The War on Drugs: A Labyrinth Without Exit


By Anastasia Gómez

Mexico is now looking  into  “a deep dark hole that leads to nowhere.” In a real war for the control over narco criminal enterprises, where the drug cartels and the governments of both Mexico and United States play leading roles, the entire population suffers from the horrors of war on a daily basis.

The talk about narco-corridos, narco-trucks, narco-fosas, narco-ranchos1, etc. has become commonplace and no one is shocked by it anymore. The daily news reports of hangings, burnings, corpses littering the large avenues, reports of those missing and abducted, narco-funded churches, military troops guarding different cities, new discoveries of drug plantations or huge drug shipments aren’t news to anyone either.

Nor is anybody surprised by the daily clashes of narcos against narcos, narcos against military, military against policemen, policemen against politicians, politicians against drug traffickers, and a range of possible variants involving even more recently formed paramilitary forces. This is a war that has already gone beyond the framework of drug trafficking and has turned into a mafia war, where crime cartels have expanded their criminal activities to include theft, extortion, abduction, trafficking of people, (mainly Central American immigrants), to name only a few. Moreover, these criminal activities are not confined to the actions of capos, politicians, corrupt security forces, producers, distributors and thugs, but is a phenomenon that has become increasingly integrated into the economic structures of the country.

Currently, drug trafficking constitutes a highly profitable enterprise, not only in and of itself but also because of its ramifications. It is estimated that 800,000 people in Mexico work in and surrounding the drug cartels, exercising administrative roles, outside processes directly linked to the production and trafficking of drugs and within thousands of money-laundering businesses such as money exchange establishments, restaurants, hotels, shopping malls, etcetera.

Drug trafficking in Mexico looms as a fast replacement for the tourism industry and remittances from Mexican immigrants abroad, as the second most important source of foreign exchange for the country exceeding oil exports. It is an entire industry, like the arms industry, that does not generate necessary goods or services for the whole of society. It perpetuates a systematic destruction of human beings, the environment, and more, resulting in processes of human and social degradation of catastrophic proportions.

In her book, Los Señores del Narco (the Narco Lords), the journalist, Anabel Hernandez, reports on scenes of this new reality, revealing to readers what goes on in certain parts of the mountains of Chihuahua where drug production is the main “productive” activity. For several decades already a significant portion of the population has become involved on a daily basis in this drug production. . For example, “… from age seven, children die intoxicated by pesticides used on these plantations,” and “… those who survive, enter adolescence carrying a ‘cuerno de chivo’ (goat’ horn, or AK47) on their shoulder… where more than 80 per cent of the population is engaged in the planting of psychoactive…” (source) plants.

It is also public knowledge that high-ranking politicians have a well-known involvement in this business. One notorious example is the case former President Salinas de Gortari’s brother, who served time in prison for his proven participation, which shows their level of involvement within these crime circles. It is also known that in the last decade the drug traffickers have substantially swelled their ranks with former military personnel and police from all levels of the existing police structure, from municipal to the federal level. Both the Mexican and US Governments have for years been not only accomplices, but also sponsors of drug farms, weapon exchange and/or money laundering.

The annual amount of money coming from outside the country approaches an estimated US $40 billion, which causes both an economic and political dislocation. Businesses not linked to drug trafficking are at a disadvantage to the ones who are subsidized by it. The subsidized businesses benefit from money laundering and consumption of luxury goods and services, with the purchase of real estate, cars, clothes, jewelry, medical services at private clinics, private schools, hotels and restaurants, etcetera.

The drug cartels are strengthened territorially in the places where they operate by funding social projects with resources that exceed those of the various governments that have not fulfilled their promises of social and urban development. Drug cartels are taking control of political processes with their ability to bribe authorities at all levels of government and  by promoting their own narco candidates. At the same time, the violence has also diminished  the attraction of Mexican tourism along with the international economic crisis, which has also reduced European, and North American tourism to Mexico.

The country has experienced a threatening political and social degradation resulting from the war on drugs.  Here we explore the following questions:What happened? What brought us to this point? Where are the enormous political and social conquests of the Mexican Revolution? Where are the ideals of Villa and Zapata, Mexico’s pride as an anti-imperialist nation, and its path to its independent development?




Adolfo Gilly, an intellectual and militant of the Mexican left, in his book published in 1982, described the Mexican Revolution as an interrupted revolution. A powerful revolution halted since the end of the 1930’s, by the conservative movement, which “institutionalized” the revolution through a combination of state capitalism and political monopoly by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

In reality, the powerful Mexican Revolution of 1910 was not stopped but continued on, reaching new heights at the end of 20’s. By the mid 30’s it began a transition into what ultimately became its defeat, precisely through its institutionalization and the consolidation of the political machine that gave birth to the PRI. The then ruling PRI adapted to the emergence of the United States as the global hegemonic power after World War II in the late 40’s.

This arrangement benefited the regime during the economic boom of the postwar era. Another key element was the growing importance and exploitation of oil and the fact that it was nationalized under the Cárdenas Government. This allowed the PRI to control the gains of the revolutionary movement, including the distribution of land and huge social benefits, the co-optation of the masses through the existing large labor unions, peasant and popular organizations. The PRI finally halted the revolutionary process and directed it in a way that benefited the development of the national bourgeoisie.

However, this stability began to be challenged by important sectors of workers with important struggles in the 1950s led by the railway workers and the doctors, who were crushed in 1958, the year that marked the end of the era of the Mexican Revolution. The 1960’s would be marked by different defensive struggles, with the 1968 student movement as one of its peaks. These struggles were violently repressed by the state and subsequently led to the emergence of a new movement of urban and rural guerrillas isolated from the mass movements. These guerrillas were defeated in the 1970s through the dirty war conducted by the state, which resulted in the disappearance of hundreds of political activists. At the same time the prisons were filled with political prisoners, which included not only trade unionists, but also artists, journalists and prominent professors.




At the end of the 1970’s, the government caught an economic break with the discovery and exploitation of large oil reserves, which allowed them to expand public investment. At the same time these were also the years of the oil crisis when oil prices increased by 270% between 1978 and 1981. The government assumed that this oil boom represented the end of all their economic problems and that they would now only dedicate themselves to managing their wealth.

At the same the PRI government tripled the external public debt and felt confident in making a few changes to the regime. There was a political reform that included the release of political prisoners and the legalization of the left parties during the 1980’s. However this all became their nightmare.

There soon was a steep decline in oil prices and the Mexican debt crisis erupted. The market value of the peso collapsed and shortly afterward the government imposed austerity plans dictated by the IMF, deepening the loss of legitimacy of the PRI with growing sectors of the working-class and general population while stimulating the rise of the left.

Important attempts to organize independent trade unions in opposition to Fidel Velásquez, the main leader of the official Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), were achieved during the 1980’s. This breakthrough occurred with the creation of independent and democratic, national coordinadoras  (democratic coordinating committees) of workers, students, peasants and popular sectors, lead by the left and its allies. These attempts would be reflected in the creation of mass organizations like the National Front for the Defense of Wages and Against Austerity (FENDESCAC) and the electoral achievements of the Unified Socialist Party of Mexico (PSUM), Mexican Workers Party (PMT) and the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT).

Counting all their votes together, they won two million in the election of 1982. The culmination of this process resulted in the national civic strike of 1984, the crisis and split of the PRI in 1986, the scandalous electoral fraud in 1988 against the victory of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and was followed by the creation of the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD). The PRD was created in an attempt to maintain the continuity of the social-democratic project abandoned by the PRI.




The overwhelming majority of the independent left, who up until then were combative, were gaining influence within the various organizations of peasants and urban workers, grass-roots organizations and students, winning hundreds of thousands of votes with influence in the universities and amongst intellectuals. However, at a time when it was necessary to offer a revolutionary perspective to the crisis and the increasing polarization of society, they were absorbed by the PRD. They chose a bourgeois way out of the crisis!

They quickly forgot that this political current, led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, who had recently told millions of Mexicans, while they were calling for the seizure of power and the ousting of the PRI, to return to their homes and let the courts ¨clean the election¨. The left, dominated by petite bourgeois nationalism and Stalinism, obediently dissolved their organizations and incorporated them into the new bourgeois party.

Cardenas, in his recently published autobiography Sobre Mis Pasos, confesses that, in regards to the fraud of 1988, he conducted secret meetings with Carlos Salinas De Gortari and some of his former colleagues from the PRI. He also wrote that no one that supported him suggested any kind of ‘illegal’ resistance to the fraud.

Can we believe him? He had the nerve to tell us that the only initiative proposed in the National Democratic Front (FDN) was for their supporters to wear a tricolor ribbon and turn off their house lights from eight to eight-fifteen in the evening. A leader who does not listen to the masses and turns his head the other way is a traitor.

1988 was a historic defeat. The disenchantment of the masses was widespread. The left and the independent mass movement practically disappeared when the PRD assimilated them into a new bourgeois party, with many of the former PRI figureheads acting cowardly and defeated. The defeat opened the road to a more drastic retreat from the gains of the Mexican revolution in constitutional, social, economic, and political terms. Later in the 1990’s, after the implementation of neoliberal policies and as a result of privatization, the state collected immense financial resources to fill its coffers, which it used in large part to launch social support programs.

As in all countries where this neo-liberal turn was imposed, there were high rates of economic growth, which  were presented as the beginning of a new era of what was for a period referred to as “first world” living standards. Among the most important counter-reforms of the government of Salinas De Gortari was the modified Article 27 of the constitution. This change liquidated the Ejidos (communal property), ended land distribution and also allowed for the sale of Ejido land. In 1990, an additional reform re-established diplomatic relations with the Vatican. It also legalized the priests and nuns’ rights to wear clerical garments on the streets. After years of negotiations, in 1994 Salinas ended his term in office with the signing of NAFTA, the free trade agreement, with the United States and Canada.

By joining the PRD the Mexican left practically disappeared from the scene and couldn’t offer an alternative with its retreat into the new bourgeois project within the PRI regime. This led to its virtual extinction precisely in the run-up to the implementation of the neo-liberal model of the 1990’s.

When years later the Zapatista Army (EZLN) made their appearance as an expression of resistance to neo-liberalism, the Mexican left, correctly came out in their defense. Unfortunately, in our opinion, they repeated many errors similar to those of the past, and losing their independence once again, the left turned toward giving the EZLN their unconditional support rather than fighting for advancing a political agenda to move the labor and mass movement forward.(

The insurrection of the EZLN was supposed to occur simultaneously in different parts of the country and continue onto Mexico City. However it only ever happened in Chiapas. The government military counteroffensive, which included the use of the air force, left the EZLN completely isolated and forced them to retreat into the mountains. Nationwide mobilizations in solidarity with the EZLN took place to stop the government’s military offensive and to demand opening up negotiations. Publicly the government opted to concede and offered an amnesty and dialogue. Meanwhile, the government prepared a strategy of protracted low intensity warfare that has been continued by each successive government ever since.

The EZLN abandoned its alleged goal of seizing power and adopted a partial, limited and regional vision of reality that were in the interests of its leaders. The EZLN has vacillated back and forth politically for years. This has been due to their isolation, the negotiations and the construction of an idyllic pseudo-utopia in the mountains for absolute pseudo-revolutionary tourist consumption.

On the other hand, the EZLN occasionally claims to offer some political leadership to the wider populace. Years after the caravan to Mexico City in 2002, with the interest generated by subcomandante Marcos,  the EZLN doesn’t offer its followers or the Mexican people any political alternatives. They have no solutions to offer.

The same thing occurred again in 2006 with the ‘other campaign’, when the EZLN kept itself out of the electoral process. The 2006 election turned out to be the most polarized in recent Mexican history, in which Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN) faced off against López Obrador of the PRD. Popular support for Obrador reflected in a very distorted vision, a movement of resistance to neo-liberalism, but from the perspective of the center-left.

All of the time that the EZLN was isolating itself, the right continued to grow. Represented by the PAN, the right defeated the PRI in the 2000 presidential election. The PAN, which was in power during the six years of Vicente Fox, simply continued the neo-liberal policies initiated by the PRI. In 2006, the PAN managed to impose electoral results over the PRD despite strong allegations of fraud and ultimately succeeded in putting Felipe Calderon into the President’s office.




The Mexican government has changed hands and the political regime has ceased to be a one-party regime, but the neoliberal policies initiated more than 25 years ago have remained in place. In their shadow the drug cartels grew and became powerful. They were never really targeted for elimination. At most they were subjected to actions aimed at controlling their operations or regulating the operation’s effects.

The drug cartels have always established mutual ties with the current political machine. The violence in and around the drug cartels have been present since long before the presidency of Vicente Fox, but it was during his government that an escalation took place resulting in the death of around 9,000 people.

When the current government of Felipe Calderón needed something for political validation after his questionable electoral victory, he launched a military offensive that was poorly conducted and resulted in losing control over the situation. Massive deployment of the armed forces introduced a new player to the situation who had a license to kill with impunity.

The failure of Calderon is more than evident. In his fifth year of government reports indicate that there have been more than 50,000 killed. The drug trafficking and criminal cartels, far from getting weaker, have multiplied and become stronger.

There was little organized reaction by the population in the beginning. In 2007 a new movement expressing general discontent with the insecurity of the situation began to emerge. The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity was created last year after several more massacres. The most notorious among them were the 193 immigrants found in graves in Tamaulipas in April 2011 and 72 more found in August 2010.

Currently the dominant drug cartels are the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas. Both have expanded geographically, thrive on the fragmentation of the other cartels and are engaged in a territorial war that results in hundreds of deaths each week. Los Zetas have expanded from the Northern region of the Gulf of Mexico towards the Center and South of the country expanding into Guatemala and even reaching the South American Cone, while the Sinaloa cartel is operating in Guatemala and down in Australia. The entire area of Central America has become a drug corridor immersed in a spiral of violence.




Los Zetas originated from elite members of the Mexican armed forces, a group that was created during the Zedillo Government to confront the EZLN who were trained in counter-insurgency and sophisticated weapons use. Deserting the army, Los Zetas became the heads of the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel.

Since 2005 they have expanded into Guatemala enlisting former counterinsurgency unit members, the Kaibiles, to train new recruits. After violent confrontations in 2008 they separated from the Gulf Cartel and started their own cartel. This strongly increased the level of violence in the country. The criminal activity of Los Zetas is not limited to drug trafficking. It encompasses crimes like robbery, dismantling cars for resale as parts, kidnapping, extortion, stealing oil or fuel from PEMEX, smuggling and human trafficking. Los Zetas are currently aligned with cartels in Juarez, Tijuana and the Beltran Leyva, which broke with the Sinaloa Cartel, and are now known as the South Pacific Cartel.

The Sinaloa Cartel is the other dominant cartel and is located on the Pacific coast. It is the oldest cartel, controls the western central region of the country and its main business is drug trafficking. The Sinaloa Cartel has aligned themselves with the Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo), the Michoacan Family (Familia Michoacana), the Knights Templar (Los Caballeros Templarios) and outside of Mexico they are allies of the Mexican Mafia.

Police forces have played a key role in the strengthening of narco-power. According to Edgardo Buscaglia, an expert on organized crime, “There are cases of municipal or state policemen who do the dirty work for criminal groups, cleansing whole regions of adversary groups … That happens throughout the country … they are an extension of the state, police that use assets, vehicles or state agencies in carrying out these tasks”.

Buscaglia characterizes them as paramilitary groups because “paramilitaries do not have to have an ideological background or work under the direct orders of the state” and says that there are around 167 paramilitary groups operating in the country.

A more clearly identifiable paramilitary group named the “Mata Zetas,” has made its appearance calling itself ¨patriotic¨. In mid-September they burst on the scene by throwing dozens of corpses of alleged Zetas onto one of the main avenues in the city of Veracruz, the main Mexican port on the Gulf of Mexico. The Mexican government declared that they were just another criminal group.

Periodically the government manages to capture some heads of cartels, however this has not deterred their actions. At most, this only turns the tables producing splits or realignments, but does not stop their operations. The power amassed by the cartels creates its own dynamic and the lack of a structural solution ensures their permanence.

According to information leaked to the press by officers of the US Department of Defense, the manpower of the drug cartels consists of an estimated 100,000 armed men2. These official estimates are likely exaggerated given the declared policy of dealing with the issue of drug trafficking as a matter of war. However it is clear that given the scale of the violence there must be at least tens of thousands of armed men. In comparison, according to a report by the Mexican Government submitted on September 1, 2009 by President Felipe Calderon, in June 2009 the armed forces of Mexico had 254,705 members (202,355 in the army and air force and 52,350 in the Navy).




One factor that has most impacted the crisis provoked by the drug trade has to do with changes in the  routes that are used to smuggle drugs into the United States. As a result of the success achieved in preventing drug entry via the Gulf of Mexico or the AtlanticCoast of the United States, the smuggling routes were pushed westward, establishing overland routes out of Mexico.

In June 2008 the United States adopted the so-called Mérida Plan with the declared objective of fighting drug trafficking and organized crime. The Mérida plan is an agreement between Mexico and the United States signed in 2008, supposedly to make the fight against organized multinational crime more efficient. The Mexican government has received US $1.4 billion in assistance ranging from helicopters to teams of trained inspection dogs. Although the plan does not provide for the presence of US armed forces in Mexico, it is the legal basis for the entrance, establishment and operation of US agencies in Mexico.

As proof of its success, the US government alludes to 33 high level heads of cartels having been ‘removed’ or arrested since 2009, compared with only one in the six previous years. In addition they have trained 52,000 new police and district attorneys. Also, the US Department of Justice, a participant in the Mérida Plan, authorized the entry of 2,000 weapons into Mexico without any follow-up  to “study” how they were distributed within the cartels and where they appeared at crime scenes.

This operation also has the infamous code name of Fast and Furious3. More recently it has vetted direct participation, in actuality for decades, systematic US Drug Enforcement Agency programs of drug money laundering, supposedly to follow the flow of drug money and leading eventually to the arrest of criminals. Mexican government officials reported not having knowledge of these programs.

All of this points to the direct responsibility of the US government in the production and proliferation of drug trafficking that increased drug consumption in the USA. The criminalization of drugs has filled US prisons with ethnic minorities, primarily Blacks and Latinos. A policy of consumer decriminalization would force the US Government to offer costly rehabilitation, according to Jose Reveles, a Mexican journalist, as with Colombia. It’s not just to “block and close the financial flows to the Mexican cartels”, but “we are facing a fiction, a war more than failed, a mock war. A war aimed at the concentration into a single hegemonic group all the trafficking of drugs and other criminal activities. So it requires permissibility, a connection and complicity and a cover-up by the authorities. And, therefore, there is no central attack on the economic power, ghost companies, money-laundering, bank secrets, or the coverage given to it at municipal and state levels”. Mr. Reveles concludes: “There is federal protection for the narco.”

The exposure of these unilateral actions by US agencies contradicts the narrative that seeks to justify the war on drugs as an understanding based on “bilateral cooperation”. The recent scandals have caused serious friction with the US government.

However, the Calderón government prefers to vent their grievances in private and has no intention of canceling the Mérida Plan. In fact they are planning a new phase that includes funds for the training of new police units at the state level, starting with locations dominated by the Zetas in the states of Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua and Tamaulipas.

Simultaneously, new terminology describing the danger of narco-terrorism began to be introduced and used for the first time regarding participation by Los Zetas in plots to kill diplomats, supposedly using the services of Iranian agents. Suspiciously, in what seems like a smokescreen to cover issues related to the Fast and Furious scandal, a plot was announced that same week that Eric Holder, US Attorney General, was supposed to respond to a congressional inquiry regarding a man arrested two weeks ago in New York. That man was subject to arrest in the United States, however he was arrested only after being prevented from entering Mexico.

It is clear that consumption in USA is the engine of Mexican drug trafficking. A 2007 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report estimated the number of drug consumers in the US to be 35 million.

A 2010 US Senate report points out that this country remains the largest illegal drug consumer in the world and that there were 22.6 million consumers over 12 years old, representing 8.9 per cent of the US population.

Aware of all this, the Mexican president has declared on two occasions, after the bombing of a casino in Monterrey, Mexico and in his speech to the UN General Assembly in 2010, that we need to look for new solutions, ‘including market alternatives to reduce the astronomical profits from criminal organizations’ – a euphemism to avoid speaking openly for legalization, but clearly pointing in that direction.

In the final analysis, this dramatic situation is the direct result of the historical failure of the left to present  a credible alternative to neoliberalism, which has completely imposed its entire series of policies. The task of the left is to promote independent working-class mobilization and to put itself at the head of a mass movement with a program of mobilization and struggle to move forward; otherwise the situation will only get worse.




2012 is a presidential elections year in Mexico. Promises of prosperity made by neoliberalism and free trade agreements are in ruins. After two administrations led by the PAN, they have demonstrated that, like the PRI, they can offer no real solution to the economic crisis and growing social inequality. It has become apparent that the PAN has left the country swamped in chaos and violence. López Obrador is again the PRD presidential candidate and this time his main opponent is the PRI candidate, Peña Nieto.

The PRI, which projects a renewed image, is well on the road to electoral recovery regaining governorships and municipalities, already having reclaimed its hold over the national House of Representatives (a position it had lost in 2006) as well as in most state legislatures, and additionally achieving a cohesive internal unity around its candidate. Peña Nieto is the former governor of the State of Mexico and is currently up in the polls despite his foolish statements, which appear in the newspapers on a regular basis.

As for the PAN, the party is behind in the polls and has, for the first time in its history, nominated a woman, Josefina Vázquez Mota, an economist representing the most powerful business circles. The PAN seeks to reinvent its image with this candidate selection, using it as a lifeline in the face of the party’s imminent electoral ruin. By playing its female candidate card in order to gain the women’s vote, the PAN claims this campaign could be a historic event. Meanwhile the party fails to openly publicize their political agenda, which is essentially a continuation of the current government.

The revolutionary left has practically disappeared from the political map. The formerly independent and socialist Workers’ Revolutionary Party has rallied behind the bourgeois candidate López Obrador. The situation of the movement among the masses is no better. The Mexican Electricians’ Union (SME), the main independent union, was destroyed by President Calderón when he liquidated the Central Light and Power Company. Added to this defeat is the suppression of isolated attempts towards resistance organized by teachers in Oaxaca.

The only significant struggle, although on the defensive, has been built around families and relatives of victims in the war on drugs. The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity headed by the Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was killed last year, has already led caravans throughout the entire country and has now scheduled a mass caravan through the United States, which will depart from San Diego on August 12, 2012 and will tour several southern states, passing through Chicago, New York and in mid-September finishing in Washington DC.

The limited political scope of this movement defies the reality that social change around the issue of the drug war cannot be resolved by a single issue campaign, but encompassing all the social aspects (poverty, political defeat of tradeunion and popular movements and increasing dependency of imperialism) of which drug production and the drug war are sub-products.

It could be said that the dramatic situation currently facing Mexico is a direct result of the historical failure for a leftist alternative to neoliberalism to firmly take root. There are no simple or short-term solutions to this crisis. Changes must be profound and incisive. The socialist transformation of Mexican society is the only possible solution to exit this labyrinth.

Moving towards this resolution, it is essential to reclaim history and the revolutionary traditions of the Mexican masses must become the top priority. Within this the revolutionary left will need to focus on reconstructing its own organizations without being absorbed into bourgeois alternatives. At the same time it must encourage and accompany the mobilization and independent organization of labor, peasant, indigenous and popular struggles. It must present a program of workers’ and popular self-defense in order to confront not just drug trafficking gangs, but also the government repression through its police and soldiers.l



1. Narco-corridos are a genre of Mexican Norteño music, which chronicles events related to drug trafficking. It started with songs describing the narco-trucks, where traffickers put blinders on their cargo vans. The places where the remains of many victims of executions and torture in the war on drugs are found are known as narco-fosas.


3. Known in Latin America as Rapido y Furioso, this is a scandalous weapons program of the US Department of Justice named after the American action film The Fast and the Furious. In this arms program the US government allowed the narco cartels to buy legally massive amounts of weapons and bring them to Mexico, only that the weapons did not have a tracking system. This was exposed when one of the weapons was used by a narco to kill a US Border Patrol agent in Mexican territory.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>