Massacres, Drugs, and Money: Mexico’s Disastrous Drug-War Decade

The United States honestly wanted to help crush the cartels, but many of its policies have only made them more dangerous.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

TIJUANA, Mexico—This week marks 10 years since the official launch of Mexico’s militarized war on drugs. One might say it has a complicated history, but at it’s core there is a simple principle summed up in Spanish by a short, fundamental question: ¿Plata o plomo?

Silver or lead. A bribe or a bullet.

Thousands of Mexicans, from poor rural farmers to those holding the highest government offices, have been forced to choose their fate—to live as tools of corruption or to die with integrity.

And to make matters worse, both the cartels and the Mexican government have proven the two are not mutually exclusive.

“Silver and lead” have been amassed by the ton on both sides of the fight—with law enforcement and cartels racing to outspend and out-arm each other in an unending expenditure of blood and money.


Though Mexico had faced previous decades of lawlessness, the war in Mexico as we know it now began officially on Dec. 11, 2006, when newly elected President Felipe Calderón unleashed roughly 7,000 troops in his home state of Michoacán, swiftly destroying more than 2,000 marijuana fields and nearly 500 kilos of Mexican weed, and seizing dozens of weapons.

Then less than two weeks into his presidential term, he made it the mission of his mandate to re-establish a “culture of legality” in Mexico. He correctly asserted, while presenting his security cabinet that dismantling cartels and restoring order would “be a long battle that will take years, require a lot of effort and economic resources, and probably even, as I’ve said before, human sacrifice of Mexican lives.”

So it has been.

When Mexico first launched la guerra contra el narcotráfico a decade ago, the country was living through a period of hope for prosperity ushered in six years previously when it made history by rejecting the party that had ruled uninterrupted for the previous seven decades—the PRI, or Institutional Revolutionary Party—in favor of the conservative PAN, or National Action Party.

The newly elected President Calderón, whose father was among the founders of the PAN, had not yet opened the Pandora’s box of engagement with drug cartels, nor foreseen the extent of the chaos to come.

Thousands of children who are orphans now, still had parents then. Roughly 35,000 people had not yet been displaced by violence and fear. More than 186,000 more had not yet been murdered. And more than 80 journalists had not yet been killed for their reporting.

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There were close to 30,000 people, then, who were still alive and accounted for, instead of existing as they do now, in a limbo somewhere been officially dead and unlikely to be alive. Those so-called disappeared had not yet vanished to emerge only years later as faceless victims of the war, in unmarked common graves, if at all.

In 2006, things were different, and the promise of change pervasive.

Although he faced early criticism inside Mexico, President Calderón was quick to find allies in the international community. In 2007, then-President George W. Bush arrived in Mérida, meeting with his counterpart in what marked the beginning of a joint plan to restore order in Mexico.

A subsequent meeting of the pair, in 2008, showed Bush had a clear, rather basic view of the initiative he and Calderon were working toward.

“People are using drugs, and therefore people are supplying drugs, and it’s caused difficult security problems in your country, and you’ve responded aggressively,” Bush said, acknowledging Calderon.

“I think it's in our interests that we fund the joint initiative. We got to work hard on our side to make sure that we reduce our drug use, and at the same time work with you in close coordination to defeat these drug traffickers,” he said. And he also noted the special importance of “dealing with arms trafficking—arms from the United States into Mexico.”

Soon after, the Mérida Initiative became a reality, allocating an initial $400 million in support funds for Mexico’s counter-narcotics efforts.

But now, after a decade-long violent drug war, both governments have seemingly lost sight of what was to be the focus of the binational effort as outlined by Bush and Calderón: guns and cash flowing south, and drugs flowing north.


Similar to the Bush-era “war on terror,” the measure of victory in Mexico’s drug war has grown vague and ill defined.

Since the program was introduced, $2.5 billion has been earmarked to bolster Mexico’s justice system and crime-fighting capabilities, by way of training, equipment, and technical assistance for Mexican military and law enforcement, with the primary goal often cited as the dismantling and disruption of cartels.

But (as evidenced by the rise of the Islamic State following U.S. military intervention in the Middle East) disruption rarely restores order, and may lead to a whole new order as bad or worse than what came before.

The effort to dismantle drug trade organizations from the top by capturing cartel leaders has served to splinter established cartels, which continue to operate unimpeded, but have morphed into fractious criminal cells across the country. Forced to evolve, the drug trade organizations have not only shifted in structure and hierarchy, but also diversified their ambitions—increasingly resorting to extortion, kidnapping, oil theft and other means of financial gain.

The murder rate has more than doubled in Mexico since 2006. More than 17,000 people have been murdered in the first 10 months of this year, and 10 Mexican cities vie for spots among the world’s 50 most deadly, as killings in Mexico have become increasingly public and gruesome.

In a nationwide battle over drug turf, the corpses have served as trophies and as press releases for the warring drug cells. It has become far too common to find bodies hanging from Mexican bridges as advertisements for the faction with the upper hand.

More than 48,000 of those who were murdered from 2007 through 2015 were dismembered, dissolved in acid, incinerated, hanged, strangled, drowned, or had their throats slit, according to national public security figures.

Yet, the U.S. has continued to fund the war on both sides: with American tax dollars subsidizing the government’s efforts, and the wrinkled cash of drug users fueling the cartels.

Clients in the U.S. have consistently spent well over $100 billion a year on illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin, meth, and marijuana, according to a White House report on national drug control strategy, making the United States the world’s largest consumer of drugs and the greatest sponsor of drug violence.

Most of the methamphetamine used in the U.S. has its origins in Mexico. Eighty-four percent of the cocaine entering the U.S. lands first in Mexico—a country that grows no coca.

Similarly, Mexico is the primary heroin source for the United States, and the world’s third largest poppy producer, despite the fact that Mexico has only about 8 percent as many heroin users as the U.S., according to Mexico’s health secretary.

Unsurprisingly, marijuana is becoming an outlier, not because of the drug war but thanks to the recent shift in state laws supporting legalization. The amount of marijuana seized at southern borders has been decreasing, as the Drug Enforcement Administration's 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment noted (PDF), citing “shifts in demand for higher-quality marijuana” resulting in “increases in domestic produced marijuana.”

But the valuable lessons to be gleaned from effective U.S. policy are often no match for the machinery of the United States’ prohibitionist War on Drugs, an interventionist Nixon-era campaign that is now four decades deep.


Sadly, Mexico is just the latest player in the United States’ policy of supporting international drug wars. In the six years leading up to beginning of Mexico’s narco-war, the U.S. gave upward of $7 billion to Latin American countries to assist with counter-narcotics efforts.

About $5 billion of those funds went toward Plan Colombia, an initiative preceding the Mérida Initiative, which laid the framework for the binational strategy to combat transnational crime.

The Clinton-era policy disaster, which promised—and failed—to cut Colombia’s cocaine production in half, has cost roughly $10 billion, with some of these funds reallocated into the hands of paramilitary death squads, or used to pay for military units caught disguising murdered dissidents as guerillas in order to justify their atrocities.

Such is the chaos of war.

Yet, despite U.S.-sponsored efforts to reduce drug production in Colombia—including dumping the toxic Monsanto chemical glyphosate on 4.3 million acres of coca fields—the country continues to reign as the world’s top coca producer, surpassing the combined efforts of Bolivia and Peru.

In fact, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime noted Colombia saw a 40 percent increase in coca cultivation last year—following a two-fold increase the previous year (PDF).

But the lasting consequences of this exponential failure of international export of U.S. drug policy were best summarized by the DEA’s own national drug threat assessment: “The demise of the larger, structured Colombian criminal enterprises of past decades ... has given way to the rise of Mexican TCOs [transnational criminal organizations] becoming the principal wholesale suppliers of illicit drugs to U.S. markets.”

It seems U.S. officials lacked the foresight to envision this result, but that hasn’t prevented them from continuing to focus on the supply of drugs from abroad instead of addressing the issues at home.

On the issue of the Washington’s continued sponsorship of Mexico’s drug war, John Ackerman, a prominent law professor at Mexico’s national autonomous university, says that certain aspects of the bilateral relationship have actually “fueled the climate of impunity that is ripping apart the very fabric of Mexican society.”

The U.S. has been “working under the false premise that Mexico is a functioning democracy,” says Ackerman. In a stark example of Mexico’s broken justice system, the use of torture by Mexican authorities to elicit confessions, which serves only to further muddy the search for solid facts and justice, increased six-fold from 2003 to 2013, according to Amnesty International.

“It's time for Washington to pull the plug,” Ackerman wrote last February in Foreign Policy. “The blank check that top Mexican officials receive from the U.S. government against the scrutiny of civil society on both sides of the border has allowed the situation to spin entirely out of control.”

U.S. drug policy enforcers rejected this premise.

“The proposition is that America is to blame [for Mexico’s drug war], and I believe there is a distinction between blame and responsibility,” former border security undersecretary and DEA administrator Asa Hutchinson said in a 2009 debate on the U.S. role in Mexico’s drug war. “Blame is a heavy word that implies that we as the government of the United States are doing something wrong. I agree that we have responsibility but it is a shared responsibility.”

“They, as a sovereign country, have allowed themselves to be in that predicament,” said Huchinson, who is now governor Arkansas, adding that overall drug consumption in the U.S. was down 50 percent since the late ’70s—which is akin to saying drug use is down on Monday morning from what it was on Friday night.

He said he asked a cartel member, “What is the greatest weapon that you fear in the United States arsenal, or in the law enforcement arsenal?” The answer, he said, was extradition.

While true that Mexico has extradited hundreds of criminals to the U.S. since 2006, if you asked the victims of the drug war what they have most feared in the decade past, they would say it’s the arsenal itself, and the men behind the guns.


Mexico has very strict gun laws and few licensed holders. While the U.S. has more than 51,000 gun stores, Mexico has only one—tucked away in a nondescript building in Mexico City.

Despite this, there is no shortage of weapons in Mexico, with up to 90 percent of the country’s illegal guns originating in the U.S. Conservative estimates have put the number of guns coming across the U.S.-Mexico border every year at more than a quarter of a million.

The final tally is impossible to know for sure, but just last year, nearly 18,000 guns recovered in Mexico were traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives back to the U.S. Since 2007, the ATF has recovered more than 138,000 U.S.-sourced firearms in Mexico.

For years now the U.S. government has helped provide the Mexican government with a substantial arsenal. It delivered half a billion dollars in equipment and training to Mexico in 2011 alone. But there has been a drastic spike in Mexican government acquisitions in recent years, with more than a billion dollars spent on Humvees and helicopters in a 12-month period leading up to mid-2015. In the three years before that, the government acquired $3.5 billion from government arms dealers and U.S. companies, including a single shipment of 30 million bullets that came via 27 rail cars, and a fleet of Black Hawk helicopters, as reported by The Washington Post.

But, once again, the U.S. government’s role has not been entirely one-sided, as it has done its part to contribute to Mexico’s stockpile of both legal and illegal weapons.

From 2007 to 2011, at least 2,000 guns illegally purchased in the U.S. under what was supposed to be the watchful eye of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) were allowed “to walk” into the hands of Mexican drug cartels, in a failed program now known as Operation Fast and Furious.

Dozens of the weapons that walked away from ATF ended up in the hands of drug trafficking organizations and have been recovered at gruesome crime scenes in Mexico. Among the beneficiaries of the program: the Sinaloa, Gulf, and Beltrán Leyva cartels. In at least one case, a “Fast and Furious” weapon was used to murder U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. One of these guns made it into the arsenal of the now jailed leader of the Sinaloa cartel, “El Chapo” himself, Joaquín Guzmán Loera.

"It was a Barrett .50-caliber," ATF special agent Tom Mangan told me after the discovery of the weapon among a cache seized from Chapo’s safehouse, noting that this particular high-powered rifle is capable of taking down helicopters—a favorite cartel pastime.

"We know when, and where, as well as who purchased the gun," he said of the weapon that the ATF let walk into the Sinaloa cartel’s hands. For all the good that did.

Such miscalculated undercover ops go back a long way. One fact about “Fast and Furious” that hasn’t garnered much scrutiny is that within the initial outline of the Mérida Initiative, the ATF was “authorized funds for the enhancement of Project Gunrunner,” the parent project that led to the Fast and Furious gun-walking scandal.

As part of the Merida Initiative, the U.S. government has also provided training for nearly 20,000 members of Mexican law enforcement. But this, too, is a double-edged sword.

The Zetas cartel, Mexico’s most well equipped and technologically sophisticated, has its origins in a group of former military personnel, including special forces, who went rogue after receiving military training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Meanwhile unchecked torture, extrajudicial killings, and forced disappearances are commonly linked to Mexican law enforcement officials—but they aren't the only ones guilty of cartel collusion.

“Corruption is the Achilles heel of border agencies,” according to a 2015 Homeland Security report on Customs and Border Patrol integrity (PDF). It notes an increase in allegations against department employees, adding that “pockets of corruption could fester within CBP, potentially for years” due to lack of oversight.

Last Wednesday, for example, in what seems like a weekly occurrence, a San Diego CBP agent was arrested by the FBI’s border corruption task force, and charged with attempted distribution of seven kilos of cocaine and six kilos of methamphetamine—just one more agent in a tiresome lineup.

President-elect Donald Trump parroted the promises of the George W. Bush era during his campaign when he placed “ending the illegal flow of drugs, cash, guns” across the border and putting the cartels “out of business” among his key platforms, while selling the American people on the idea of another “beautiful” border wall.

But the U.S. government, whether Trump’s or another’s, will continue to be unable to accomplish its stated goals as long as it continues to fail to address the Prohibition-like policies that give the drug war its raison d’être and the unimpeded southbound flow of cash and weapons to the cartels.

Just over a century ago, President Porfirio Díaz, the caudillo ousted in 1911 by the Mexican Revolution, famously lamented, “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States!” Today one might add, so far from peace, and so close to American madness.