Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Are Mexico’s Cartels Winning The War On Drugs?

"Sol Prendido" for Borderland Beat

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (C), National Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio ... 

I interviewed Mexico historian Benjamin T. Smith, the author of a new book called The Dope: The Real History Of The Mexican Drug trade. Ben documented a century of drug war investigations and arrests and came away with a relatively simple calculus for the driver for criminal activity and drug smuggling from Mexico. “You want to know why there’s a drug war in Mexico? There’s huge demand [for drugs] and massive Mexican poverty. That’s the over-arching message from the book,” he told me.  

Over the last few decades as the war against Mexico’s organized crime groups escalated, U.S.-led policies have failed to reduce drug consumption and overdoses in the U.S. “Despite the fact that kingpins were arrested [and] cartels were disrupted, murders went up, the price of drugs in the U.S. went down, and the amount of overdoses in the U.S. went up,” Smith said.  

Smith says that if people around the world want to understand why organized crime groups continue to flourish in Mexico, they need to understand the role that corrupt politicians play in protecting and profiting from drug trafficking.

Smith highlights one former Attorney General, Oscar Flores Sanchez, during the presidency of Jose Lopez Portillo, who served in office from 1976 through 1982.

“Oscar Flores Sanchez is adored by the Americans. When he’s put in charge of the Attorney General’s office, the Americans are very [content.] He captures a bunch of kingpins. He allows the Americans to spray herbicides. He’s a favorite of the United States,” Smith added.

But, Smith explains that what Flores Sanchez said he was doing was very different from what he did.

“Underneath, what he was actually doing was taking over what I call the drug protection racket. He was shaking down drug traffickers for money. He was using this money to build up the power of… [Mexico’s] Federal Police. I found dozens of testimonies of policemen and drug traffickers [who reported] really dreadful forms of torture [and extortion],” Smith said during the interview.  

Flores Sanchez created what Smith calls “a federally-run protection racket.” While Sanchez and his police arrested, tortured, and extorted drug traffickers, they also helped created a cocaine smuggling operation through Mexico City’s airport.

In some ways, Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is making a break with his recent predecessors, but some of his tactics seem to mirror Lopez Portillo’s strategy.

“I think [President Lopez Obrador] is trying to do something different. He is not following the kingpin strategy. He is also offering social and economic opportunities to youngsters. This is a very long-term policy,” Smith said.

He thinks Lopez Obrador has been hampered by the Mexico’s economic struggles over the last two year, but is also wary of Lopez Obrador’s embrace of the military. He thinks that Lopez Obrador is trying to re-establish the relationship Mexico’s government enjoyed with drug cartels during the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

“He’s put a lot of money and emphasis and focus on the military. He said he’d send the soldiers back to the barracks but he’s become increasingly reliant on the military. That’s not helping. The violence is very different from what it was 15 years ago,” Smith said.

In Mexico, he adds, violent crime is no longer all about drug trafficking routes.

“Now they are fighting over a whole gamut of criminal activities from illegal logging, illegal mining, human trafficking, and a load of non-criminal activities. 

Organized crime groups… are now fighting over who runs the livestock business, the avocado business, and who gets to distribute the government’s aid package, Sembrando Vida. Criminal groups have turned to shaking down licit activities,” Smith explained.

He also thinks Lopez Obrador is failing to grasp the current dynamic of the Mexico’s security crisis.

“This is something AMLO does not have a solution to. Mexico has changed. I’m not sure you can just do deals with big capos, major leaders of the so-called cartels and bring peace to Mexico. I don’t think that’s going to work,” Smith told me.

Mexico’s president does not appear to be learning from the failures of the past fifty years.

Over 73,000 people were killed during first two years of Lopez Obrador’s administration. Mexico now records more than twice as many murders per year as when former President Felipe Calderon launched a new offensive against drug trafficking organizations in 2008. (Mexico recorded 14,006 murders in 2008 and 36,579 in 2020.) 

This violence cannot be understood as a battle between rival cartels. Violent crime in Mexico also affects local businesses and foreign corporations and foreign executives. Smith says that all over Mexico small criminal groups are arming themselves and preying on local business activity.

“Organized criminals are shaking down shop-keepers, and shaking down avocado-growers, and shaking down truck-drivers,” he explained during the  conversation.

The wide range of risks related to criminal groups force foreign executives to do due diligence on potential investment projects in Mexico and study and understand the local dynamics and political risks in the areas where they are considering operating. 

The risks posed by organized crime and political corruption in Mexico are very real. Smith thinks that the global obsession with Mexico’s narco culture is overblown, but he thinks that the impact that violent crime and organized crime have on residents’ lives isn’t been over-reported or exaggerated in the media.  

During our conversation, I pointed out that in terms of Mexico’s macro-economic data, drug trafficking does not play as big of a role in Mexico’s economy as some popular narco movies and Netflix series seem to imply. For instance, migrant remittances totaled $41 billion in 2020. 

In 2019 foreign tourism tallied up to more than $24.5 billion. And, automotive exports totaled more than $40 billion in 2020. 

On the other hand, there are estimates that drug smuggling could generate somewhere between $10 billion and $30 billion a year. To put that in perspective, $10 billion is less than 1% of Mexico's GDP and not even one tenth of what Mexico earns from tourism, remittances and auto exports.

Overall, in terms of the dollar value that the drug trade brings to Mexico is likely just a small fraction of what the country earns from auto exports, tourism, and migrant remittances.

Smith says that he thinks perhaps the emphasis on drug trafficking is too great. Mexico watchers need to pay more attention to a broader array of criminal activity and how it affects residents and visitors.

“Yes, narcos and drugs [are] over-emphasized but I don’t think organized crime and violence [are]. Around 20 of the 50 most murderous cities in the world are in Mexico,” he said.   

Overall, Smith sums up the militarized prohibition and eradication-focused War On Drugs as “profitable and tragic.” He thinks that the current generation of policymakers in the U.S. and Mexico need to learn more from the historical record from the past five decades.

“The DEA has been losing a war for 48 years. It’s lost that war. One hundred thousand people died of overdoses [in the U.S.] last year. It has failed,” he told me. 



  1. Uninformed AMLO haters in 3...2...1.

  2. I think we are definitely loosing the war on drugs (itsnot over) but all honesty i dont see us tackling the problem at full force. Theres alot that can be done to actually to some significant damage to these thugs.

  3. Let's see.. Chapo is in high security prison for the rest of his life.
    Beltranes are all locked up for many years.
    Erellanos are all locked up or killed..
    Felix gallardo barely got out and is not right mentally or physically.
    Even MAYO has 2 of his kids locked up and vicentillo barely got out after 1.5 billion or some redicolous high fine.
    The whole familia michoacana bosses are all locked up or dead.
    The original zetas are all dead or licked up..
    The only ones winning is the government..
    Cienfuegos got released eventhough there was plenty of evidence against him.
    Pena nieto, cameron and the narco presidents before them haven't got charged.
    Menchito and la negra locked up in the U.S. prison system
    There are a bunch of sicarios and new bosses running around but they ain't going to end up as winners.
    All the bosses get kilked, pay a bunch of money for their freedom or get locked up.
    Mayo played it pretty good but now he got mencho get the best of him.. Mayo know playing under mencho rules or militarized sicarios and fighting for plazas.

    1. First of all bro. Felix Gallardo is not out. Idk where you got that from. The interview he gave was from prison. There was talk of being released but nothing has come about.
      You are correct about the only ones winning are the govt but not in the form of drugs coming to a stop or being less trafficked or used. The govt is winning exactly how you said. They are profiting from charging the Narcos protection money, having their own armed wings which is usually state police in their government commit extortion trafick drugs guns theft etc in the name or the local cartel to bring heat on them amd wash their hands clean.
      The war on deugs was never meant to stop drugs it was meant to shake down narcos for their money, more eo on the Mexican side of things and the Us govt wnted 1 all powerful cartel that thy could in turn control someway somehow but they misunderstood that they are not the only powerful people who have personal interest in the cartels. Other agencies on both sides, politicians etc.
      Im curious as to how much of the 100 million dollars EPN recieved from CDS.
      AMLO came into a fucked up situation and is being blamed for shit he had no say or control in.shit that overtime becaomes worse no matter what. It wasnt him to caught and extradited Chapo. After Chapo a bunch of cartels splintered amd thats when aloy these mini cartels if you can even callthem that popped up and fought for plazas and for positions. Of course violence is going to grow. It doesnt matter if you have God as president. The violence was set to blow up when he came into power. Has he made mistakes? Hell yeah, is he corrupt? I dont thin all entirely. I believe he takes enough money from cartels to where he knows stealing from the ppl is pointless and causes to much heat. All these other politicians steal and stole from money that was going to the poor and your average citizens
      Healthcare gasoline construction schools hospitals military etc.
      Part of me thinks AMLO made deals with the cartels. What the deals are you can only imagine. But im guessing it has to do with peace,all i can say.
      I think the old man has a huge surprise in 2024
      The mexican politicians remid me the a traditional mafia where they extort unions companies steal by inglating prices of contruction plans tax charge for a shit ton of ghost employees at a job and pocket the money

  4. The head clown 🤡 and the three stooges.

    1. Can you do a better job Queso? How would you handle the situation? Who would you put in place of "the three stooges"? tell us what needs to be done to make Mexico great again. Please, I'm anxious to know. Haber que tan chingon eres cabron.

    2. Lol Queso is Cabron! Wherever queso goes, he like to ruffle people's feathers.

    3. 1228 Queso me la pela y en reversa. He's no different than anyone else. He has an opinion but opinions don't solve problems.

  5. For the most part! Of course they are! And nobody isn't stopping them, why should they? There's way to much bread in the drug world. All one has to do is turn their head the other way, take some mordida! That easy.

  6. Yes politicians like the $$$$$$$
    It's leadership who won't stop it. And blame it on U.S. nothing will change.

    1. Da Carlos is the Migra still changing diapers, instead of the border?

    2. Yes, few have horses and running illegals

    3. Sad mexico 🇲🇽 never change.

    4. Carlos is the moon made out of Mudd?

      Obrador calls gringo cars chocolate cars?
      When hi ma gu lose weight of North Korea?

  7. Love mexico 🇲🇽, but rich politicians don't they get rich and move to San Antonio

  8. DEA is like the MIC always wanting Mo$$$ for forever wars! I LOL when you have retired DEA, sitting on their golden multi-million$ pensions, talk about how great the DEA is! Mo and cheaper drugs each and every year in America! Fact!! After raising Mayo's head to 15mil I guess this will the specious trophy for the DEA to say how great they are! Time to legalize everything! It's a moral issue!

    1. You dipping into the evidence drugs at Hdqtrs again! Worried about your golden pension!

  9. The "war on drugs " will never end because it's not meant to end nor will it be won 🤷🏻‍♂️🤦🏻‍♂️

  10. When the Feds find money both in Mexico and USA do they report All or not? For their retirement that's why everybody want to work for DEA.

  11. The war on drugs was lost when that guy took the first hit of weed along time ago.

  12. USA has already lost the war. Look at the homeless on the corners . collecting their donations for their dope and the idiots who give them money. Some are mangled and lost limbs, but most are just addicts. I can't get a pizza delivered, get my free Chalupa Supreme or even fill up gas sometimes, because there is no staff? USA wants to give more and more away, while so many jobs are unfulfilled. The squad is seriously stupid. USA in decline and Mexico not behind in that account.

    1. Mr. Guerrero
      You forgot to mentioned that some of the issues are related to, the outcome of what the pandemic has caused. And yes there are a lot of junkies, that are homeless. What can you do to aliviate some of the issues, perhaps you want to go back to your birth country, since don't like USA. Many imagrants want to come live in USA, this past week there was 12,000 Hatians at Texas.

    2. Open Border bring more drugs to our homeless. The Democrats r more worried about open borders than our homeless. We need drug rehab and housing for our homeless. Not more homeless.

  13. Marc - if you are vaccinated, you are following scientific information. It's not political, class based or anything else. It just works. Pandemic doesn't mean anything. Regarding my birth, completely USA. The Haitians, welcome, but come legally. I love the USA, it's the only place I have lived 99 % of my time. We need the wall not to keep people out, but to keep the people in. Junkies are on the corners. Deprive them to the bottom, the only hope for anyone.

  14. Yes and no. Yes and no. In 2021 on this day of my Lord you should have an answer for your yes and an answer for your no. I'm putting everybody in a position to tighten up. I'm up here on the fence waiting for everyone to straddle it with me. I had to tighten up myself to get here. Don't ask me how to get on it I ain't you.

  15. Yes and no. Yes and no. In 2021 on this day of my Lord you should have an answer for your yes and an answer for your no. I'm putting everybody in a position to tighten up. I'm up here on the fence waiting for everyone to straddle it with me. I had to tighten up myself to get here. Don't ask me how to get on it I ain't you.

  16. Do we even need to ask that question, we lost as soon as the war started. This is and will be americas forever war. We can either man up and fight this thing unilaterally like a real war . Sending drones and special ops to s. america and mex and anywhere else in-between. Im sure we have some there already so i mean take the gloves off and really start fucking up distribution and supply routes. We could authorize military force against our own citizens by deeming narcos terrorists and so by buying or selling a regular citizen would be guilty by association, we'd definitely have to have a strong stomach because if we fought it this way every single american would be affected in some way or another. We all know this will never happen. We could legalize it and nationalize the whole business so users would buy from the government instead of profiting private entities, and using a big portion to combat addiction. Taking the black market factor out of the game. We know this will never happen also. So we continue like dumb ass knuckle draggers, actors playing their roles... The narcos- folk hero bad guys and in truth really minor players one rises and one falls and always another pendejo to take his place. And the government officials who perpetuate this bad play some taking bribes to look the other way, some fully involved, some trying to control by working with some narcos to take out others and some who know how truly this whole game has become a cluster fuck. Whatever.. Se mata el perro se acaba la rabia

    1. actors playing their roles...

      That’s the interesting thing about the theaters of war. It’s only in these arenas where man can play his biggest role as the convincing hypocrite who smiles and laughs away in the presence of his enemies just to make them feel at ease around you.

  17. If u politicians and President take money at least make deal to stop the Volience. Keep all boss and u will have someone to make deal.

    1. Da Carlos
      In order for the president to gets bribes, there has to be violence, that's why he cares less about his citizens.


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