How powerful are drug cartels


Karl-Dieter Hoffmann

To person

Dr. sc. pol., born 1950; Political scientist, managing director of the Central Institute for Latin American Studies at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, Ostenstrasse 26, 85072 Eichstätt. [email protected]

In 2006, Mexican President Calderón declared "war" on drug trafficking. But the deployment of the military at home has made the situation worse rather than better.


The "drug war" in Mexico illustrates in a particularly drastic way the fact that year after year significantly more people die in the context of the production and distribution of prohibited narcotic substances than as a result of the consumption of such substances. What at first glance may appear to be a paradox is the result of the specific functional logic of illegal drug markets. Above all, it is the exorbitant profit margins that explain why the competition between different drug suppliers is preferably carried out by violent means: the difference between the price that the consumer pays for a commodity and its actual production costs should not be greater than for any commodity category with the "hard" drugs (cocaine, heroin) and synthetic addictive substances. The cannabis business is based on a different calculation: Since it is by far the most popular illegal drug worldwide, it is the huge sales volumes that ensure high sales and profits despite the relatively low end-user price. [1]

Almost five years have passed since Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared "war" on drug trafficking gangs. He quickly followed up on the pithy choice of words and gave the military the lead role in fighting the (falsely) so-called drug cartels, the majority of whose revenue comes from the smuggling of various illegal narcotic drugs into the United States. Gradually, more and more troop contingents were marched against various strongholds of the drug trade; since 2008, a total of around 45,000 soldiers have been deployed continuously at changing locations against the cartels and their well-armed protection troops. The background to the government offensive was an escalating, bloody competition within the drug trafficking oligopoly that had escalated since around 2002 and claimed around 2,100 deaths in the 2006 election year alone. Since the general violent crime also rose sharply at the same time, there was a growing concern among the population about the precarious state of public security.

Calderon's brisk approach is only understandable in connection with the narrow outcome of the presidential election and the doubts about the legitimacy of his election victory and his political legitimacy. By taking consistent action against organized crime, the president hoped to demonstrate leadership and increase his popularity. It was easy to see that this calculation worked out from the rising and then persisting poll results. However, the public mood has changed since mid-2008 to the extent that the turnaround in violence promised by Calderon was a long time coming. The success stories of its anti-drug strategy continuously published by the government - arrests in the drug trafficking environment, confiscation of illicit drugs and weapons, destruction of marijuana and opium poppy fields and drug laboratories - correspond in a macabre way with the rapidly increasing number of victims in Mexico was on drugs. In 2007 around 2,600 drug-related deaths were counted, one year later the number was already more than 5,100, in 2009 just under 6,600, and in 2010 there were already more than 11,500 deaths. [2] Around a quarter of a million people left their place of residence fleeing drug-induced violence. [3]

So far there is nothing to suggest that the government could win this conflict; the postulated goals were clearly missed: Instead of noticeably reducing the influence and radius of action of the cartels, they are now present in more regions of the country than at the beginning of Calderon's presidency. Rather, the massive military deployment has contributed to the spiral of violence turning faster and faster. With a strict interpretation of the term, the state has long since forfeited its claim to the legitimate monopoly of force; Interpreted less rigorously, the finding is that the ever more brazen paramilitary fighters of the cartels are seriously questioning the state's monopoly on the use of force. Even if there are good arguments in favor of Mexico from one failed state is still far away, there can hardly be any doubt that the country is in the middle of a failed is located. [4] The signs of increasing state failure in several regions and large cities are less the result of the growing power of organized crime as a consequence of a not only inefficient but at least partially counterproductive strategy to eliminate the drug cartels.