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Monday, August 13, 2012

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

June S. Beittel
Analyst in Latin American Affairs

Violence has been an inherent feature of the trade in illicit drugs, but the violence generated by Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in recent years has been unprecedented and remarkably brutal. The tactics—including mass killings, the use of torture and dismemberment, and the phenomena of car bombs—have led some analysts to speculate whether the violence has been transformed into something new, perhaps requiring a different set of policy responses. According to government and other data, the best estimates are that there were slightly more than 50,000 homicides related to organized crime from December 2006 through December 2011. Some analysts see in this year’s data about Mexico’s organized crime-related homicides the possibility that the violence may have peaked or reached a plateau, if it has not begun to decline. Many observers maintain that the steep increase in organized crime-related homicides in recent years is likely to trend down far more slowly.

In December 2006, Mexico’s newly inaugurated 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. Of the seven most significant DTOs operating during the first five years of the Calderón Administration, the government successfully removed key leaders from each of them, through arrests or by death in arrest efforts. However, these efforts add to the dynamic of change—consolidation or fragmentation, succession struggles and new competition—that generate more conflict and violence among competing criminal groups. In the last six years, fragments of some of the DTOs have formed new criminal organizations, while two DTOs have become dominant and polarized rivals: the Sinaloa DTO in the western part of the country and Los Zetas in the east. In addition, the DTOs have 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: it identifies the major DTOs; how the organized crime “landscape” has been altered by fragmentation; 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 security crisis in 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: August 3, 2012
Number of Pages: 47
Order Number: R41576
Price: $29.95

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