The Evolution of Mexico's Cartels

4 MINS READFeb 25, 2013 | 16:59 GMT

Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, Stratfor cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Video Transcript:

When did drug smuggling on the U.S. – Mexico border begin?

Scott Stewart: Well one of the things that we have to understand is that wherever there is a border, there is always going to be smuggling. And really the history of smuggling along the U.S.-Mexican border goes all the way back to the establishment of the border. There's always been a commerce there of weapons, of alcohol going back and forth and then of course illegal drugs. We really saw drugs get going in the early 1900s when the U.S. began to clamp down on marijuana. And so a lot of these Mexican gangs that had smuggled other items started smuggling marijuana across the U.S. border. Then later, in the '50s and '60s and into the '70s, as the U.S. appetite for harder drugs increased, we saw the Mexicans get involved in smuggling things like heroin, pharmaceuticals and even cocaine.

How did the Mexican cartels become what they are now?

Scott: Well when we look at the cartels, initially there was one, very large cartel that is kind of the grandfather of most in the modern cartel groups that we know, and that was called the Guadalajara Cartel — that became powerful really in the 60s and 70s in Mexico. That cartel ran into an issue in the mid-1980s when the cartel kidnapped and tortured and murdered a U.S. DEA agent by the name of Enrique Camarena. This got the U.S. government really energized and focused on the Guadalajara cartel. They went in and basically arrested and broke up the Guadalajara cartel. Now after they broke up the cartel, its leader — a guy by the name of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, a guy they called El Padrino, or The Godfather — kind of divided up his turf, his fiefdom, into various sectors.

One of the things that has contributed to really the power and wealth of the Mexican cartels has been cocaine trade. What we saw is that in the '70s and '80s, kind of the, you know, the old Miami Vice days, most of the cocaine was flowing through the Caribbean corridor into Florida directly from South America. As U.S. interdiction efforts became better, the flow of cocaine shifted from the Caribbean to a route that went mostly through Mexico and in really through the soft underbelly of the United States, using these old historical Mexican trafficking organizations or smuggling organizations to also move this cocaine.  

Why do we see so much violence in Mexico today?

Scott: Well as the cartels started enjoying this increase of wealth that came from the cocaine trade, they also started and buying or contesting, struggling for these plazas to move cocaine into the United States. We saw these organizations go from really a state where you had the drug dealers themselves acting as the enforcers of the triggermen to hiring outside experts to be triggermen for them. So we saw groups like Arellano Felix organization hire off-duty cops or actually come into the United States and hire some of the street gangs out of San Diego to come down to be muscle-thugs for them. And at that point the head of the Gulf Cartel — Osiel Cardenas Guillen — wanted to find something that he could use to kind of trump these police-based enforcer groups and he decided that special forces soldiers would be better. So he approached basically a group of special forces airmobile soldiers from Mexico who defected from that unit and became Los Zetas. And then with the soldiers came in also military weaponry, you know, the assault rifles, the grenades, the RPGs, the law rockets the bombs.

One of the big problems that we have with the violence in Mexico: the government really can't dictate the pace of the violence because they're not involved in a lot of it. A lot of the violence — perhaps even most of the violence — comes from cartel-on-cartel violence, where they're having these clashes involving multiple gunmen using RPGs, hand grenades, using IEDs against each other. And so the government really can't control the tempo of that violence. That's all dependent on the cartels themselves.

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