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  • Somansh Sharma


The Guadalajara cartel formed during the 1970s in Mexico segregated into Juarez Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, Sinaloa cartel among others. The decentralization of such illicit drug cartels had severe implications on Mexico and other neighbouring countries, especially the United States of America. Presently, Mexican drug cartels generate a revenue of $19 Billion to $29 Billion annually through drug sales in the US. Somansh Sharma, a student of BAGA '19, interviewed Professor Sebastian Antonino Cutrona, a professor at Jindal School of International Affairs. Professor Cutrona explained the evolution of tactics, strategies and structures adopted by the Mexican drug cartels since the 1980s to survive the competition and make profits. He further discussed the adaptability factor of these transnational organized criminal organizations across varying political contexts and time frames. He remarks that drugs are going to be there- what is crucial is the role of institution building in Mexico to eradicate the problem!

Q. If you had to explain the operation style of the Mexican drug cartels to a layperson, how would you explain to him? What is the general structure, tactics and strategies employed by the Mexican drug trafficking organizations to operate?

Ans. It is important to distinguish the historical drug cartels in Mexico from the new organizations that have appeared in the last 10 to 15 years. The historical cartel during the l980s was the Guadalajara cartel led by Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo. This was the first criminal organization and was hierarchically structured under the leadership of a single person: Miguel aka El Jefe de Jefes (The Boss of Bosses). There was also the presence of other major leaders like Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo aka Don Neto and Rafael Caro Quintero. The distinctive feature of that regional drug cartel was its structure. It was hierarchically structured originally devoted to the trafficking of marijuana, not cocaine as we know them today. Marijuana was the first illicit drug used for trading. Given the growing prevalence of drug rates in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, the cartel took advantage of the situation to traffic drugs into the United States. The main strategy employed to develop their illicit activities during the 1980s, particularly in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was to exploit the corruption within federal law-enforcing agencies. The situation changed dramatically after the assassination of Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena Salazar, the American Intelligence Officer for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) which was executed by three leaders of the Guadalajara drug cartel including Rafael Caro Quintero in 1985. This event drastically changed the landscape in Mexico for the first time. The government of Mexico felt the pressure of the United States to go after these criminal organizations. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that governed Mexico for 70 years was bribed by the cartel for its uninterrupted functioning. The government was equally corrupt to accept bribe in order to gain an additional source of income. The assassination of Enrique ‘Kiki’ Camarena completely changed the landscape because the Mexican government was forced to do something. Along with the dissatisfaction of Mexican citizens, the pressure exerted by the United States on the Mexican government eventually resulted in the arrest of the leader of the cartel, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, in 1989. The arrest shook the underworld; thereby changing dramatically. The Guadalajara cartel was, later, diversified into three different cartels i.e., the Juarez cartel, the Tijuana cartel and the Gulf cartel. These cartels were also hierarchically structured under independent leadership of kingpins.

It is also important to study the political context in Mexico during the 1990s. In 1990, for the first time in 70 years, a new party, National Action Party, was elected to govern the country. This instance began to change the political landscape of the presidential administrations beginning with Salinas Gortari and followed by Vicente Fox during the 2000s. The government decided to apply the kingpin strategy and decided to go after the leaders of those organisations dealing with marijuana. But those organizations merely shifted their source of income from marijuana to cocaine as the big drug cartels like the Medellin and Cali cartel almost disappeared during the 1990s. So, the vacuum left by these big cartels was obtained by the Mexican drug cartels. This resulted in the shift of dealing from marijuana to cocaine. The profits of the cocaine industry are much higher than that of marijuana. The shift from marijuana to cocaine gave these three Mexican cartels a lot of muscle and money power to confront the state. Corruption was no longer the only strategy used by drug lords; these cartels also tried to confront the state and try to win territories against the state with weakening institutions. These cartels tried to win territories especially in the margins of the state, not in the capital city or gradient centres.

Vicente Fox, the then President of Mexico, decided to employ the same strategy of hunting down the leader of the cartel, on Juarez, Tijuana and Gulf cartels as well. Contrary to the predictions of government officials, the strategy yielded a completely unexpected result this time around. Similar to how Guadlajara split into three cartels in the early 1990s, Juarez, Tijuan and Gulf split into more than 100 cartels in the 2000s.

Cartels that exist today, especially the Sinaloa cartel, feast on the legacy left behind by the Juarez cartels in the American region. Present-day cartels are the consequence of a series of iron fist policies introduced by different American administrations. These iron fist policies were steadily accelerated during 2006, when Felipe Calderon assumed presidency of Mexico. Felipe Calderon launched war on drugs in Mexico. His decision to go after leaders of the cartels resulted in the most unintended consequence of the fragmentation of these cartels. This is also called the cockroach effect or the waka moly effect. The government officials were under the impression that eliminating the leaders of the drug cartels as advised by the United States will result in the disappearance of these cartels. But eventually, this did not happen and what happened was that these organizations fragmented into more number of cartels. This fragmentation also led to a fight over territory with the lower-level lines of the organization started fighting to gain control over territory. The power vacuum created by the prosecution of the leaders of these cartels as a part of the ‘War on Drugs’ launched by the Mexican government resulted in the death of over 250,000 individuals.

At present, we no longer have those classical hierarchal structure but we have more horizontal network-based criminal organizations. Except for the Sinaloa cartel and Cali cartel, the rest of the criminal organizations are kind of horizontal. They are not as hierarchically structured as the previous ones but have more business-oriented profiles. Most of these organizations have decided not to confront the state in most of the cases, but they rather use corruption as a strategy to keep trafficking drugs into the American territory.

Q. Mexico witnessed the elimination of tariffs and trade restrictions and the policies of liberalization were implemented during the mid-1990s. So due to liberalization how have these drug cartels have benefited.

Ans. It is important to understand that organised crime always prospers the preservice of the actions of the state. We cannot make sense of organised crime without looking at what the state is doing. Organised crime always readapts, the strategies changed, the criminal portfolios change etc. based on the context and landscape of the time. When many Latin American countries follow the model of Washington concepts of liberalization and free economy. The countries even reduce the size of the allowed imports to arrive in a country, not creating an infrastructure and logistics necessary to engage the country that will internationally benefit from the same process. But it is not always that way. Criminal organizations can benefit from those liberalising policies like the ones developing Latin America during the 1990s. The case of Mexico was not an exception but they can also benefit from the period of protectionism. It is particularly very difficult to believe that one particular economic policy would shape the way these criminal organizations behave, they may impact the structure of organised crime and they can sometimes benefit to develop their activities. Liberalization or economic policies of free trade have benefitted from the discriminatory mutations during the 1990s. Criminal organizations are very resilient unable to adapt more than the economy. These criminal organizations took the advantage of the weakening of the states not only the opening of the economy. It is important to understand that there are countries daughter very liberal in terms of trade with a lot of free trade agreements, low tariffs and so forth, but still, they do not have criminal organizations of drug cartels. 8 it’s not only about how open your economy is or how protectionist your policies are but most importantly how weak are your institutions. Of course, the exports of cocaine could be accelerated due to the free trade policies developed in the 1990s but the most important driving force for those activities was the weak state, corruption and legitimacy over margins of territory. These variables were the key because these criminal organizations have been plugged despite their economic policy. It happened with the policies of protectionism and is continuing during the policies of free trade. The most distinctive feature that has been present all overtime is institutional weakness. Corruption is the most important variable that is not only limited to Mexico and can explain part of the latest trends of organised crime in most Latin American countries.

Q. What is the difference between a cartel (criminal) and a gang?

Ans. Gangs are mostly organizations that revolves around the notion of identity. While the main aim of a cartel is to make money and gain profits, gangs are usually not hierarchical structures. It is critical to understand that people join gangs to gain an identity, unlike cartels that are completely devoted to make money. Those who involve in extortion for a living join these gangs; not only because they want to make money but also to be a part of something. They share languages, culture like tattoos, a unique way of speech, music that they listen to, the graffiti on the wall, and many more. Money is not the only bonding factor among them. The other major difference is that the main source of income for gangs is not drugs. Drugs are most probably their secondary source of income. Sometimes drugs don’t even exist. The main activity for these gangs is extortion. Also, gangs are not hierarchically-structured unlike cartels, the identity plays a critical role in gangs. If you are a member of a cartel, you are not punished or penalised if you establish alliance with another cartel. The Guadalajara cartel is divided into more than 100 cartels presently. They do not have problems with affiliation. They do not have problems feeling part of one another's organization. They have created their organizations under the umbrella of the regional cartel. When we talk about gangs, for example, in the case of Salvador, we only have two gangs; of course, there are some more splits within the organization but these two gangs are the model of gangs that can be understood. It is not only limited to Central America, the gangs operating in the United States also have the same feature identity. Drug trafficking is not the main activity for these gangs, unlike cartels.

Q. What other crimes are committed by Mexican drug cartels in the name of drug trafficking?

Ans. During the pandemic, travel and logistics were heavily regulated due to the contagious nature of the virus. As a consequence, many criminal organizations, particularly drug cartels, had to diversify their criminal portfolio. They have shown to be extremely resilient during the pandemic context. Some cartels like the Sinaloa cartel were devoted to human trafficking, prostitution, illegal logging, trafficking of avocados among other illicit activities. The Sinaloa cartel has started to illegally buy avacdos from producers and then supply them into the Mexican markets via non-regulated illegal channels. During the pandemic, they had diversified the criminal portfolio. Other Mexican organizations began stealing oil and gas from pipelines. While we know that their main activity is trafficking cocaine, they have also diversified their portfolio. In addition to drugs, human trafficking is something that they have been involved in for the last couple of years. The consequence of the diversification of their activities leads us to a conclusion that even if drugs are legalised, they may not become actors of the formal economy. They are criminals. They will make their move into the black markets that are more profitable. The argument that legalization will automatically reduce the levels of violence and will eliminate the trafficking of different activities is incorrect. The criminal portfolios are very wide and they can shift depending on their profits. In the case of Colombia, there is also evidence showing that when the prices of coffee rises, some criminal organizations stop dealing with cocaine and shift towards the production of coffee. Here, we have to understand that they’re neither willing to establish a left-wing government nor to support a president.They are least concerned about the elections and the candidates, but the major goal of these criminal organizations is just to make money and not more than that.

Q.The boryokudan community in Japan carries a sense of legitimacy among lower-class groups because they can employ them along with some sense of security. Can there be an impact on these drug trafficking organizations if they can make connections with society?

Ans. In the case of Mexico, there happened something similar to what happened in Japan with the Yakuza. The Yakuza distributed face masks, hand sanitiser, and other personal protective equipment to prevent the contraction of the virus during the pandemic. In the case of Mexico, given the high levels of violence, the acceptability of these criminal organizations is not that high. From a general perspective, some polls by the Mexican population suggest that violence has been internalized compared to other Latin American countries, but there is a growing rejection of the role of these criminal organizations. What is the problem here? Given the lack of economic opportunities and the absence of the state, many young people believe that the only way to rise in the social classes in Mexico is just by joining these criminal organizations. This kind of general rejection could be transformed into an opportunity for those who neither have a job nor educational background. In Mexico, there is a famous saying that Nini youth that neither works nor studies. This nini has been used as a major source of recruitment of criminal organizations. They use those young people without studies or work to join the organization. The levels of acceptability compared to Japan are lower in the case of Mexico, but still, one long term consequence that we can expect after the pandemic is that these criminal organizations would have occupied the vacuum left by the state. The territories that lack the reach of the state have been ceded to these organisations where they’ve gained legitimacy. Among many citizens that are suffering from the economic crisis and social problems, the levels of legitimacy and acceptance of these organisations will grow greater. The levels of lychee martini legitimacy are lower than other countries like Japan but there is a good chance for it to increase in the post-pandemic world, particularly in the case of Mexico. During the pandemic, if the Mexican drug cartels have helped many citizens, they will surely gain some form of connection with society and the community as well.

Q.US has launched ‘War on Drugs’ with special emphasis on Mexican drug cartels. How has this step resulted in the changing nature of these drug cartels? Does the prospect of alliance formation fit well to fight a common cause?

Ans. The militarization policy in view of the War on Drugs in Mexico has created a cockroach effect not only in Mexico but also in Colombia that has been particularly sponsored by the United States. This is not something that happened in Latin America before the United States started witnessing problems with drugs. If we analyse what happened before the 1970s, the level of drug use in the United States was low and there was no war on drugs in Latin America. The situation changed when the United States started witnessing problems with drug consumption, and its association with crime forced the United States to launch the War on Drugs in Latin America. The United States first launched the War on Drugs in Peru and Bolivia, then Colombia, and finally in Mexico. The United States is willing to launch this war on other Latin American countries as well. The interesting point to note here is that the War on Drugs has been a complete failure. Today, drugs are available at a much cheaper rate, they’re more purer and more widely available than they were in the 1970s, before the War on Drugs. These three indicators somehow show that the War on Drugs has been a complete failure. Beyond the drug market, we have witnessed unintended consequences in terms of the dysfunction of democratic institutions. Democratic institutions are increasingly fragile and corrupted due to the prevalence of this war that is dictated by a foreign country. Environmental problems, human rights violations, problems within the army, civil governments etc., have been inflicted. The unintended consequences are easily identifiable if we analyse the prospects of the War on Drugs.

What could we expect in the future remains a vital question. We may expect a change in drug policies. We have been witnessing that not only in the United States but even in other Latin American countries, where they are trying to follow a different route; the loss in the credibility of the War on Drugs being both a cause and a consequence. While discussing the possibility of alliance-building, a cartel will only align with another cartel to fight another organization. There is no reason to expect this to happen now, similar to how it happened during the 1980s. This is why the role of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo in getting all the similar criminal organizations under the umbrella of the federation called the Guadalajara cartel was so unique that time. Rather than cartels drawing in one single organization, we may expect a greater fragmentation and so the leadership numbers are always on the rise. We may expect those kingpins to confront each other and even in some situations, fight. That fight may result in the emergence of smaller criminal organizations. In my opinion, the prospect of alliance building may not happen. We may have short-term alliances like the fight for the status of one cartel against the other, but in long term, the dispute of the territory and the action of the state will result in the confrontation of each other.

Q.President Lopez Obrador initiated strong measures to overcome the issue of drug trafficking. What was the definite impact of these results? Have these measures been short-lived or continue to gain effective results?

Ans. The case of Lopez Obrador is very interesting because he contested as a candidate for Presidency on the platform of finishing and ending the War on Drugs. Some polls suggested that both himself as a person and the discourse he believed and promoted, were progressive. He framed the problems of drugs as a health issue rather than a security complication in Mexico, and he promised to end the War on Drugs. However, once he took over the presidency, he pursued different policies that somehow contradict his proposals during the presidential elections. He created the National Guard which is a paramilitary force formed by former military forces. In some cases, the National Guard looked like military, spoke like military, equipped with military weapons. Everything looked like military! However, he liked to label them as the National Guard. Moreover, the press information has revealed that the military forces has been given exquisite power including contruction of infrastructure projects, construction of huge airport etc. only because President Lopez Obrador decided to give that project which should have been open to competition among different companies. This reflects the the viability of power granted to the National Guard by President Lopez. I am just mentioning one point, but the connection between military forces and President Lopez Obrador is crystal clear; something that heavily contradicts his political premise by virtue of which he had won presidency elections. Thus, I do not expect Lopez Obrador to change the actions in Mexico in the remaining years of his presidency. The political cost of his contradictions is very clear. His popularity is not on the rise and we may expect traditional political parties like the PRI and PAN to dispute MORENA in the next presidential elections.

Q.What is the way forward in eliminating drug cartels in Mexico?

Ans. It is critical to understand that security policies are important to counter these organizations but they are not the only solution. This is something that we have to understand. This may appear as a paradox because how is it possible that security policy is not important? Security policies will not eliminate criminal organizations as a security threat. The security policies are very useful to shape the nature of organized crime so this way the criminal organizations and the forces that pose a threat to the security are pushed out, into other realms.

We need to work on education, the formalization of the job market, stopping the unrealistic aspirations of urbanization, and eliminate inequality. When there the job market is not formal enough, individuals are incentivised to join criminal organizations. The rapid urbanization in Latin American countries and an unequal society in terms of income needs to be worked upon. Institution building should be the cornerstone of any political decision. To stop the rise of these criminal organizations, we need stronger institutions that could make the government officials accountable and transparent. If we improve our economic situation, we can surely have better security policies. Mexico can have more resources coming from better economies but if it has weaker institutions and corruption, then it is very difficult to alleviate these cartels and criminal organisations.


To conclude, I would say that we also have two fallacious understanding, the idea that we can leave in a war without rocks. Drugs cannot be eradicated overnight. Whether you like it or not, they are going to be there. What we need to find is solutions to problematic consumption and the role of criminal organizations. The problem, so far, is that most of our attention, resources and energy have been devoted to just kill-or-capture the heads of criminal organizations to stop people from using drugs. If those are the goals, we will never get better results. We need to change focus. The drug market should not only be looked in the perspective that drug consumption results in insecurity or adverse health consequences.

Cover Image: Eduardo Verdugo/AP

Interviewer Bio: Somansh, a final year student pursuing Bachelors in International Relations at Jindal School of International Affairs. He is passionate about research and analytical writing. His areas of interests are foreign policy, diplomacy and international law. He strives towards inspiring and educating others in this realm to advocate positive socio-political change.

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