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Is violence in Mexico out of control?

Written by Oscar Contreras Velasco, Sociology Ph.D.

Is violence in Mexico out of control?

Organized crime has become one of the main sources of violent deaths in Mexico throughout the last two decades. The economic costs have been devastating for the whole country, and the quality of life has greatly worsened, as well as the general perception of safety.1 Such violence has also been fueled by an ever-increasing demand for opioids, cocaine, and methamphetamines in the United States, which has caused thousands of drug overdose deaths 2, and the vast supply of firearms smuggled into Mexico every year 3. Meanwhile, Mexico’s ineffective government actions have intensified conflicts between cartels and forced people to flee their hometowns.

Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations consolidated their power in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a process facilitated by the suppression of the Colombian cartels and the Caribbean route, on the one hand, and the signing of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in 1993, on the other hand. The dominant political party, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), had been in power for over 70 years, in an arrangement that Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa (1990), called “the perfect dictatorship”. This was the time of big and centralized drug trafficking cartels such as the Guadalajara, Juárez, Gulf, and Arellano Felix organizations, which were allowed to operate under the protection of federal government agencies.4 The end of the Caribbean route made Mexico the new natural way up north, and the new trade agreement made smuggling in big quantities much easier. With more money and power, drug trafficking organizations intensified their activities and increased territorial control.

In the early 2000s, the arrival of a new ruling party (PAN-Partido Acción Nacional) led to the reassessment of former agreements between the government and criminal organizations and to the rise of new criminal groups, which intensified turf wars and violence. Local governments began to display more power and autonomy, which allowed them to renegotiate agreements with old and new criminal organizations. In 2006, president Felipe Calderón decided to wage a war against organized crime with the intent of uprooting these organizations once and for all. However, recent studies have shown that political decentralization and the war against drugs pursued by the federal government have only worsened violence. The beheading of cartels provoked the fragmentation of organizations, which now fight each other for territorial control and trafficking routes.5 The number of organized crime groups skyrocketed from 5 in 2006 to around 60 in 2012, and homicides escalated to more than 120,0000 during this same period. When Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) became Mexico’s president in 2018, he promised a radically different strategy: one of “hugs and no bullets” (“abrazos, no balazos”). But his “pacifying” strategy has not been effective either: in 2020 alone, 36,773 people suffered violent deaths, which accounts for a 77% increase compared to 2015, and points to a continuing upward trend. Violence seems to be out of control.6

  Puzzled by this phenomenon, part of my research has focused on analyzing how violent conflicts between criminal organizations have evolved over time. I use the most comprehensive dataset on violent conflicts that is publicly available: the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP)7. The UCDP tracks violent conflicts worldwide since 1984. I have analyzed a total of 7,388 violent events across 27 criminal organizations in Mexico, from 2004 to 2020, which account for an estimated 337,390 violent deaths. I have also relied on archival methods to reconstruct the history of each organization and to understand their alliances and conflicts during this period.

  Preliminary findings show that criminal organizations in Mexico during this period actually develop very few violent conflicts compared to the number of alliances they form with other organizations. These findings also suggest that drug trafficking organizations are willing to create strategic and relatively stable alliances with each other to further their interests, even if this means potentially giving up a share of the market. As an example, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel forged an alliance, in 2010, to fight off the increasing power of the newly created Zetas. Both the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels have a long and violent history of conflicts. The Gulf cartel even forged alliances with the Juárez and Tijuana cartels to fight off the Sinaloa threat in the early 2000s. However, this changed in 2010. The Sinaloa and Gulf cartels have since maintained their alliance pretty much intact, despite the unstable environment, and the threat of new powerful players, such as the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG). Another example is the alliance forged between the remnants of the Tijuana cartel and CJNG, since the early 2010s, to expel the incursion by the Sinaloa Cartel in the state of Baja California. Despite their being competitors in the same market and interested in the same turf (mainly Tijuana), they have been able to forge a relatively stable alliance, sharing territory and trafficking routes in the region.

  Not surprisingly, alliances are more likely to happen when the territorial control of one organization does not overlap the control of another organization, and conflicts are more likely to happen under opposite circumstances. For instance, the alliances between the Tijuana cartel, the Juárez cartel, and the Zetas, during the 2000s point to an alliance between organizations that control non-overlapping territories. On the contrary, violent conflicts between the Sinaloa and the Beltrán Leyva organizations, or the one between the Gulf cartel and the Zetas, happened between criminal groups vying for control of overlapping territories.

  My preliminary findings also suggest that not all organizations are equally prone to violence. A closer look at the network of violent conflicts and alliances between criminal organizations show that some can be more violent than others, which can be observed by the geographical expansion of their conflicts as well as by their central position in the network. Organizations that play a more central role in the network of violent conflicts have a greater capacity to link (engage in conflicts with) more organizations and can be thought of as ‘super-spreaders’ of violence8. This is the case of the Sinaloa cartel, the Zetas, and the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación. Geographically, the Zetas expanded their presence to most states in Mexico, while la Familia Michoacana’s control was focused mainly in the ‘Tierra Caliente’ region, which includes neighboring portions of Michoacán and Guerrero. 

If drug trafficking organizations can maintain stable alliances and strategically choose their conflicts, this means that they can reach agreements and compromise. Former president Calderón’s strategy of war on drugs and president AMLO’s strategy of “abrazos, no balazos” have both proven to be flawed. Calderón misconstrued criminal organizations as equally “barbaric” and sought to uproot them all9. AMLO has misconstrued them as “good and working people” and has sought to pacify them without the use of violence (Arellano, 2019)10. The government needs to understand that criminal organizations are not all equally violent, and that this violence is not necessarily out of control. As my research suggests these organizations can cooperate to the point of sharing territories and trafficking routes. The government must also find alternative strategies to address the threats these organizations pose while keeping violence at bay. For instance, targeting the most violent organizations while using non-violent deterrence strategies with the less violent ones could prove more effective in bringing down the staggering number of violent deaths in the country.




1. Atuesta, L.H., & Pérez-Dávila, Y.S. (2018). Fragmentation and cooperation: the evolution of organized crime in Mexico. Trends in Organized Crime, 21, 235-261.

2. The C.D.C. (2021) estimates that nearly 841,000 people have died since 1999 from a drug overdose in the U.S., of which 70,630 occurred in 2019. The vast majority of these drugs are smuggled by Mexican drug trafficking networks.

3. Only between 2007 and 2019 at least 167,000 firearms have been seized from criminals in Mexico and traced to gun shops and factories in the United States (Krauze, 2021).

4. Astorga, Luis (2016). El Siglo de las Drogas. Ciudad de Mexico. DeBolsillo.

5. Trejo, Guillermo and Ley, Sandra (2018). Why Did Drug Cartels Go to War in Mexico? Subnational Party Alternation, the Breakdown of Criminal Protection, and the Onset of Large-Scale Violence. Comparative Political Studies, Vol. 51(7), 900-937.

6. INEGI Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (2021). [Web.] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

7. Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP).  

8. Smith, Chris M. and Andrew V. Papachristos, 2016. “Trust thy Crooked Neighbor: Multiplex in Chicago Organized Crime Networks. American Sociological Review 2016, Vol. 81(4) 644–667 

9. Prado y Arredondo. 2021. “Una guerra inventada y 350,000 muertos en México”. The Washington Post. 

10. Lopez et. al., 2021. “La pacificacion de AMLO es mas letal que la guerra de Calderon”. Aristegui Noticias.



The opinions expressed in this blog post represent the views of the author and not of the UCLA Latin American Institute.