexican prison in 2013 only increased tensions, and the controversy his case has caused is considered to be one reason drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has yet to be extradited to the United States following his capture in February 2014.

1990s: The passage of NAFTA

As detailed above, NAFTA may have indirectly created favorable conditions for Mexican criminal groups to prosper. What's more, the strengthening of economic bonds has made it difficult (pdf) for the United States to sanction Mexico under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, despite ample evidence of drug trafficking groups corrupting state institutions. These close economic ties -- Mexico is the world's second-largest purchaser of US goods -- also may have pushed the United States away from pressuring Mexico on human rights violations related to the drug war. 

It is worth noting that NAFTA has also contributed to the strengthening of Mexico's growing middle class (and, arguably, decreased migration to the US). Whether or not Mexico could have achieved this economic success without experiencing the security drawbacks is a complicated question that has no easy answer.

2000s: The end of a political monopoly and the new militarization of the drug war

In 2000, for the first time in a century, a president not from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) entered office. Vicente Fox represented the National Action Party (PAN), a conservative coalition that sought tighter relations with the US. The upheaval would do more than begin a new, tumultuous era for Mexican politics, it would end decades of cozy relations between political officers, bureaucrats and security officials with the underworld.  

The deployment of 6,500 soldiers to Michoacan to root out criminal organization the Familia Michoacana just 10 days after Calderon took office in December 2006, would set the tone for the rest of his presidency.

The result was more conflict between the state and organized crime, which eventually led to Calderon's heavy reliance on federal troops to combat some of the most potent and dangerous criminal groups. The deployment of 6,500 soldiers to Michoacan to root out criminal organization the Familia Michoacana just 10 days after Calderon took office in December 2006, would set the tone for the rest of his presidency.

However, while it may remain a necessary stop-gap while the government continues its overhaul of the police, statistics show violence has increased in areas where the military has been deployed. The military surge has also been linked to a dramatic rise in reports of human rights abuses by Mexican security forces. Despite indications President Enrique Peña Nieto would reduce the military's involvement in combating drug trafficking organizations, so far this has not proven to be the case.

2010s: The Guerreros Unidos and the missing 43 students

The disappearance of at least 43 students last September allegedly engineered by a criminal group, local police, and a mayor in the southwest state of Guerrero sparked outrage in Mexico and abroad. In many ways, the criminal group involved -- the Guerreros Unidos -- represents the new generation of organized crime in Mexico.

The fragmentation of monolithic criminal organizations such as the Juarez Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel has given rise to smaller successor groups that do not have the resources or the international contacts to transit drugs on a massive scale. As a result, groups such as the Guerreros Unidos -- a splinter cell of the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) -- are relying more heavily on other sources of criminal revenue, such as kidnapping, extortion and local drug peddling.

These criminal activities target and impact the general population to a much higher degree than international drug trafficking, and can lead to higher levels of violence, as seen in Guerrero and other parts of Mexico. The capture of two prolific drug lords in the span of one week in early 2015 suggests this trend of atomization will continue.

This phenomena of rising violence as criminal organizations splinter hints at the complexities involved in bringing an end to "Mexico's war on drugs." The authors argue the United States and Mexico must roll back the prohibitive drug policies that started the war on drugs more than a century ago. However, such policies may push criminal groups even further into kidnapping or extortion as the demand for narcotics via illicit means diminishes, and may result in greater insecurity for the Mexican population. 

As Wallace told InSight Crime: “There is no silver bullet that can magically resolve the drug war in Mexico."

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