By Jacob L. Shapiro

When Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto came to office in 2012, he brought a list with him. It contained the names of 122 drug cartel leaders whom Pena Nieto wanted neutralized by the end of his time in office. The conclusion of Pena Nieto’s presidency is now fast approaching, with elections scheduled for July, and he is close to reaching his goal. After the arrest of Los Zetas leader Jose Maria Guizar Valencia in Mexico City this past weekend, just 14 cartel leaders are left from the original list. An 89 percent success rate sounds impressive, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory for the outgoing president of Mexico, where violence reached record highs in 2017.

To be fair, Mexico’s spike in violence – the result of a countrywide turf war between a fractured and competitive assortment of drug-trafficking organizations – is not Pena Nieto’s fault, nor was there much he could have done about it when he came into office. Like Mexico itself, Pena Nieto came face to face with forces beyond his control. His policies represented his best efforts to fight them.

Insatiable Demand 

The story of the rise of Mexico’s drug-trafficking organizations, or DTOs, begins not with Pena Nieto’s list but in the 1980s, when the U.S. government became alarmed with the amount of cocaine entering the U.S. from Colombia via South Florida. The U.S. stepped up its interdiction efforts, forcing Colombian cartels to find alternatives to their Caribbean routes. Mexico became the most important of the new routes.

By the late 1990s, between 75 and 85 percent of cocaine consumed in the United States came through Mexico. This was a boon for Mexican organized crime syndicates. Even the most conservative analysis by U.S. officials in 1995 estimated that the cocaine trade generated more annual income ($10 billion) in Mexico than Mexico’s most valuable export, oil ($7.4 billion). Mexican government estimates were much higher.

Mexico’s poverty magnified the impact of this sudden influx of capital. World Bank data on poverty unfortunately doesn’t go back as far as 1995, but in 2016, 50 percent of Mexicans lived below the national poverty line – and there’s no reason to think that number was much lower 21 years ago. If anything, it was probably higher.

It was the combination of Mexico’s poverty and proximity to the U.S. – both a result of the country’s geography – that led to the impossible challenge Pena Nieto faced when he came to office. Mexico, despite being a wealthy country in absolute terms (it was 16th in global gross domestic product in 1990 and is 15th today), is a country of vast and desolate border regions where poverty has run rampant for generations because of a lack of economic opportunities. For better or worse, much of Mexico’s 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) border with the U.S. runs through that territory – and U.S. demand for cocaine was so intense and so lucrative in the 1980s and 1990s that it created incredible economic opportunities in these far-flung places that have always been outside the writ of Mexican authorities.

A Disturbing Trend

Even if they didn’t have lists like Pena Nieto’s, successive Mexican administrations sought to attack this problem head-on. Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), Vicente Fox (2000-06) and Felipe Calderon (2006-12) all deployed the Mexican military in various attempts to rein in the newly rich and powerful DTOs. But the military was not immune to the seduction of wealth. Corruption was already rampant throughout the system, and at the same time that Mexican presidents were asking the military to deepen its role in the fight against the DTOs, Mexican prosecutors were arresting Mexican generals for being complicit in DTO activities. The Los Zetas group was formed in the late 1990s by former Mexican special operations soldiers who had taken over protection and enforcement duties for the then-powerful Gulf cartel.

Even so, successive Mexican governments were undeterred. They had little choice – cooperating with the DTOs would have meant their further entrenchment, and the fight couldn’t be ignored, however hopeless it seemed. Calderon famously began his term promising a war on organized crime, and he was a man of his word. Pena Nieto came in with his list, and he has been slowly crossing names off it. These efforts have not been ineffectual. In 2000, there were four main cartels: the Sinaloa, Juarez, Tijuana and Gulf cartels. By 2013, under the weight of government pressure, the cartels had splintered to such an extent that it was impossible to analyze them by focusing on just the major players. By the Drug Enforcement Administration’s count, there are nine major DTOs and 45 smaller organized crime groups in Mexico today.

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Unfortunately for Mexico, the byproduct of the government’s efforts has not been a reduction in violence. On the contrary, violence has increased, in large measure because of the fracture and proliferation of smaller cartels as hostile to one another (if not more so) as they are to Mexican authorities or the local populations. On the one hand, this means that the power of individual cartels has been curbed. On the other hand, cartels continue to wield significant power in the areas they control and have diversified the sources of their income far beyond the drug – cocaine – that got them rich. One of the most violent areas in Mexico today is Tierra Caliente, a desert-like region encompassing parts of Michoacan, Guerrero and Mexico state, where fentanyl, methamphetamine and opiates have become the predominant moneymakers.

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This is indicative of a disturbing trend. In a vacuum, the breakup of large DTOs into smaller ones could be considered a success, as it might be easier to take out smaller, less powerful DTOs than to go up against one large one. Defeating the cartels was never going to happen bloodlessly. But it does not look like the cartels are being defeated. In southern Mexico, a group known as the Jalisco New Generation cartel has become much more powerful and aggressive in the past year. This is particularly disturbing because this area is not in the vast, desert border area with the United States – but is relatively close to the main seat of power itself in Mexico City. Geopolitical studies of Mexico often blithely point out that because northern Mexico is defined by mountains and deserts, the country’s geography lends itself to cartel activity. But cartel activity is not limited to these lawless and historically hard-to-control regions of Mexico. It is endemic to the entire country, and the weakening of individual cartels – or the assassination of the leaders – has not stemmed the tide.

The Same Problems, Only Worse

This has grave implications for the next Mexican government. Pena Nieto’s successor will face the same predicament as previous Mexican presidents and will have the same array of ineffective solutions. But the incoming president will differ from Pena Nieto in that he or she will come to power with indicators like homicides, extortion and kidnappings at or near all-time highs, and with the drug trade continuing to flourish on the strength of U.S. demand. The incoming president will also come to power as internal migration within Mexico is increasing, the result of Mexicans seeking to escape the collateral damage of the cartel wars, and as more refugees from Central America, beset with its own political and social problems, attempt to make their way across Mexico to the United States.

There are no up-to-date statistics on Mexican emigration figures – 2015 is as far back as the data goes. But if violence in Mexico is increasing as much as anecdotal and statistical evidence suggest, it is not unreasonable to expect that there will also be an increase in the number of Mexican nationals looking to escape violence at home. Despite the political climate in the United States and despite U.S. efforts to harden its border, the U.S. remains the destination of choice for Mexicans seeking safety and new opportunities. Since 2005, Mexico has been able to respond to U.S. pressure on immigration by pointing out that more Mexicans are returning home than going to the United States each year. If that were to change, it would have serious ramifications for U.S.-Mexico relations, already strained because of NAFTA negotiations and the Trump administration’s stance on immigration.

In the 1960s, when the Vietnam War was going badly, U.S. officials took to emphasizing “body counts” and “kill ratios.” They did this to give the appearance that the war was going well, when in actuality, the Viet Cong had lost none of its will to fight and was prepared to expend many more fighters in battle than the U.S. could ever imagine sacrificing of its own. Pena Nieto’s list and the touting of every major arrest of a cartel kingpin suffer from a similar problem. Cartel leaders are being killed, but the drug trade that makes them rich is still making them rich. Mexico’s GDP growth figures slightly exceeded expectations, but poverty is still rampant. Mexico is still so far from God – and so close to the United States.

GPF Team
Geopolitical Futures is a company that charts the course of the international system. It’s an ambitious mission, maybe even foolhardy, but hear us out.