The Mexican State, Police, and Cartels

By Alexandra Smith

The “Drug War” framing of conflicts surrounding narcotrafficking suggests two sides in a pitched conflict: the state and drug cartels. However, drug traffickers across the region, and especially in Mexico, have relied on collaboration with state forces at multiple levels to protect their operations. Mexico’s long-time ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is alleged to have had a close relationship with the dominant Sinaloa Federation during its governance of the country. At a local level, bribery of police officers ensures that traffickers can continue to operate with impunity. With the decline of the PRI, high-level government collaboration with the cartels is less organized and state responses are uneven. 

The PRI and the Sinaloa Federation had a symbiotic relationship during much of the twentieth century. The Sinaloa Federation, which began to coalesce in the 1960s and 70s, is alleged to have gained protection from Mexico’s one-party state and the PRI gained stability in the drug world by propping up a hegemonic cartel.[1] This relationship was challenged by the intervention of the United States’ Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which pressured the Mexican state to crackdown on traffickers, especially after the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena in early 1985.[2] Over the next two decades, processes led to the decline of both the PRI and the Sinaloa Federation. Competition between regional drug trafficking groups within the Sinaloa Federation led to its splintering beginning in 1990, though levels of public violence were not particularly high.[3] Beginning in 1989, opposition parties to the PRI, such at the conservative National Action Party (PAN) began to grow, winning elections against the once hegemonic party. The PRI was also forced to address the growing public accusations of their connection to Sinaloa, leading to arrests of both PRI members and officials in 1996.[4]

However, while the declines of the PRI and the Sinaloa Federation meant it was harder for the state and drug traffickers to work together, it did not mean that violence was guaranteed to spike. The PAN victory in 2000 led to a change in policy from the PRI:  the new president Vicente Fox used federal forces to increase arrests of Drug Traffickers.[5] Accusations of alliances between politicians and traffickers continued, though the multi-party system meant that different regional governments could form corrupt pacts with competing organizations.[6] This is most exemplified by an event in 2005, when federal officers got into a “shootout” with city police in Nuevo Laredo.[7] This power vacuum, with competing cartels and no coherent government response, is what allowed violence to get out of control. 

At the local level, police corruption is widespread, making the police force an unreliable source of protection for victims of drug traffickers. Insight Crime argues that “the ease with which corruption spreads inside the police forces and the vast impunity for participating officers means that successive government reforms have shown no concrete results.”[8] In 2017, a survey showed that there were “an average of 1,688 corruption cases registered for every 1,000 active duty police officers.”[9] Police function within the framework of a state which often intentionally collaborates with drug traffickers, but they also have their own reasons to seek bribes or participate in illegal activities. Police “lack adequate training and support, receive dismal salaries, and must work long hours because of understaffing,” all of which give them incentives to supplement their income through relationships with drug traffickers.[10] The result is a lack in faith in police by members of the public, who understand that turning to the police may make them less safe. A 2018 survey showed that “just 6.1 percent of people have confidence in the federal police, while only 4.6 percent are confident in the municipal police.”[11] Mexican civilians have a justified fear of interacting with police officers, and the 2018 survey shows how universal these sentiments are.

Further Reading:

  1. For information on the public perception of police in Mexico, read:
  2. For information on the impact of state responses to DTOs, including Kingpin strategy:
  3. For accusations of collaboration between government forces and the Sinaloa Federation:

[1] Angelica Duran Martinez, The Politics of Drug Violence (Oxford University Press, 2018): 93.

[2] Ibid: 93.

[3] Ibid: 95.

[4] Ibid: 98.

[5] Ioan Grillo, Narco Warlords (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2001): 253-4. 

[6] Ibid: 255.

[7] Ibid: 255.





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