The city of Juarez, nestled on the border between Mexico and the US, would not at first glance appear to be one of the main focal points for narcotics trafficking activity in the world. Yet this city in particular has, since 2006, come to represent the violence and destruction that drug cartels have perpetrated in Mexico. As one of the main avenues used by drug cartels into the United States (the world’s largest drug market), Juarez has become one of the most violent cities in the world[1], with more than 70,000 drug-related murders since 2009.[2] This city has become one of the largest battlegrounds in what has become a three-sided war between the Mexican state, the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels, and their rivals, the Los Zetas and Tijuana Cartels. This war between the Cartels and the government has begun to destabilise both the Mexican state and the entire criminal underworld.

Image courtesy of the Drug Enforcement Agency, © 2009, some rights reserved.

Drug cartels have been an integral part of Mexican governmental policy since its independence. The PRI, the socialist party that had been in power since 1929, allowed certain cartels freedom of operation as long as their violence was kept out of the public eye. However, with the loss of the 2000 presidential election to the Democratic Party, drug cartels no longer see the need to maintain the status quo and have begun jostling more publicly for drug routes and territorial hegemony. The Mexican government’s first formal response to this heightened violence came in 2006 with the commencing of Operation Michoacán, a joint operation by the Mexican military and federal police to eliminate drug plantations, combat drug trafficking, and destroy the major drug cartels that were operating within the state of Michoacán. Since then, the operation has grown into a statewide effort, combining police response with military hardware and firepower.

While the joint military and police response has been successful in some ways, it has increasingly led to escalations in the battle for control between the cartels and the state. The increased government intervention has also caused what was once dozens of cartels of varying sizes to consolidate into two main factions under the most powerful cartels in the country with the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels forming an alliance to create what has become the richest and most powerful drug cartel in the world. The leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, has been ranked by Forbes as one of the most influential people in the world as well as one of the richest men in Mexico. On the other side of the battlefield is the allied Los Zetas and Tijuana Cartels, which together have become the most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and violent cartel operating in Mexico.[3] The Los Zetas Cartel has a history of employing ex-special forces operatives as enforcers and has encouraged a violent campaign of public executions, beheadings, and immolations in order to scare the people inside their territories into submission. Both cartels have targeted soldiers, law enforcement officers, and civilians with the hope of terrorizing the population into allowing them control of territory. In Juarez, the violence has caused over 200,000 people to flee their homes and seek shelter either across the border in the US or further south in less violent regions of Mexico.

This conflict reaches far beyond the boundaries of Mexico. Both the Los Zetas and Sinaloa cartels have a global reach and have carried their feud into other countries. In the United States, border states, such as Texas, California, and New Mexico, have seen drug related violence spike. Not only are the enforcers from both cartels jostling for territory themselves, but the various street gangs that each cartel employs to peddle their goods, such as the Mexican Mafia, MS-13, or the Latin Kings, have taken cues from their southern counterparts and started wars against rival street gangs. Both cartels are also trying to sell to foreign markets, especially in Europe where the street value of cocaine is twice that of North American markets. In August of this year, agents of the Sinaloa Cartel were arrested by Spanish police in the port of Algeciras for attempting to ship over 350 kilograms of cocaine with the assistance of Italian mafia in hopes of competing with Russian mafia for the drug trade in the ex-Soviet satellite countries.

The effectiveness of the Mexican government should not be underestimated so far. In March of 2009, the Mexican government published a list of 37 men believed to be running drug gangs and offered a $2 million reward for any information leading to their capture. Since then security forces have arrested 16 of them and killed seven, with two more murdered by rival gangs. The levels of violence and power of these organizations, however, have barely diminished. If the drug cartels are not recognized and dealt with on an international level, Mexico will continue to be a war zone.



[1] According to a survey done by Business Insider in 2011, Juarez ranks second in the top 50 most dangerous cities in the Western Hemisphere based on murder rate per capita.

[2] “Kingpin Bowling; Mexico’s Drug Lords.” The Economist (US) 20 Oct. 2012:

[3] Ware, Michael (6 August 2009). “Los Zetas called Mexico’s most dangerous drug cartel”. CNN News.