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Cartel Power Shifts: New Dynamics Between the United States and Mexico

William Gonzalez


An overwhelming cartel presence has long plagued Mexico. The cartel presence in Mexico refers to the numerous criminal organizations that operate within the country and are involved in a range of illicit activities, such as drug trafficking, money laundering, and extortion. These cartels have been responsible for a significant amount of violence and crime in Mexico, and their activities have also had an impact on the United States and other countries. There are several major cartels operating in Mexico, each with its own territories and spheres of influence, including the Sinaloa Cartel, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas, and the Knights Templar. These cartels have been known to engage in violent turf wars, resulting in high levels of violence and crime in certain parts of Mexico. The Mexican government has attempted to crack down on these cartels through a variety of means, including law enforcement operations and military interventions. However, these efforts have often been met with resistance, and the cartels continue to operate with relative impunity in many parts of the country. Continued power struggles have created a new landscape and a potential shift in the current dynamics between the United States and Mexico.

The Current State of Affairs

Drug production and trafficking have historically been directly tied to lethal violence in Central America and Mexico. Homicides in Mexico can largely be attributed to the gang and cartel activity that overtakes the country. Anywhere between 40-70 percent of homicides in Mexico can be attributed to cartel crime and organizations. The role of these groups can have deep impacts and often deadly consequences. Additionally, cartel gangs have been the biggest pushers of drug smuggling across the Mexico-United States border. According to a report by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, fentanyl seizures increased from 175 pounds in 2015 to 4,776 pounds in 2020, with most of these flows coming from Mexico. This trend posits the importance of tracking cartel shifts and infighting to better understand any trends with drug and migrant smuggling in Mexico. Mexico’s drug trade has become highly competitive. With such a presence of cartel gangs with drug smuggling, viewing their relationship is essential to understanding the broader picture. Watershed moments in this relationship can be identified with leadership disruptions. Splintering during the early 2000s has resulted in the development of at least a dozen important regional criminal organizations. Targeting drug lords by Mexican and American law enforcement has aided in the pattern of internal divisions by competing organizations outlined above that have fueled violence and drug smuggling trends.

The capture of Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán resulted in the splintering of three cartel gangs all clamoring for control. The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, CJNG), a Sinaloa Cartel splinter group, is of prominence in this battle for control and dominance over supply chains. With this information, certain trends have begun to emerge. Regions of Mexico have become prominent zones of illicit drug production. Sinaloa is the epicenter of this activity. Authorities in Mexico seized approximately 700 covert labs in the state of Sinaloa between 2010 and June 2022. Furthermore, Sinaloa is also the center for new flavored cocaine. Known as “La Lavada” has taken a hold of cocaine circulating Mexico. This shift highlights the contention between splinter groups as newer cartel groups often use cutting agents in their cocaine production. Beyond this shift, the rise of synthetic drugs has also taken hold of the state of Sinaloa. As a result of the cheap and widely available synthetic drugs, many individuals are pushed towards the dangerous cartel gangs selling in the streets of Sinaloa. Between 70-80 percent of enforced disappearances in Sinaloa are linked to drug use or the sale of drugs on the streets. Once again, the activity of these drug cartels and their smuggling of certain drugs has caused damage to Mexico and the state of Sinaloa. Instability over certain regional control has caused certain shifts in the types of drugs being smuggled in large quantities.

It is important to take a more specific look at the current players. The CJNG is a relatively new cartel that has rapidly risen in power and influence over the past decade. The CJNG is known for its extreme violence and has been responsible for a number of high-profile attacks on Mexican government officials. A former member of the Sinaloa cartel named Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, also known as "El Mencho," founded the CJNG in 2010. Since then, it has rapidly grown in power and influence and is now considered one of the most dangerous and ruthless cartels in Mexico. The power struggle between the Sinaloa cartel and the CJNG has resulted in a shift in the dynamic of Mexico's drug trade. While the Sinaloa cartel is still a major player in the country's drug trade, the CJNG has become increasingly dominant in recent years. According to a recent Congressional Research Service report the CJNG is an “extremely powerful cartel” with a “reputation for extreme and intimidating violence” in at least 28 states.

The power struggle between the two cartels has also had an impact on Mexico's relations with the United States. The United States has long been involved in efforts to combat drug trafficking in Mexico and has provided significant financial and military support to the Mexican government in this regard. However, the power struggle between the Sinaloa cartel and the CJNG has made it more difficult for the US to effectively combat drug trafficking in Mexico. The Sinaloa cartel has traditionally had close ties to the Mexican government, with allegations of corruption between the two groups, making it difficult for the US to work with the Mexican government in its efforts to combat drug trafficking. However, the rise of the CJNG has further complicated matters, as the cartel has shown a willingness to openly challenge the Mexican government and engage in violent attacks on government targets.

Looking to the Future

Mexican administrations have responded to cartels primarily by deploying security forces. These forces, however, normally create more violence and prop up the drug cartels. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has therefore created a new security policy, which he termed "hugs not bullets," to end the high violence from cartel activity and attempts to control their activities. López Obrador's policy called for a more humane approach to drug trafficking and criminal activity, emphasizing social programs and economic development over militarized enforcement. However, despite his good intentions, the policy has failed to achieve its objectives. One of the main reasons for the failure of López Obrador's policy is that drug-related violence has continued unabated. According to the Mexican government, 2022 proved to be a deadly year with more than 31,000 homicides, many of which were related to drug trafficking and organized crime. Despite López Obrador's efforts to implement social programs and invest in infrastructure, the violence has persisted.

The upcoming Mexican presidential election could impact the dynamic between Mexico and the United States. The election is scheduled for July 2024 and could potentially result in a change in Mexico's drug policy. While it is unclear what the outcome of the election will be, any change in Mexico's drug policy could have a significant impact on the dynamic between Mexico and the United States. While there is a growing consensus that a new approach is needed, there is little agreement on what that approach should be. This brings the United States into the picture. Recently, the United States and Mexico have created a bilateral framework to address insecurity in Mexico which has opened resources for counterinsurgencies and more direct counter-offensives against cartel activity. Beyond this there have been new calls for direct intervention in Mexico by some United States Congressmen. Republican Representative Dan Crenshaw from Texas posted a Twitter message in Spanish questioning López Obrador's opposition to a bill he proposed, which authorized military intervention against drug cartels operating in Mexico. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham also suggested that it was necessary to warn Mexico and called for the introduction of a bill to label certain Mexican drug cartels as "foreign terrorist groups."

New dynamics have shifted the current state of affairs as new cartel players have gained power and control over a susceptible Mexican government. In the relationship between the United States and Mexico, new calls for intervention can only point to the decaying diplomatic efforts against corruption and violence. An effective mitigating solution needs to include a united front between the two nations. Until that day comes, the violence and corruption will remain and leave a populace open to powerful influences that create a cycle feeding the cartels in Mexico.



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