Mexican Elections Shine a Spotlight on Cartel Gun Violence in Mexico

This year’s elections in Mexico are putting the spotlight on cartel gun violence as 31 political candidates, mostly local, have been assassinated in this cycle alone. In 2006, 669 people were killed in cartel conflicts, whereas 2020 saw 16,000 people killed. With the likely election of Morena candidate Claudia Sheinbaum, it seems unclear whether the government will actually use security forces to dismantle the nation’s fifth largest employer. On the American side, there is little momentum in the direction of disempowering American arms manufacturers from profiting off the arming of cartel militias. That the majority of arms in Mexico can be traced to American origin and that some of the most deadly cartels in Mexico have been trained at American military bases suggests that the United States also has a large share of responsibility for the endemic violence afflicting Mexico today. The two countries are together guilty for the poor security situation on the U.S.-Mexico border which allows weapons to travel freely across. 

Coming from the direct lineage of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (affectionately referred to as AMLO,) likely President Claudia Sheinbaum, the first woman and Jewish president of Mexico, shares many of the same policy platforms as her predecessor. Unfortunately, that means that AMLO’s passive government approach to cartel violence will likely continue unabated. Responding to pleas from U.S. officials to prosecute cartel drug trafficking more seriously, AMLO said at his daily news briefing that Mexico is “not going to act as policemen for any foreign country.” Although the U.S. primarily cares about the reduction of fentanyl trafficking over its shared border with Mexico, the prosecution of Mexican cartels would greatly improve the standard of living for Mexican citizens. As it is commonly known, Mexican business owners living in cartel controlled areas (roughly 81% of Mexican territory) are subject to fees and taxes imposed by the cartel in addition to increased violence and insecurity. As a President looking to carry forward the legacy of AMLO, it seems unlikely that President Sheinbaum will seriously crackdown on the cartels. During his 2006 campaign, AMLO received campaign donations from a group of cartels formerly known as the Beltran Levya Organization. Sheinbaum has signaled that she will follow AMLO’s “hugs not bullets” approach to the cartels, which seeks to teach young Mexican skills that will dissuade them from finding employment in a cartel. Unfortunately, the drug trafficking business is so lucrative that the cartels will always be able to pay desperate Mexicans well, ensuring their steady reserve of employees.

A new approach to cartels by the Mexican government is going to be necessary to improve the living standards and reduce gun violence in Mexico. The most important policy that could be implemented today would be an increase in pay for Mexican security forces. The Mexican state “does not pay soldiers enough” Craig Deare, former special forces commander says. “I am not saying they [the government] have to pay as much as the cartels, but they [security forces] must be paid decently if they aren’t going to be susceptible to corruption.” The easiest way for Mexican cartels to recruit highly trained military forces is through police and military defection. The Mexican military currently has an astounding defection rate of 25%. One of the most infamously violent cartels, Los Zetas, had many members who had initially trained in Fort Bragg, North Carolina as a part of an elite Mexican military group. So long as the government can be outbid for security employment by the cartels, the government will continue to have no real authority to control them. 

The United States government and arms manufacturing industry are also highly responsible for the steep rise in cartel violence in Mexico. While many of the cartel’s weapons are simply looted from poorly defended military armories, 70% of their arsenal has been smuggled directly from the United States. In Mexico, there are only two gun stores in the entire country. This puts largely unarmed Mexican citizens at odds with highly armed cartels who profit off extortion. Cartels largely receive their weapons by employing a “straw purchaser” in the United States, who is responsible for purchasing the weapons in bulk and then delivering them to a place to stash them such as a storage unit. A cartel member then picks up the weapons cache and proceeds to smuggle them across the Mexican border. Between 2009 and 2011 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives conducted an Operation titled “Fast and Furious” which was meant to be a sting operation on high ranking cartel members. The idea was to plant tracking devices on weapons sold to straw purchasers and then to follow the weapon to Mexico when it made its way to the nexus of cartel power. Ultimately, over 2,000 weapons were lost during Operation Fast and Furious, with two Fast & Furious tagged assault rifles left at the scene of a gunfight between American border patrol and cartel members that killed Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. Rather than trying to capitalize on straw purchasing to conduct sting operations, the U.S. policy should be to stop straw purchasers altogether. Regulations should be put in place to reduce the amount of weapons someone can buy at one time, in a single week or even in a month or year. Increased security along the Mexican-U.S. border would also reduce the amount of arms that successfully made it into Mexico. 

The ability for U.S. arms manufacturers to promote the military uses of their weapons was rightly challenged by the Mexican government under AMLO in February, 2024. Alarmingly, the share of rifles to pistols in Mexico (26%)  is twice as high as in the United States (12%.) This glaring difference between the two countries reflects the culture of defensive armament in the United States versus the offensive military style armament preferred by the Mexican cartels. Mexican cartels prefer weaponry such as the high capacity magazine AR-15 or the Barrett Arms .50 caliber rifle which can easily pierce through helicopter armory and take down targets at 1800 meter distances. The cartels utilize weapons promoted by the U.S. arms industry as military grade in order to keep a distinct advantage over weak government security forces. Under the Mexican lawsuit to U.S. arms manufacturers, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act will not protect arms manufacturers because the judge has ruled that these companies have knowingly violated rules against sales to illicit criminal outfits such as the cartels. According to the judge, the lawsuit “plausibly alleges that, as a result of red flags including straw sales, bulk sales, cash sales, and repeat sales of military-style weapons favored by Mexican cartels.” 

Ultimately, the cartels leverage highly trained recruits with advanced military equipment to maintain their stranglehold on local Mexican politics. The economic and military strength of the cartels creates an unwillingness for the Mexican government to directly confront them. The United States must do its part in effectively enforcing a ban on straw purchasers. Weapons manufacturers should be barred from advertising the military applicabilities of their weapons. Although controversial, the security of the United States and Mexico border is integral to fully defeating the spread of arms from the United States into Mexico. Until the cartels are unable to maintain their military strength, they will remain too powerful for the Mexican government to effectively counter. As it stands, the cartels are economically invaluable to a large population of Mexicans who have no other job opportunities. The government will eventually have to find a way to absorb these combatants into its military, or hope that private sector or government jobs can transition them out of organized crime.

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