This Is War

U.S. foreign policy in Mexico & the power of the cartels

Last autumn, The Daily Beast highlighted the story of the self-christened “Felina,” a courageous Twitter journalist who made a name for herself reporting on cartel-related crime. Felina hailed from Reynosa, a border city in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, a stronghold of organized crime. The region is under a strictly cartel-enforced media blackout, and Felina, along with the other administrators of Valor por Tamaulipas, a regional civilian news hub, sought to take a stand against what she saw as the tyranny of the cartels. Valor por Tamaulipas provided news alerts about violence or missing persons, posted photos identifying members of organized crime, and reported on violent clashes between government forces and the cartels. In October 2014, after numerous threats, a Tweet was posted from Felina’s account: “#reynosafollow FRIENDS AND FAMILY, MY REAL NAME IS MARÍA DEL ROSARIO FUENTES RUBIO. I AM A PHYSICIAN. TODAY MY LIFE HAS COME TO AN END.” Several Tweets followed, warning others not to follow her example. Finally, two photos appeared on the account: one of a middle-aged woman, tied up and looking at the camera; the second, that same woman lying dead on the ground with a bullet to the head. The chief administrator of Valor por Tamaulipas confirmed that she was Felina.

Just last month, the troubled state of Guerrero became the epicenter of a turf war when 300 armed civilians clad in ski masks overran the small town of Chilapa, carrying rifles, machetes, and sticks. Homes came under siege, people were threatened and attacked, and many have disappeared. The assault was allegedly an effort by the Ardillos cartel, or the Squirrels, to retaliate against the Rojos cartel, or the Reds, according to the Los Angeles Times. Despite the presence of the Mexican army, the gendarmerie (a national elite police force), and municipal and state forces, none intervened.

The media responded to these stories in horror, outraged that the cartels could run rampant in such a way. Yet while these examples of cartel-related violence are indeed awful, they are hardly the first of their kind, nor the most extreme — most never make the headlines. Human Rights Watch has reported that, between 2006 and 2012, over 60,000 people were killed in instances of cartel-related violence in Mexico, and more than 26,000 remain missing. In the first three months of 2015, 254 people were killed as a result of cartel violence in Tamaulipas alone, and over the past four years over 750 have “disappeared,” with politicians and law enforcement either unable or unwilling to check the cartels’ brazen nature.


To this day, it’s not generally understood that former President  “war on drugs” only served to exacerbate the violence. At the time, the Mexican Army seemed to be the only force capable of confronting the cartels, but the human rights situation quickly deteriorated. Many alleged that the army had committed serious abuses against civilians suspected of cartel affiliation, including extortion, illegal arrests, secret detentions, the widespread use of torture, and extrajudicial executions. When President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in December of 2012, he sought to shift the federal government’s response from a military approach and cast the cartels as a problem for local law enforcement.

“This is Mexico’s moment,” Peña Nieto vowed in his inaugural address at Mexico City’s National Palace. His rhetoric promised great gains for Mexico: more jobs, better security, a stronger alliance with the United States, and most importantly, domestic stability. Though he made no guarantee to bring down the cartels as his predecessor Calderón had done, he laid out a comprehensive plan to improve the state of the country: he would overhaul the penal code to prevent crime before it happened, develop systems to help victims of violence, alleviate hunger and poverty, and improve the quality and accessibility of education, transportation, and technology.

Yet today, Mexico remains ravaged by cartel-related violence and corruption. Perhaps motivated by a hope that the murders, beheadings, and kidnappings would resolve themselves, Peña Nieto’s strategy has only succeed in relocating violence from the public forum. Nonetheless, when instances of violence started to proliferate again in the state of Michoacán, Peña Nieto, like his predecessor before him, sent the army to provide back up for the federal and local police forces.

The cartels have responded to the increasing use of federal troops in characteristic fashion. In July 2013, a top Mexican navy official and commander of a base in Jalisco, Vice Admiral Carlos Salazar, was killed in an ambush in neighboring cartel-ravaged Michoacán. In May 2014, Colonel Salvador Haro Muñoz, Tamaulipas’ newly appointed chief of intelligence, was shot dead along with his two bodyguards in the state capital of Ciudad Victoria. In November 2014, General Ricardo Cesar Nino Villarreal, one of the men appointed by Peña Nieto just six months before to subdue growing violence in Tamaulipas, was found dead next to his wife along the road between Monterrey and Nuevo Laredo. More than one hundred high-caliber bullet casings were left at the scene of the shooting.


At first glance, while highly disturbing, these local drug disputes might not seem an issue relevant to the U.S. Yet the U.S. and Mexico share a 1,933-mile border that 350 million people cross legally every year, making it the busiest border crossing in the world according to the Migration Policy Institute. In addition, Mexico is the U.S.’s second largest export market and its third biggest import supplier. Though illegal immigration flows from Mexico are at their lowest levels since the 1970s, this number still totals well over 200,000. (They peaked at 1.6 million in 2000.) In order to tackle major domestic issues such as immigration, drug policy, and crime, the U.S. must cooperate with the Mexican government; however, instability in Mexico threatens the success of U.S. initiatives and interest in the region.

Among the issues affecting Mexico’s stability, the drug trade looms large. Mexico is the world’s second largest cultivator of opium poppy and the U.S.’s largest foreign provider of marijuana and methamphetamine—the fastest growing sector of the drug trade. It is also a major heroin supplier. Mexican production of these three drugs has continued to grow since 2005, and over 90 percent of cocaine destined for the U.S. travels through Mexico. The drug trade is entrenched in the Mexican economy, accounting for between three to four percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employing up to half a million people, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. In addition to the cartels’ physical reach, this economic muscle has enabled them to buy anything they want to achieve their goals, whether it be weaponry, land, or the compliance of politicians, businesses, and policemen.

Pervasive corruption at the highest levels of government hinders Peña Nieto efforts to combat the cartels. The weakness of Mexico’s judicial and law enforcement institutions, combined with the country’s proximity to the world’s largest consumer economy, have allowed a highly sophisticated drug network to build itself into Mexico’s very foundations. Drug-trafficking gangs spend an estimated $100 million each month on bribes for municipal police forces, who can be easily bought thanks to salaries that fall below the average for public sector workers, about $9,000 – $10,000 each year.

Despite the two countries’ close physical, cultural, and economic ties, the U.S. has by and large ignored the problem of Mexican cartels, and neglected its clear national security implications. The issue is rarely discussed in foreign policy fora and is certainly not as prominent in the media as Syria or Iran. However, the cartel-related violence in Mexico represents just as potent a threat, and one that has already begun to spill over into the United States. Unlike in the past, this current wave of violence has not remained limited to border towns like Nuevo Laredo on the banks of the Rio Grande. Major U.S. cities like Chicago and Los Angeles are increasingly turning into cartel strongholds and the sites for bloody gang turf wars.


On February 14th, 2013, Chicago named Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel, as the city’s “Public Enemy No. 1.” Although El Chapo was caught and imprisoned just a year later, his legacy persists today, with grave consequences. Many large U.S. cities like Los Angeles and New York have seen a spade of cartel-related crime, but Chicago has been particularly hard hit by members of Mexican drug cartels that use the city’s large population of Mexican immigrants as camouflage. Predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods have become strongholds for associates of the Sinaloa Cartel, who recruit new members through coercion and the threat of violence. This July, El Chapo escaped from Altiplano, supposedly Mexico’s most secure federal prison.

In recent years, the Mexican cartels’ methods of distribution in the U.S. have changed as well. Cartels now rarely outsource drug sales to local dealers, instead choosing to send their own operators to do such work themselves. Because these immigrants have fewer local connections and far deeper ties to the criminal organization, they are more willing to use violence to achieve their business ends. As cartel-related crime has escalated, the violence begun to creep out from major cities and into rural America. In recent years, Oregon has become a prime spot for drug trafficking and cartel-related violence with traffickers using the Interstate-5 corridor for drug runs from California to Washington State, and even into Canada. A similar situation exists on the East Coast’s Interstate-95 corridor. When urban law enforcement crack down on organized crime groups, cartels simply move to more rural and suburban locations to continue their work undisturbed.


As their turf wars spread into major U.S. cities, it is increasingly apparent that the cartels are not just at America’s doorstep anymore —they have walked straight into the house. Moving forward, U.S. foreign policy makers will face a plethora of challenges in managing the U.S-Mexican relationship while limiting the power of the cartels. The solution will not simply be a matter of capturing or killing cartel leaders; such proposals ignore the fundamental structure and psychology of the cartels. Nor will the legalization of drugs in the U.S. solve the problem—even when ignoring all the possible healthcare and security repercussions. Today’s cartels deal in a host of illegal businesses unrelated to drugs, from counterfeiting to human trafficking and kidnapping. Mexico has not been a focus of U.S. foreign policy for a long time, but as cartel violence grows and continues to spill over the border into the U.S., this will have to change.

Domestic initiatives such as the legalization of recreational marijuana are not the solution as the cartels do not solely operate in drug trade. Nor is can the problem simply be solved by “decapitating” the cartels. Such tactics generally fail to prevent violence and can lead to the martyrdom of drug lords. What should be pursued instead are strategies to follow and stop cartel money, rather than cartel leaders, because as in any business, the fuel that keeps the cartels running is profit. Were one of the major cartels to disappear tomorrow, another would eventually rise to take its place because the potential gains are too great to ignore. If the money were to stop flowing, reigning in the cartels would become much simpler. The U.S. could take lessons learned from successful campaigns in the war on terror in staunching the flow of money to terrorist organizations and effectively apply them to a cartel like Zetas. Though likely to incite policy disagreement, the best approach to combating the cartels is not to stress gun control and illegal immigration, but rather to follow the money.

Relations between the United States and Mexico countries have fluctuated in recent years, and the Obama administration at present is nervous about antagonizing Peña Nieto’s government by appearing to try to dictate Mexican domestic policy. This does not mean, however, that the U.S. should ignore the problem of the cartels — Mexico’s proximity makes the cartels a direct threat to U.S. national security and to the security of Mexico’s neighbors in Central America. The U.S. is still a long way away from having a situation like Tamaulipas or Michoacán within its own borders. Nonetheless, it is increasingly evident that Americans are far from immune from the impact of cartels.

Allie Krause ’15 was a Global Affairs major in Timothy Dwight College. She can be reached

Above: Members of Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad, or the Mexican Indignados Movement, protest then-Mexican president Felipe Calderón’s involvement in the Drug War in February, 2011 (courtesy of Flickr user Eneas De Troya).