The security environment in Mexico is characterized by a dangerous fragmentation of and competition among criminal groups that pushed the nation’s homicide rate to a record high of 22.5 per 100,000 in 2017, a 27.5 percent increase over the prior year. The nation, whose security and prosperity strongly impacts the United States through geographic proximity and associated flows of people, money, and goods (both licit and illicit), is at a critical juncture in its fight against transnational organized crime. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched the “war against the cartels” in December 2006 with the deployment of the Mexican army into the state of Michoacán, the nation’s security forces have taken down the leaders of multiple powerful criminal groups and debilitated their organizations. In the process, the Mexican military, police, and other security institutions have evolved their institutional structures, modified both their strategy and their doctrine, and strengthened their ability to combat transnational organized crime. Yet as with the experience of the United States in combatting terrorist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mexico’s fight against the cartels, both despite and because of its successes, has created a more chaotic criminal landscape, with both a higher level of violence and a broader range of criminality.
Complicating Mexico’s security challenge is the disposition of the Trump administration to act aggressively against illegal immigration from Mexico (among other countries) into the United States, along with U.S. renegotiation and possible abandonment of the North American Free Trade Agreement. These actions increase stressors on Mexico, including the prospect of expanded deportations of immigrants to Mexico, the loss of remittance income, and impeded access by Mexican producers to the U.S. market. The Trump administration’s actions, magnified by rhetoric that many Mexicans perceive as an insult to their country and people, have combined with Mexican frustration over the persistence of violence and corruption to create the real prospect that leftist populist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador could win the July 2018 presidential election, potentially taking Mexico on a course of more distant political relations and decreased security cooperation with the United States and expanded engagement with extra-hemispheric rivals of the United States such as Russia and China.
This article examines Mexico’s serious and evolving security challenges, and the key initiatives and critical issues confronting the nation’s security forces. It argues that the Mexican government has made important progress against a range of criminal groups and in innovating and strengthening its own capabilities to combat such entities and associated flows of illegal goods—capabilities that deserve to be recognized, further refined, and exploited in partnership with the United States and Mexico’s other neighbors. It concludes with recommendations for U.S. policy makers regarding the importance of strong and respectful support for Mexico at the present critical juncture.
The Transnational Organized Crime Threat
The actions of Mexican security forces against the cartels during the two most recent presidential administrations (sexenios) of Felipe Calderón and Enrique Peña Nieto, and the associated fighting unleashed between those cartels and their factions, have contributed to the fragmentation of Mexico’s criminal landscape, with a proliferation of groups that has made Mexico’s security environment more violent and less predictable.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a limited number of criminal groups such as the Sinaloa, Arellano Félix, and Carrillo Fuentes organizations and the Gulf Cartel moved cocaine through the country, often with the complicity of corrupt Mexican government officials but with limited violence and competition against each other. Intergroup competition among Mexican cartels and associated violence began to increase before Calderón’s sexenio, thanks in part to the disruptive employment by groups such as the Gulf Cartel with significant military training and firepower to compete against each other. Yet, the introduction of military forces by Mexico to combat the cartels arguably accelerated the evolution and splintering of its criminal groups, which expanded from eight major cartels during the Calderón sexenio to more than three hundred by the end of the Peña Nieto administration. (The figure shows the most dominant cartels by region.) Such fragmentation expanded violence by increasing uncertainty and competition among groups and by engaging a greater number of entities in the supply chain moving narcotics, other illicit goods, and people through Mexico toward the United States. Whereas organizations such as the Guadalajara Cartel once had the contacts and infrastructure to move drugs from Colombia through Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico to the United States, the breakup of groups left some of the new entities without such connections, dedicating themselves to moving illicit goods along only part of the route, taxing (extorting) others moving the goods, or engaging in other criminal activities. Further complicating matters, as the groups increasingly employed armed wings or gangs to protect themselves and wage war on each other, those groups engaged in local criminal activities to sustain themselves, expanding the level of common criminality in the country.
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