A brief history of the Mexican drug war

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The 1,954-mile border which separates Mexico and the US is simultaneously the biggest boundary and the biggest opportunity in the global drug trade.

Early traffickers who knew how to transport cargo across this line on the map became a crucial part of the network transporting drugs from South America into their primary market.

For 70 years, Mexican politics was dominated by the PRI, a shape-shifting behemoth that used corruption, repression, and vote-rigging to hold on to power until 2000.

US-Mexico border
The border between the US and Mexico is a key faultline in the global drug trade (Picture: AP)

PRI leaders turned a blind eye, officials were bought off and Mexico’s gangs of delivery boys for the production giants – by now united under the Guadalajara Cartel – became a key cog in the global drugs machine.


Mexico’s drug war began as a civil war inside the cartels, triggered by the 1989 arrest of ‘the Godfather, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, for the torture and murder of an American agent.

As the PRI’s grip on power began to loosen, the corrupt networks that kept the black market ticking over beneath the surface began to break up, further fuelling violence among groups jockeying for position in this new landscape.

The awkward peace between the state and the cartels came to an end once and for all with the collapse of the one-party system which dominated the nation’s politics until the turn of the century.

Mexican soldier
Soldiers deployed in Michoacán state, one of the key battlegrounds in the Mexico drug war (Picture: AP)

Felbab-Brown said this change in the power balance contributed to the disorder, adding: ‘It meant every time there was a change in government, there’d be a change in the criminal corruption networks that were once very stable but now shift with every election.’

While Mexico’s politics changed, the cartels were splintering. Turf wars steadily ratcheted up in the early 2000s despite some modest government action against the once-untouchable traffickers.

Then in 2006, war was declared. The newly elected president sent thousands of troops into the state of Michoacán to drive out the narcos, an operation in which hundreds died.

Since then, the US has spent $3.3 billion supporting their neighbors as part of the global War on Drugs and tens of thousands of troops have marched against the cartels.

Memorial to cartel violence
A memorial to a deadly 2011 attack in Monterrey, in which 52 people were killed when Los Zetas members set a casino alight (Picture: AFP)

Between 2006 and 2012, Mexican President Felipe Calderón went after the ringleaders with extraordinary success. Of the top 37 kingpins in the Mexican drug trade, 25 were captured or killed during those years.

Critics – including the current president – say this strategy of cutting the head off the snake only fuelled inter-gang warfare, with innocent people caught in the crossfire of the resulting power struggles.

The war rumbled on through another change of leadership until 2018 when a “new sheriff came into town”, this time with a new battle cry: ‘hugs, not bullets”.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador – commonly known by his initials – swept to power on a wave of economic populism in 2018, promising to end the drug war.

To his supporters, he is a charismatic reformer in touch with the people. To his critics, he is Mexico’s answer to Trump, a blossoming autocrat who tells people what they want to hear and hoards power.

His ‘strategy for peace’ promised amnesty for traffickers, radical police reform, and pulling the army off the streets. The focus would shift from fighting to addressing the underlying socio-economic problems.

AMLO on the campaign trail
Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been a national figure for decades in Mexico and was finally elected in 2018 (Picture: Getty)

Felbab-Brown said: ‘AMLO assumes that crime can be addressed without lethal or visible force – instead, he thinks it can be addressed through social redistribution and job creation.’

But once in power, AMLO’s strategy has seemingly been flipped.

He has invested in an expensive process of militarisation, signed off on the army’s continued role in policing for the foreseeable future and reform is slow, at least in part because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The army remains on the streets to prevent violence against civilians but is under orders not to take on the cartels.

His critics accuse him of a lack of coherence, elected on a promise to end the war without a plan to do so.

As evidence of this weakness, they point to the October 2019 Battle of Culiacán, a botched attempt to capture the son of Joaquín Guzmán – better known as El Chapo.

Under El Chapo’s leadership, the Sinaloa Cartel came to dominate the Mexican drug trade but his arrest has created a bloody void.