on security

In Mexico, Presidents Come and Go but Cartel Policy Stays the Same

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
8 MINS READJul 13, 2017 | 08:00 GMT
Mexico's military patrols in southwest Mexico

The army patrols Guerrero state in southwest Mexico after fighting between two regional drug cartels erupted in June 2017. President Enrique Pena Nieto has proposed a paramilitary police force to replace the military force deployed against the cartels.


A serious challenge from populist politician Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador awaits Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in next year's presidential election. That's what polling data and the close results of the June 4 gubernatorial election in Mexico state suggest as Lopez Obrador looks ahead to a third presidential run in July 2018 after second-place finishes as the candidate for the Party of the Democratic Revolution in 2006 and 2012. Now leading his own party, the National Regeneration Movement, Lopez Obrador is in a statistical tie in recent polls with the PRI and National Action Party candidates.

While a Lopez Obrador victory would be historic, his ability to make sweeping changes in keeping with his populist rhetoric will be greatly constrained. Even if Lopez Obrador wins the presidency, Mexico's political and economic path will remain relatively stable.

As we've discussed the possibility of a Lopez Obrador victory with our contacts in Mexico, we've noticed that many of them believe he would seek to undertake a dramatic change in the way the government deals with Mexico's powerful criminal drug cartels. The idea is that as president, Lopez Obrador would seek to address Mexico's violence problem by cutting a deal with cartel leaders, and on the campaign trail, he has promised to end the deployment of military forces in the country. Such a deal would allow traffickers to operate in the country as long as they did so without violence. While the concept may sound possible in theory, there are simply too many obstacles to permit such a dramatic shift in policy.

A Look at History

The idea that a Mexican presidential candidate would place more emphasis on stopping violence in Mexico than on stopping the flow of narcotics to the United States is not new. Indeed, we heard similar talk during the 2006 and 2012 elections. Here is a quote from a Stratfor analysis I wrote in June 2011:

One of the trial balloons that the opposition parties, especially the PRI, seem to be floating at present is the idea that if they are elected they will reverse [President Felipe] Calderon's policy of going after the cartels with a heavy hand and will instead try to reach some sort of accommodation with them. This policy would involve lifting government pressure against the cartels and thereby (ostensibly) reducing the level of violence that is wracking the country.

The people who believe such a shift is possible base their belief on a mistaken historical narrative. This holds that Mexican organized crime groups were controlled by the ruling PRI and were largely nonviolent until President Ernesto Zedillo, who was elected in 1994, abandoned the party's deal with the cartels after a corruption scandal enveloped his predecessor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. When Zedillo unleashed the military on the cartels, this myth goes, violence spiked.

This rendition of events is deeply flawed. There were indeed close ties between the cartels and PRI figures at all levels of the Mexican government as well as between the cartels and powerful figures in other political parties. The cartels also fostered deep corruption into every level of law enforcement in Mexico. However, quite simply, the PRI did not control the cartels. Rather, the inverse was true. The cartels had a significant amount of control over some politicians and portions of the government.

The cartels were too rich and powerful to be corralled in this manner. In the 1980s, interdiction efforts forced an increasing amount of cocaine trafficking away from Caribbean routes and through Mexico. The vast wealth connected to the cocaine trade made the Mexican cartels far more powerful than they had ever been. It also caused them to become more protective of the source of their wealth. One of the first widely publicized manifestations of this protectionist streak was seen in the 1985 kidnapping, torture and murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent Enrique Camarena. While his death caused the United States to focus heavily on Mexico's powerful Guadalajara cartel and pressure the Mexican and regional governments to follow suit, cartel violence was not a new manifestation: The cartels assassinated rivals and journalists well before 1985.

After Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo and other leaders of the Guadalajara cartel were arrested in the wake of Camarena's murder, Gallardo's primary lieutenants assumed responsibility for the various areas where they operated. This resulted in the creation of the Tijuana cartel (Arellano Felix organization), the Juarez cartel (Carrillo Fuentes organization) and a group of cartels led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, Ismael Zambada and others, known as the Sinaloa Federation. Tensions quickly flared between Guzman and the Arellano Felix brothers over control of smuggling routes — and profits — resulting in a bloody turf war that began in 1989 and wracked northwestern Mexico in the early 1990s. One of the high-profile side effects of their battles was the May 1993 murder of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo and six other people at the Guadalajara airport. It is believed that a Tijuana cartel hit team sent to assassinate Guzman accidentally killed the Catholic Church leader. After Posadas' murder, Mexican law enforcement began to dramatically step up operations against both the Tijuana cartel and the Sinaloa Federation. This heat caused Guzman to flee to Guatemala, where he was arrested in June 1993.

In the early 1980s, many cartel figures served as their own enforcers, but as tensions escalated among competing gangs over control of the cocaine trade, violence escalated as the Tijuana cartel and others began to employ teams of police officers and street gang members to serve as enforcer units. Competing gangs formed similar enforcer groups. Osiel Cardenas-Guillen, the leader of the Gulf cartel, upped the ante by hiring a unit of special forces soldiers, and Los Zetas were formed. Again, rival cartels followed suit and hired their own groups of soldiers to counter the power of Los Zetas, leading to the militarization of cartel enforcer groups. The introduction of paramilitary forces brought along with it military weapons, and cartel enforcers graduated from using pistols, shotguns and submachine guns to regularly employing fully automatic assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades.

A careful review of cartel history makes it clear that cartel violence in Mexico was a significant security problem well before Zedillo came into office in 1994. In fact, Salinas in his inaugural address in December 1989 noted that "narcotics trafficking has become a grave risk to the security of the nation." It was cartel violence, and corruption within law enforcement agencies, that led Zedillo to put the military into the fight against the cartels. They were not the cause of the violence, and taking the military off the streets will not end the violence that is plaguing Mexico — especially when there is no other force to replace them.

Besides, like the violence between the Tijuana cartel and Sinaloa Federation that led to the Posadas assassination, a substantial percentage of the violence in Mexico is spawned by cartel-on-cartel attacks and is not initiated by the government.

The Impact of Balkanization

Another severe constraint on the Mexican government's ability to reach some sort of arrangement with the cartels is that the cartel landscape has changed dramatically. Two main groups — the Guadalajara and Gulf cartels — controlled most drug trafficking in Mexico in the 1980s. Even a decade ago, there were only a handful of groups controlling most of the activity. But today, infighting caused by greed and suspicion, as well as decapitation caused by the arrest or killing of cartel leaders, has led to the Balkanization of Mexico's cartels. This fracturing has caused us to change the way we think about and analyze these groups. Instead of a monolithic Sinaloa Federation, dozens of organized crime groups have splintered from it. Likewise, what was the Gulf cartel is now a constellation of geographic gangs that are often at odds — and at war — with one another. Even if the Mexican government wanted to pursue deals to end the violence, and even if each group in this array of criminal gangs was willing to entertain such an offer, it would be impossible to reach any sort of comprehensive peace agreement with this many parties.

The 2011 analysis quoted above referred to campaign rhetoric from PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto. However, after he won election in 2012, Pena Nieto has not been able to dramatically reverse course as he proposed on the campaign trail. In fact, he has struggled to enact many of the more gradual changes he proposed, such as "mando unico," or unified state command over police forces and the creation of a gendarmerie, or paramilitary police force, to replace the military force deployed against the cartels. Without a replacement, it is impossible to pull the military out of the fight because to do so would create a security vacuum in the areas where the military is deployed. This would be socially and politically unacceptable.

Speaking of politics, the Mexican Congress also serves as a severe constraint on the power of the president to enact reforms. Without congressional support, the president could make only limited changes, and lawmakers would resist making any radical shifts in cartel policy.

This means that, much like immediate predecessors Pena Nieto, Calderon and Vicente Fox, Mexico's next president will not have much freedom to change the country's cartel policy.

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