The Mexican Drug War primarily refers to the conflict between the Mexican government and the drug cartels of Mexico, which informally began in 1971 with the American War on Drugs and drastically escalated to a conflict of its own under the administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderón.. Mexican cartels have been the primary traffickers of illicit drugs into the United States for many years, and as various cartels’ power grew, so did money laundering, corruption, and drug-related violence in Mexico. Most of this violence is perpetrated against civilians, who are routinely caught in the crossfire between the military and cartels or else are threatened, extorted, or callously murdered by cartels. Currently, there is no clear end to the conflict in sight.
Population: 126.2 million (2018)
Deaths: ~150,000 (2019)
Disappearances: 61,637 (2020)
Homicide Rate: 29.07 (2018)
Annual Drug Revenue: est. $19-$29 billion
Since the arrival of Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the presidency, the Mexican government has changed its strategy toward the illegal drug trade. It aims to combine a social approach to drain drug cartels’ ability to attract Mexican people to their activities with the development of a new police force. La Guardia Nacional is a militarized police force created specifically to fight against cartels.
An epidemic of opioid addiction and opioid-related overdoses within its own borders is believed to be an effect of the increased trafficking of harder drugs by cartels, along with the high rates of violent crime in Mexico. As a result, the US has given almost $2.5 billion in funding through the Mérida Initiative to help with equipment, training, resources, rebuilding, intelligence, and technical assistance. In practice, most of the allocated funds have gone to strengthening Mexico’s various security apparatuses to combat drug violence. The US has also increased border security on its side of the border.
Formed from the dissolution of the Milenio Cartel and strengthened through temporary alliances with the Sinaloa Cartel, it has since evolved to become one of the most dangerous and powerful drug cartels in Mexico. It has expanded rapidly and aggressively. In 2017 it was declared the most ubiquitous cartel in Mexico by Attorney General Raúl Cervantes. By 2018, it had ascended to the top of Mexico’s crystal meth production. The same year, several of its highest ranking members left to form the Nueva Plaza Cartel.
Long considered Mexico’s most powerful criminal organization, the cartel faces an uncertain future owing to the imprisonment of one of its most powerful leaders, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, an icon of the Mexican drug trade. Because the cartel itself has thrived from its innovative structure as a federation rather than a traditional hierarchy, it is likely to further splinter as infighting among its leadership continues.
Once considered Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficking organization, it has since been demoted by Los Zetas, a splinter group that previously acted as its armed wing, and now acts as its main rival. It primarily controls criminal operations in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, though it has spread and extended southward into the rest of Mexico and Guatemala. It has succeeded by maintaining a traditional hierarchical structure as newer organizations seek to innovate.
Once the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas were formed from Mexican Special Forces’ most skilled and violent soldiers – most famously Arturo Guzmán Decena, their first commander. The creation of the Zetas permanently changed the drug business in Mexico, instituting a rapid militarization of cartel violence that extends into today. They are famous for committing extreme acts of violence and branching into illicit trades other than drug trafficking, including human trafficking, weapons trafficking, and even clandestine weapons manufacturing.
At one point, La Familia controlled the majority of the drug business in the state of Michoacán, a hub for drug production. When former-Familia leader Nazario Moreno González faked his death and formed the Knights Templar, he took all of La Familia’s business and power with with him. Though it is technically a splinter group, it is functionally a second phase of La Familia in the Moreno González era. Reportedly, another splinter group called the Nueva Familia Michoacana is operating in Guerrero. All maintain the organization’s characteristic pseudo-religious ideology.
Timeline of the Crisis
President Felipe Calderón sends 6500 soldiers into the state of Michoacán in an attempt to curb drug-related violence there. This action is thought to be the first major retaliation by the government against drug cartels and the beginning of the Mexican government’s ongoing war on drugs.
Osiel Cárdena Guillen, former-Gulf Cartel leader and founder of Los Zetas, is extradited to the US. Under the Kingpin Act, he is charged with conspiracy to traffic mass quantities of marijuana and cocaine, as well as charges relating to threats made against American DEA agents in 1999.
Across Mexico, at least 284 officers are purged from federal police departments in a bid to rid the country’s security forces of corrupt connections to the criminal underground.
The entire police force in the town of Playas de Rosarito is disarmed due to suspicions of colluding with drug traffickers to attack the town’s police chief. The town lies just south of Tijuana on the US-Mexico border.
Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, one of the founders of the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, is arrested in Culiacán, Sinaloa, along with three bodyguards. With him, security forces find hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, as well as grenades and automatic weapons.
Édgar Eusebio Millán Gómez, a high-ranking member of Mexico’s federal police force, is shot to death at his home, likely in retaliation for the arrest of Alfredo Beltrán Leyva.
The Mérida Initiative is signed into law, which guarantees Mexico $US1.6 billion in funding and assistance over the course of three years.
Eight people are killed and over a hundred injured during Independence Day celebrations in Morelia, Michoacán when hand grenades are thrown into a crowd. The attack is largely considered obscene by trafficking organizations active in the area, especially La Familia, who make an effort to distance themselves from blame.
Over 200 traffickers are arrested across the United States, Italy, Guatemala, and Mexico – including members of the Gulf Cartel as a part of Operation Solare.
In the border city of Reynosa, Mexican security forces make the largest weapons seizure in the country’s history, including over 400 rifles and handguns, 166 grenades, over a thousand magazines of ammunition, and a rocket launcher.
Rodolfo de la Guardia García, the ex-director of Mexico’s Interpol office, is arrested under suspicions of protecting members of the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel.
Ricardo Gutiérrez Vargas, head of Mexico’s Interpol office, is arrested for alleged connections to drug trafficking organizations.
After resigning on 2 February 2008, Federal Police Chief Víctor Gerardo Garay is arrested for allegedly protecting members of the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel.
Robert Orduna, Chief of Police of Ciudad Juárez, resigns after drug traffickers threaten to kill one police officer every 48 hours.
US authorities raid drug warehouses in California, Minnesota, and Maryland and arrest 755 people involved with the Sinaloa Cartel.
The same day, Miguel Ángel Caro Quintero, leader of the Sonora Cartel, is extradited to the United States on charges of conspiracy to distribute marijuana and racketeering. He is the brother of Rafael Caro Quintero, co-founder of the Guadalajara Cartel and once-ally to the infamous Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo.
27 high-ranking officials, including ten mayors and a judge, are arrested in the state of Michoacán under suspicions of collaborating with La Familia.
Julio César Godoy Toscano, recently elected to the Lower House of Congress, is charged for allegedly ensuring the legal protection of members of La Familia Michoacana.
Marcos Arturo Beltrán Leyva, leader and co-founder of the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, is shot and killed in a 90-minute shootout with 200 Special Forces agents at an upscale resort community in Cuernavaca, Morelos. Intelligence agents tried and failed to capture him only days before during Christmas party in Ahuatepec.
Melquisedet Angulo Córdova, a Special Forces agent killed in the same shootout that took Marcos Arturo Beltrán Leyva, is buried in Tabasco. Hours later, gunmen break into his house and kill four of his relatives, including his mother, in retaliation.
Carlos Beltrán Leyva, another founder of the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, is arrested via federal police officers in Culiacán, Sinaloa off of an anonymous tip.
The Mexican Red Cross stops treating gunshot victims after getting caught in violent crossfire.
A mass grave with 55 bodies is found near Taxco, Guerrero 200 meters down a ventilation shaft. Many of the bodies are found still bound and gagged. Though much of the violence in Mexico is in the north, Guerrero has become the epicenter of violence on the country’s Pacific coast.
For the first time since the beginning of the Mexican War on Drugs, drug traffickers from La Línea, the armed wing of the Juárez Cartel, successfully perform a car bomb attack in Ciudad Juárez. Cartel members call in a fake emergency call and use an injured man dressed in a police uniform to lure in first responders. The attack represents an escalation in violence in Mexico and evolution in the ingenuity of trafficking organizations to commit acts of terror.
Mexican authorities unearth at least 70 bodies from mass graves in the state of Nuevo León, with at least 51 of them found in the municipality of Benito Juárez alone.
15 corpses of members of Los Zetas are found lining the highway Matamoros-Ciudad Victoria, a busy highway outside of San Fernando Tamaulipas. The killings are attributed to the Gulf Cartel.
Four decapitated and mutilated bodies are found hanging from a bridge in Cuernavaca, Morelos at the hands of the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel. In a message left near the bodies, Héctor Beltrán Leyva takes responsibility and threatens any other members who side with Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal, a former high-ranking member who came to question cartel leadership after the death of Marcos Arturo Beltrán Leyva.
72 bodies are discovered on a ranch in Tamaulipas, all believed to be migrants killed by Los Zetas for refusing to work. The discovery was made after a gunfight between police and supposed drug traffickers, killing three of the gunmen and a marine. It is the single largest mass grave discovered so far in the drug war.
Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal, once a high-ranking member of the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, is arrested by federal police officers at a house near Mexico City.
Julio César Godoy Toscano, a congressman previously charged for connections to La Familia Michoacana, avoids arrest due to a judicial injunction and is allowed to swear in, granting him parliamentary immunity.
105 tons of US-bound marijuana are seized in Baja California. The drug seizure has an estimated street value of approximately 4.2 billion pesos, or $340 million. It is the largest drug seizure so far in the state’s history.
In response to leaked audio proving a relationship with Servando Gómez Martínez, former-leader of the Knights Templar Cartel and leader of La Familia Michoacana, Mexican Congressman Julio César Godoy Toscano resigns from his political party (the Partido de la Revolución Democrática) and flees as a fugitive.
Mexican authorities capture a 14 year old hitman, with 300 confirmed kills. Mexican authorities in Cuernavaca, Morelos arrest Edgar Jiménez Lugo, a sicario for the South Pacific Cartel known as “El Ponchis.” He allegedly has more than 300 kills, many through methods of violent torture, and is the youngest known hitman in Mexico.
Nazario Moreno González, the leader of La Familia Michoacana, is allegedly killed in a shootout in El Alcalde, Apatzingán, Michoacán. Despite counting this as a victory, the government provides no body and no evidence of Moreno González’s death. Many speculate that he survives.
28 dead bodies are found outside of the Plaza Sendero shopping center in Acapulco, Guerrero surrounded by 15 of their own decapitated heads. Several more are discovered in an abandoned taxi and throughout residential neighborhoods in the city, allegedly accompanied by signed messages from Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
An estimated 193 bodies are found across 40 mass graves in San Fernando, Tamaulipas. Some media outlets speculate that the body count exceeds 500 but is being censored the local government.
The Secretariat of National Defense disarms all police forces in the state of Tamaulipas due to allegations of collusion with drug traffickers in 22 of the state’s 43 cities.
249 bodies are found across multiple mass graves in the state of Durango. Some media outlets speculate that the body count exceeds 300 but is being censored by the local government.
Members of the Los Zetas cartel kill at least 27 in the town of Petén, Guatemala, located near the country’s border with Mexico. This represents a significant shift in the Mexican War on Drugs as trafficking organizations display gradual migration down into Central America.
Mexican authorities unearth over 38 dead bodies from mass graves throughout the state of Coahuila.
The US Government arrests 127 US Customs and Border Protection agents suspected of collaborating with Mexican drug cartels.
José “El Chango” de Jesús Méndez Vargas, the leader of La Familia Michoacana immediately after Nazario Moreno’s alleged death, is arrested by federal police officers at a checkpoint in the state of Aguascalientes.
The Mexican army discovers a 300-acre marijuana plantation in the state of Baja California, worth approximately $160 million. This is the largest marijuana plantation discovered so far in Mexican history.
José Antonio Acosta Hernández, leader of the Juárez Cartel’s armed wing, is captured and arrested in Ciudad Juárez. He is responsible for over a thousand killings, including the car bombing from July of 2010.
At least 52 people are killed in an attack in Monterrey, Nuevo León, the deadliest in the state’s history. The gunmen allegedly opened fire before setting fire to the building’s exits to trap attendees inside.
In the state of Acapulco, 140 schools close and over 600 teachers quit their jobs after money-related threats from drug cartels; 75,000 children stop attending school.
80 gunmen, supposedly from the Gulf Cartel storm the town of Juchipila in the state of Zacatecas and successfully take control for over five hours in order to eliminate the influence of Los Zetas in the area. The event testifies to the dangerous potential of drug trafficking organizations to disrupt and appropriate the tradition powers of the Mexican government, a significant development.
Three trucks are found in Guadalajara, Jalisco containing at least 26 bodies of Sinaloa Cartel members. The killings are attributed to Los Zetas and the Milenio Cartel.
Mexico’s Attorney General claims over 13,000 people were killed in drug-related violence in 2011.
Just a day before Pope Benedict XVI’s planned visit to Mexico, thirteen people are killed across the country. Seven men are found shot on the side of a road in Angostura, Sinaloa, while four severed heads and two unrelated bodies are found in Acapulco, Guerrero.
23 corpses are discovered in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, 14 of which are decapitated and 9 are found hanging from a bridge.
Along Mexican Federal Highway 40, authorities discover the decapitated and dismembered remains of at least 49 people near Cadereyta Jiménez, Nuevo León. The killings are tentatively attributed to Los Zetas.
Eduardo Arellano Félix, founding member of the Tijuana Cartel is extradited to the US on charges of money laundering and drug trafficking. He was previously arrested in 2008 after a shootout in Tijuana.
Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, a Zetas leader known for feeding his torture victims to lions, is killed in a shootout with the Mexican navy in Progreso, Coahuila. Before the military can officially announce his death, his body is stolen on orders from Miguel Treviño Morales.
Enrique Peña Nieto succeeds Calderón as President of Mexico in a general election, despite claims of fraud and media bias.
Aurelio Cano Flores, high-ranking member of the Gulf Cartel, is sentenced to 35 years in prison and fined $15 billion in the United States on charges of conspiracy to traffic cocaine and marijuana. He becomes the highest-ranking member of the Gulf Cartel convicted and sentenced in the US since the early 2000s.
Miguel Treviño Morales, the national leader of the Los Zetas cartel, is arrested by the Mexican marines in Anáhuac, Nuevo León.
Rafael Caro Quintero, co-founder of the Guadalajara Cartel, is released from prison after it is determined that he faced cruel and unusual punishment. Like his fellow founder Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, he was imprisoned for the 1985 kidnapping and murder of American DEA Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena.
Mexican authorities in the state of Jalisco uncover at least 67 bodies from a mass grave in La Barca and 17 from one just outside of Zapopan.
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel and Mexico’s most wanted drug lord, is arrested in Mazatlán.
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán escapes from the maximum security prison in Altiplano using underground tunnels and the allegedly bribery of prison employees.
Guzmán is recaptured in Los Mochis, Sinaloa as a part of the joint US-Mexico Operation Black Swan.
22 Sinaloa Cartel members are arrested in Sonora and Arizona and two killed in the joint Mexican-American Operation Diablo Express.
Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, founding member of the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, pleads guilty to charges of participating in an international narcotics trafficking conspiracy before a US District judge.
In a report published by the National Mayors Association and Mexican Local Authorities Association, it is revealed that 78 mayors have been killed since the beginning of the drug war. Most of them were executed by drug cartels.
Mexico turns Joaquín Guzmán Loera over to US authorities on charges of manufacturing and distributing a range of illegal drugs, use of firearms, money laundering, and running a criminal enterprise..
A mass grave containing 250 skulls is found in Veracruz – the largest to date.
Carlos Dominguez Rodriguez becomes the 131st journalist to be killed in Mexico since 2000. This represents the latest targeted killing in a wave of violence against journalists investigating the activities of the cartels and their associates.
José María Guízar Valencia, one of the newest leaders of Los Zetas, is captured without the use of force in Mexico City.
Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal, Texan-born lieutenant of the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, is sentenced to 49 years and one month in prison. He was extradited to the US in 2015, and will likely spend the rest of his life there in federal prison.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador is elected to Mexico’s presidency by the largest margin in the country’s modern history. In his victory speech he pledges to address the root causes of drug related crime, calling the violent strategies of his predecessors ineffective. “You can’t fight fire with fire.”
The US and Mexico announced a comprehensive strategy to combat trafficking organizations. This involves targeting the financial infrastructure of cartels and the establishment of an independent investigation group.
The trial of notorious drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera begins with a detailed list of previous crimes and acts within the drugs trade compiled through thousands of documents, videos and recordings.
Official figures document an almost-10% rise in violence in 2019, with nearly 9,000 people killed in a 3-month period. AMLO denies such figures by claiming that the murder rate has not risen since taking office.
Combined police and army forces raid a drug lab in the state of Sinaloa containing millions of doses of meth. Officials label this as the biggest blow to meth trafficking this year.
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera faces a life sentence in prison in New York following extradition to the US. Guzmán’s legal team has claimed that he faced an unfair trial.
In Uruapan, Michoacán, 20 bodies are found dismembered and mutilated with at least 9 hanging from a highway bridge. Hanging with the bodies is a banner of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel.
According to US anti-drug authorities, levels of methamphetamine being traded over the US-Mexico border are at a historic high, as indicated by the increasing levels of methamphetamine seizures. This is most likely due to a high demand in the US, as well as the re-appropriation of trafficking channels historically used for cocaine and marijuana.
The Mexican government announces the reopening of the Ayotzinapa case 5 years after the forced disappearance of the 43 Normalista students from Iguala, Guerrero. López Obrador fulfills one of his campaign promises and claims that his administration is exploring new lines of investigation. This case is crucial for Mexico in its fight against impunity.
Members of the Sinaloa Cartel open fire on armed security forces in Culiacán, Sinaloa, killing 14 and injuring 21 people after Ovidio Guzmán (son of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán) is arrested. Members of Guzmán’s faction of the cartel take to the streets and threaten President López Obrador with a bloodbath should he remain in custody. Under great pressure, he decides to release Guzmán, claiming that, because the cartel has nearly double the available gunmen of the government, hundreds could have been killed. The decision is widely criticized as defeat of rule of law.
Three women and six children – all American citizens – are killed in the northern state of Sonora after gunmen open fire on their SUVs.
Trump calls for Mexico to declare war on drug trafficking organizations but López Obrador refuses to do so, arguing that such an approach (carried out by previous administrations) has failed and caused the current situation in Mexico.
López Obrador promises a thorough investigation and asks for American cooperation.
The Trump administration publicly announces that it plans to designate Mexican drug trafficking organizations as terrorist organizations, meeting resistance from AMLO’s administration in Mexico. Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico´s foreign minister, states that Mexico will not accept any action that violates its national sovereignty.
According to data released by the Mexican government, 2019 was the most violent year in Mexican history with a record 34 852 homicides, an average of 94 murders a day.
López Obrador´s campaign promise to reduce violent crime in Mexico clearly fails during his first year in office, as drug related violence continues to rise.
The Mexican government announces a 50% increase in the number of people reported missing (the last announcement dates from June 2019) as a result of drug cartel violence. About 25% of these people are women.
In a 4-day march to Mexico City, family members of murdered or missing people protest against the government´s strategy against drug cartels. They claim the policy of “hugs not bullets” is failing and that the administration is contributing to the militarization of the conflict.
In a speech, Mexican President López Obrador declares an end to the long-lasting war on drugs. He justifies such as decision by referring to the need for peace, not war, and claims that his military would no longer prioritise the targeting of drug cartels. Critics are wary, however, due to the strong increase in military personnel amid claims of a permanently militarised country.
Armed traffickers open fire on civilians at a video game arcade in Uruapan, Michoacán with the intent to kill an unknown target. Nine people, including three children, are killed instead.
How can you help?
Anyone’s Child – Anyone’s Child is a campaign that connects families across the globe, whose lives have been affected by poor drug laws, and helps them campaign for strict drug regulation in order to bring the drug market into government control.
Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad – The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity is a Mexican grassroots campaign that focuses on mobilising people to demand change from the government in order to stop the war on drugs and resulting drug related violence.
Transform – Transform is a “charitable think tank” based in the United Kingdom, that works globally with media, governments, and other charities and NGOs to advocate for drug policy reform to move towards ending the war on drugs.