Discover more from Militant Wire
MW Flashpoints: Mexico’s Multidimensional Drug War and its Threat to Growing US–Mexico Ties
The ongoing Mexican drug war continues to grow in intensity, resulting in the emergence of two primary competing cartels across a broad and lucrative criminal landscape. The competition between these groups and the Mexican government’s inability to contain the growing levels of violence across the country has become a major concern in Washington at a time of growing ties between the two countries. In this piece, we take a look at the many dimensions behind this conflict and the potential for further violence moving forward.
Sinaloa and CJNG: Paramilitary Organizations with Differing Power Structures
The Mexican War on Drugs has been extraordinarily violent with over 350,000 killed since 2006. Most of these deaths have been the result of clashes between warring cartels in the country and the civilians caught between them. The Sinaloa Cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nuevo Gènèracion (CJNG) have emerged as the primary contenders for primacy in the Mexican drug trade while smaller but still important organizations such as the Gulf, Los Zetas, Tijuana cartels, and others exist and are often embroiled in vicious turf wars with these two.
Formerly headed by the now-incarcerated Joachim “El Chapo” Guzman, the Sinaloa Cartel is the most established and advanced organization of its kind in the country. Global in reach, the cartel is believed to operate in at least 17 Mexican states and 50 countries around the world. Although it initially emerged as a key trafficker of cannabis, heroin, and South American cocaine into the US market, its reach has now spread to the lucrative European cocaine market as well as to several Asian markets. The US Department of Justice also claims that the cartel is the United States’ largest source of Fentanyl, the leading cause of death for Americans aged 18 to 49.
The Sinaloa Cartel is now nominally led by Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, El Chapo’s former logistics chief. However, since El Chapo’s 2016 arrest, the organization is now believed to be primarily run by four major factions: El Mayo, Rafael Caro Quintero, El Chapo’s brother Aureliano “El Guano” Guzmán, and El Chapo’s four sons, known collectively as “Los Chapitos”. Although these factions vary in tactics, with El Mayo known as a cooler head and the Chapitos said to be the most violent of the four, there exists between them a common goal of maintaining and expanding the organization’s business. However, the internal fractures that have emerged after the arrest and incarceration of El Chapo coupled with the fast rise of the rival CJNG are believed to have left the organization in a less powerful position than it once was.
The CJNG has emerged as Mexico’s largest group of its kind in recent years, although its commercial interests are not believed to be as expansive as those of the Sinaloa Cartel. Led by Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Ramos, the group originated as part of a 2010 split within the then-Sinaloa allied Milenio Cartel. Following this, the CJNG rapidly emerged as a major contender in the Mexican narcotics trade, waging brutal wars against rivals including the Sinaloa Cartel as well as Los Zetas the Gulf Cartel. Unlike the Sinaloa cartel, which typically prefers to minimize violence in the interest of preserving its commercial and security interests, the CJNG strikes with maximum force, frequently leaving behind scenes of its brutality as a means of inciting fear among its rivals, political leaders, law enforcement and local populations alike.
The manner in which the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG conduct business varies as well. The Sinaloa cartel typically works to ingratiate itself with local populations, preferring to extort money in single payments at set intervals in amounts that are manageable for local businesses while absorbing its smaller rivals: this in contrast to the multitude of payments vendors must pay to exist in contested areas. In this way, by previously becoming Mexico’s dominant cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel offered a sort of Pax Sinaloa model that ingratiated it with local businesses and populations. This is in stark contrast to the CJNG: as the latest contender for dominance, its primary strategy is to be the most violent organization of its kind, eliciting initial payments through fear while eliminating all rivals through intimidation and murder.
The Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG also differ greatly in how they run their businesses, both legitimate and illegitimate. The Sinaloa cartel tends to prefer a vertically integrated business model wherein it outright controls all aspects of its legitimate and illegitimate supply chains. This has given the organization a vast portfolio of business holdings that have naturally bought them substantial political capital. By contrast, the CJNG prefers a taxation model wherein it licenses all operations within its controlled territories. This includes everything from illicit narcotics, gambling, and prostitution to legal enterprises such as alcohol and tobacco sales and even street vendors. In this way, whereas the Sinaloa cartel seeks to work within the context of a market economy under state rule in the manner of a corporation, the CJNG seeks to emulate state institutions completely.
This corporate versus statist paradigm is also reflected in the two organizations’ approaches to firepower. Whereas both are heavily armed, the CJNG prefers to project power overtly, opting for military-style uniforms and insignia. A 2020 video released by the CJNG made global headlines when it demonstrated the group’s possession of advanced military hardware. The video shows group members using grenade launchers, assault rifles, holographic weapon sights, night vision goggles, and bulletproof vests, among other items: a joint investigation by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) concluded that these were primarily sourced from eBay.
By contrast, the Sinaloa cartel prefers to keep its firepower covert. This was reflected in the 2019 and 2023 battles in Culiacán between the Mexican military and the Sinaloa cartel when the two exchanged fire over the capture of El Chapo’s son, Ovidio Guzman. These battles revealed the cartel’s possession of advanced military hardware, including armored vehicles, assault rifles, grenade launchers, and more. In both battles, cartel operatives ‘came out of the woodwork’, with non-uniformed fighters engaging in guerilla tactics with non-descript vehicles. In an October 18, 2019 piece for Time Magazine about the first battle of Culiacán, Ioan Grillo wrote of the Sinaloa cartel: “They hide in safe houses or amid communities, suddenly striking with an assassination or a gunfight, and then disappearing again. Residents know they are there and are scared, but most the time, they can’t see them”.
Mexico’s greatest source of violence stems from the various turf wars between its competing cartels with the Gulf of Mexico seeing a major rise in violence in recent years. This was previously due to the encroachment of the Sinaloa Cartel on the territory of the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico’s oldest criminal organizations. Although the Gulf Cartel continues to control some of Mexico’s most lucrative trafficking routes, it no longer functions as a unified organization but rather as a collection of various factions. One of these factions, Los Zetas, broke off to form its own cartel that has been at war with the various Gulf factions along with the other major cartels since 2010. Founded in the late 1990s by ex-Mexican military personnel, Los Zetas frequently make use of uniforms and paramilitary tactics like the CJNG. However, the group has since become fragmented and has lost a considerable amount of territory to the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG in recent years. The intensity of this multidimensional turf war has increased over the past two years with even previously off-limits resort areas such as Cancun and Playa Del Carmen now experiencing violence.
The ongoing war between the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG has also been brutal, especially in northern and central Mexico. As mentioned, the CJNG employs maximum violence in its efforts to gain new territories, targeting rival operatives as well as military personnel, police, and government officials. The group has been known to leave gruesome scenes with its insignia in full view, frequently leaving behind tortured bodies and severed heads or hanging corpses off bridges to send a message to those it seeks to control. The north-central state of Zacatecas has experienced some of the worst of this violence, seeing a 400% increase in murders between 2015 and 2021. Key border cities including Tijuana, Juarez, and others have also seen a major rise in violence in recent years.
Increased violence in Mexico has been a concern for many US lawmakers, especially amid growing instances of American citizens being caught in the crossfire. In one incident, a vehicle carrying four Americans in the border city of Matamoros was attacked by armed men affiliated with the Gulf Cartel, killing two. The two survivors were kidnapped and later released in an apparent instance of mistaken identity. This incident prompted Senator Lindsay Graham to call for the United States to unleash its “fury and might” against the Mexican cartels. Although Graham later clarified that he was not referring to the use of military force, he and Senators John Kennedy later introduced the NARCOS Act on March 29, which seeks to designate Mexican drug cartels as foreign terrorist organizations. If passed, the bill would see the establishment of a task force that targets cartels currently bringing fentanyl into the United States. The bill specifically mentions the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG as well as the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas, and five others.
Congressional Republicans have also proposed legislation that takes aim at Mexican cartels. Introduced by Representative Dan Crenshaw in January of this year the Declaring War on the Cartels Act of 2023 aims to target cartel activities “with increased criminal penalties and the targeting of their finances”, according to Crenshaw’s website. Crenshaw has also proposed the use of military force to fight Mexican cartels and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has asked Crenshaw to lead a task force on how to deal with the cartels. Both bills are set to be debated in the Republican-controlled House and Senate later this year.
Although some Democratic leaders have been vocal in their opposition to the use of military force against Mexican drug cartels, President Biden recently deployed 1,500 active service members to the Mexican border. Ostensibly having been sent to help with administrative duties, the presence of these troops nonetheless speaks to concerns held by political leaders in both parties.
Tensions between the United States and Mexico with regard to the drug war go much deeper than politics with US law enforcement institutions having expressed frustration with their Mexican counterparts. “We are not getting any information on fentanyl seizures; we are not getting any information on seizures of precursor chemicals,” said Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Chief Anne Milgram in a February Senate hearing. This lack of cooperation has been blamed on a 2020 law passed by an overwhelming majority of the Mexican Congress that severely restricts the cooperation of Mexican law enforcement officials with their foreign counterparts. The law is believed to have been passed in response to the December 2019 arrest of former Mexican Public Security Minister Genaro Garcia Luna, who was charged with accepting bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel by US Federal Prosecutors in New York.
AMLO Keeps Troops on the Streets, Signals Thaw in US Relations
Since being elected in 2018, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) has become increasingly embroiled in Mexico’s ongoing drug issues. Although ALMLO initially ran under the slogan abrazos, no balazos (hugs, not bullets) wherein he promised to return the military to the barracks, this was short-lived. Instead, the president allied closely with his country’s top brass and labeled its civilian policing units as corrupt and inefficient. In 2019, a new militarized force called the National Guard was established by means of constitutional reform and was charged with overseeing public security for a period of five years. Although passed by Mexico’s congress last September, the decision was recently blocked by the country’s supreme court. Nonetheless, the role of the Mexican military in the drug war has expanded greatly since AMLO came to power with troops now controlling major ports, customs offices, and infrastructure projects across the country.
Although the Mexican military has shown itself capable of executing some high-level captures, these have done little to stop to the proliferation of cartel activity. Moreover, there are growing tensions between the military and the public with a February 27 incident resulting in the accidental killing of five civilians when military personnel opened fire on a pickup truck in the border town of Nuevo Laredo, sparking protests among nearby residents. There are also reports of widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, and arbitrary detentions by military personnel. The military is frequently opaque with regard to these matters, even refusing to provide information when required to do so by Mexico’s transparency law. Attacks on journalists have also limited public inquiry into these matters with 2022 being the deadliest year on record for Mexican journalists and most of these cases remaining unsolved to date.
The Mexican military’s enhanced ability to target cartel activity has yielded limited results with violence against military and law enforcement personnel becoming increasingly brazen. On May 10, heavy gunfire was reported between police and suspected cartel members on the Pharr–Reynosa International Bridge near the US border. The fighting occurred in broad daylight at 1:30pm local time and multiple deaths have been reported. In another incident that occurred last August, CJNG cartel operatives opened fire on a Guatemalan presidential convoy near the Mexican border. The aforementioned capture of Ovidio Guzman in Culiacán earlier this year and the previous attempt to do so in 2019 also demonstrates the willingness of cartels to use extreme violence when faced with the full might of the Mexican military.
AMLO’s relationship with Washington has been a volatile one, especially following the arrests of top Mexican officials on American soil in 2019 and 2020. The Mexican president has since spoken out against any potential US military intervention by Republican lawmakers and has denied his country’s role in the ongoing fentanyl crisis altogether. However, although his relationship with the Biden administration was initially rocky, relations between the two have improved and there have been multiple dialogues with regard to migration, economic integration, and the fentanyl crisis. Moreover, with the capture of Ovidio Guzman occurring just weeks after Biden’s trip to the country, this may have been an act of good faith on the part of AMLO.
This comes at a time of substantial growth in economic ties between the two countries with each now serving as the other’s largest trade partners and trade between them
reaching $124.6 billion in the first two months of 2023. This may be understood as part of a growing trend known as near-shoring or friend-shoring wherein the United States has increasingly relied on its neighbors over the Asian markets for its manufacturing and material needs. For this reason, it is broadly expected that trade ties between the two countries will continue to strengthen in the coming years. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the ongoing drug war poses a major threat to these developments.
Analysis: A Seemingly Eternal Crisis
The vying of various cartels for dominance over the Mexican drug trade, especially the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG, has produced a worsening chaos in the country that authorities are unable to contain. Whereas the power of the CJNG has spread rapidly across the landscape through the use of its brutal and overtly statist model, the Sinaloa Cartel remains deeply embedded and able to strike brutally and whenever necessary. Although a military approach may be able to neutralize the most brazen paramilitary elements of the CJNG moving forward, the military’s ability to target underground criminal operations in their own territories has been limited. This is not unique to Mexico: the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have many examples of large and powerful armies being unable to defeat deeply embedded insurgencies.
Militaries tend to be especially ineffective in combating the drug trade. A clear example of this is Colombia, in which decades of extensive military operations have not only failed to eradicate coca production but resulted in record-high output in 2021. Moreover, military personnel around the world have proven to be susceptible to the allure of corruption with regard to drug trafficking with examples of this found within the ranks of the British, Canadian, Indian, Russian, and US militaries – just to name a few. Although there are no specific reports of Mexican armed forces being involved in narcotics trafficking at present, the extraordinary powers afforded to military personnel in the field and their proximity to this lucrative underground business increases the likelihood of complicity now and moving forward. Additionally, through direct engagement with the military, cartels are themselves likely learning more effective battlefield tactics.
The growing economic closeness between US and Mexican business interests necessitates closer political ties between the two countries. However, with the ongoing drug war proving largely unsolvable to date, there are likely to be major points of contention for years to come. Although this violence has not had a major impact on trade to date, the recent willingness of cartels to engage in turf wars in key tourist areas coupled with the willingness of groups such as the CJNG to target practically anyone with extreme violence could pose major challenges to this moving forward. As noted by Peter Zeihan, should the extreme violence seen across northern Mexico spread across the border to major cities in the American Southwest, Washington policymakers, the American public, and the business community could sour on engaging with Mexico commercially moving forward. Finally, if Republican lawmakers get their way, adding US military firepower to this conflict could do great harm to the Mexican public’s view of the United States and its commercial interests in their country: if the ongoing drone war is any indication, this is a near certainty.
The global multi-billion-dollar market for illicit narcotics necessitates the existence of illicit businesses to serve it. In this way, it may be understood as a market-based problem. Although many policymakers have looked to law enforcement and militaries to control this market from the perspective of supply, these efforts have yielded few positive results to date. If policymakers seek the eradication of drugs altogether, it would seem that the targeting of demand rather than supply may produce more fruitful results – at least as much was concluded in a 2005 study by the RAND Corporation. Alternatively, policymakers could accept the existence of this demand and legitimize the trade altogether, allowing major cartels to list themselves as publicly traded corporations. However, it seems that both of these possibilities are highly unlikely under the current political climate. For this reason, the wave of violence outlined in this article will likely proliferate for years to come.