A new chapter of Mexican history began in 2006, when former President Felipe Calderón declared war against the country’s powerful drug cartels. Thousands of military troops were sent to the streets of Mexico’s border cities, where drug cartel activity had rapidly increased in the previous decades. The turning of cities into battlefields unleashed unprecedented levels of violence, where civilians became the main victims. In a country defined by entrenched corruption, the infliction of terror became the key mechanism through which drug traffickers and military forces maintained their power and advanced in the dispute. The fear of being shot, threatened, kidnapped or tortured paralyzed entire communities, who were helplessly absorbed in the conflict.
It soon became evident that Mexico’s drug problem could not be solved by the capturing of drug cartel leaders. The truth was that local authorities, institutions and the military forces were all – at some level or another – involved in the trafficking of drugs. But by then, the drug war had spiraled out of governmental control and seemed unstoppable. Violence expanded from the northern cities of Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Reynosa, to the central town of Cuernavaca and reached the southern coast of Acapulco. Local newspapers started reporting on the appearance of mass graves, abandoned beheaded bodies and narcomantas (large sheets with threatening messages displayed in public spaces) on a daily basis. By the time Calderón left office in 2012, the rate of killing was 1 person every half hour.
Since then, Mexico has operated under a politics of terror. While the term terrorism is not usually employed in a Mexican context, it certainly fits the bill; violence and intimidation are consistently used for political ends, and the population is wracked by fear. Power belongs to those who intimidate and kill – regardless of whether they are criminals or the military. Pervasive fear prevails in Mexican society.
Though this recent chapter of violence began in 2006, drug trafficking has a longer history that can be traced back to the 1980s. Since the end of Mexican Revolution in 1929 and until the year 2000, the same political party governed Mexico: the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). While Mexico was officially a democracy during this period, scholars have described the situation as a camouflaged dictatorship due to PRI’s monopoly on power. The government enabled drug trafficking and even colluded with illegal traders. While this was far from ideal, the arrangement ultimately limited violence.
During the 1980s, however, Mexico underwent a political shift, which disrupted the long-standing relationship between drug cartels and the PRI. New autonomous cartels now had the opportunity to enter the market without governmental subordination.
Two other conditions influenced the increase of drug-trafficking activity in Mexico in the coming decades. Firstly, the collapse of the extremely powerful Cali and Medellin cartels of Colombia in the 1990s encouraged the formation of new cartels in Mexico. The US demand for cocaine and marijuana did not diminish after the clash of Colombian cartels and served as a stimulus for Mexican drug cartels to quickly take over the market. Furthermore, as the neighboring country of the United States, Mexico had a clear advantage on drug transportation.
Of even greater relevance was the role of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In 1994, Canada, Mexico and the United States signed the NAFTA to form a trade bloc economy. The promotion of a neo-liberal economic agreement unintentionally bolstered illegal trade, with increased freedom across the borders. Within a few years, the US-Mexico border region became the ultimate gateway for drug trafficking. The increase of opportunity accelerated drug cartel formation and prompted competition for the control of the market. Drug cartel rivalry quickly turned violent.
Ironically, NAFTA’s policies for the economic opening of the US-Mexico border resulted in its physical closure. A 640-mile long fence was erected to contain the overwhelming influx of migrants escaping from violence in Mexico.
The profound levels of social inequality in Mexico also provide an essential context for the outbursts of violence and terror. On the year that Felipe Calderon implemented the war policies, six percent of Mexico’s total income was shared by the lowest 20 percent of the population, while 50 percent of income was retained by the upper 20 percent of Mexicans. This disparity generated an environment of great social tension, which easily translated into violence. Despite the fact that every one in three Mexicans is under 29 years old, the government has done very little to support its youth. Considering the limited access to education and employment for Mexican youth, the drug cartels and their powerful station hold an appeal. “A good short life is better that a long, penurious one” has become the popular saying among young Mexicans joining the drug forces.
The circumstances of Mexico’s drug problem dramatically changed when the army was sent to the streets. Death and kidnapping of civilians increased, as cartels targeted innocents to intimidate the military. At the same time, military troops started identifying innocent civilians as criminals, subjecting many innocents to torture or “disappearance.” Terror was inflicted from both sides at a chilling rate: By 2012, an estimated of 85,000 civilians were killed while another 40,000 went missing.
Women working in maquiladoras at the border city of Ciudad Juarez were especially vulnerable, with 2,764 killed during 2012. Fear also controlled the media. In the state of Chihuahua, journalists published an editorial in the local newspaper declaring that it was impossible to fulfill their duties. Primary schools in the states of Guerrero and Tamaulipas were shut down, as teachers and students feared for their lives. The existence of entire indigenous communities in the most war-affected states, such as the Tarahumaras, was threatened. Many of these communities economically depend on tourism, which significantly declined with the increase of violence.
Pain has its limits. The first massive civilian reaction against drug war violence came when in 2011, the son of Javier Sicilia, an acclaimed Mexican poet, was murdered by gang criminals. This event gave birth to the Caravan for Peace with Justice and Dignity and the No + Sangre (No More Blood) movements, where thousands of Mexicans came together to demand the end of the drug war. In the state of Michoacán, “policias comunitarias” or self-defense groups formed to directly combat the cartels, as state police forces were not reliable. Still, to the disappointment of Mexicans, the arrival of Peña Nieto’s administration in 2012 did not change the war policies and the number of deaths did not diminish. Only in 2013, 22,732 murders were reported.
Some things may be changing, however. After the recent disappearance of 43 students from the Rural Training School of Ayotzinapa, national outrage spurred international media attention. As the national situation becomes more and more tense, Mexicans hope that an end is in sight. On a national level, Mexico should look to redirect the gigantic military budget to the educational sector. Attention should be given to a profound revision of institutions, which largely perpetuate and collaborate in war violence. Furthermore, Mexico must come to terms with its human right violations, so that justice is given to victims and tension is released. On an international level, drug users must consider the origins of their products, avoiding the purchase of drugs coming from Mexico. The US in particular should be attentive to the fact that 90 percent of its cocaine supply comes from the drug war and that 80 percent of guns that drug traffickers use are purchased from Mexico.
The lesson of the drug war is clear: violence only breeds more violence. The cycle will not be broken by more military offensives. Instead, collaborative civilian action should push for deep systemic changes. While fear paralyzes, Mexicans have understood that they do not deserve more state-sponsored terror and have started mobilizing.
This piece is part of BPR’s special feature on terrorism. You can explore the special feature here.