Posted on May 23, 2024

How Mexico’s Drug Cartels Have Thrived Under López Obrador

Michael Stott and Christine Murray, Financial Times, May 21, 2024

When a group of strangers turned up uninvited at a Christmas party in a bucolic colonial-era courtyard in Salvatierra, central Mexico, last year, the assembled revellers asked them to leave.

Shortly afterwards, as the young partygoers danced to live music, the gatecrashers returned with armed gunmen and the order: “Kill them all.” Using automatic weapons, the assassins sprayed the revellers with 195 bullets as they attempted to flee, according to investigators. Eleven dead bodies were recovered from the bloodstained courtyard and 14 people were injured.

Even in a country weary of extreme violence, the massacre of unarmed partygoers in Guanajuato state had the power to shock. Despite national outrage, it took two months for the authorities to arrest anyone. When they did, they detained two people accused of firing the shots but not those who ordered the killing.

Organised crime and violence are hardly new to Mexico. The country’s first cocaine cartel formed in the early 1980s. A quarter of a century later, conservative President Felipe Calderón launched an all-out “war on drugs”, plunging the country into a bloodbath.

But Mexico’s organised crime problem has worsened dramatically during the five and a half years of populist leftwinger Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s presidency, security experts say, and has become so serious that it threatens the country’s future. Polls show that security is a top voter concern ahead of the presidential election on June 2.

For more than a decade, the dominant drug groups have been fragmenting, generating a host of smaller splinter gangs who fight over turf. Today, the two largest and most powerful cartels, the Sinaloa cartel and the Jalisco New Generation cartel (CJNG), are jostling with smaller rivals such as the Viagras, the Squirrels and the Scorpions.

Many of the cartels have expanded into lucrative new businesses. In a 2024 report, the US Drug Enforcement Administration called the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels “transnational criminal organisations” because they are “involved in arms trafficking, money laundering, migrant smuggling, sex trafficking, bribery, extortion, and a host of other crimes”. The cartels control more territory than ever before, about a third of the country according to one estimate from the US military.

“There’s been an exponential deterioration,” says Manuel Clouthier, a former state deputy and businessman in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, which is home to the eponymous drug cartel. “Mexico is becoming a failed state.”

As the cartels’ economic power has grown, so has their international reach. Mexico’s two top cartels now run a network of illegal activities stretching across South America that is challenging governments and alarming citizens. Battles between local affiliates of the CJNG and the Sinaloa cartel have turned previously peaceful Ecuador into one of the world’s most violent countries.

The cartels source chemicals needed to make synthetic drugs such as fentanyl from China and India and have strong connections to European mafia such as the Italian ‘Ndrangheta, investigators say. Anne Milgram, head of the DEA, told a US Senate committee in February last year that “the Jalisco cartel has influence through associates, facilitators and brokers on every continent except Antarctica”.


The president has painted a picture of an administration doing all it can to tackle the problem, while blaming his predecessors for creating it. He has so far avoided paying a serious political price for the deterioration. His approval rating remains at 65 per cent, according to poll aggregator Oraculus, and has barely changed in the past three years.


At the start of his administration, López Obrador set out a new strategy which he called “hugs not bullets”. The idea was to tackle the root causes of crime, replace the federal police force with a new military-run National Guard and to minimise bloodshed by avoiding direct confrontation with the cartels. Instead, he appealed to cartel members to “think of their mothers”.

López Obrador intended his more peaceful approach as an alternative to Calderón’s 2006-2012 “war” and to his immediate predecessor Enrique Peña Nieto’s strategy, which had failed to contain rising murder rates.

But the president drew fierce criticism for greeting personally the mother of jailed Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in 2020 — something he said was a humanitarian gesture towards a woman then in her nineties.


Criminal groups are also interfering more brazenly in elections. This year’s campaign, which includes races for federal and state congresses, governorships and mayoralties, has been the deadliest ever. So far 36 candidates and another 45 people linked to the election have been murdered, 15 more kidnapped and dozens of others threatened, according to think-tank Laboratorio Electoral.

Another key battleground is official statistics. López Obrador’s six-year term will be Mexico’s most violent ever in terms of total murders, with more than 175,000 killed so far. But the president has seized on figures showing a small reduction in homicides in the last three years from a record level in 2020.

Experts point out that the murder figures do not include the record number of people reported as missing, almost 115,000 by last year, 43,000 of whom disappeared during López Obrador’s presidency. They also note that the proportion of “crimes against life” reported as manslaughter or “other crimes” has been rising as murders fall, suggesting homicides are being reclassified.


Police and doctors conducting autopsies are sometimes under pressure, critics say, to avoid reporting the cause of death on certificates as murder. “If it’s not a homicide, it’s less paperwork,” says Ernst of Crisis Group. “Basically, like, 10 bullet holes and it’s going to be ‘heart failure’.”