United States President-elect Barack Obama, met this past Monday morning with Mexican President Felipe Calderón to discuss issues such as regional security, trade and immigration. The meeting took place at Mexico’s Cultural Institute in Washington DC. The leaders reportedly discussed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, Mexico and the United States, border security and immigration.

There has been uneasiness on the part of the Mexican government in regard to the President -elect’s plans for Latin America. During his presidential campaign, Obama said he would renegotiate NAFTA in addition to obtaining more protections for U.S. workers, an issue that has long been on the agenda of American labor unions.

During their meeting, Mr. Obama said his administration will work to strengthen relations between the two nations and praised his Mexican counterpart for deploying troops to fight the drug cartels. In addition, the President-elect said he fully supported the Merida Initiative (please see below) and that his administration “is going to be ready on day one” to work to build stronger relations with Mexico.

Following the meeting, spokesman Robert Gibbs said that Mr. Obama pledged to find ways to work with Mexico to reduce drug-related violence and to stop the flow of arms from the U.S. to Mexico. In addition the President-elect intends to upgrade NAFTA with stronger labor and environmental provisions. Obama also said he was committed to working with Congress to fix the “broken U.S. immigration system.”

In light of this visit an update is useful in understanding how the ongoing war the Mexican government is waging against the drug cartels has major significance for the national security of the United States.

To begin with, Mexico is the United States’ 3rd largest trading partner and is the 3rd largest supplier of oil to the U.S.  Right now Mexico is facing an economic crisis and a surge in drug related crime that is spiraling out of control.

Since Felipe Calderón became President of Mexico on December 1st 2006, he has decisively waged a full blown war against the dangerous drug cartels. These cartels have ravaged the country for many years threatening to turn it into a narco-terrorist state. As soon as he took office, Mr. Calderón ordered the Mexican Army to deploy as many as 25,000 troops in nine states including Acapulco, Michoacán, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, and Ciudad Juarez, to combat the drug organizations since these Special Forces are much better equipped than the police. Mexican authorities estimate that the army will remain deployed until 2010.

Even though there have been major achievements on the security front, drug cartel-related killings rose by 117% to 5,376  in 2008 as compared to 2007, when there were 2,477 such slayings. To put this in perspective, more people have been killed in drug-related violence last year in Mexico than the United States has lost soldiers in five years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.[1]  This information can be discouraging; but to his credit, President Calderón seems determined to continue his pursuit to stop these criminals.

But as things become more difficult for the cartels due to the government’s successes, the narco-traffickers have become desperate and resorted to ever more violent measures in order to continue their operations. Criminals know this is when people start to get nervous and often pressure their leaders to broker a deal. However, Calderón says he will never engage in agreements with these groups. He knows they will push to the limit to instill fear in the public to pressure the administration to grant concessions and also because he understands deals with criminals and terrorists never work.

Many attribute the long history of high criminal activity in Mexico to the country’s soft legal system. There is no death penalty and the maximum prison term is 60 years, which is rarely imposed since judges usually sentence criminals to a maximum of 25 years. There are no jury trials and, although there is no presumption of innocence, only “probable” doubt has to be established [2].

Previous administrations refused to extradite people since it was considered “cruel and unusual” punishment and worse if the defendant faced capital punishment.  Under President Calderón things appear to be changing. In June, 2008 he signed a set of judicial reforms to improve national security. Now the government, because of continuing weaknesses in its judicial and prison systems, is using extradi­tion aggressively as a powerful weapon against the drug cartels. So far 160 criminals have been extradited to the U.S. to stand trial on drug-related charges, including Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, former head of the Gulf Cartel.

The rising crime rate and the gruesome findings of mutilated and beheaded bodies in plain sight have made people angry and scared at the same time. In response, the security situation in Mexico has become the top priority of President Calderón and drug related crime has become a matter of national security.


Drug Cartels

Violence has also escalated due to turf battles between the different groups for territory and control of trade routes. Here is a description of the major cartels operating in Mexico:

  1. The Gulf cartel was the most powerful drug organization more than a year ago but thanks to the government’s efforts it has lost some power. Their paramilitary arm is “Los Zetas,” which now appears to be operating independently.
  2. Los Zetas have become a major participant and operate under Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano. The found­ing members of the Zetas are believed to be a small group of police officers who deserted in the late 1990’s. This group uses sophisticated heavy weapons, high level communications, and intelligence collec­tion. They suffered a major backlash in April of 2008 when Daniel “El Cachetes” Perez Rojas, who commanded Zeta operations in Central America, was arrested in Guatemala. Just a few months later, Jaime “El Hummer” Gonzales Duran third in rank of Los Zetas was captured.
  3. The Beltran Leyva family has had a long history in the narcotic business and not long ago it formed part of the Sinaloa federation which controlled the access to the U.S. border in Sonora State. But when Alberto Beltran Leyva was arrested in January 2008, the alliance ended since it was revealed that the arrest happened because of a Sinaloa betrayal. The Beltran Leyva cartel has become very powerful and there are reports that it is capable of smuggling drugs and even assassinating high-ranking government officials such as the killing in May of 2008 of the director of the federal police Edgar Millán Lopez. It is currently in war with the Sinaloa’s for control over Ciudad de Juarez, a major drug stronghold.
  4. The Sinaloa cartel is currently the most capable group in Mexico and its drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is the most wanted man in the country. They manage the drug trafficking from South America to the United States. Right now, the Sinaloa alliance and the Gulf cartel are violently fighting for control of some smuggling routes to the United States.
  5. The Juarez Cartel also known as the Carrillo Fuentes organization operates in Ciudad de Juarez, north of Mexico, and is led by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes since 1997. They are in alliance with the Beltran Leyva organization.
  6. The Tijuana Cartel also known as the Arellano Felix organization has been weakened in the last months due to the actions of the Mexican and US authorities especially after the capture of boss Eduardo “El Doctor” Arellano Felix in October 2008.

Government Successes

Thanks to the reforms in the judicial system and the deployment of the army to combat the narco-traffickers, the balance of power of the Mexican cartels has shifted and their leadership has been relentlessly pursued and diminished. Important leaders of the country’s drug-trafficking organizations have been arrested and extradited. In addition, there have been major seizures of illegal drugs and weapons. Just in July 2008, there was a raid of the largest amphetamine factory ever discovered where authorities seized 8,000 barrels of chemicals to produce this drug. As ‘meth’ has gained popularity in the United States, the Calderón administration has implemented measures to stop its usage and in January 2008, the sale of ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine used to produce methamphetamine was banned.

The Mexican government has also implemented greater monitoring and control of airplanes entering the country and as a result, shipments of cocaine from Colombia decreased more than 90% and maritime drug trafficking has also decreased more than 60%.

As the cartels find it increasingly difficult to smuggle the same amount of drugs as before, many groups are now engaging in other criminal activities to supplement their income.  These activities include; kidnappings, extortion, human trafficking and transporting illegal immigrants to the U.S.

Even as the Mexican government has achieved these successes, the violence in Mexico continues to be horrific and criminals are relentlessly attacking security forces and assassinating high ranking government officials. What has Mexicans baffled is the beheadings that are taking place in their country which shows a level of viciousness never seen before as local criminals are using the same methods used by Islamic militants to terrify people and discourage the police and the army from pursuing them.

In addition, human trafficking from Mexico to the United States poses an immense danger to this country since common criminals and even terrorists can enter U.S. territory paying just a couple thousand dollars to the infamous ‘coyotes.’

Centers of Operation

Ninety percent of the narcotics coming into the United States now transits through Mexico since the U.S. is still the primary destination for drugs produced in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Most of the financing for the Mexican traffickers comes from American drug consumers. U.S. law enforcement officials estimate that between $15 to $25 billion from U.S. drug sales go back to the cartels each year in illegal cash and weapons.

But as the Mexican cartels face new obstacles from law enforcement, local drug lords are now positioning themselves more strongly in Central America as shipments via land have become their primary choice of drug distribution. In addition, Mexican groups are now operating directly in South America to satisfy demand there as well as transporting drugs directly to Europe. In essence, the Mexican criminal organizations have become the most powerful drug handlers in the entire Western Hemisphere. Not only that; they are the most feared arms dealers, illegal money launderers and human traffickers today.

The Merida Initiative

“The Americas Report” published an article on the “Merida Initiative” explaining that ‘critics of the initiative insist on calling the Merida Initiative “Plan Mexico” in allusion to Plan Colombia erroneously reporting that these two are the same. In reality it was never intended to be ‘Plan Mexico’ since it was conceived during conversations between Presidents Bush and Calderón in Merida, Mexico with the understanding that it was a broader security cooperation package involving the United States, Mexico and Central America. The initiative was announced on October 22, 2007 and signed into law on June 30, 2008.

The aim of this initiative is to combat drug trafficking, transnational crime and money laundering. United States assistance includes training, equipment and intelligence. The U.S. Congress authorized $1.6 billion for the three-year Merida program. On July 10, 2008 in order to silence critics that accused the Mexican government of committing abuses, Calderon announced plans to nearly double the size of its Federal Preventive Police force in order to reduce the role of the military in combating drug trafficking. The plan, known as the Comprehensive Strategy against Drug Trafficking, also involves purging police forces of corrupt officers [3]. In August 2008, Mexico announced that two states, Chihuahua and Nuevo León, were pioneering public trials, in which the state must prove its case. Before, the accused bore the burden of proof, and trials were secret. Mexico’s president hopes this will bring transparency and accountability to the legal process. The government also wants to end a tradition of corruption, shady investigations, coerced testimony and an extremely low conviction rate.

In December 2008, the US released $197 million to Mexico. Most of this aid was destined to buy helicopters and other equipment to fight the drug cartels. As of this year, the US released another $99 million which was directed to buy aircraft and inspection equipment for the Mexican military. The US has released $300 million of the $400 million appropriated for Mexico for the first year (2008) for military and law enforcement training and equipment, as well as technical advice and training to strengthen the national justice systems. Only about $204 million of that, however, will be used by the military for the purchase of eight used transport helicopters and two small surveillance aircraft. No weapons are included in the plan [4].

The bottom line

President Calderón correctly said after his meeting with Mr. Obama: “the more secure Mexico is, the more secure the U.S. will be” adding that both nations need to work together to fight organized crime “and combine the capabilities of our governments in order to preserve the security of our people on both sides of the border.”


Nicole M. Ferrand is a research analyst and editor of “The Americas Report” of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, DC. She is a graduate of Columbia University in Economics and Political Science with a background in Law from Peruvian University, UNIFE and in Corporate Finance from Georgetown University.

[1] As Mexico Reels from Violence, Views on Crime and Punishment Harden. December 10, 2008. New America Media.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mexico Plan Adds Police To Take On Drug Cartels. July 11, 2008. The Washington Post.

[4] Bush pushes Mexico money in Iraq bill. May 8, 2008. Politico.


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