Mexico’s Drug Trafficking Organizations: Source and Scope of the Violence

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Violence is an inherent feature of the trade in illicit drugs, but the violence generated by Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in recent years has been unprecedented and remarkably brutal. The tactics—including mass killings, the use of torture and dismemberment, and the phenomena of car bombs—have led some analysts to speculate whether the violence has been transformed into something new, perhaps requiring a different set of policy responses. Most analysts estimate there have been at least 60,000 homicides related to organized crime since 2006. Some analysts see evidence that the number of organized crime-style homicides in Mexico may have reached a plateau in 2012, while other observers maintain there was a decline in the number of killings. It is widely believed that the steep increase in organized crime-related homicides during the six-year administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) is likely to trend down far more slowly than it rose.

Former President Calderón made an aggressive campaign against the DTOs a key policy of his government, which the DTOs violently resisted. Of the seven most significant DTOs operating during the first five years of the Calderón administration, the government successfully removed key leaders from each of the organizations through arrests or by death in arrest efforts. However, these efforts to eliminate drug kingpins sparked change—consolidation or fragmentation, succession struggles, and new competition—leading to instability among the groups and continuing violence. Between 2006 and 2012, fragments of some of the DTOs formed new criminal organizations, while two DTOs became dominant. These two are now polarized rivals— the Sinaloa DTO in the western part of the country and Los Zetas in the east. They remain the largest drug trafficking organizations in Mexico and both have moved aggressively into Central America. Many DTOs and criminal gangs operating in Mexico have diversified into other illegal activities such as extortion, kidnapping, and oil theft, and now pose a multi-faceted organized criminal challenge to governance in Mexico.

Similar to the last Congress, the 113th Congress remains concerned about the security crisis in Mexico. The new government of President Enrique Peña Nieto which took office in December 2012 has proposed a new security strategy that builds on the programs that the Calderón government initiated. These include close U.S.-Mexico security coordination under the Mérida Initiative with police training and judicial reform, and use of the Mexican military to prosecute the campaign against the DTOs in the near term. In his first three months in office, President Peña Nieto has proposed some new approaches—such as establishing a 10,000 strong militarized police force or gendarmarie within a year, revising and expanding crime prevention programs, and refocusing the strategy on lowering violent crime such as homicide and kidnapping. But President Peña Nieto has also tried to shift the national conversation to a more positive message about economic growth rather than remaining focused on organized crime groups and the violence and mayhem that they cause.