Image: A road sign welcomes Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to Badiraguato, Sinaloa. Source: Daniel Becerril / El País.
This article represents Part I of a two-part series on Mexico. Click here to read Part II.
The security and prosperity of the United States are bound to Mexico through ties of geography, commerce, and family. U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade integration through the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), and its predecessor, the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), illustrates how that interdependence can elevate the prosperity of all parties. In addition, the flow of illicit drugs and migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border, and the flow of arms and drug earnings from the U.S. to criminal groups in Mexico illustrate how policies and conditions on one side of the border can work to prejudice the other.
Mexico is currently engulfed in a growing crisis of interdependent criminality and political transformation. COVID-19 and the inflationary effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine accelerated this crisis. It is undermining Mexico’s institutions and harming the nation’s economic base. In the process, it is creating increasing security, economic, and other risks for the United States and its other neighbors in the Western Hemisphere.
The criminal proceeds from the U.S. consumption of drugs produced in or transiting through Mexico fuel an increasingly fragmented, well-armed, and well-financed array of competing criminal actors in the country. Their activities are enabled by law enforcement and judicial systems that are partially compromised at all levels, complemented by competing elites seeking to exploit the corruption in the system, and sometimes the criminal actors, for their own financial and political ends. In the process, their actions further enable the power of the criminal groups, the scope of their activities, and the level of insecurity in Mexico.
The reinforcing challenges of criminality, corruption, and institutional decay strongly impacting Mexico was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which destroyed countless small and medium-sized businesses, pushed countless people into the informal sector, and, in the process, expanded the economic vulnerability of countless Mexicans. COVID-19 also drained significant resources from the government and its security forces, which participated in responding in multiple significant ways. The pandemic also increased the leverage of criminal groups over the communities in which they operate. Such groups occasionally provided food boxes and other aid, enforcing curfews, among other activities. In addition, the response to the pandemic, including the closure of borders, obliged criminal organizations to find new routes and networks, with law enforcement organizations struggling to adapt to the new criminal patterns. Further complicating matters, the inflationary effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also increased the number of people in need, expanding recruitment and money laundering opportunities.
Mexico’s significant challenges have also arguably been complicated by the security policies of the government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO). These include an ill-conceived reorganization of Mexico’s security forces, the imposition of legislative and administrative obstacles to security cooperation with the United States, and the expansion of the control of AMLO’s decentralized MORENA party at the state level in ways that shake up clientelist relations that existed there, with implications for the criminal groups operating in those states as well.
The Mexican Security Panorama
Homicides in Mexico under AMLO’s six-year term continued at record levels, although the rate for 2021 was 3.6 percent lower than that of 2020, and the levels for the first part of 2022 showed a further 9.1 percent decline over the same period in 2022. Such improvements notwithstanding, the homicide rate of over 33,000 murders per year remains far higher than when President Calderon first began the war against the cartels by deploying federal forces to Michoacan in 2006. Indeed, over 300,000 Mexicans have been killed in violence related to the conflict since that time.
A key aspect of the criminal dynamics in Mexico is the fragmentation and transformation of criminal groups, leading to violent struggles over “plazas” and supply chains, as well as broader criminality.
The metamorphosis of Mexico’s criminal structures and the fighting between them had been underway well before the beginning of the Mexican Army deployment to Michoacan in December 2006, but not on the scale seen presently. During the 1980s, Mexico’s narcotrafficking landscape was dominated by the Guadalajara cartel, which worked with Colombian narcotrafficker Pablo Escobar and Honduran middleman Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros to move drugs to the United States. When the Guadalajara Cartel’s leader, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (“El Padrino”), was captured and jailed in 1989, he split up his territory among his key operatives and family members, creating the criminal organizations that are part of Mexico’s legacy today. Among these figures, the Arellano Felix brothers gained control of the route to the United States through Tijuana, becoming the “Tijuana Cartel.” Amado Carrillo Fuentes and his organization gained control of the route through Juarez, Chihuahua, becoming the “Juarez Cartel.” Meanwhile, the Sinaloa organization of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Hector Salazar, and “El Mayo” Zambada gained control of operations centered in the state of Sinaloa. Independent of the three descendants of the Guadalajara Cartel, the organization led by Juan Garcia Abrego (the “Gulf Cartel”) gained control of the route to the United States in the northeast, centered on the state of Tamaulipas.
A key development during these early years was the Gulf Cartel’s creation of an “armed wing.” In the late 1990s, Los Zetas started recruiting current and former Mexican military officers, to support its war for territory with rival Sinaloa. In 2010, the Zetas turned on their former creators, unleashing a violent struggle. Before that, however, in support of the Gulf Cartel’s position in Michoacan, the Zeta’s helped train a then-allied-new cartel in that state, La Familia Michoacana. The violent acts of that group, including famously tossing heads severed from their victims onto the floor of a Michoacan nightclub, helped to inspire the deployment of federal forces there in 2006 by newly-elected President Felipe Calderon.
With the entry of the Mexican Army and Navy into the fight on a large scale in 2006, the successful takedown of numerous key cartel leaders by federal forces led to a splintering of groups, with increased uncertainty spawning violent fights for control over plazas. Meanwhile, the demonstrated success of “armed wings” such as the Zetas led to a proliferation of such organizations, which often turned to extortion as a revenue source in the territory they controlled, as well as other forms of crime apart from narcotrafficking, dramatically increasing criminality throughout the country. In response to the new criminal menace, affected communities often formed self-defense militias, which themselves became involved in charging protection money and committing other criminal acts, further contributing to the problem. By 2015, there were 25 major criminal groupings in the country. In 2019, AMLO recognized the operation of 37 “cartels” in the country, while the International Crisis Group identified 463 distinct criminal entities that had or were operating there.
In Mexico’s complex criminal dynamic, two organizations with enormous revenues and international connections came to dominate: the more federated Sinaloa Cartel and the generally more aggressive Jalisco Nuevo Generation cartel (CJNG). CJNG later captured the national spotlight in May 2015 when it set trucks on fire, effectively blockading Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, and successfully downed a Mexican Army helicopter in an engagement that same month.
In the context of the weakening or fracturing of other once powerful players such as the Gulf Cartel, La Familia Michoacana, and the Beltran Leyva organization; Sinaloa and CJNG continue to fight for territory across Mexico, often against each other through proxy groups.
Sinaloa generally has a more “franchise-like” structure than CJNG, which is more hierarchically organized around its leader “El Mencho,” who has almost a cult-like following. Nonetheless, both are sufficiently decentralized that it is misleading to think of them as coherent unitary organizations.
With respect to geography, Sinaloa’s presence is principally focused on the states of northwest Mexico and the U.S. border, while CJNG has been most influential along the southwest coast and across the middle of the country, extending its dominion to the state of Veracruz on the Gulf Coast as well.
Although CJNG has made impressive military advances across Mexico in the last decade, in the past year, individual CJNG leaders have faced resistance from local groups as well as internal infighting in multiple states. Nonetheless, the organization’s structure and revenues have not been seriously affected.
CJNG has been notable for its accumulated military-like firepower, including improvised-armored vehicles or “narco tanks,” 50-caliber sniper rifles and other military-grade firearms, improved explosive devices (IEDs), and armed drones. Nonetheless, smaller cartels such as the Cartel of the Northeast in Tamaulipas, have also been notable for their use of military-like vehicles and weapons. Correspondingly, Tamaulipas and the CJNG-dominated state of Michoacan are the two Mexican states where the largest number of narco tanks have been seized to date.
The organized crime dynamics in Mexico have also been affected by the expanding number of revenue-generating activities. Within narcotrafficking, this includes the diversification from cocaine and marijuana to the production and transport of opioids and synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines and fentanyl.
Such activities have transformed the centers of gravity in the criminal landscape. Opioids have lent increased importance to states such as Guerrero and the “golden triangle,” where the states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Sinaloa meet, a key area for growing heroin poppies. At the same time, synthetic drugs, which do not require agricultural inputs, have shifted the focus to urban areas where labs are frequently located. In addition, the increasing role of fentanyl, whose potency allows tiny quantities to be transformed into large numbers of doses, has revolutionized what is possible with smuggling. Other notable developments include the shift from ephedrine-based to P2P-based methamphetamines, which have more adverse mental effects on users, with consequences showing up in Mexican communities.
Beyond the shift in types of drugs, oil theft or “huachicol,” and human smuggling and trafficking have become increasingly important industries, giving new criminal importance to states such as Guanajuato, where oil is produced and distributed, as well as states containing routes for moving people through Mexico across the border. The movement of people and drugs along overlapping routes has also created new synergies between the two types of criminal operations.
Another key aspect of Mexico’s criminal dynamic is the interrelationship between criminal groups struggling for power, and the local, state, and other governments that are compromised by payoffs from these groups. Some politicians and government officials in these states may even seek to actively participate in illicit businesses or use criminal groups for political ends. The relationship between politically controlling a territory and capturing part of the illicit revenue streams from the groups operating there that have created a troublesome, mutually reinforcing relationship between the struggle for political power and the fight between criminal groups to dominate key logistics routes, nodes, and sources of income in Mexico’s states. During the interviews conducted for this article, subject matter experts repeatedly mentioned the 2022 change in parties in power in the Mexican states of Hidalgo, Oaxaca, Quintana Roo, and Tamaulipas as important for understanding the dynamics between criminal groups in Mexico and the violence between them. They similarly mentioned the positioning for elections in Coahuila and Mexico State in 2023 and in Chiapas, Mexico City, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Morelos, Puebla, Tabasco, Veracruz, and Yucatan in 2024 as key future events potentially shaping criminal dynamics.
Alleged connections between political power and the operations of different criminal groups in Mexico’s 32 states also have serious implications for the nation’s political trajectory following national elections in 2024. As with what occurred after AMLO’s election in 2018, the capture of the presidency by a party other than MORENA in 2024 could likely lead to the rapid deterioration of the party, unleashing a series of battles for control between new political forces at the state level with consequences for the dynamics between criminal actors in those states. Even a victory by MORENA in the 2024 presidential elections would likely transform the party due to AMLO’s partial or complete departure from politics, leading to lesser, but still significant power struggles between MORENA and other contenders at the state level.
State by State
Criminal dynamics in Mexico vary broadly by state, reflecting different groups which are vying for power in each, as well as features relative to criminal operations (ports, highway routes and logistics nodes, poppy fields, narcolabs, and human smuggling routes among others.) This section examines some of the more salient criminal dynamics and features in key Mexican states.
Sonora. The state of Sonora, which is a key point of access to the United States, was shaken up by the July 2022 arrest of Rafael Caro Quintero, one of the last remaining members of Mexico’s first generation of narcotraffickers. Following his release from a Mexican prison in 2013, Caro Quintero established himself in the state with a new organization, the “Cartel of Caborca,” (a small strategically located town in the state.) There he competed with, and increasingly became a problem for the Sinaloa Cartel, which dominates the area more broadly, and more specifically, for the sons of El Chapo Guzman, the “Chapitos.” Because of Caro Quintero’s personal influence as a key “old school” narcotrafficking figure, his arrest raises the prospect that the other criminal groups in the area who had worked with him, as well as local police and government officials under his influence, could now shift their allegiances from the Caborca cartel to the rival “Chapitos,” unleashing a new wave of violent competition for control of the plazas of Sonora. Indeed, in the week following his arrest, violence had increased substantially in the state.
Colima. The small state of Colima, dominated by CJNG, is host to the port of Manzanillo, which is key for the import of precursor chemicals used by the cartel and others to produce fentanyl and methamphetamines. Colima was the site of one of several recent challenges to the authority of CJNG across Mexico. In January 2022, the “Mexcales” (also known as the “Cartel of Colima”) switched their loyalty from CJNG, for whom they had previously worked as enforcers, to the Sinaloa Cartel, claiming that CJNG head “El Mencho” was dead. The defection precipitated a wave of violence in the state, ultimately killing 60 people and obliging the National Guard to deploy 2,000 soldiers there.
Michoacan. The state of Michoacan, home of the strategic port of Lazaro Cardenas, has also been the focus of multiple significant challenges to CJNG, which dominates it. These include an attack by a group led by Daniel Correa (“El Tigre”) supported by other groups, against local CJNG head “El Barbas,” which killed twenty people. It also includes resistance to CJNG by a coalition of the remnants of other groups, calling themselves “Carteles Unidos” (united cartels) near Aguililla, the childhood home of El Mencho. The resulting combat between the groups has involved the employment of significant military hardware, from improvised armored vehicles and explosives to weaponized drones.
Chihuahua. Chihuahua is a key corridor to the United States and home to some of Mexico’s oldest cartels, including the Carrillo Fuentes organization (Juarez Cartel). In June 2022, Sinaloa-affiliated leader “El Chueco” killed two Jesuit priests in the town of Cerocahui, raising the prospect of an escalation of violence.
Sinaloa. In the state of Sinaloa, dominated by the cartel of the same name, intervention by authorities against 16 narco labs during the month of June 2022 highlights the continuing risk that the cartel is expanding its role as a key player in the production and transport of synthetic drugs in Mexico.
Guerrero. The state of Guerrero is a focal point for growing heroin poppies and producing heroin. The rise in demand for heroin and opioids in the United States has contributed to the escalation of violence there. Although there are many criminal groups competing and pursuing illicit activities in the state, the most powerful are Guerreros Unidos, Rojos, the Cartel of Acapulco, and the Cartel of the Costa Chica.
Veracruz. The Gulf-facing state of Veracruz is dominated by CJNG, although other groups including remnants of La Familia Michoacana reportedly operate in the port.
Tamaulipas. The state of Tamaulipas, bordering the United States in the northeast of Mexico, is the focus of multiple routes for moving drugs, immigration, and fuels to the U.S., including fuels diverted illicitly. Such routes are contested by multiple cartels, including the Northeast Cartel, a splinter of Los Zetas. The previous governor of Tamaulipas, Francisco Garcia Cabeza de Vaca, was believed to be tied to the Gulf Cartel through money man Sergio Carmona Angulo. The victory of a new MORENA party governor, Americo Villareal Anaya, in the nation’s June 2022 elections raises the prospect of a shakeup between criminal groups competing for revenues moving through Tamaulipas’ important plazas.
Guanajuato. In Guanajuato, the oil industry has made the state the focus of the huachicol fuel theft business. One of the first actions of the incoming AMLO administration was to move against local criminal leader “El Morro,” and his Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, opening the opportunity for CJNG to strengthen its position in the territory, expanding conflict there. Despite the death of El Marro, whose organization was vulnerable due to its relatively hierarchical character, the local connections of the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, including support from other gangs, have reportedly prevented CJNG from consolidating its control in the state.
Zacatecas. In Zacatecas, an increase in the killing of police and other violence in the first months of 2022 highlighted a struggle between groups affiliated with the Chapitos of Sinaloa and others tied to CJNG. The value of the state is not only as an alternative route through the center of the country for the movement of drugs, but also for moving people migrating north.
Quintana Roo. In Quintana Roo, high-profile assassinations on tourist beaches in May 2021, December 2021, and January 2022 accentuated the insecurity that has come to even once relatively safe parts of Mexico. The value of Quintana Roo from a criminal standpoint is less notable for the movement of drugs, but rather for human trafficking and extorting other activities that occur in tourist areas such as Cancun and Playa del Carmen. The present violence in the state suggests less restrained competition between minor actors, with major cartels such as Sinaloa and CJNG having only a limited presence there. In addition, as in Tamaulipas, the July 5 victory of the MORENA gubernatorial candidate Mara Lezema Espinosa in Quintana Roo suggests the possibility of a shakeup in criminal hierarchies in the state.
Mexico City. In Mexico City, where Police Chief, Omar García Harfuch was shot in a July 2020 attack by CJNG, police have engaged in a series of enforcement actions against some of the larger networks of criminal organizations operating in the city. These have included actions against La Union Tepito and the Cartel of Tlahuac, among others. The size of the city and the diversity of criminal operations have reportedly prevented groups like Sinaloa or CJNG from establishing dominant positions in Mexico City. Indeed, the decisive force in Mexico City in running criminal operations, as well as fighting them, according to some, is the police. There are some 83,000 police in Mexico City alone, a number almost twice the size of the entire Mexican Navy. Within the police, there have also been credible reports of leaders such as “Jefe Apollo” using parts of the organization to control and extort local mafias for their own ends.
Mexican Security Forces Responding to Organized Crime
Mexico’s Army, Navy, and the new National Guard have demonstrated significant capabilities. They have repeatedly put the lives of their personnel on the line in operations against criminal operations across the country. The Mexican military has been, however, notably underfunded in comparison to other militaries, receiving only approximately 2 percent of GDP as its budget, despite enormous responsibilities for internal security, as well as other traditional missions.
AMLO, who as a candidate expressed the desire to eliminate the role of the military in internal security in Mexico, has become increasingly reliant on Mexico’s Armed Forces as a tool, not only for conducting internal security activities, but for a range of other roles including the construction and management of infrastructure projects, arguably diverting military resources from other important tasks.
AMLO is arguably neither pro-military nor anti-military per se. Rather, his attitudes about the use of the military have reflected the influence of key advisors with military expertise, including his former security advisor, now governor of Sonora, Alfonso Durazo, as well as retired Lieutenant General Audomaro Martinez Zapata, presently head of Mexico’s Center for National Intelligence.
AMLO’s key initiative in the reorganization of the security sector has arguably been the formation of a National Guard and the simultaneous elimination of the federal police. From the beginning, military officers reportedly took on a significant role in command of the organization and contributed a disproportionate number of its personnel. The dominance of the military within the leadership and ranks of the National Guard was arguably due, in part, to the failure of a sufficient number of federal police officers to join the new organization.
In 2021, AMLO began a process to incorporate the National Guard under the leadership of the Mexican Defense Secretariat (SEDENA), which, unlike the U.S. Department of Defense, represents only Mexico’s Armyand Air Force not its Navy. The changes to the organization of the military include the formation of a new Joint Staff, in which a position for the head of the Mexican Army separate from the head of SEDENA itself has been established. The new Joint Staff also include the leadership of the National Guard and the Mexican Air Force. Nonetheless, the finalization of the change will require a new law, which is currently being sharply resisted by the non-Morena political establishment in Mexico, including the PAN and PRI.
Although the rivalry between SEDENA and the Secretary of the Navy (SEMAR) is longstanding, AMLO’s moves have reignited institutional battles, leading to the interpretation of virtually all major actions in the security space context of that institutional struggle. For multiple persons consulted for this work, events such as the selection of the Mexican Navy and not the Army to conduct the July 2022 operation to arrest Rafael Caro Quintero, and the president’s authorization of a reorganization of the Navy that increased the number of three-star regional commands from seven to 13, were interpreted as the president’s accommodation of the Navy as a counterweight to favoritism otherwise shown to the Army in other matters.
A further attribute of the current Mexican security situation is the political leadership of virtually all institutions by persons of personal confidence of the president. This includes the choice of Rosa Icela Rodriguez to head Mexico’s Public Security Secretariat. Icela Rodriguez was reportedly previously the nanny of AMLO’s children. More significantly, AMLO’s choice of Audomaro Martinez Zapata to head the national security organization shows the importance the president places on ensuring that Mexico’s civilian intelligence collection organization is firmly in the hands of a person he personally trusts.
Another important dimension of the capability of Mexican security forces is the effort to incorporate municipal and other local police under state police structures in an initiative called unified command or “Mando Unico.” The initiative, begun under the previous government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, was an attempt to combat the corruption of local police, often including their collaboration with local criminal organizations, a problem rampant across Mexico. Progress in implementing Mando Unico under AMLO, however, has been uneven. In some cases, such as in the state of Yucatan, local police still exist but have been effectively disarmed. In other areas, such as Nuevo Leon, municipal police in cities such as Monterey are reportedly effective, yet still outgunned against the cartels.
The Question of “Hugs Not Bullets”
AMLO’s hugs not bullets, or “abrazos no balazos” orientation toward criminal groups in Mexico and a number of his specific actions while president has raised questions regarding his motivations. The charitable interpretation of the president’s orientation is that he is a decent, well-meaning man who desires to deescalate the spiral of violence in the country, even as it is expanding to unprecedented proportions, and even if some may question the efficacy of the president’s policies and choices.
Whatever the interpretation, whether by coincidence or for more disturbing reasons, the president’s policies and actions have exhibited a degree of favoritism toward the Sinaloa Cartel and specifically toward Los Chapitos. Notable actions by AMLO include the order to release Chapito Ovidio Guzman, who was actually in custody following the October 2019 operation in Culiacan that successfully arrested him, which occurred in the heart of Sinaloa Cartel territory, and produced a fierce reaction by local criminal organizations in support of Ovido. Although AMLO justified an order to release Ovido as an attempt to avoid further violence against residents of the town, doing so was unprecedented, and sent a worrisome signal to the cartels that in the future, their use of extreme violence to resist an arrest of one of their leaders could oblige security forces to back down.
The second, major questionable action by AMLO was the dropping of charges against the former head of SEDENA, General Salvador Cienfuegos, who was arrested in October 2020 in the United States on extensive and credible charges involving his collaboration with Mexican drug cartels. Upon pressure from the Mexican government, the U.S. government released Cienfuegos into Mexican custody, upon which the Mexican government promptly dropped all charges. Moreover, adding insult to injury, they published the 751-page case supplied by the U.S. Justice Department on the internet, potentially putting sources and methods at risk. Although for some Mexicans, the U.S. arrest of the former head of the Mexican Army on U.S. soil was an affront to the nation, AMLO’s handling of the case nonetheless raised significant questions.
AMLO’s third questionable action was his introduction of and his government’s passage of a 2020 National Security Law that had the effect of significantly impeding the ability of Mexican law enforcement officials to cooperate with U.S. entities such as the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), as well as stripping immunity from them, and imposing extensive reporting requirements upon them, and restricting what U.S. entities could do in Mexico.
The fourth action was the April 2021 shutdown of a Mexican special vetted criminal investigative unit that had worked closely with the DEA, impeding the ability of the DEA to pass certain “ultra-sensitive” information to their Mexican counterparts in support of operations against criminal organizations operating in the country.
The fifth questionable action is AMLO’s repeated visits to the obscure Sinaloa town of Badiraguato, to visit the mother of El Chapo in Rancho La Tuna. Not only have previous Mexican presidents never visited the obscure town even once, but the president repeated interactions with El Chapo’s mother are difficult to explain. Raising further questions, the president’s visit in May 2022 to Badiraguato included a security perimeter that had been established by the cartels, and not Mexican security forces.
In the context of such actions, even the president’s motive in cooperating with the United States in permitting the successful operation against Rafael Caro Quintero has been subject to question, given that Rafael Caro Quintero’s Cartel de Caborca had become a problem for Los Chapitos. Thus his arrest indirectly benefitted Los Chapitos.
Security Cooperation with the U.S.
Despite some of AMLO’s actions effectively limiting security cooperation with the U.S., such as the 2020 National Security Law, as previously mentioned, the U.S.-Mexico security relationship remains strong at the institutional level. Although Merida Plan was replaced in December 2021 by the new bicentennial framework, the details and changes implied by the framework are still being substantially worked out. In addition, the ongoing migration crisis at the U.S.-Mexican border has arguably demanded much attention. Nonetheless, security issues, as well as trade and climate, were reportedly discussed during the president’s July 2022 visit to Washington.
At the institutional level, relations between the U.S. and Mexican military remain close. Activities coordinating the work of the two militaries, including staff talks and the border commander program, are ongoing. In addition, the U.S. and Mexican militaries continue to have liaison officers in multiple organizations of the other. For example, Mexican officers and other military personnel study in U.S. institutions, and vice versa. Nonetheless, for policy reasons, the U.S. military does not engage directly with the Mexican National Guard, created under AMLO. Rather, in support of its internal security function, Mexico’s National Guard does engage with various U.S. law enforcement institutions.
In the domain of military acquisitions, the significant initial purchases by the Mexican Army and Navy of U.S. military goods, including HMMWVs, Blackhawk helicopters, Beechcraft T6 Texan trainer aircraft, and Beech King Air 350ER surveillance aircraft, have largely come to an end. Major acquisitions and associated maintenance and training relationships are still ongoing, however, including the possible acquisition of 18 additional Blackhawks to replace aging Russian aircraft which the Mexican military is finding it difficult to maintain under the current Russia sanctions regime, as well as SEMAR interest in S-92 and Bell-429 helicopters. With the Mexican Army financing its own activities, U.S. security engagement funding for Mexico has dropped from approximately USD $80 million to $18 million, without implying a corresponding change in engagement.
Although procurement activities by the Mexican military during the Calderon and Peña Nieto six-year presidential terms were strongly oriented toward the United States, in 2017, the Mexican military indicated its interest in potentially acquiring Russian MI-17 helicopters to replace older generation Mi-17s and Mi-8 helicopters, but in 2020, announced that it would not do so. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the imposition of sanctions on Russia, Mexico, like other countries in Latin America, has had difficulty in obtaining spare parts for its Russian military equipment, and has reportedly explored replacing that Russian equipment with non-Russian alternatives.
With a 1,954-mile-long, shared land border, longstanding family ties, extensive trade and investment relationships, and supply chains that cross national boundaries, Mexico is integral to both U.S. prosperity and security. The drug crisis that killed 108,000 Americans last year and the current immigration crisis demonstrate the importance of working effectively with Mexico to combat our shared challenges with respect to transnational organized crime, among other areas. The posture of the current Mexican government has made such joint efforts more difficult than in previous scenarios, but not impossible.
While maintaining a posture respectful of Mexican sovereignty, it is important for the United States to be frank and open regarding areas in which it believes that necessary collaboration between peers combatting a common problem is not forthcoming. Such open dialogue between neighbors includes the United States seeking ways to do more in areas that it can impact, including addressing the demand for drugs that fuel the criminal activities of groups in Mexico working to supply the U.S. market, as well as the violent struggles between them. The United States also needs to do more with respect to the flow of guns purchased legally in its country, which is then smuggled illegally across the U.S. border, contributing to deaths in Mexico. The United States can also do more to acknowledge the operation of criminal groups on its side of the border, as well as the efforts being taken by U.S. law enforcement to combat them. Reciprocally, the U.S. also has an obligation not to shy away from talking candidly about concerns regarding corruption in Mexican institutions, laws, and policies that impede cooperation, even if talking openly about such issues prompts pushback from Mexico that such talk is offensive to Mexican “sovereignty.”
Within a framework of mutual respect, U.S. authorities in their dialogue with their Mexican counterparts, must also be more willing to prioritize the issue of Countering Transnational Organized Crime (CTOC) collaboration and the elimination of associated formal and informal barriers on the Mexican side. As the U.S. government does in its dealings with other countries where appropriate, it should also be prepared to use targeted Treasury Department OFAC sanctions, visa denials, criminal indictments, and other tools to call out Mexican officials and business elites whose behavior is of concern, even if doing so causes friction in the relationship or threatens to impede Mexican cooperation on politically sensitive issues in the U.S. such as cooperation on migration. In the extreme case, the U.S. must be ready to employ trade and investment policies as a lever to achieve such cooperation as well, always being respectful to our Mexican partners, yet not allowing the invocation of “sovereignty,” as an excuse for failing to engage in good faith.
As a complement to such frank but necessary engagement, the American nation also can do far more to meet its own commitments to supporting investment in Mexico, and to providing resources to programs that support the nation’s law enforcement and other institutions.
Recognizing that the results of such engagement with Mexico will only partially address the problem, the U.S. must be prepared to work around institutions and actors within Mexico with which it cannot reliably engage. In doing so, America must also work to strengthen collaboration with those institutions within the Mexican government at all levels that demonstrate the willingness to work with the U.S. reliably and in a framework of trust. In this way, the U.S. can help those Mexican institutions which are most effective and committed to working in a clean, transparent fashion to succeed, making positive contributions to the security situation in the country, while strengthening the position of those Mexican institutions for doing good.
Candid yet always respectful engagement between the U.S. and Mexico on transnational organized crime issues will generate political discomfort on both sides, yet such dialogue is the hallmark of a mature relationship between friends and neighbors. Given that neither the United States nor Mexico has the option of moving to a different neighborhood, it is also necessary for the security and well-being of both partners.
Evan Ellis is a Latin America research professor with the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. The views expressed herein are strictly his own.