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Calderon and the War against the Cartels Essay

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Updated: Jan 21st, 2020


Mexico is the primary producer and supplier of a number of illicit drugs including; heroin, marijuana, and cocaine to the United States which is the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs. Mexican Drug trafficking organizations are in control of the lucrative drug distribution operations and a report by the US Justice Department reveals that these Mexican organizations dominate the wholesale illicit market in the US.1

This drug trafficking organizations are commonly referred to as “drug cartels” and their influence in previous decades has grown as demand for illicit drugs increases.

Traditionally, Mexico’s approach to drug trafficking entailed the government looking the other way while the drug traffickers moved their products to the lucrative market in the US.2

This attitude has changed in the past decade with the government taking action against the cartels. The current president Felipe Calderon, who took office in 2006, has led the most aggressive battle ever waged against the cartels.

This war has interrupted the operations of the cartels and in retaliation; the cartels have carried out ferocious attacks which have led to the death of thousands of people and a disruption of communities as a result of the constant onslaught of violence.

This paper will set out to discus the war that President Felipe Calderon of Mexico has waged against the cartels since he was sworn into office in 2006.

A detailed look at the politics surrounding this aggressive campaign that has come to define the Calderon administration will be provided. The consequences of the extended war against the cartels will also be reviewed so as to assess if Calderon’s actions are a success or a failure.

Historical Overview of the Cartels

The growing of illegal drugs in Mexico reached significant levels during the Second World War when demand for poppy by the US was high.3 After the war, most of the Mexican growers continued producing the crops to supply the illegal drug market.

From the 1960s to the 1970s, numerous small gangs in Mexico engaged in the smuggling of drugs into the US. As the US appetite for the mind-altering drugs grew, the suppliers in Mexico also increased. However, the Mexican drug dealers were only small gang-like groups and the main drugs supplied were marijuana and heroin.

Cocaine, which was by far the most popular drug, came primarily from Columbia through the Caribbean. To address the problem of cocaine coming from Colombia, the US set up a number of operations which made smuggling via the Caribbean almost impossible.

The Colombian cartels therefore started to look for different routes to smuggle their cocaine and Mexico emerged as the most strategic country due to its location and open border with the US.4 The Colombians therefore made use of a number of the small time Mexican smugglers and an alliance between the Colombian drug lords and the Mexican smugglers was established.

The Mexican organizations grew in power due to their association with the Colombians and in time there emerged major trafficking organizations which were made up of many consolidated small time smugglers. At the onset, the Mexican cartels used to act as middlemen for the Colombian cartels and in the 1970s and 1980s, the influence they held was subordinate to the powerful Colombians.5

The 1990s saw a heavy crackdown on the Colombian-Caribbean drug route and the Colombian cartels were forced to rely even more on the Mexican middlemen to transport their drugs to the US. This heavier reliance made the Mexican cartels demand for higher profit shares from the Colombian partners and the Columbians agreed since they had no alternative ways to smuggle their drugs.

The Mexican cartels therefore became more powerful and with time, they disassociated themselves from the Colombian cartels that were now deemed as a threat to their power and influence. At the present, Mexico is the single and most important player in the illicit drug commerce; a trade that is estimated to yield profits in excess of $40 billion annually.6

Mexico is involved in the dominant phases of the illegal drug trade including production, marketing and distribution. The major drugs that Mexico deals in are marijuana and cocaine and the country is the major supplier of these illicit products to the US.

The drug cartel crisis experienced in Mexico can be attributed to the pragmatic approach taken by the Mexican government in dealing with this problem. For decades, the relationship between the Mexican government and the drug cartels was accommodative.7

While other governments in the world were engaging in a policy of non-tolerance for drug trafficking organizations, Mexican authorities engaged in a policy of tolerance for the activity with many government officials being paid off to ensure that cartel activities went on uninterrupted.

This policy led to increased corruption among Mexican authorities and it allowed the growth and prosperity of drug cartels which earned billions of dollars each year. With these huge amounts of money, the cartels were able to become more powerful since they could bribe corrupt officials even more effectively and purchase weapons to arm themselves.

However, the cartels did not seek to overthrow the Mexican government but rather aim for gaining autonomy and economic control over the territory they consider to be crucial to their activities.8 These criminal enclaves are usually regions where the cartels exert more authority than the state authorities and they are able to operate with impunity.

President Calderon

President Felipe Calderon is hailed as the Mexican policymaker who has taken the staunchest stand against drug trafficking and championed a crusade against the cartels which have operated in the country for decades with relative impunity.

For the most part of the 20th century, Mexicans were of the opinion that drugs were not their problem but rather a concern for their wealthy neighbors, the United States of America.9

This opinion has changed in recent decades and from the mid 1990s, policymakers in Mexico have taken active stands against drug trafficking. However, Calderon is the president who has done the most to fight the cartels in Mexico.

While most of his predecessors chose to turn a blind eye to the cartels or engage in half-hearted actions against the cartels, Calderon has taken strong action against the powerful cartels.

Combating the drug cartels is a major component of Calderon’s policy and he began an earnest assault on this organized crime immediately after taking office in December 2006.

In his 2006 campaigns Felipe Calderon, who was the candidate for the National Action Party, highlighted his strong anti-narcotics stand by stating that if elected “drug trafficking would have in his its worst nightmare”.10 The 2006 elections which saw Felipe Calderon take power were bitterly disputed with the losing PRD candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez demanding for a recount.

The request was denied and the unpopular Calderon took office amid a constitutional crisis that threatened his legitimacy. Immediately after taking office, he began to fight the Cartels in earnest and this trend has continued to date with major impacts being felt by the cartels, government forces and the civilian population in Mexico.

Reasons for War against Cartel

Calderon succeeded President Vicente Fox whose 6 year rule ended in 2006. The Fox administration initiated antidrug policies which resulted in the building of institutional capacity that made effective counterdrug strategies both feasible and effective in Mexico.

During Fox’s rule, the federal police force was restructured and corruption dealt with as the administration embarked on aggressive stands against the cartels.11 This counternarcotics revolution is what President Felipe Calderon inherited and he was keen to continue combating the drug cartels on an even more aggressive mode.

In addition to this, previous administrations had come up with institutional reforms and made high profile arrests of drug bosses. For example, the Fox administration was able to arrest the leader of the Colima cartel, and a high profile governor for complicity with drug trafficking.12

However, the former President Fox’s anti-drug efforts were primarily aimed at bringing down cartel leaders and they did not deal with the organizations as a whole. Calderon hoped to continue with this trend by arresting drug kingpins and going even further and destroying cartels.

For this reason, the president has been accused of launching his offensive against drug trafficking on purely political motives. His critics suggest that this war and its negative outcomes could have been avoided had Calderon not felt the need to defend his legitimacy as the President of Mexico after the close election victory.

There has been a political motivation for Calderon to embark on his war against the cartels. From the 1986, the US came up with a policy which required the president to certify whether “drug producing and drug transit countries” (of which Mexico is both) were cooperating fully with the US in its widespread war on drugs.13

Throughout the 1990s, Mexico was criticized for doing little to deter drug trafficking through its borders. The year 2002 saw the US make reforms in the US drug certification process with the President being empowered to designated or withhold assistance from countries that were not cooperating with the US in its counternarcotics efforts.14

After these reforms, Mexico had to show more support for the US counternarcotics efforts so as to ensure favorable bilateral cooperation as well as aid from the US. As a result of these pressures from the US, Calderon’s has made combating drug cartels a major priority.

The aid promised and delivered by the US has played a significant role in motivating Calderon’s policy towards the cartels. The US has helped the government to stabilize the situation by strengthening the operational capacity of Mexican security forces through military hardware as well as training of personnel.

Calderon’s background also contributed to his zeal to fight the drug cartels since he was born in Michoacán; a region that is infamous for its brutal drug cartel violence.15 Growing up, he witnessed the power that the Cartels were having and the negative impact they had on the society.

While the government of the time was engaging in arrests and eradication actions against the cartels, rampant corruption led to a working relationship between cartels and Mexican authorities. Calderon was therefore motivated to take action that would purge the country off the influence of the cartels and restore state rule in all regions of the country.

President Calderon took over a country that was experiencing instability due to drug trafficking and there was huge public pressure for action to be taken to rectify this situation. Without the war waged against them by Calderon, it is conceivable that the cartels could have grown to pose a significant challenge to the nation state and its institute.

As it were, the Mexican government’s ability to maintain public security and extend its rule of law had been deterred by the infiltration by cartel operatives into municipal and state law enforcement. Cartels had managed to infiltrate the government and corrupt so many law enforcement officials that the administration could no longer make use of the police force to carry out attacks against the cartels.

The cartels penetration of local law enforcement was accentuated by the relative ease with which they could acquire and use official uniform and bulletproof vests.16 As a matter of fact, the Calderon administration had to rely heavily on the military to combat the cartels since the local, state and federal police had been too compromised by corruption by the cartels.17

The drug trafficking problem in Mexico is pervasive and when Calderon took office, cartels had infiltrated over 2000 Mexican cities and had influence in over half of the Mexican municipalities. Over 60% of Mexico’s municipalities were heavily impacted by cartels with this organized crime groups exerting more control than the Mexican State in some of the areas.18

In addition to this, there existed criminal enclaves where the government did not have control since the drug cartels held more power than the Mexican State. President Calderon therefore engaged in the war against the cartels so as to restore the state influence over every part of Mexico.

The US has a stake in the stability of Mexico since if violence in Mexico is left unresolved; it might spillover into the US. Mexico has therefore enjoyed direct assistance from the US for its efforts against the cartels through the Merida Initiative.19

Cartels have the capacity to challenge the government due to their sheer numbers and resources which are available due to the finances acquired from the lucrative drug trade.

They are able to make huge consignments for heavy weapons such as: machine guns, rocket launchers, and grenades in their arsenal. The cartels military might therefore far exceeds that of the local police and they are able to compete favorably with the military’s equipment.

President Calderon’s war against the cartels has also been inspired by the manner in which drug gangs treat political leaders. Cartels issue ultimatums to appointed and elected officials who are forced to either take a bribe from the cartels or risk assassinations.

The organizations have also been known to target and eliminate prominent political leaders whom they view as adverse to their operations. An especially high profile assassination was carried out in 2010 against Rodolfo Torre who was a rising figure from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).20

Results of the War

Calderon had demonstrated political will to deal with the drug organizations in his country and this had led to a number of positive and negative outcomes.

  • Positive Outcomes

The war against the cartels has led to a significant decrease in the strength and capacity of the major cartels in Mexico. Even his most stern critics acknowledge that Calderon has achieved some amount of success in his war on the cartels. Up to date, he has succeeded in capturing or killing of a number of high profile cartel leaders and has destroyed some of the networks of the cartels.21

Without a doubt, the war has led to thousands of casualties due to the spike in violence. As of 2011, it was estimated that the death toll resulting from the Calderon backed military offensive against the drug traffickers had climbed to more than 42,000.22

However, most of the violence experienced from the Calderon war on the cartels has been between and within cartels as they fight to preserve their territory or to grab territory from the rivals who have been weakened by the government led attacks.

This statement holds true since most of the criminal insurgencies have risen from battle for dominance by various cartels as they seek to control the corridors for the shipment of drugs into the US.23

Corruption has been a core tool used by the cartels to influence control individual bureaucrats. Calderon has challenged this habit by engaging in a restructuring of the police force and the judiciary.

In addition to this, the salaries of government personnel has been significantly raised to reduce the allure that bribes previously held for the poorly paid police and judicial staff.

As a result of this, Cartels are no longer able to use corruption to subtly co-opt and control government officials as they were in the past.24 They are therefore not able to gain effective control over territory as they did before 2006.

  • Negative Outcomes

The Calderon led war has also had a number of significant consequences. A major outcome is that the victims of the war have included ordinary Mexicans. Before the Calderon war on the cartels, most of the violence and chaos was isolated to border cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez which are on the main routes used by the traffickers to get into the US.

Other cities remained immune from the damages of inter-drug cartel wars and enjoyed steady economic and social growth. While the arrest or killing of big bosses is seen as a success in the war against cartels, it has negative outcomes.

The removal of cartel bosses causes a loss of equilibrium between drug cartels and leads to a surge in intra and inter-cartel wars. Drug violence has also spread to previously unaffected areas and cities such as Monterrey’s and today, these previously peaceful cities are rife with violence25.

In addition to this, residents of affluent neighborhoods live in fear of kidnappings which have escalated as rival gangs seek to increase their revenues. This has led to dissatisfaction with the government and its counternarcotics policies which have only made the situation worse for the ordinary citizens.

The 2009 mid-term elections demonstrated this weakening of public support of the cartel wars with Calderon’s National Action Party suffering substantial loses to the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party which is more accommodating with the cartels.26 Felipe Calderon’s party has continued to suffer politically as a result of his actions against the drug cartels.

A key reason behind Calderon’s war on the cartels was to re-exert state influence in areas that were controlled by the cartels and hence reinforce state influence. However, the war has had an opposite effect with analysts questioning the strength of the Mexican government since it seems unable to efficiently protect its citizens and its civic and political leaders.

A worrying development in the war against the cartels has been the escalation of violence and the targeting of civil and law enforcement officials which has led to some observers to categorize Mexico as a potentially “failing state”. Top military officials in the US have expressed their concern that the sustained assault on the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure, could lead to the future collapse of the state.27

If the Mexican state proves to be unable to deliver public services and security to its citizens, cartels and gangs will fulfill these roles. Sullivan suggests that cartels and criminal gangs effectively control 30% of Mexico’s territory. 28

In Mexico, the paramilitary wings of the cartels have many “police” who at times outnumber the legitimate forces and run businesses and impose social order therefore establishing virtual parallel governments.

In the previous decades, the cartels were not in competition with the state and they were content to run their operations alongside the government. Calderon’s war forced the cartels to adopt an adversarial stance towards the government.

The cartels therefore started to engage in military action with the objective of gaining control of territory and therefore displacing the state actors in key regions.29 Today, the scope of criminal intrusion into governance is so extensive that it is threatening the stability of the country.

For example, the region of Tamaulipas is effectively under the control of non-state actors and many Mexicans concede that the federal government has lost control of this region. Sullivan best articulates this by stating that “criminal groups have morphed from being strictly drug cartels into a kind of alternative society and economy”.30

In previous administrations, cartels did not engage in large scale confrontation with government forces. Their violent activities were sporadic and mostly aimed at rival cartels.

However, Calderon’s war against the cartels has resulted in retaliatory action by the major cartels. For example in 2009, the La Familia cartel engaged in an offensive counterattack against the Mexican military and intelligence services which had targeted the organizations operation in Michoacán.31


Mexico will remain involved in a prolonged drug war as long as the economic motivation for cartels to engage in the lucrative drug trade exists. In spite of the impressive efforts by president Calderon, violence due to the cartel wars has continued to increase in Mexico. The military-led offenses against cartel bosses and their subordinates have failed to severe the power of drug traffickers.

Instead, it has resulted in an escalation of violence as cartels counter government attacks and engage in other criminal activities such as extortion and kidnapping. The growing levels of violence in Mexico have led to proposals for a policy of accommodation which would mean appeasing the drug cartels.

Some see this move as prudent since cartels hope to cast themselves in good light and therefore gain support from the local populace. The Sinaloa cartel for example engages in public relations campaigns to distant itself from acts such as kidnapping and civilian killings and it goes as far as place advertisements imploring its rivals to “leave innocent people in peace”.32

Such a policy would be an attempt at returning the country to its status before the Calderon led war against the cartels. During that era, the government exercised restraint in its dealing with the drug cartels that in exchange operated in a more organized and less violent manner.

The claims that Mexico could fail as a State due to the war on the cartels is exaggerated since the government is in control of most of its territory.

Moore contends that the assertion that Mexico is a failing state is baseless since there is no guerrilla force that is trying to overthrow the government; instead, there are a number of cartels that are waging war against each other and against the government in a futile attempt to maintain control and power.33

Mexican officials state that the escalating violence in the country is actually a sign that the cartels are being defeated. This assertion is supported by analysts who demonstrate that heightened violence is caused by intra and inter-cartel fighting as the organizations seek to dominate over a shrinking market.34

As long as Calderon’s war on the cartels is active, the cartels will continue to make use of violence to try and regain their freedom from government interference. The Mexican drug cartels are challenging the stability of the Mexican government and it is imperative that solutions to the problem be reached.

The sustained deployment of both police and military forces is necessary to exert pressure on the cartels and eventually break them down. The president acknowledges that the fight to root out corruption and drug cartels in Mexico will be long and it will have a significant human cost.

Even so, he is adamant that these costs are justifiable since they will break the decades long reign of the cartels and enable the Mexican state to reestablish the rule of law all over its territory.


This paper set out to discuss the Calderon led war against the drug cartels in Mexico. The paper begun by giving a historical overview of the cartels in Mexico so as to reveal how these organizations grew and flourished in the past for decades.

The accommodative stance adopted by previous administrations is largely to blame for the growth and power that the cartels have. The paper has reaffirmed that president Calderon’s determination to wipe out the drug cartels and the pervasive corruption they breed has been seen as the most significant feature of his rule.

Calderon has demonstrated a great resolve to deal with the drug problem and he has been willing to cooperate with the US on counterdrug measures so as to achieve success. He has engaged in widespread action against the cartels and this has led in increased violence as the cartels fight to preserve their dominance.

Even so, while the Calderon Administration set out to vanquish the drug cartels that had for decades operated in Mexico, he has not achieved his goal and today his government faces major criticism concerning his approach to the drug cartels problems.

However, the unprecedented violence generated by drug cartels is bound to decrease and eventually end as the government enforcement efforts succeed in destroying the cartels.


Beittel, June. Mexico’s Drug-Related Violence. Washington: Congressional Research Service, 2009.

Carpenter, Ted. “Undermining Mexico’s Dangerous Drug Cartels”. Policy Analysis 3, no.688 (2011): 1-20.

Moore, Gary. “No man’s land: The mystery of Mexico’s drug wars.” World Affairs 173, no.5 (2011): 51-62.

Payan, Tony. Three United States-Mexico border wars. NY: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006

Sullivan, John. Mexican Cartels, Criminal Enclaves and Criminal Insurgency in Mexico and Central America, and their Implications for Global Security. Paris: Vortex, 2012.


1 June Beittel, Mexico’s Drug-Related Violence (Washington: Congressional Research Service, 2009), 1.

2 Ted Carpenter, “Undermining Mexico’s Dangerous Drug Cartels,” Policy Analysis 3, no.688 (2011): 1.

3 Tony Payan, Three United States-Mexico border wars (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006), 27.

4 Tony, 28.

5 June, 1..

6 Ted, 7.

7 Tony, 28.

8 Sullivan John, Mexican Cartels, Criminal Enclaves and Criminal Insurgency in Mexico and Central America, and their Implications for Global Security (Paris: Vortex, 2012), 17.

9 Gary Moore, “No man’s land: The mystery of Mexico’s drug wars,” World Affairs 173, no.5 (2011): 53.

10 June, 4.

11 June, 2.

12 June, 3.

13 June, 2.

14 June, 3.

15 Tony, 27.

16 Gary, 55.

17 Sullivan, 24

18 Sullivan, 8.

19 June, 15.

20 Ted, 2.

21 Ted 4.

22 Ted, 2.

23 Sullivan, 8.

24 June, 8.

25 Ted, 3.

26 June, 13.

27 June, 8.

28 Sullivan, 19.

29 Sullivan, 23.

30 Sullivan, 32.

31 Sullivan, 18.

32 Gary , 56.

33 Gary, 51.

34 June, 8.

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