Mexico is the main supply route for cocaine and other illegal drugs entering the United States, Colombia being the main cocaine producer. The Mexican cartels commonly use semi-automatic assault rifles such as the AR-15 and variants of the AKM, handheld grenades and a variety of other military caliber arms smuggled into Mexico from the United States.
At first, the Mexican gangs were paid in cash for their transportation services, but in the late 1980s, the Mexican transport organizations and the Colombian drug traffickers settled on a payment-in-product arrangement. Transporters from Mexico usually were given 35 to 50 % of each cocaine shipment. This arrangement meant that organizations from Mexico became involved in the distribution, as well as the transportation of cocaine, and became formidable traffickers in their own right. Currently, the Sinaloa federation and the Gulf cartel have taken over trafficking cocaine from Colombia to the worldwide markets.
While many factors have contributed to the escalating violence, security analysts in Mexico City trace the origins of the rising scourge to the unraveling of a longtime implicit arrangement between narcotics traffickers and governments controlled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which lost its grip on political power starting in the late 1980s.
The fighting between rival drug cartels began in earnest after the 1989 arrest of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo who ran the cocaine business in Mexico. There was a lull in the fighting during the late 1990s but the violence has steadily worsened since 2000. Former president Vicente Fox sent small numbers of troops to Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, on the US-Mexico border to fight the cartels with little success. It is estimated that about 110 people died in Nuevo Laredo alone during the January-August 2005 period as a result of the fighting between the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels. In 2005 there was a surge in violence as a drug cartel tried to establish itself in Michoacán. Although violence between drug cartels has been occurring long before the war began, the government held a generally passive stance regarding cartel violence in the 1990s and early 2000s. That changed on December 11 2006, when newly elected President Felipe Calderón sent 6,500 federal troops to the state of Michoacán to put an end to drug violence there. This action is regarded as the first major retaliation made against the cartel violence, and is generally viewed as the starting point of the war between the government and the drug cartels. As time progressed, Calderón continued to escalate his anti-drug campaign, in which there are now well over 25,000 troops involved.
In April 2008, Gen. Sergio Aponte, the man in charge of the anti-drug campaign in the state of Baja California, made a number of allegations of corruption against the police forces in the region. Among his allegations, Aponte stated that he believed Baja California's anti-kidnapping squad was actually a kidnapping team working in conjunction with organized crime, and that bribed police units were being used as bodyguards for drug traffickers. These accusations of corruption suggested that the progress against drug cartels in Mexico have been hindered by bribery and corruption.
On April 26 2008, a major battle took place between members of the Arellano Felix and Sinaloa cartels in the city of Tijuana, Baja California, that left 17 people dead. The rival cartels are using not only handguns, but semi-automatic weapons such as variants of the AK-47 and AR-15 purchased in the United States. The battle also brings about concern about the violence spilling into the United States, as Tijuana and a number of other border cities become hotspots for violence in the war.
The cartels are waging violent turf battle over control of key smuggling corridors from Nuevo Laredo, to San Diego. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reports that the Mexican drug cartels operating today along the border are far more sophisticated and dangerous than any of the other organized criminal groups in the United State’s law enforcement history. The cartels utilize grenade launchers, automatic assault weapons, body armor and sometimes, Kevlar helmets.
While in prison, the head of the Tijuana Cartel, Arellano Felix and Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cardenas, forged an alliance against the Sinaloa Cartel and its ally the Juarez Cartel. As a result, the cartels are now largely aligned into two blocks, some which support the Gulf Cartel and others which support the Sinaloa Cartel. It is these two blocks that are involved in the massive and violent turf wars which are currently being carried out throughout Mexico. The Sinaloa Cartel The Sinaloa Cartel began to contest the Gulf Cartel’s domination of the coveted southwest Texas corridor following the arrest of Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cardenas in March 2003. The Federation is the result of a 2006 accord between several groups located in the Pacific state of Sinaloa. It's led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Mexico's most-wanted drug trafficker.The Juarez Cartel Vicente Carrillo Fuentes heads the Juarez Cartel.The Tijuana Cartel The cartel of the Arrellano-Felix family, the Tijuana Cartel was once among Mexico's most powerful but has fallen on hard times, thanks to the arrests of several top capos. The cartel entered into a brief partnership with the Gulf Cartel. It has been the frequent target of Mexican military confrontations and might be breaking into smaller groups.The Gulf Cartel The Gulf Cartel, based in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, has been one of Mexico's two dominant cartels in recent years. It is strengthened by its armed wing Los Zetas. The cartel leader Osiel Cardenas, was extradited to the U.S. in 2007 and is currently awaiting trial in Houston.Los Zetas The Gulf Cartel hired a group of former elite military soldiers known as Los Zetas, who began operations as a private army. The Zetas have been instrumental in the Gulf Cartel’s domination of the drug trade in much of Mexico and have fought to maintain the cartel’s influence in northern cities following the arrest of Osiel Cardenas. It is known that Los Zetas made a deal with the ex-cartel commanders, the Beltran Leyva brothers, and now Los Zetas run the Gulf Cartel.
According to a Mexican government official, as many as 2,000 weapons enter Mexico each year and fuel an arms race between competing Mexican drug cartels. Since 1996, the ATF has traced more than 62,000 firearms smuggled into Mexico from the United States. Mexican government officials suspect that corrupt customs officials, on both sides of the border, help smuggle weapons into Mexico; the most common of these firearms now includes the Colt AR-15 .223 caliber and AK-47 assault rifles, FN 5.7 caliber semi-automatic pistol and a variety of armor piercing .50 caliber long range sniper rifles and machine guns. Also, there are multiple reports where grenade launchers were used against security forces; at least twelve M4 Carbines with M203 grenade launchers have been confiscated. It is believed that some of these high power weapons and related accessories were stolen from U.S. military bases.
An in-depth analysis of firearms trace data by the ATF over the past three years shows that Texas, Arizona and California are the three most prolific source states, respectively, for firearms illegally trafficked to Mexico.
Many people in Mexico have suffered the violence of the conflict although, the conflict is not present in all the country. The states that suffer the conflict mostly are Baja California, Guerrero, Chihuahua, Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, and Sinaloa (highlighted red on image right). President Calderón's government is currently fighting the drug-dealers especially in his home state of Michoacán, but there are more operations going on in the states of Jalisco and Guerrero.
On December 24 2006, the governor of Baja California Eugenio Elorduy announced a similar operation in his state with cooperation of state and federal governments. This operation started in late December 2006 in the border city of Tijuana. As of early 2007, these operations extended to the states of Guerrero, and the so called "Golden Triangle States": Chihuahua, Durango, and Sinaloa. In February 2007, the federal government extended these operations to two more states: Nuevo León and Tamaulipas. In response to these operations, organized crime tried to assassinate the federal deputy representing Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas.
As of early October 2007, the war appears to have had an effect on the drugs trade in the United States. In 37 states the price of cocaine has gone up by as much as 50%, while the average purity has dropped by 11%.
On February 11, 2008, it was reported that already over 250 people had died in the year of 2008 as a result of the two major drug cartels, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel, fight against one another for territory, and against the Mexican military. By April 2008, this number had spiked up to 900 people killed in 2008.
Seizures and arrests have jumped since Calderón took office in December 2006. Calderón has also extradited more than 100 people wanted in the U.S., including Oziel Cárdenas Guillén, a former agent of the Federal Judicial Police and the head of the Gulf cartel, who is waiting trial on drug trafficking charges in Brownsville, Texas. A new rule that forces all private airplanes to stop for inspection at either the Cozumel airport on the Caribbean coast or Tapachula on the Guatemala border is credited, in part, for leading to confiscations of more than 270 planes in the past 1 1/2 years.
On July 10, 2008, the Mexican government announced plans to nearly double the size of its Federal Police force in order to reduce the role of the military in combating drug trafficking. The plan, known as the Comprehensive Strategy Against Drug Trafficking, also involves purging local police forces of corrupt officers. Elements of the plan have already been set in motion, including a massive police recruiting and training effort intended to reduce the country's dependence in the drug war on the military.
On July 16, 2008, the Mexican Navy intercepted a 10 meter long narco submarine travelling about 200 kilometers off the southwest of Oaxaca, Mexico; in a daring raid, Mexican Navy Special Forces rappelled from a helicopter on to the deck of the narco submarine and arrested four smugglers before they could scuttle their vessel. The vessel was found to be loaded with 5.8 tons of cocaine and was towed to Huatulco, Oaxaca by a Mexican Navy patrol boat.
U.S. Attorney General announced September 17, 2008 that an international drug interdiction operation, Project Reckoning, involving law enforcement in the United States, Italy, Canada, Mexico and Guatemala had netted more than 500 organized crime members involved in the cocaine trade. The announcement highlighted the Italian-Mexican cocaine connection.