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Mexico’s Drug Trafficking Organizations: Source and Scope of the Rising Violence

February 4, 2011

Congressional Research Service, 4 Jan 2011: Summary: In Mexico, the violence generated by drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in recent years has been, according to some, unprecedented. In 2006, Mexico’s newly elected President Felipe Calderón launched an aggressive campaign—an initiative that has defined his administration— against the DTOs that has been met with a violent response from the DTOs. Government enforcement efforts have had successes in removing some of the key leaders in all of the seven major DTOs. However, these efforts have led to violent succession struggles within the DTOs themselves. In July 2010, the Mexican government announced that more than 28,000 people had been killed in drug trafficking-related violence since December 2006 when President Calderón came to office.

Although violence has been an inherent feature of the trade in illicit drugs, the character of the drug trafficking-related violence in Mexico seems to have changed recently, now exhibiting increasing brutality. In the first ten months of 2010, an alarming number of Mexican public servants have been killed allegedly by the DTOs, including 12 Mexican mayors and in July, a gubernatorial candidate. The massacres of young people and migrants, the killing and disappearance of Mexican journalists, the use of torture, and the phenomena of car bombs have received wide media coverage and have led some analysts to question if the violence has been transformed into something new, beyond the typical violence that has characterized the trade. For instance, some observers have raised the concern that the Mexican DTOs may be acting more like domestic terrorists. Others maintain that the DTOs are transnational organized crime organizations at times using terrorist tactics. Still others believe the DTOs may be similar to insurgents attempting to infiltrate the Mexican state by penetrating the government and police.

The growing security crisis in Mexico including the March 13, 2010, killing of three individuals connected to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, (two of the victims were U.S. citizens) has drawn the attention of the U.S. Congress and has raised concerns about the stability of a strategic partner and neighbor. Congress is also concerned about the possibility of “spillover” violence along the U.S. border and further inland. The 111th Congress held more than 20 hearings dealing with the violence in Mexico, U.S. foreign assistance, and border security issues. The 112th Congress is likely to be interested in progress made by the Calderón government in quelling the violence and asserting its authority in DTO strongholds, and in the implications for the United States. Members are also likely to continue to conduct close oversight of U.S.-Mexico security cooperation and other related bilateral issues.

This report provides background on drug trafficking in Mexico, identifies the major drug trafficking organizations operating today, and analyzes the context, scope, and scale of the violence. It examines current trends of the violence, analyzes prospects for curbing violence in the future, and compares it with violence in Colombia.

For background on U.S. policy responses to the spiraling violence in Mexico and information on bilateral cooperation between the United States and Mexico see: CRS Report R41349, U.S.- Mexican Security Cooperation: the Mérida Initiative and Beyond , by Clare Ribando Seelke and Kristin M. Finklea. For a discussion of the problem of violence “spilling over” into the United States, see CRS Report R41075, Southwest Border Violence: Issues in Identifying and Measuring Spillover Violence, coordinated by Kristin M. Finklea. For general background on Mexico, see CRS Report RL32724, Mexico-U.S. Relations: Issues for Congress, by Clare Ribando Seelke.


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