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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Mexico’s Drug Trafficking Organizations: Source and Scope of the Rising Violence

June S. Beittel
Analyst in Latin American Affairs

The violence generated by Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in recent years has been unprecedented. In 2006, Mexico’s newly elected President Felipe Calderón launched an aggressive campaign against the DTOs—an initiative that has defined his administration—that has been met with a violent response from the DTOs. Government enforcement efforts have successfully removed some of the key leaders in all of the seven major DTOs, either through arrests or deaths in operations to detain them. However, these efforts have led to succession struggles within the DTOs themselves that generated more violence. According to the Mexican government’s estimate, organized crime-related violence claimed more than 34,500 lives between January 2007 and December 2010. By conservative estimates, there have been an additional 8,000 homicides in 2011 increasing the number of deaths related to organized crime to over 40,000 since President Calderón came to office in late 2006.

Although violence has been an inherent feature of the trade in illicit drugs, the character of the drug trafficking-related violence in Mexico has been increasingly brutal. In 2010, several politicians were murdered, including a leading gubernatorial candidate in Tamaulipas and 14 mayors. At least 10 journalists were killed last year and five more were murdered through July 2011. Mass killings including widely reported massacres of young people and migrants, the use of torture, and the phenomena of car bombs have led some analysts to question whether the violence has been transformed into something new, requiring a different set of policy responses. The DTOs have also fragmented and increasingly diversified into other criminal activities, now posing a multi-faceted organized criminal challenge to governance in Mexico.

U.S. citizens have also been victims of the security crisis in Mexico. In March 2010, three individuals connected to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juárez, two of them U.S. citizens, were killed by a gang working for one of the major DTOs operating in that city. In February 2011, two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents were shot, one fatally, allegedly by Los Zetas, one of Mexico’s most violent DTOs. In the U.S. Congress, these events have raised concerns about the stability of a strategic partner and neighbor. Congress is also concerned about the possibility of “spillover” violence along the U.S. border and further inland. The 112th Congress has held several hearings on DTO violence, the efforts by the Calderón government to address the situation, and implications of the violence for the United States. Members have maintained close oversight of U.S.-Mexico security cooperation and related bilateral issues.

This report provides background on drug trafficking in Mexico, identifies the major drug trafficking organizations, and analyzes the context, scope, and scale of the violence. It examines current trends of the violence, analyzes prospects for curbing violence in the future, and compares it with violence in Colombia. For background on U.S. policy responses to the violence in Mexico and information on bilateral cooperation between the United States and Mexico see CRS Report R41349, U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation: The Mérida Initiative and Beyond . For a discussion of the problem of violence “spilling over” into the United States, see CRS Report R41075, Southwest Border Violence: Issues in Identifying and Measuring Spillover Violence. For general background on Mexico, see CRS Report RL32724, Mexico: Issues for Congress.

Date of Report: September 7, 2011
Number of Pages: 37
Order Number: R41576
Price: $29.95

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