Narcotrafficking on the US-Mexico Border

By Alexandra Smith

CW: Sexual Assault

Two cities on the US-Mexico border, Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, have experienced massive spikes in homicide rates since the intensification of the drug conflict in Mexico in 2006. These cities are important sites for battles between rival cartels because they are major entry-points into the United States, the world’s largest drug market. The rate of violence in these cities demonstrates the inability of the Mexican police to respond to high levels of violence and the way that violence is geographically oriented around the relationship between Mexican trafficking organizations and American consumers.

In 2018, 2,518 murders occurred in Tijuana, with around 90% estimated to be related to drug trafficking.[1] Violence in Tijuana is connected to competition between the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and the Sinaloa Cartel. Both have local allies: the CJNG are connected to the Tijuana Cartel, while the Sinaloa Cartel works with the local Los Dámaso network.[2] A report by Zeta magazine, which reports on drug trafficking and is not connected to the drug trafficking organization of the same name, shows that the two sides have been engaged in murder and kidnapping campaigns against each other.[3] Baja California, the state where this conflict is occurring, had a homicide rate of 89 per 100,000 residents in 2018, the second highest of any Mexican state.[4]

The Mexican state response to violence in Tijuana has been unimpressive. Between 2010 and 2016, only 4% of killings in the city resulted in a conviction for the crime.[5] Under the new national guard program, violence has only slightly decreased, with a reduction of 321 killings in 2019 compared to the 2018 figure.[6] Proponents of the policy under the presidency of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) say they are fighting impunity with more arrests, but with the number of killings remaining over 2,000 per year in the city.

Ciudad Juarez is another example of a border town with high rates of violence. From 2008 to 2013, a violent conflict between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Juarez Cartel resulted in the deaths of nearly 10,000 people.[7] The conflict began when the Sinaloa Cartel began to infringe upon the Juarez Cartel’s strong ties to the local police in order to begin attempt to take control of the city’s illegal economy.[8] Officials connected to the local cartel were replaced and on the ground level, violent confrontations broke out between different gangs.[9] Eventually, violence fell from the peak of 3,600 homicides in 2010, but murder rates in the city remain high, with 1,440 murders in 2017.[10] As long as Ciudad Juarez remains an entry-point to the American drug market, there will be reasons for drug trafficking organizations to compete for control.

The situation in the border cities also exacerbates the current migrant crisis caused by American immigration and asylum policies. Thanks to the “Remain in Mexico” program, thousands of refugees and migrants from Central America are being housed in camps near Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.[11] Insight Crime analysis argues that “as criminal groups have fragmented, the smaller competing groups that have emerged have resorted to extreme violence and diversifying their criminal portfolios to also include crimes like extortion and kidnappings. Vulnerable migrants waiting in Mexico without any legitimate protection are the perfect prospects for such groups to prey upon.”[12]

Cartels have even collaborated with Mexican law enforcement to prey on refugees. In one case, Mexican federal police kidnapped a Honduran woman waiting to enter the United States in Ciudad Juarez. They turned her over to a cartel, whose members sexually assaulted her and extorted $5,000 from her mother who lived in the United States.[13] This case demonstrates the ways that US policy endangers people seeking to enter the United States, provides easy targets for drug trafficking organizations, and that the Mexican state security forces cannot be reliably trusted to protect innocent people.

Further Reading:

  1. For more information on the conflict between the Sinaloa Federation and the CJNG:
  2. For a report on violence and conflict between Drug Trafficking organizations in Juarez, read the report from Insight Crime:  
  3. For information on the ways Drug Trafficking Organizations prey on migrants and asylum seekers stopped at the Mexico border:






[6] IBID






[12] Ibid


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