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The War on Drugs: Mexico and El Salvador (2024)

Two rows of skulls on tree branches

A line graph showing Mexico's murder rate between 1990 and 2020.
Mexico's Murder Rate between 1990 and 2020
Mexico: Context

During the 1900s, small groups smuggled drugs across the US border. [1] Historically, Mexico City tolerated organized crime groups if they did not imperil domestic goals. Before the 1970s, marijuana sellers paid fees to government officials. Mexican officials also resolved conflicts between gangs.[2] The government's stance on drugs and gangs transformed over time. During the 1970s, Mexico City poorly managed the country's finances, which led the economy to stagnate. The demand for drugs increased, and criminal networks expanded.[3] South American drug dealers began selling illicit substances to Mexican cartels because the United States destroyed alternative drug networks in the Caribbean Sea. [4] At the end of the 20th century, Mexico City's influence became decentralized to placate critics.[5]

In 2000, the National Action Party (PAN) defeated the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).[6] Vicente Fox’s election ended seven decades of PRI’s control.[7] Mexicans elected Felipe Calderon as president in 2006. The new president quickly declared war on cartels.[8] Calderon countered gangs by replacing local police officers with state troops.[9] The Mexican military eliminated 25/37 top drug kingpins. However, gangs fragmented, and the homicide rate doubled.[10]

Enrique Peña Nieto became president in 2012. During his first year as president, he worked towards assisting law enforcement officers in maintaining public safety. Two years later, officials apprehended Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the Sinaloa Cartel’s commander.[11] The drug kingpin’s detention did not reduce the number of homicides because gang members fought over territory.[12] He escaped from prison, and law enforcement officers arrested him a year later. Over 20,000 people passed in 2016 due to gang-related reasons. Guzmán was transferred to the United States a year later. The power void led to clashes between rival cartels that wished to replace Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Towards the end of Nieto’s term, legislation lowered Mexico’s homicide rate. However, Peña Nieto did not sufficiently tackle crime-related violence and corruption.[13]


Mexicans elected Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) as president in 2018. AMLO has taken a “hugs, not bullets” approach.[14] He has worked to decrease poverty, decriminalize marijuana, and create new job openings. The president also supported anti-corruption measures.[15] AMLO assembled a civilian-military guard to focus on drugs and migrants at the Mexico-Guatemala border. The Mexican midterm elections took place in 2021, and violence increased. During the year, there were more than 30,000 crime-related deaths.[16] United States President Joe Biden and AMLO approved the Bicentennial Framework, ensuring cooperation between the American and Mexican officials.[17] Washington sent billions of USD to Mexico to enhance Mexican security forces, change the judicial system, support development programs, reduce immigration from Central and South America, and expand security at the US-Mexico border.[18]  

In 2022, Mexico's Congress approved legislation giving the military authorization to function as law enforcement for six more years. A year later, humanitarian groups commented that Mexico City’s stance on Cartels has led to the detention, sexual assault, and death of civilians. Critics also believe that AMLO’s anti-corruption legislation failed because cartels continued to intimidate and slaughter citizens and journalists. Mexico's next elections are in July 2024.[19] Mexican officials have reported over 360,000 homicides since 2006.[20] 


Mexican Cartels

The Sinaloa (CDS), Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG), Gulf, and Los Zetas cartels operate in Mexico.[21] The criminal organizations send heroin, marijuana, methamphetamines, and Fentanyl to the US-Mexico border.[22] The Sinaloa Cartel (Cartel de Sinaloa/CDS) has connections in at least fifty countries.[23] The gang also trades with Europeans and Asians in addition to North Americans.[24] The Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNGwas established in 2010. CJNG aggressively fights against CDS, law enforcement, local officials, and Mexican troops. In the past, the CJNG dangled its victims from bridges as an intimidation tactic. The gang was worth over 20 billion USD in 2019 partly because it sold synthetic drugs and targeted Asian markets. CJNG operates in Guanajuato, Juarez, Mexico City, and Tijuana.[25]

The Gulf Cartel predominantly operates in Tamaulipas, a northeastern state. The group assembled in the 1980s, sold drugs to Americans, and partnered with Colombian cartels. During the 1990s, the cartel made over 1 billion USD annually. The cartel stayed in control because it bribed politicians. Juan Garcia Abrego, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, and Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen led the Gulf Cartel. Police apprehended Abreo in 1996 and Osiel Cardenas Guillen seven years later. His successor died in 2010. The Gulf Cartel splintered due to inconsistent leadership. Elite Mexican special forces members established Los Zetas in 2010. The cartel is known for torturing and decapitating victims. Los Zetas sold cigarettes and humans in addition to drugs. Los Zetas primarily fights against the Gulf Cartel.[26] Additional criminal groups are the Beltran-Leyva Organization (BLO), Guerreros Unidos (GU), Juarez Cartel, La Familia Michoacana (LFM), and Los Rojos.[27] 



Yomara, a Mexican immigrant, left her hometown because CDS and CJNG were fighting over drug and migrant trafficking paths. She feared that cartels would recruit her spouse, so Yomara and her family fled to the United States. Maria, a nurse from Michoacan, also immigrated. She left because CJNG murdered her husband. Maria worried that cartel members would find her if she stayed in Mexico. Cartel members find victims by contacting fellow members and sharing their identifying information.[28]

Even though poverty decreased in Mexico, homicides and kidnappings increased in Chiapas, Guerrero, and Morelos. Chiapas borders Guatemala. According to a Kino Border Initiative survey, 88% of Mexican participants were fleeing due to gang violence.[29] The United Nations International Organization for Migration reached similar conclusions: 90% of Mexican immigrants were fleeing from extortion and violence. Mexican immigrants fleeing cartel violence are unlikely to be granted asylum. American immigration judges rejected 85% of Mexican asylum seekers because applicants must show that they will die due to their religion, race, or ethnicity.[30]

Problems and Solutions

Resolving Mexico’s drug problem is challenging for numerous reasons. First, there are multiple armed groups involved. The government is fighting gangs, and cartels are fighting other cartels. As a result, the cessation of violence requires cartels to stop fighting other gangs and Mexican troops. Mexican geography also plays a role. The country has mountains, deserts, rivers, and jungles, which divide the country. As a result, some areas of Mexico are remote. The government has less influence in isolated areas, and locals have more control than government officials in Mexico City. Mexico is also located between the United States (a drug market) and South America (a drug seller). Farmers grow cocaine in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. Mexico’s distance from the United States and Latin America has helped cartels buy and sell arms. Gangs receive American weapons from the United States and Soviet arms from South America due to porous borders. Stemming arms trade would require addressing and coordinating gun laws in North, Central, and South American countries.[31]

The complicity of international actors also makes addressing the issue challenging. Illicit drug trade from South America to North America requires the consent and participation of numerous actors, such as international trade organizations, customs officials, international partners, and more. Additionally, so much traffic goes through the US-Mexico border that Mexican and American border workers cannot examine every vehicle.[32] Lastly, cartels have multiple sources of income. Even if Americans stopped purchasing drugs or Colombians suspended drug production, Mexican cartels have other sources of income. Gangs also earn money from extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, weapons trade, fuel, counterfeit items, prostitution, and natural resources. Cartels also launder money, which involves international banks.[33]

Resolving the drug war and violence is complex because it involves the participation and cooperation of locals, state officials, organizations, regional officials, and government officials around the world. The solution needs to address the root cause(s). Psychological factors are crucial as well. Even if the demand for drugs in Mexico and the United States decreases, drug farmers can discover alternative markets. El Salvador has taken a different approach to gang violence.

A map of El Salvador with cities, countries, and ocean labeled.
Map of El Salvador
El Salvador

El Salvador gained independence from Spain in 1821 and left the Central American Federation in 1839. The country borders Honduras and Guatemala, two countries with similar issues. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world due to MS-13 and Barrio 18 (18th Street).[34] Both gangs originated in Los Angeles, California during the 1980s. [35] Mexican immigrants founded criminal organizations and recruited Central American refugees. American law enforcement apprehended gang leaders to reduce gang activity. However, gang members collaborated in prison. The United States deported gang members back to their home country, increasing the gang’s influence in North and Central America.[36] Deportees recruited teenagers after the Salvadoran Civil War. Adolescents joined gangs because they offered an escape from poverty and broken families. Even though most members lack formal education, some gang members are policemen, educators, lawyers, and state officials.[37]

San Salvador cracked down on gangs during the 2000s. However, gang members worked together in prison.[38] Barrio 18 and MS 13 are known for extortion, kidnapping, murder, drug trafficking, and money laundering.[39] Both criminal organizations control territory throughout El Salvador. Young gang members collected money from civilians at neighborhood checkpoints, and older members took “rent” from drivers, storekeepers, and merchandisers. If someone declined to pay, they could face fatal consequences. The streets of El Salvador were empty after dark because gang members operated at night. State police also worked after sunset and wore face coverings. Law enforcement officials were frightened that they would die if criminals uncovered their identity.[40] Residents were terrified they might die if they went into another gang’s territory.[41] As a result, gangs restricted Salvadorans' freedom of movement. 

In 2015, El Salvador had the most murders per capita in the Western Hemisphere. [42] At the beginning of 2022, Bukele’s administration harshly cracked down on gangs and established a “state of exception”.[43] San Salvador suspended judicial rights so law enforcement could apprehend 66,000-70,000 potential gang members. [44] Detainees fall into three categories: active, collaborators, and aspiring. Salvadoran police believe 20,000 inmates are currently gang members, and 54% could be assistants.[45] Salvadoran President Bukele’s approval rating reached over 90% after mass arrests.[46] There were 651 fewer murders in 2022 compared to 2021.[47] The number of murders dropped by 56.8%.[48]

Hundreds of suspected gang members sit on the floor in a mass prison. Security officers and next to the walls.
Hundreds of suspected gang members sit in a mass prison

Human rights groups and some Salvadorans have criticized San Salvador’s response because prisoners lacked judicial rights and some inmates were innocent. Prisoners lived in overcrowded prisons, lost contact with family members, and did not receive legal assistance. Critosal, a rights group, reported negligence and violence in detention facilities.[49]

Citizens are afraid that new criminal groups will replace gangs if San Salvador does not address the root causes of gang violence or fill in the power vacuum left by MS-13 and Barrio 18.[50] Noah Bullock of Cristosal noted, “When massive rights violations become commonplace, it’s very rare for this to result in lasting peace…it generates a very clear message that anyone can be detained at any time”.[51] Bukele does not take criticism from human rights organizations seriously. The president believes that human rights groups care more about criminals than civilians.[52] El Salvador’s next general election is in March 2024.[53] Whether or not Bukele’s policies are successful and sustainable is unknown.


[1] Jose Miguel Alonso-Trabanco ‘Backgrounder: Evolution of Organized Crime in Mexico’ (20 April 2022) Geopolitical Monitor

[2] Alonso-Trabanco 2022 (n 1)

[3] Council on Foreign Relations Center for Preventive Action ‘Criminal Violence in Mexico’ (9 Aug 2023). Council on Foreign Relations

[4] Council on Foreign Relations Editors ‘Mexico’s Long War: Drugs, Crime, and the Cartels’ (7 Sep 2022) Council on Foreign Relations ; Alonso-Trabanco  (n 1)

[5] Alonso-Trabanco 2022 (n 1)

[6] Ibid

[7] Council on Foreign Relations Editors (n 4)

[8] Council on Foreign Relations Center for Preventive Action (n 3)

[9] Council on Foreign Relations Center for Preventive Action (n 3); Council on Foreign Relations Editors (n 4)

[10] Council on Foreign Relations Editors (n 4)

[11] Council on Foreign Relations Center for Preventive Action (n 3)

[12] Council on Foreign Relations Editors (n 4)

[13] Council on Foreign Relations Center for Preventive Action (n 3)

[14] Ibid.

[15] Council on Foreign Relations Editors (n 4)

[16] Council on Foreign Relations Center for Preventive Action (n 3)

[17] Ibid

[18] Council on Foreign Relations Editors (n 4)

[19] Council on Foreign Relations Center for Preventive Action (n 3)

[20] Council on Foreign Relations Editors (n 4)

[21] BBC ‘Mexico Cartels: Which are the Biggest and Most Powerful?’ (2019) BBC

[22] Council on Foreign Relations Center for Preventive Action (n 3)

[23] Council on Foreign Relations Editors (n 4)

[24] BBC  (n 21)

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27] Council on Foreign Relations Editors (n 4)

[28] Daina B. Soloman and Laura Gottesdiener. ‘Insight: Rise in Mexican Cartel Violence Drives Record Migration to the US’ (15 Dec 2023) Reuters

[29] Soloman and Gottesdiener (n 28)

[30] Ibid.

[31] Alonso-Trabanco (n 1)

[32] Ibid

[33] Ibid

[34] Central Intelligence Agency ‘El Salvador’ 2023

[35] Sofia Martinez ‘Life Under Gang Rule El Salvador’ (26 Nov 2018) International Crisis Group ; InSight Crime ‘Barrio 18’ (13 Feb 2018) InSight Crime

[36] InSight Crime (n 35)

[37] Martinez (n 35)

[38] InSight Crime (n 35)

[39] Ibid

[40] Martinez (n 35)

[41] Mary Speck ‘As El Salvador’s Gang Crackdown Continues, Citizens Wonder What’s Next’ (10 May 2023) United States Institute of Peace  ; Martinez (n 35)

[42] Speck (n 41)

[43] Associated Press ‘El Salvador Sends 4,000 Security Forces into 3 Communities to Pursue Gang Members’ (12 Oct 2023) ; Brian Osgood ‘Could El Salvador’s Gang Crackdown Spread Across Latin America’ (7 Aug 2023)  Al Jazeera

[44] Associated Press (n 43); Sarah Kinosian and Nelson Renteria ‘El Salvador Police Report says Crackdown Leaves 43,000 Tied to Gangs Still Free’ (27 Sep 2023) Reuters ; Speck (n 41)

[45] Kinosian and Renteria (n 44)

[46] Speck (n 41)

[47] Brendan O’Boyle ‘El Salvador Murders Plummet by Over Half in 2022 Amid Gang Crackdown’ (3 Jan 2023)  Reuters

[48] O’Boyle (n 48)

[49] Speck (n 41)

[50] Ibid

[51] Osgood (n 43)

[52] Ibid

[53] Speck (n 41)

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