The destruction of the Medellín and Cali cartels led not only to the expansion of the paramil- itaries in Colombia, it also allowed Mexican DTOs to rise in prominence in the U.S. retail market. These organizations, frequently based
on family networks, such as the Tijuana, Sinaloa, Gulf,
and Juárez cartels, existed in Mexico for much of the second half of the twentieth century. Throughout most of
that period—under the rule of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI)—the Mexican state had an essentially corporatist arrangement with the DTOs, where key
state law enforcement agencies managed and protected
the DTOs and dictated the terms of business.
This arrangement started breaking down in the 1980s.
The end of the PRI’s rule and the establishment of democracy led the new Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) government to declare a war on the DTOs in the early 2000s. The
Mexican state, however, did not anticipate the extraordinarily high level of violence this would unleash nor the inability of its institutions to cope with it. In addition to an
explosion of drug-related executions, an increase in other
crimes, such as kidnapping and extortion, over whelmed
the legal economy, generating migration from Mexico’s
most violent areas and undermining civil society.
eas of Mexico, including in the north, the paucity of legal
livelihoods made earning quick money as a DTO hitman
attractive to an unending supply of unemployed and disaffected young men. As the government concentrated its
law enforcement efforts on decapitating the cartels by
arresting top traffickers, it set off turf warfare over territories, drug smuggling routes and corruption networks
among new, highly violent and very powerful DTOs, such
as Los Zetas and La Familia Michoacana.
Unable to rely on Mexico’s police forces to stem violence, President Felipe Calderón deployed more than
45,000 Mexican troops to the most violent areas, such
as Cuidad Juárez, Tijuana and Morelia. Nonetheless, the
military has failed to stem violence, and 2009 proved the
most violent year so far in Cuidad Juárez and in Mexico
overall. Over 2,600 people were killed in Cuidad Juárez
in drug-related violence last year; and more than 18,000
have died in Mexico’s drug war over the past three years.
The Mexican government is now considering rearranging the military deployment to serve mainly as a backup
to police, while newly trained police units take the lead
in providing safety on streets and conducting investigations. But the effectiveness of police reform over the
past three years remains to be seen, and corruption continues to be pervasive.
Upon Mexico’s request, and fearing a spillover of violence from Mexico to the United States, the U.S. provided
recognizes that building such capacity in Mexico’s law
enforcement, correctional facilities and judicial system
is likely to be far more effective than any quick technological fix. Over the past few months, the United States
has also encouraged Mexico to undertake a more multifaceted approach to combating the DTOs and to increase
state presence by also addressing the socioeconomic deficiencies that the DTOs exploit.
Much of this policy redirection remains to be implemented and will be vulnerable to a host of difficulties
stemming from Mexico’s institutional and structural
economic deficiencies. Nonetheless, this multifaceted
approach seems to have finally put the overall strategy
In Mexico, as in Colombia,
Peru and Afghanistan,
the DTOs have taken on the roles of
social providers and protectors.
Mexico’s police, from the lowest beat cop to the highest anti-organized crime units, had become deeply penetrated by criminal elements and corruption. Efforts at
reform had been spectacularly ineffective. In many areas
of rural Mexico, where poppy and marijuana cultivation
and methamphetamine production are strong, state presence has been limited and, just like in Colombia, Peru and
Afghanistan, the D TOs have taken on the roles of social
providers and regulators. Many local politicians continue
to operate at the mercy of DTOs that have often become
polycrime franchises, taking over or seeking to dominate
other forms of organized crime, such as smuggling undocumented immigrants to the U.S. In many urban ar-