Over the past several years Mexico has suffered from drug-trade-related violence, extraordinarily intense and grisly even by criminal market standards. Its drug trafficking organizations have been engaged in ever-spiraling turf wars over smuggling routes and corruption networks, turning the streets of some Mexican cities into macabre displays of gun fights and murders. The criminal groups have shown a determined willingness to fight Mexican law enforcement and security forces and an increasing ambition to control other illicit and informal economies in Mexico and to extort legal businesses.

Finding Mexican police forces pervaded by corruption and lacking the capacity to effectively deal with organized crime, President Felipe Calderón dispatched the military into Mexico’s streets. Yet while scoring some successes in capturing prominent drug traffickers, the military too has found it enormously difficult to suppress the violence and reduce the insecurity of Mexican citizens. Institutional reforms to improve the police forces and justice system, although crucial for expanding the rule of law in Mexico, have been slow and will inevitably require years of committed effort. Meanwhile, patience among many Mexicans with the battle against the criminal groups is starting to run out.

To a degree unprecedented in the history of U.S.-Mexican relations, Mexico has welcomed U.S. cooperation in combating organized crime. An assistance package approved in 2008 by the U.S. Congress and called The Merida Initiative first focused on beefing up Mexican law enforcement agencies through technological transfers and intelligence sharing. A subsequent iteration of the U.S. approach adopted in 2009 and referred to as Beyond Merida emphasized deeper institutional reforms. It also expanded the scope of policies to combat illicit economies in Mexico by emphasizing socio-economic approaches to strengthen the resilience of communities against organized crime. But the government of Mexico has found the U.S. partnership lacking and has complained about the persistence of demand for drugs in the United States and the flows of guns and criminal money from the United States to Mexico.

This monograph explores the effectiveness of the security and law enforcement and socio-economic approaches adopted in Mexico over the past several years to combat the drug trafficking organizations. It also analyzes the evolution of organized crime in Mexico, including in reaction to anti-crime actions taken by the Mexican government. It is based on fieldwork I undertook in Mexico in October 2009 and particularly in March 2011.