Small Wars Journal

Mexico Drug Policy and Security Review 2012

Fri, 01/11/2013 - 3:30am

With a new year and a new administration in Mexico we can expect continuity in substantive policy and stylistic change in the rhetoric justifying those policies.  While the new administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI) has trumpeted its proposed reforms, there are more similarities than differences when comparing his “new” security policy with that of the Calderon Administration.  In 2012 Enrique Peña Nieto returned the Revolutionary Institutional Party known by its Spanish acronym (PRI) to the presidency for the first time in twelve years, winning largely due to the Mexican public’s desire to punish the center right National Action Party (PAN) for the high rates of violence that followed the President Felipe Calderon’s militarized assault on organized crime. 

The only real changes to the status quo for Mexico’s drug policy occurred not in Mexico, but in the U.S., Washington and Colorado’s passage of legal marijuana initiatives, have the long–term potential to significantly reduce cartel profits, as Mexican analysts have pointed out.  Further, the impact of the Newtown, Connecticut mass school shooting has the power to improve U.S.-Mexico cooperation on the flow of guns into Mexico in so far as it galvanizes public opinion in the U.S. on the once “third-rail” issue of gun control.  Mexican leaders have long asked for the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban in the U.S. 

The “new” policy:

1.     Peña Nieto has promised a new security policy that emphasizes counter violence over counter-narcotics.  While the previous administration boasted of capturing or killing 25 of 37 most wanted kingpins, the new administration says it wants to focus on reducing the crimes of “homicide, extortion and kidnapping.”  Although upon further examination many of the changes are stylistic rather than substantive, given the Calderon administration has been targeting more violent organizations such as the Zetas for precisely those crimes since at least 2010. 

Undoubtedly, the killing of Heriberto Lazcano the head of Los Zetas in October of 2012 was one of the most important successes of the Calderon Administration.  Although the kingpin strategy—intentionally targeting the heads of organizations for arrest or death—is now under fire because of the strategy’s ability to disrupt organizations and thus increase kidnap and homicide rates by increasing internecine conflict.  Driving home the point, Mexico’s new Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam, now calculates that instead of the seven large trafficking groups, which were present at the beginning of the Calderon administration in 2006 the new administration faces approximately 80 smaller and more violent cartels as the existing “cartels” have both survived and been fragmented.  The Sinaloa and Zetas groups have emerged as the most powerful poles in the Mexican trafficking system with smaller cartels engaging in limited alliances with these larger groups. 

2.     The military will continue its role in combatting violent drug trafficking organizations in the short term.  Thus, current policy continued. 

3.     Putting the Secretaria de Seguridad Publica (SSP), which includes the Federal Police under the purview of the Secretaria de Gobernacion.  The new administration has decided to rearrange the deck chairs.  The only real consequence this organizational shift could have is to increase the centralization of political power and control over the security apparatus. Some fear putting the SSP under the SEGOB gives too much internal security power to an inherently political structure.  Will the Federal Police be used to spy on political rivals? 

4.     Peña Nieto appears to be going forward with the creation of a new national gendarmerie or paramilitary force, ostensibly aimed at bridging the gap between the need for military firepower against organized crime and the desire to respect civil rights.  The force will begin with 10,000 men according to the recently released national security strategy and will eventually grow to 40,000 according to previous Peña Nieto statements.  The force has been widely criticized by analysts as unnecessary, redundant, and as a recycling of a “failed idea,”  though others such as John Sullivan see more potential efficacy for the force. 

Drug Legalization

In November U.S. voters in Washington and Colorado passed initiatives legalizing marijuana for recreational use.  The view from inside the Mexican government was one of rage and frustration.  How could the U.S. legalize marijuana after forcing a confrontational approach with drug trafficking organizations? Apparently Mexican government officials are as confused about the American federal system as the American public and government officials are.   Colorado is currently attempting to address the thorny regulatory problems of marijuana legalization at the state level despite its illegality at the federal level.  Mexican leaders like Luis Videgaray now the equivalent of the Secretary of the Treasury have said that these initiatives require a fundamental “review” of drug policy in both nations. 

The academic and policy communities in Mexico generally saw the passage of the initiatives differently. Mexico’s Institute for Competiveness (IMCO) released a report from Alejandro Hope and Eduardo Clark on the economic effect of legalization in the three states with ballot initiatives (Oregon also voted though did not pass legalization of marijuana for recreational use).  The report concluded that cartel profits would be reduced by 30% if these states legalized marijuana and that marijuana were trafficked to other states. 

The report also specified that the Sinaloa Cartel would be hardest hit, which makes sense given its focus on its “core competency,” drug trafficking over other activities such as kidnapping and extortion. It is possible that Mexican organized crime could play a role in transporting legal marijuana from states such as Washington and Colorado to other states where it is illegal, though this is more likely to be carried out by smaller networked local actors. It is also possible Mexican organized crime could play a role in subverting taxation schemes that could keep prices high enough to sustain a black market, as is the case with subverting tobacco taxes.  Again this role is more likely to be played by domestic actors. 

The potential shift in U.S. drug policy these initiatives represent could prove, over the long haul, to be the most important factor in the reduction violence in Latin America as the underlying supply and demand factors of the drug war are finally rationally addressed. 

2012 Drug Related Violence in Mexico

Violence in the first half of 2012 was lower than the same period in 2011 marking what many believe is the plateauing of violence if not its decline in the country.  Unfortunately more recent data analysis from Lantia Consultores, a respected Mexican consulting firm, is now suggesting that a review in November may indicate violence is on the rebound. 

Undoubtedly one city is feeling better.  Ciudad Juarez, referred to as Murder City for its highest in Latin America homicide levels, has seen significant drops in violence in 2012 and many report life is returning to “normal.”  In 2012 Juarez lost the distinction of highest homicide rate in Latin America to Honduras’s San Pedro Sula.  A myriad of causes for the drop have been put forth, including: the myriad of NGOs operating in the city, the Todos Somos Juarez infusion of money and government attention, the near victory of the Sinaloa Cartel over the Juarez Cartel and its armed wing La Linea and the arrival of Julian Leyzaola the new police chief who is regularly accused of human rights abuses.  Most analysts and observers think the reduction of violence is attributable to combination of many of these factors. 

The he said-she said for 2012

One interesting story that puts a chip in the armor of the aura of success surrounding Julian Leyzaola (Credited with turning around Tijuana in 2010-11 and Juarez in 2012) was an interview with the El Paso Times in which he said he would leave Mexico after his public service next year because there was no safe place for him.  That statement is not particularly surprising given his controversial nature and many enemies.  Likewise, President Calderon is taking a position at Harvard immediately upon leaving office.  What was strange was that Leyzaola denied the statement vehemently while insulting the integrity of the El Paso Times.  The El Paso Times then released the audio of the interview in which he said exactly what the Times had reported leading El Diario to run the headline “Leyzaola Lied to El Diario” replete with their own audio of their interview. 

Evaluating the Calderon Administration in sum

The drug violence tally for the six years of the Calderon administration is disheartening.  Some such as New Mexico State University Librarian Molly Molloy who keeps a running tally of drug related homicides in Juarez estimate that there we more than 100,000 drug related deaths in Mexico.  The Propuesta Civica NGO released a report citing data supposedly collected by the Mexican Attorney General’s office suggesting more than 20,000 people disappeared in Mexico under the Calderon Administration.  The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center estimated that Mexico had at least 160,000 internally displaced persons as a result of the drug war.  Human rights abuses against the Army, which became the lead counter organized crime institution, also skyrocketed. 

Calderon’s historical legacy will depend entirely on the yardstick used to measure him.  In terms of increased violence his administration has been a failure.  If he is measured in terms of strengthening the state vis-à-vis organized crime, the jury is still out.  Calderon implemented important reforms that will take decades to come to fruition.  Most notably the judicial reforms, which will bring more transparent oral trials to Mexico, are still in the process of implementation, but are undoubtedly positive developments.  Macro-economically Mexico is stable and outpacing Brazil in annual growth.  Deficits are low but poverty, unemployment, underemployment, monopolies (telecom), and economic informality continue plague the economy.  Nonetheless the violence appears to have had a limited impact, suggesting that the Mexican economy is resilient in the face of high levels of violence.  This could be attributable to the strength of the Mexican economy or that homicide rates of 24 per 100,000 are not sufficient to impact the economy, or a combination of the two factors. 

Calderon negotiated the Merida Initiative in 2007, which will provide billions in funding from the US to Mexico to fight organized crime.  While it was originally security centric, Merida 2.0 has shifted toward capacity building and will continue with the new administration. 

The story of 2012 you may have missed

The Treasury department has steadily targeted the Sinaloa Cartel and its affiliates in 2012 through Office of Foreign Assets Controls (OFAC) or kingpin sanctions. Treasury lists individuals and business entities that it believes are tied to drugs or terrorism.  Placement on the list means U.S. businesses cannot do business with those entities, a strategy that proved effective against Colombian traffickers.  How effective the strategy will be in Mexico remains to be seen. Treasury appears to be targeting “El Azul” Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno the number three in the Sinaloa Cartel hierarchy especially hard.  OFAC sanctions of his family members and front businesses were regular in 2012.  Treasury also hit Sinaloa Cartel operatives in Belize and Guatemala demonstrating a widening of Treasury’s use of OFAC Sanctions.  Many policy analysts have for years urged targeting the money laundering networks that allow these illicit enterprises to function.  Treasury is quietly, and without great fanfare doing just that.  It may not be as headline grabbing as the arrests of major cartel figures but it may be more important. 


Violence in Mexico may go down under the new administration of Enrique Pena Nieto, though his first month in office had 755 drug-related homicides suggesting this will not immediately be the case.  But even if violence levels are reduced in his administration, determining whether this is the result of his policies or the enjoyment of a preexisting trend will be difficult to parse.  As I have argued here, his security policies do not differ greatly from the previous administration’s policies since 2010.  The main shifts have been in style and rhetoric, not substance.  Thus, when assessing Mexico, always bet on continuity over change.  Over the long term, the real shift of 2012 for Mexican security may be found in the U.S., which legalized marijuana in two states and appears poised to take up the gun control issue following the Sandy Hook massacre, both of which could change the Mexican security picture and U.S.-Mexico relations. 

About the Author(s)

Dr. Nathan P. Jones is an Associate Professor of Security Studies at Sam Houston State University and a Non-resident Scholar for Rice University’s Baker Institute in Drug Policy and Mexico Studies; he previously was an Alfred C. Glassell III Postdoctoral Fellow in Drug Policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. He holds a PhD from the University of California, Irvine and won an Institute for Global Conflict and Cooperation Fellowship to conduct fieldwork in Mexico on organized crime. Jones published Mexico's Illicit Drug Networks and the State Reaction (Georgetown University Press, 2016), and has published with numerous think tanks and peer reviewed journals. He is a Small Wars Journal–El Centro Senior Fellow and serves as the book review editor for the Journal of Strategic Security.




Ned McDonnell III

Fri, 01/11/2013 - 8:37pm


Your essay is outstanding. It is balanced and well thought out. Currently, I serve the Peace Corps in Querétaro, in the central part of the country. Your point that el presidente Felipe Calderón may or may not end up being remembered as a great leader does not obscure my conviction that he is a very brave man and am relieved that Boston has welcomed him.

Ultimately, however, México can only do so so much to combat the drug piece (more like keystone) of the violence imposed by gangsters. The source, or market, for that problem lies north of the border where, I believe firmly, a failed War on Drugs needs to be recycled into a Declared Crusade against Addiction. That means decrimilaization, not outright legalization.

In any case, I thank you for such a sensitive, insightful piece. As we say, ¡bien dicho!