Developing Strategies to Defeat Mexico’s Drug Cartels

Since Felipe Calderon’s election as Mexican President in December 2006, the fight against the Mexican drug cartels has escalated to a level previously unseen. The major cartels currently operating in Mexico include the Sinaloa, Gulf, Tijuana, Beltrán-Leyva, Juarez, and Los Zetas Cartels and operate by trafficking in narcotics such as marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin as well as human trafficking, kidnapping and extortion[1]. With previously existing widespread corruption and ineffective political, judicial and law enforcement institutions undermining the ability to effectively fight the cartels, the prospect of the conflict ending any time soon seems unlikely. Since Calderon took office nearly 40,000 people have been killed due to cartel related violence. It should be noted however that this seems to mainly represent cartel infighting and clashes with the police and military. Although some innocent bystanders have been killed in the violence, the civilian death rate in Mexico – at 10 per 100,000 p.a. – is less than half the rate in Brazil and one-fifth of Venezuela’s[2]. Upon assuming the Presidency, Calderon actively sought to intensify drug enforcement operations against the Mexican cartels; currently there are approximately 35,000 federal police and 50,000 soldiers deployed to fight the cartels. In addition, there have been attempts to tighten port control to the south to stop the inflow of cocaine, weapons and drug precursor chemicals like pseudoephedrine. There has been some success of this intensified anti-cartel policy; there is however, more that can be done to help dismantle the Mexican drug cartels. It stands to reason that a fight against transnational criminal organisations must be undertaken through a multinational effort, and as such potential policy responses for both Mexico and the United States will be presented.

Policy Recommendations for Mexico


Image by Shoot and Scribble-flickr

First, Mexico needs to define a clear strategy for fighting the drug cartels. This includes three aspects: (i) limit and clearly define the goal; (ii) divide and conquer; (iii) continue implementing a kingpin targeting strategy[3].

(i)      Limit and clearly define the goal to the destruction of the cartels, rather than stopping the production and movement of drugs. Any more than the dismantling of the cartels will prove to be near impossible, and any less will be unacceptable. Creating a clear scope of mission will help provide greater operational clarity and purpose. It is not helpful to let this conflict be bundled into the same category as the United States’ ‘War on Drugs’.

(ii)     Dividing and conquering involves the targeting of a single cartel at a time until they are destroyed. This strategy was used in Colombia against Medellin first and then the Cali cartel, and proved more effective than fighting a multi-front war. Targeting all cartels simultaneously could lead to collusion between drug gangs in order for them to face the threat of the army and police, thus making any effort to dismantle them drastically harder. In addition, openly targeting the most violent cartel first may facilitate in a ‘race to the bottom’ in violence as each cartel attempts to avoid being the next target.

(iii)    A ‘kingpin’ targeting strategy involves identifying, locating and capturing or killing kingpins and key lieutenants of cartels. Running and managing a transnational criminal organisation is similar to being in charge of a large multinational corporation – it requires a skill not found in many. Taking out key leaders can cripple cartels’ effective operational ability. This can be further supplemented by increased extraditions to the United States of key figures. In December 2009, Arturo Beltrin Leyva, head of the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, was surrounded and killed by the Mexican Navy. The Mexican Federal Police also arrested Teodoro Garcia Simental, an important lieutenant of the Tijuana Cartel on January 12, 2010. Calderon has utilized this strategy effectively, and the increase in violence seen as a result should not be interpreted as failure, but rather the result of the cartels fragmenting with infighting, much the same as was seen in Colombia. The death or capture of a cartel leader creates a power vacuum which is required to be filled. If there is no clear candidate for succession, factionalism and infighting occur as gang members vie for the top spot. With each kingpin and lieutenant removed, the cartel’s operational capability suffers dramatically and increases the cost to the individual of being at the top.

Image by Gozilah52_Archive-flickrSecond, dramatically strengthen the Mexican Federal Police. Whilst the military remains useful in that it is one of the least corrupt institutions in Mexico[4], and has the ability to clash with heavily armed drug gangs, it cannot win the war by itself. This is due to the fact that the skills required to take down a criminal organisation are more than just the ability to defeat them in combat. It is necessary to be able to conduct investigations to support prosecutions, recruit informants and gather evidence. This role falls to the Federal Police. The responsibility of dismantling the cartels needs to be transferred from the military to the Federal Police as they grow in operational capacity. To strengthen the Federal Police and in order to help weed out corruption, municipal police departments should be abolished, with the state police taking on the municipal policing responsibilities for cities. Furthermore, state police should be trained at a federal level.

On his first day in office, Calderon ordered a raise on the salaries of the Federal Police and Armed Forces; however more reforms still need to be undertaken. Law enforcement reform must include stronger vetting programs, a policy of hiring better educated officers, increasing pay to reduce susceptibility to bribery, increased rotation of personnel and internal affairs investigations to help combat corruption and reduce the ability to intimidate the police into collusion[5].

Policy Recommendations for the United States


Image by Gobierno FederalThe United States currently trains thousands of Mexican police officers and troops, collaborates with specially vetted security units, eavesdrops on cartel activity, and provides and upgrades security equipment and intelligence technology for Mexico[6]. Whilst it is evident that the United States is already supplying technical, operational and monetary assistance to Mexico, there is more that can be done.

First, the increased use of drone UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) could provide the necessary high-tech surveillance and strike capabilities against the cartels that the Mexican police and army do not currently possess.  The US military, acting on specific instructions and information from the Mexican military, is already utilizing Global Hawk UAV Drones for increased surveillance[7]. This surveillance can be further augmented by Predator and Reaper UAV Drone strikes on known cartel strongholds and kingpins. The possibility of drone strikes by the United States has already been discussed as noted by US Representative Silvestre Reyes – ex-chairman of the House Intelligence Committee[8]. Although potentially politically difficult, all strikes would need to be approved by top Mexican authorities and specially vetted security units so as not to undermine Mexico’s sovereignty. The use of drone strikes is justifiable as the situation on the ground is already a combat operation. Well armed cartels numbering over one hundred thousand combatants supplied with military grade weaponry are already fighting the Mexican military as well as targeting U.S officials[9]. This ability to strike from the air with superior military technology would place enormous pressure on the cartels’ ability to operate, as well as enhance Mexico’s policy of targeting kingpins and key lieutenants.

US Cutoms Border and ProtectionThe strategy of targeted drone strikes on enemy personnel and leadership has been utilised previously in other conflicts. The use of drones was effectively implemented in Afghanistan and on the Pakistani border to provide vastly superior surveillance intelligence as well as targeted air strikes against the Taliban and al-Qaeda members and leaders. Those who are critical of this approach point out that of the 269 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan between 2004 and 2011 (killing between 1,658 and 2,597 individuals), approximately 20 per cent of them are non-militant fatalities[10]. To those who believe that this is an unacceptably high non-militant fatality rate, it should be pointed out that historically the combatant to non-combatant fatality ratio was closer to 50:50[11]. That is, half of all deaths in war have historically been civilian deaths; in comparison, 20 per cent is a significant achievement in reducing civilian causalities. Furthermore, the effectiveness of targeting militant leaders – 20 of the 30 identified leaders in the region have been killed in the last 18 months – has caused utter disarray amongst the upper leadership of al-Qaeda[12]. The purpose of highlighting the 20 per cent collateral damage rate is not to justify the strikes based on murky mathematical propositions that more civilians will be saved than the number killed in the long run, but rather to show that given the comparatively lower civilian mortality rate in strikes, that drones actually offer a reduced collateral damage option and are not as indiscriminate as we are led to believe. This strategy could be used to great effect in Mexico against the drug cartels, targeting both their militant strongholds and leadership. Furthermore, DIME (Dense Inert Metal Explosive) armaments could be utilised when targeting areas with high civilian concentration as they are uniquely suited for providing low collateral damage[13]. Drones have proven to be cheaper than conventional military forces, more accurate than traditional airstrikes, and provide reduced levels of civilian casualties overall.

Second, the federal re-legalisation of marijuana and its production within the United States could cripple cartel profits. As stated in a CRS Report for Congress[14] and the Office of National Drug Control Policy in Washington[15], 60% of Cartel profit is estimated to come from the trafficking and sale of Marijuana. A report by RAND Corporation has concluded that ‘even with taxes, legally produced marijuana would likely cost no more than illegal marijuana from Mexico and would cost less than half as much per unit of THC’[16]. This means that legalised production in the United States could undercut illegal marijuana from Mexico and force the cartels out of the market through competition. Cartel cost structures for the production of marijuana are very high due to the illicit nature of their business. The turf wars they engage in, combating government forces and smuggling the product across the border to where there is demand all drive the price up significantly. Additionally, the monopoly status of cartels means that they can capture large economic profits. However, the cartels’ comparative advantage is in criminal activity, not the production of an (illicit) agricultural commodity. By legalising the production of marijuana in the United States, businesses and farmers could reduce the costs incurred in the production and distribution of the crop, and pass the cost savings onto consumers. Since cartels cannot reduce their cost structures in the same manner, they would be pushed out of the market. Whilst there are many other arguments for and against the legalisation of marijuana, this report’s intention is only to look at the impact it has on the drug cartels. Although undercutting the marijuana market in and of itself will not collapse the cartels, the severely diminished profit margins reaped by the drug gangs will limit their operational ability, making them more vulnerable to methods previously mentioned.

Third, refocus gun control efforts towardsImage by EPA Juan Cedillo-flickr interdicting military grade weaponry being smuggled in from non-US sources. Gun control is a contentious issue in the United States, and whilst there are those who advocate re-instating the ban on assault weapons for a number of valid reasons, it will have very little effect on the firepower capabilities of the Mexican cartels. Already the drug gangs are displaying an increasing trend towards military-grade hardware such as grenade and rocket launchers as well as anti-tank missiles, which are being sourced from locations other than the United States, such as China and South America. Additionally, assault weapons are readily available from these same alternative sources if the supply in the United States dries up[17]. Therefore, instead of focusing on stemming the flow of assault weapons coming from the United States, the US government should attempt to work with Chinese and South American authorities to impede illicit military-grade arms smuggling rackets which are bolstering the cartels’ militant capabilities.

As the Mexican drug cartels are transnational criminal organisations (TCOs) it is important to remember that their motive is profit not ideology. In essence there are only two features in defeating a TCO. Increasing the cost of operating (in this case, through military strikes, police work and increasing the risk of operating) and by decreasing profit margins (in this case, legalising an industry that drug gangs have a comparative advantage and motive to continue operating in illicitly).

In summary, Mexico needs to limit their goals to the destruction of the cartels by targeting them one at a time with specific emphasis on capturing and extraditing or killing cartel leaders. To do this, Mexico must strengthen their Federal Police and provide them with greater responsibility in bringing down the cartels. The United States can supplement these efforts by introducing drone strikes on cartel strongholds and high level targets at Mexico’s behest. In addition, re-legalising marijuana production in the United States would force the cartels out of the market through competition and destroy up to sixty per cent of their profit margin. This will limit their operational capacity and make it harder to combat Mexican government forces.



[1] Bonner, Robert C. 2010. ‘The New Cocaine Cowboys: How to Defeat Mexico’s Drug Cartels’. Foreign Affairs 89(4): 36.

[2] Ibid. Page 41.

[3] Ibid. Page 42.

[4] Ibid, Page 40.

[5] Ibid. Page 44.

[6] Thompson, Ginger and Mark Mazzetti. 2011. ‘U.S. Drones Fight Mexican Drug Trade’. Accessed 13 September 2011. Available at

[7] Ibid.

[8] Del Bosque, Melissa. 2011. ‘Congressman Won’t Rule Out Drone Strikes in Mexico’. Accessed 13 September 2011. Available at

[9] The Washington Times. 2009. ‘EXCLUSIVE: 100,000 foot soldiers in Mexican cartels’. Accessed 13 September 2011. Available at

[10] New American Foundation. 2011. ‘An Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2011’. Accessed 13 September 2011. Available at

[11] Melander, Erik, Magnus Oberg, and Jonathan Hall. 2009. ‘Are ‘New Wars’ More Atrocious? Battle Severity, Civilians Killed and Forced Migration Before and After the End of the Cold War’. European Journal of International Relations 15(3): 515.

[12] The Australian. 2011. ‘Drones’ success could lead US to pull out of Afghanistan early’. Accessed 13 September 2011. Available at

[13] Global Security. 2011. ‘Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME)’. Accessed 13 September 2011. Available at

[14] Cook, Colleen W. 2008. CRS Report for Congress. Washington DC: Congressional Research Service.

[15] Office of National Drug Control Policy. 2006. National Drug Control Strategy. Washington, D.C.

[16] Kilmer, Beau, Jonathan P. Caulkins, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, Robert J. MacCoun, and Peter H. Reuter. 2010. Altered State? Assessing How Marijuana Legalization in California Could Influence Marijuana Consumption and Public Budgets. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation

[17] Stewart, Scott. 2011. ‘Mexico’s Gun Supply and the 90% Myth’. Accessed 13 September 2011. Available at


Image credit (in order of appearance): UltraNoticias/flickr (Creative Commons), Shoot and Scribble/flickr (Creative Commons),  Gozilah52_Archive/flickr (Creative Commons), Gobierno Federal/flickr (Creative Commons), US Customs and Border Protection Drone/4gwar (Creative Commons), EPA/Juan Cedillo/flickr (Creative Commons);

About the author: Matthew van Horen

Matthew van Horen is studying Economics (International Trade and Finance) and International Relations at the University of Queensland. His interests lie in strategic studies and macroeconomic policy.

1 comment

  1. Tom Charles says:

    What I understand of the issue is rather limited to news stories and articles such as this, you say their motives are purely for profit and not ideological for which I agree with mostly. However, it seems that there maybe another dimension that facilitates the on-going nature of the issue. This dimension may lie somewhere between societal makeup and cultural nuanances of Mexico. How did the cartels become so large? Who recruits for the cartels? Is it through voluntary job application? Or is it extortion – your’re either with them (authorities) or us (cartels)? Is it to the point where there is only 6 degrees or less in seperation between good and bad? Perhaps combining strategic targeting of individual cartels and reducing the rate at which cartels recruit could be even more effective (so attacking the top and bottom of the heirarchy triangle). Apart from these questions, one dangerous aspect of this war is when the cartels reach the point of no return. Perhaps they are already at that stage, where they are too deep in commitment that the only way out is to win.

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