The Mexican Drug War and Its Implications for US Security

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The goal of this research is to look into how the Mexican drug war has affected American national security. Mexico's drug cartels are possibly the most successful and extensive organized crime networks in the world. The intricate criminal organization has resulted in terrible drug-related violence and killings, as well as kidnapping, extortion, corruption, and people trafficking. In an effort to investigate the relationship between Mexico's drug war and American security, this study seeks to address the questions, "What are the reasons of Mexico's drug war? How does the Mexican drug war endanger US security? The paper holds that America played a critical role in triggering Mexico’s smuggling business and has facilitated it by providing a broad market for illicit drugs while at the same time supplying Mexican cartels with weapons. The study involves a methodology part that shows how sources were searched in diverse data bases, the results, and interpretations. At the tail end of this study, the paper provides appropriate recommendations to the U.S. and Mexico on how to combat the narcotics business.

Mexico Drug War and its Threat to U.S. Security


Over the years, Mexico has become infamous for its cross-border trade in guns and drugs. As Velazquez (2016) notes, the country has recorded both immerse profits and dreadful destruction as a result of the narcotics trade. Some analysts estimate that Mexico’s drug network generates between 3 and 4% of the nation’s total GDP that equates to about $30 billion per year. Additionally, the narcotic business directly or indirectly employs over half a million people. Naturally, given its high profitability tendencies, the narcotic trade is characterized by high risks. Notably, millions of people have died as a result of intra, and inter-gang conflicts, government versus gangs clash, and fighting between gangs and ordinary citizens. Although some lives lost have always been high, they had dramatically escalated since 2006, when the Mexican government under President Felipe Calderon launched the “war on drugs” initiative. Wyler (2011) approximates that over 177, 000 people lost their lives between 2007 and 2017. Notably, the number may be an undercount since analysts such as Watt and Zepeda ( 2012) claim that numerous mass graves are yet to be found. The costs, violence, and deaths associated with Mexico’s war on drugs are now spilling over to its neighboring country: the United States of America. In the recent years, both countries have reported deadly conflicts amongst drug cartels and between law enforcers. As Shirk (2011) says, “the horrific television footages and headlines of drug-related murders are disturbing to any observer.” In tandem with this information, it is critical to explore the link between the U.S. and Mexico about the latter’s drug trade. In other words, this research is important since it examines how Mexico’s narcotic business affects America’s security and the two countries’ efforts to combat the drug trade. Although America is hardly an innocent victim, the Mexican drug trade has adversely affected its internal security. This paper will critically examine the history of Mexico’s drug trade and how America has facilitated or curtailed the narcotic business. Further, it will detail how the Mexican narcotic business has affected America’s security before providing recommendations to the two countries on how to combat the menace.


Given the sensitivity and complexity of the Mexican drug war, the researcher gleaned information from a broad array of sources. The goal was to identify articles, journals, books, and websites that followed the CRAAP criterion. In other words, ideal sources were expected to be current, relevant, authoritative, accurate, and purposeful (CRAAP). In tandem with this objective, the researcher conducted thorough Google searches. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s database proved to be a critical resource. While using the Eagle search engine, the researcher customized results by using keywords such as Mexican drug war; a shared threat of narcotic business; narcotic business in Mexico and America; Mexican drug war and America’s security. These keywords led to the identification of several sources that detailed the origin, growth, and impacts of Mexico’s drug trade, especially on America’s security. From these articles, journals, and websites, the researcher was able to construct appropriate recommendations on how Mexico and the United States of America can combat the rising drug business and its culture of violence.


Origin of Mexico’s Drug Trade

For one to understand the Mexican drug war and how it affects American security, one must critically analyze the contribution of both countries in promoting the menace. The root of the current Mexican crisis dates back to the turn of the twentieth century. In the early 1900s, Mexico asserted itself as the primary shipping center for thousands of black market products that were marketable in the United States. Notably, the government of the United States of America passed the Eighteenth Amendment and Volstead Act in 1919, which banned the production, distribution, and purchase of intoxicating liquor. Famous as “prohibition,” the period lasted from 1920 to 1933 (Wyler, 2011). Before implementing the ban, the U.S. government opined that illegalizing hard liquor would much help in reducing cases social misbehaviors such as alcoholism. The expected ripple effects of the ban were decreasing incidents of lawlessness and crime. Since the demand for beer surpassed supply, criminal organizations emerged to produce and supply the contraband liquor. Most bootleggers and gangs were based in Mexico. They smuggled the illegal liquor through the American boarders. These criminal sects were willing and ready to engage in corruption and violence to promote their businesses, which proved to be highly lucrative. Wyler (2011) notes that some of the most influential smugglers included Al Capone, Enoch Johnson, and Juan Guerra among others. These bootleggers controlled numerous alcohol smuggling routes such as the infamous Rio Grande to South Texas.

Due to the high smuggling rate, the American prohibition Act was not successful. Notably, the prices of drunkenness and crime remained high. According to Shirk (2011), report conducted between 1920 and 1921 in America’s major 30 cities showed that crime rates increased by 24%. In this period, homicide and substance addiction increased by 13% and 45% respectively. Following the dramatic failure of the ban to reduce alcoholism and crime in America, the federal government legalized alcohol in 1933.

Wyler (2011) insists that seven years after the legalization of alcohol, the U.S. government passed the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. The state argued that lawlessness was prevalent in neighborhoods that recorded high usage of hard drugs. Through the Marijuana Act, the government imposed high taxes on marijuana farmers and users. The legislation pushed the drug out of the market and increased its scarcity and thus profitability. Mexican cartels used the well-established alcohol smuggling routes to transport marijuana and cocaine to America. As Watt and Zepeda (2012) state, the Mexican drug trade intensified in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s following America’s harsh policies on marijuana, cocaine, and crack respectively. Miguel “Godfather” Gallardo, the Mexican law enforcer, turned cartel, established and controlled the Guadalaraja Group that dominated the illegal drug trade between Mexico and the United States. Miguel Gallardo, similar to succeeding cartels, took advantage of the unstable Mexican government and the high demand for drugs in the U.S. to bribe, intimidate, and assassinate people who were against the trade. Over time, drug lords were able to divide the narcotic business between several Mexican cartels as a strategy of avoiding law enforcement and benefit from new opportunities.

Current state of the Mexican Drug War

Today, inter and intra clashes between drug trafficking organizations and governmental agencies have made violence and murder ubiquitous in Mexico. Numerous scholars such as Payan (2006) have noted that Mexico’s security crisis worsens each day. Over the years, the country has experienced gruesome clashes, and territorial disputes as Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) wrestle to control profitable routes, supplies, and other vital resources. One of the most notable clashes was in 2005 when the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels collided in Nuevo Laredo, an area controlled by the latter group of cartels. The clash continued for months and was characterized by massive shootouts in the streets and the serial assassination of law enforcers, opponents, government officials, and journalists. The city was in the grip of terror for months during and after the clash. Overall, Cardenas (2017) estimates that over 100 people from different parts of Mexico lost their lives due to reasons related to drug trades. Although it is not apparent from the raw data, the Mexican drug violence is highly concentrated. Notably, over two-thirds of drug-related violence occur in only five of the 32 Mexican states.

Mexican Drug War: Waves of Violence

However, in some of these areas, drug cartels wield more influence than the government

authorities. Some of these areas include Calicuan and Ciudad Juarez, which the government has declared among the most dangerous places in the world. In 2010 alone, Juarez recorded over 2,700 homicides, despite having a population of fewer than one million people.

Stopping the series of violence caused by drug cartels became a primary campaigning issue during Mexico’s national election in 2006. Felipe Calderon, the newly elected president, promised to fight the drug cartel menace and introduced the Operation Michoacan. To implement the mission, the president sent over 6,500 military troops to Michoacan, an area that was a hub for drug-related violence (Ochoa, 2016). As Lee and Renwick (2017) states, although President Felipe Calderon faced numerous criticism for using excessive force, he emphasized that drug trade was a national security risk. Additionally, he opined that the troops are then most appropriate since, unlike police, they were well trained and equipped to match terrorists’ tactics. Also, it would be hard for cartels to bribe the troops, unlike the underpaid law enforcers. Cardenas (2017) estimates that, between 2006 and 2012, President Calderon deployed over 50,000 soldiers to fight the Mexican drug cartels. The gruesome clashed between drug gangs and the federal troops further increased the number of deaths caused by inter and intra gang clashes. Lee and Renwick (2017) estimate that more than 177,000 people died between 2006 and 2017 due to the Mexican war on drugs.

Impacts of the Mexican Drug War on American Security

The United States has not been immune from the effects of Mexico’s narcotics business. Wyler (2011) note that America has been the primary market for illegal drugs and alcohol since 1920 during the prohibition. The author says, “it is without a doubt that part of Mexico’s problem is due to America’s insatiable demand for hard drugs.” A report by Kim (2014) in 2013 showed that over 24.7 million Americans above the age of 12 years old had used an illicit drug in the past one before the study. Notably, the number of drug users increased from 8.3% to 24.6% between 2002 and 2013. Most education articles identify Mexico as the primary supplier of heroin to America. The amounts of heroin seizure and the Mexican-American border has increased by four-times since 2012. The violence, kidnappings, extortions, and murders triggered by Mexican drug lords have spilled over to America. Today, distribution of hard drugs is widespread in the U.S. with major cities such as Chicago making headlines for being a hub for drug activity. America does provide not only the market but also the weapons that facilitate drug-related violence. As Flannery (2013) notes, the lenient gun laws in the U.S. make it inexpensive and convenient for gang members to acquire explosives, ammunition, and powerful guns. Notably, over 10% of American gun dealers are strategically poisoned along the Mexico-U.S border. As the drug war intensifies in Mexico, the American government has suffered numerous losses in lives and revenue. Every year, the U.S. losses over $3 billion and obstructs billion more in legitimate trade (Flannery, 2013).

There are numerous ways to which the Mexican drug trade poses a threat to the American security. According to Flannery (2013), a substantial fraction of the eight of the 32 counties that gangs wield more influence than the authorities are in the north Mexico adjacent to the United States. Firstly, despite the well-manned boarder, there is a risk of the well-armed gang members spilling over to America and perpetuating their culture of violence, kidnappings, extortions, and killings. Secondly, Mexico’s failure to restore stability in the nation would lead to an increased number of illegal refugees in America, who would further compromise America’s security.

Upon assuming office, President Calderon requested the American government to assist the Mexico in fighting drug cartels. Consequently, the American government launched the Merida Initiative in 2008 (UNODC, 2009). Additionally, as Cardenas (2017) states, the American government channeled $465 million towards helping Mexico and Central American nations combat the drug trade. While acknowledging America’s role in promoting drug trade, by providing weapons and market for the cartels, President Obama donated state-of-the-art machinery ranging from tankers, helicopters, to surveillance hardware.

Discussion of the Results

Origin of the Mexico’s Drug Trade

Based on the research, it is without a doubt that America played a primary role in initiating, facilitating, and enhancing drug trafficking in Mexico. Although the drug-related violence, extortions, kidnappings, and murder have spilled over to the United States, the latter is not an innocent victim. Notably, as previous research and findings have asserted, America is the most significant market for illicit drugs and the leading supplier of weapons. Arguably, the Mexican drug trade began in the twentieth century when America banned the production, distribution, and consumption of hard alcohol. During the prohibition period, the demand for liquor increased while its supply decreased. In other words, the prohibition of alcohol made it precious, providing valuable incentives for gangs who were willing and ready to smuggle liquor into the United States. Cartels such as Charles Luciano and Al Capone transformed street gangs into national crime syndicates. Although the prohibition did not reduce alcohol consumption, especially among the youth, the American government did not learn from its mistakes. In years that followed, the U.S. passed laws that banned the use of hard drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and crack, a move that further increased their demand and enhanced the earlier established smuggling routes. As the results indicate, both periods of prohibition of alcohol and drugs increased demand and consumption instead of curbing the vice. Apart from providing a lucrative market for hard drugs, Mexican drug cartels rely on America for weapon supply. Due to its lenient gun laws, it is easier to purchase and acquire guns in America than in Mexico. The two nations seem to be in a symbiotic relationship; Mexican cartels smuggle drugs into the U.S while American populace provides a stable supply of weapons and a ready market for drugs. In tandem with this information, it is safe to conclude that the United States not only triggered the Mexican drug trade but also facilitated it over the years.

Current state of the Mexican Drug War

Based on the statistics, it is evident that Mexican drug cartels control a vast area in the country. Inter and intra gang clashes as well as clashes confrontations between cartels and law enforcers have led to gruesome murders, numerous street fights, rampant corruption, and a traumatized citizenry. Drug-related violence and killing have become ubiquitous in Mexico. Notably, cartels fight each other for the control of luxurious trade routes, supplies, and other valuable resources. As the statistics show, most of the drug-related violence occurs in the northern part of Mexico; areas bordering the United States.

For over a decade, since President Felipe Calderon assumed office in 2006, the Mexican authorities have waged a bloody war against the Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs). Notably, the president’s military approach to combating cartels has not been as successful as expected. In fact, incidents of violence, extortion, corruption, and drug-related murders have dramatically increased since Mexico launched its drug war. In retaliation, cartels are not only killing their competitors, but are now targeting politicians, journalists, students, and other ordinary citizens. Over the years, the Mexican drug cartels have emerged as the most successful and extensive organized networks. In some parts of Mexico, these cartels are more influential than the authorities.

Impacts of the Mexican Drug War on American Security

America has not been immune to the implications of the Mexican drug trade. As earlier stated, most Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) smuggle cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroin to the United States. To counter the drug-related violence and murders are spilling over to America, the U.S, through the Merida Initiative channeled over $2.5 billion in funding, intelligence, technical assistance to enhance Mexico’s capacity to address drug trafficking.

The Mexican drug war affects the U.S security in numerous ways. First, the proliferation of cartels through the American border endangers the lives of crucial security personnel in the U.S. In the past, drug smugglers have increasingly targeted law enforcers, intelligent officers, and other security personnel. Apart from murder, some DTOs have bribed or intimidated security personnel at the border to get entry at the border. Naturally, these actions have cowed the security personnel further compromising America’s security. Second, Mexico’s failure to contain the drug trade has seen more refugees join the lucrative narcotics business. These refugees smuggle not only drugs but also weapons into the United States. Third, the drug war curtails America’s economic growth and hinders its ability to invest in efficient security systems. Since 2006, when the Mexican drug war started, the U.S. has used over $2.5 trillion. Undoubtedly, these funds would be channeled to enhancing the national security systems.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Influential drug cartels In Mexico have left an indelible mark in the country’s history, and they continue to thrive with relative impunity even today. Over the years, the situation in Mexico has become increasingly volatile as the drug cartels’ influence over specific parts of the country increase. Efforts by the Mexican and American government to stop the cartels have not been successful as expected, mainly because of corruption among states officials. Admittedly, spillover of drug-related violence from Mexico to the United States has greatly affected the latter’s security.


Community Patrol Approach

For the Mexican and the American government to successfully combat the drug trade and protect the national securities, they should do the following.

Firstly, change tact from full military to a community-patrol approach. As UNODC ((2009) Notes, neither Calderon’s troops nor America’s Merida Initiative has succeeded in reducing drug trafficking and its adverse impacts. To succeed, the two governments should in use community police patrols instead of military troops. The army should only be used as a deterrent and as a weapon of last resort. The police, rather than the soldiers, should be used for internal security. More specifically, the police should focus on preventing extortions, robberies, and break-ins whereas the army deters cartels from gunfights and other confrontations.

Combined Rather Than Dislodged Actions

One of the reasons why Mexico and the United States have failed in the Mexican drug war is because their current drug control actions are disjointed rather than unified. These actions focus on few aspects of the supply such as destroying crops instead of eradicating poverty. Also, they seem to criminalize the demand for drugs instead of addressing the problem. This compartmentalization of work has failed miserably because, unlike the authorities, the cartels have integrated logistics, marketing, financing, and bribery strategies. Therefore, Mexico and the United States should fight the drug cartels from diverse platforms.

Law Enforcement and Socioeconomic Measures

Unfortunately, Mexico neither facilitated law enforcement nor addressed socio-economic actions contributing to the steady demand and supply of drugs. Notably, a high number of law enforcers have been involved either directly or indirectly in the narcotics business. As Watt and Zepeda ( 2012) note, most police officers are underpaid and thus easily bribed or lured to the drug business. Mexico and the United States should aim to address the socioeconomic statuses of law enforcers and drug addicts. Farmers should be offered alternatives produce while health assistance should be availed to addicts.

Strengthen Governance and Existing Legal Apparatus

Since the narcotics business generates billions of dollars annually, cartels have succeeded in infiltrating into governmental institutions. As United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (2009) cartels have more influence than the government in some areas. To solve this, the states should strengthen its systems to enhance resistance. Even after all these years, there lack clear rules of engagement for the Palermo and Merida conventions.


Cardenas, J. (2017). The United States is Losing the War on Drugs in the Americas. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from <>

Flannery, N. (2013). Calderon’s War. Journal of International Affairs, 66(2): 181-198.

Flannery, N. (2013). Drug war zone: Frontline dispatches from the streets of El Paso and Juárez. University of Texas Press.

Kim, J. J. (2014). Mexican Drug Cartel Influence in Government, Society, and Culture. University of California, Los Angeles.

Lee, B., and Renwick, D. (2017). Mexico’s Drug War. Council Foreign Relations. Retrieved from <>

Ochoa, I. M. (2016). A Failed Mexican State?: Challenging the Oversimplified Narrative of Mexico's Drug War ,Doctoral diss, University of California, Santa Barbara. 2-89.

Payan, T. (2006). The drug war and the US-Mexico border: The state of affairs. South Atlantic Quarterly, 105(4), 863-880.

Shirk, D. A. (2011). The drug war in Mexico: confronting a shared threat (No. 60). Council on Foreign Relations.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). (2009). Drug Crime Is a Threat to Development and Security. UNODC. Retrieved from <>

Velazquez, D. F. (2016). Disturbing Mexico: Drug war victims and victimizers in Mexican film (Doctoral dissertation, Boston University).

Watt, P., & Zepeda, R. (2012). Drug war Mexico: Politics, neoliberalism and violence in the new narcoeconomy. Zed Books Ltd..

Wyler, G. (2011). The Mexican Drug Cartels Are A National Security Issue. Business Insider. Retrieved from <>

May 02, 2023

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