The never-ending story of the Mexican drugs war


The never-ending story of the Mexican drugs war

By Kirsten Spooren

While all eyes are on Syria, in Mexico the situation doesn’t get better either. Everyday there are still people dying and violations of human rights goes on unpunished. Almost 50.000 people died during this war[1]. Despite of the help of the U.S, the war goes on and it’s not coming to an end soon. Is Mexico heading to the so called ‘failed-state’?

The PRI and the drugs cartels
Mexico already had a drug problem. But from all of the Latin-American countries, Mexico had a small crime rate and the dead toll was not so high as today. The drug problems were always there, the border towns near the U.S were (and still are) ruled by Mexican drug cartels. By the strategic place of Mexico, drugs trafficking took place from Colombia to America with Mexico as main player[2]. Until the late 90’s, the drugs trafficking was controlled by the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI). The PRI ruled as an one party state and made deals with the local drugs cartels. Because of this deals, the violence was smothered. When the PRI lost the power, the violence got worse[3].

War on drugs
The Mexican drug war as we know today started in 2006. The newly elected president Filipe Calderón announced the war on drugs and sent 6.500 federal troops to the state of Michoacán to end drug violence there (Operation Michoacan)[4]. From that day on the war on drugs escalated. The drugs cartels started (more than before) murdering each other and were fighting the federal troops at the same time. A year later, almost 3000 people had died because of this war.

The war on drugs in Mexico got worse because of the corrupt police and the bribery. In 2008 General Sergio Aponte, the man in charge of the anti-drug campaign in the state of Baja California, found out that Baja California’s anti-kidnapping squad was actually a kidnapping team working together with the organized crime. Bribed police were used as bodyguards for drugs traffickers[5]. The Mexican government is powerless.

Violation of the human rights
Torture, murder, kidnaps. These things happen every day.  Like I said before, the death count is now almost reaching 50.000. Most victims are (like always in a war) innocent civilians. The border towns are full of pour Mexicans who are hoping on a better future in the U.S. Most of these pour Mexicans end up in a drug cartel because of the big money. They come with a dream, but the dream is expensive and before they know it they cannot escape the drugs cartel anymore[6]. In Ciudad Juarez the violation of human rights is the worst. More than 300 women were kidnapped, tortured and murdered last year. There are still many more women missing. In Ciudad Juarez (and also other border towns) they are not only smuggling drugs, but also guns and humans. Smuggling humans is almost as big as drugs trafficking 1.

The drugs cartels
The Mexican drug cartels still have a lot of power. They have even more power than the drug cartels of Colombia. The power between the cartels in Mexico is shifting over the years. Because of the war between rivaling cartels and the federal army, the so called drugslords get murdered and replaced and the power shifts again. The Mexican Ministry of Justice says that there are seven (active) drugs cartels and twenty-four drugslords. The seven drugs cartels are:  Juárez Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, Los Zetas Cartel, Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel and the La Familia Cartel. The Gulf Cartel and the Los Zetas Cartel are the two biggest cartels of Mexico. The cartels are working together with the U.S street gangs and they are expanding their territory[7].

Help of the U.S
The Mexican drugs war is actually also an American drugs war. It’s America to whom Mexico provides drugs. And it’s America who provides weapons to the Mexicans drugs cartels. During this war, America turned into a fortress. Nobody can enter America without the right papers. A big wall is placed between the border towns and the U.S. Police and customs are watching the borders and roads. Mexico, America and other Central-America states form together the Merida-initiative that helps Mexico with money, education and material[8]. Filipe Calderón also asked the UN for help in 2011, referring to the Middle-East crisis. The UN is supporting Mexico, but real action is not being taken[9] [10].

Will there be an end to the war soon? Is there a solution? Every year there are more and more deaths, the numbers are getting higher. Every day around the 40 people die in Mexico because of the drugs war. The government of Mexico is talking now about legalizing marijuana[11]. If they do that, the prices get lower and the market gets smaller for the cartels. It will undermine the cartels power and influence.  For the Mexican drug cartels, marijuana constitutes 60 percent of cartels drug profits.

The problem is that if marijuana makes up for 60 percent of the cartels profits, there still is another 40 percent. The 40 percent includes methamphetamine, cocaine, and brown-powder and black-tar heroin. If marijuana is legalized, then they will still get a huge profit out of these drugs and there is no reason why the cartels would not enter the market of legalized drugs. Legalization would be a short term solution, if the drug trafficking were the only trafficking the drugs cartels would do. They still get an income from other illegal activities[12].

Other ideas for a solution are to crack down the money laundering that helps sustain drug traffickers, support law enforcement and the judicial system so they can better challenge cartels, create secure prisons to make inmate breakouts less and to find effective ways to reduce the U.S. demand for cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin[13].


‘Failed state’
State failure, state collapse, weak states, failing states and fragile states are all words to describe a state as having failed at some of the basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government. The American Commission on Weak States estimates that there are 50 or 60 weak states. The only country that you can see as a collapsed state is Somalia. A state is considered ‘failed’ if[14]:

  • It lost the control of its territory
  • If there is erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions,
  • If there is an inability to provide public services
  • If there is an inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.

Can we consider Mexico as a ‘failed state’? If we are looking at Mexico as a ‘failed state’ then we should also look at Mexico as a ‘narco state’[15]. A ‘narco state’ is an area that has been taken over and is controlled and corrupted by drug cartels and where law enforcement is effectively nonexistent (definition by online dictionary, the term ‘narco state’ is not written in the Oxford dictionary).  ‘Narco states’ and ‘failed states’ are often used together[16].

If we look at the Failed State Index from Fund for Peace, Mexico is not considered as ‘failed’ or ‘collapsed’. The countries they count as ‘failed’ are Somalia (1), Chad (2), Sudan (3) and Congo (4). They have the label ‘alert’. Mexico is number 94 and is labeled as ‘warning’. Still, countries as Morocco (87), Russia (82) and India (76) are doing worse on the index then Mexico. The strongest country on the index is Finland (177)[17].

The problem with the term ‘failed state’ is that there are too many definitions, opinions and difference in measuring by each country.

Yes, Mexico is a ‘failed state’
If you believe the JOE (Joint Operating Environment, also called the United States Joint Forces Command; a section of the American Department of Defense) you would consider Mexico as a ‘Failed state’. JOE tries to draw the future challenges and threats of the world. In their rapport of 2008, they think that Pakistan and Mexico are the two countries who have the most chance to become a ‘failed state’. The JOE rapport says that Mexico is undermined by organized crime and drugs cartels.  JOE says that the unstable Mexico is the biggest security threat of the U.S[18].

Most of the media consider Mexico as well as a ‘Failed state’. Before, the media wrote about Mexico as an alarming state. Now they write about Mexico as a ‘Failed state’. Magazines and newspapers like Forbes and Newsweek share the opinion with JOE. What is striking is all the popular media writes about Mexico as a ‘failed state’[19].

No, Mexico is not a ‘failed state’
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano says that Mexico isn’t a ‘failed state’. At a press conference in Mexico City after meeting Mexican Interior Minister Alejandro Poire, Janet Napolitano said that they doesn’t consider Mexico as a ‘failed state’[20]. The Mexican ambassador of the United States thinks also that Mexico is not a failed state. Arturo Surakhan said in a letter to the editor of Forbes Asia the following:

“The violence unleashed by drug traffickers in response to President Calderón’s effort to shut them down cannot be denied. Yet if one considers the criteria used to identify failed states — loss of territorial control; inability to provide public services; refugees and internally displaced peoples; criminalization of the state; sharp economic decline; and incapacity to interact as a full member of the international community — it is obvious that Mexico simply does not fit the pattern. On the contrary, we have solid institutions, a vibrant democracy, a vigorous civil society and a strong economy.”[21]

Mexico does have problems, but it’s not a ‘failed state’ yet. There are happening a lot of horrible things in Mexico, which is something we should not forget. The government still has control in the country and the help of the U.S. A. ‘failed state’ is a term that has many definitions and criteria, but Mexico does not fit in all of those criteria[22]. Mexico is also making progress as a country. This year there will be elections and the change can provide a positive shift. The current front-runner, Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) said: “The discussion is not whether we should or shouldn’t fight against it (organized crime) but what we can do to achieve better results[23].” The Mexican elections will be taken place on 1 July 2012 and then we will see if Mexico is still heading for the title ‘failed state’.

[2] North-America model United Nations |06-02-2012|

[3] BU.Ssey, Jana |15-09-2008|“Drug lords rose to power when Mexicans oU.Sted old government”. McClatchy Newspapers.

[6] Van Royen, Marjon | 2004| De nacht van de schreeuw.

[14] Patrick, Stewart | 2007| “‘Failed’ States and Global Security: Empirical Questions and Policy Dilemmas”| International Studies Review

[15] Rotberg, R.I | 2003| State failure and state weakness in a time of terror | Brookings Institution Press

[16] Destickere, Catherine |2010| Mexico als ‘Failed state’ |  Faculteit Rechtsgeleerdheid

[18] United States Joint Forces Command | 2008 | The Joint Operations Environment: ‘Challenges and implications for future joint forces’ | Center for joint futures

[19] Destickere, Catherine |2010| Mexico als ‘Failed state’ |  Faculteit Rechtsgeleerdheid

[20] CNN | 27-02-2012| Napolitano: Mexican drug war ‘not a failure’|

[21] Sarukhan, A | 12-01-2009 | Letters to the editor: Mexico , is not a failed state | Forbes Asia

[22] Destickere, Catherine |2010| Mexico als ‘Failed state’ |  Faculteit Rechtsgeleerdheid

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