Blowback in Mexico’s Drug Wars

MEXICO – Drug trafficking has existed in Mexico for decades. But trade in illegal narcotics did not seriously threaten Mexico’s stability or provoke conflict with the United States until the mid-1980’s, when Colombian cocaine began to flood across Mexico to the US. By that time, Mexican police institutions were in a state of decomposition, making them fertile ground for the drug traffickers to corrupt. And so they have.

The dismantling of Colombia’s Cali and Medellin cartels in the 1990’s created a vacuum that Mexico’s cartels were able to fill, ultimately consolidating their position in the drug trade. Still, the levels of drug-related violence in Mexico remained relatively low.

This “dealers’ peace” can be explained by the Mexican government’s policy of tolerance, which sought a degree of equilibrium between the drug cartels and the state in terms of trafficking routes and the territories that the cartels infiltrated.

This secret truce was maintained even after Mexico’s first open democratic presidential election in 2000, when the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party was ousted from power. Then former President Vicente Fox ordered a crackdown. As drug lords were arrested, the equilibrium between gangs was destroyed, paving the way to a war between the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels – the two largest – which has generated enormous violence, as well as sharp US protests because of the impact of the fighting along the border.