Blowback: The Mexican Drug Crisis

Paul Gootenberg

In 2007, Mexican president Felipe Calderón launched a major offensive against drug-trafficking groups, sparking an explosion of violence that has gained the intensity of a regional war.1 Calderón’s continuing offensive has been underwritten by the United States in the form of the Merida Initiative, a security pact that funneled $830 million to Mexico in 2009 alone, making it the largest U.S. foreign aid program. Calderón has fully militarized the conflict, sending thousands of troops and federal police into trafficking centers in what has for become, among other things, a virtual military occupation of Ciudad Juárez. The result has been the much publicized, massive bloodshed—with more than 26,000 people killed since 2007—much of it taking place in the north of Mexico, near the U.S. border.2

But the story of the Mexican drug crisis is deeper than Calderón’s risky drug war. Behind the sensationalized headlines, national security panic, and grim statistics on escalating violence along the border lies a hidden history of U.S. entanglements across the Western Hemisphere. And the story goes deeper than the lament of many U.S. liberals and libertarians about the failures of the so-called War on Drugs declared on Latin American traffickers in the late 1960s and ramped up by President Reagan amid the crack-cocaine scare of the 1980s. The deeper history of the Mexican drug crisis is one of “blowback,” to use the term popularized after 9/11—that is, the unintended consequences of the longer drug war, which include an escalation of violence and a geographic restructuring of the cocaine commodity chain.

U.S.-led attempts to contain drug trades in the 1980s and 1990s had two critical effects on Mexico, both unintended and unforeseen: first, to make drug commerce increasingly violent and menacing to U.S. interests, and second, to bring the center of dangerous trades closer and closer to its consumers and the prohibitionist apparatus within U.S. borders.3 Like the CIA and terrorism, the Drug Enforcement Agency and its precursors unleashed their own demons with a globalized strategy of drug militarization. As a result, 90% of the United States’ cocaine supply now arrives across the long, intractable U.S.-Mexican border, handled by homegrown Mexican trafficker groups. But it was not always so. During the cocaine boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s—mythologized in movies like Scarface and Blow, and the TV series Miami Vice—the main entry point for Colombian cocaine was Dade County, in south Florida, where some 80% of cocaine passed into the U.S. market.

Colombian empresarios like Pablo Escobar, the Ochoa brothers, and Carlos Ledher of Medellín took advantage of Caribbean island-hopping wholesale transport routes, and established stateside networks of Colombian workers in Miami; Queens, New York; and elsewhere. By the mid-1980s, cocaine had some 22 million users in the United States. As the market for the drug quickly expanded—and competition and monetary stakes rose to millions of dollars per shipment—Colombians deployed sicarios (hit men) in the United States against rival Cuban distributors. In the early years of the boom, Miami was soon engulfed by gang warfare as turf battles raged among various “cocaine cowboys” of the Miami Vice era. The violence around cocaine helped fuel hysteria about the drug and Reagan’s escalating war against it.

Sliding prices, racially tagged markets for crack, and the drug’s growing taint of violence transformed cocaine into the top drug evil of U.S. drug warriors, the press, and the public. Propagated under Republican presidents Reagan and Bush I, this long drug hysteria around cocaine led to an anti-drug offense both overseas and stateside. The 1980s saw a dramatic militarization of the overseas campaign against the Andean coca bush, and the DEA and feds concentrated their interdiction efforts on South Florida coasts. The military-style Joint Florida Task Force and offensives like Operation Swordfish integrated more than 2,000 agents headed by Vice President George H.W. Bush.

By the late 1980s, Colombians were actively withdrawing from this Caribbean-Florida corridor. The 1992 network-exposing bust of courier Harold Ackerman was the last straw for Cali exporters, who were turning to alternative wholesale transshipment routes via Panama, Central America, and ultimately northern Mexico, brokered by the Honduran Juan Matta Ballesteros.4 Residual Caribbean drugs flowed through Haiti, the closest “failed state” to U.S. borders (particularly after the intervention against Aristide), handled by its avaricious Duvalier-era military caste. The DEA believed its war on Colombian “cartels,” first against Medellín in the 1980s and then Cali in the 1990s, and their Florida corridor, dealt a deathblow to the Andean cocaine trade. But overall, the 1980s inroads against Colombian cocaine in Florida gave a powerful blowback boost to nascent Mexican drug lords. This was the prelude to today’s showdown in Mexico.

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Since the early 20th century, borderland towns like Tijuana, Nogales, and Juárez saw smuggling activities—first, banned patent drugs (including cocaine concoctions) and prohibited alcohol before World War II, then homegrown opiates and marijuana from the 1940s to the 1960s. By the 1970s, in this murky prehistory of Mexican drug organizations, the city of Culiacán, Sinaloa, emerged as the storied capital of Mexican drug trades, steeped in a vibrant regional outlaw and smuggling culture. Today, most of Mexico’s narcotraficantes still rise from the rustic northern under-classes, if often aligned with and professionalized by regional entrepreneurs and politicians nurtured under decades of PRI rule.5 The first significant wave of cocaine arrived in Mexico in the early 1960s, as Cuban drug mafias fled the 1959 revolution. By the mid-1970s, cocaine found regularized passage through Mexico, along with the diversity of drugs that always have and always will cross Mexico by land and sea.

In the mid-1980s, however, cocaine consignment into the northern Pacific states of Culiacán and Mazatlán ballooned from Cali’s Herrera organization. According to State Department estimates, a third of cocaine for the U.S. market entered through Mexico in 1989; by 1992, that figure reached one half, and by the late 1990s, 75% to 85%.6 In the mid-1990s, the income generated by drug exporting in Mexico, led by this cocaine surge, ranged from $10 billion (according to U.S. officials) to $30 billion (Mexican figures)—either way exceeding Mexico’s revenues from its largest legal commodity export, oil ($7.4 billion).

This shift to Mexico as a transshipment corridor was a blowback effect of U.S. pressures bearing down on the Medellín cartel of the 1980s, together with interdiction efforts in Florida and the Caribbean. Power drifted to Cali and their diversified Pacific networks across the convoluted war-torn terrain of Central America (including allies and havens among a multiplicity of characters such as the CIA-supported Nicaraguan Contras). Colombians forged a business partnership with Mexican traffickers, who specialized in placing the goods across the border, at first on a simple fee basis of $1,000 to $2,000 per kilogram. But tough-minded Mexicans, especially Sinaloa’s pioneering Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, swiftly won bargaining power against the beleaguered Colombians, demanding instead half shares in kind. Commercializing cocaine on their own multiplied drug profits by between five and 10 times, as did cultivating retail networks among Mexican gangs in the United States. Sinaloan smugglers dispersed across Mexico’s territory—partly as a result of their exposure in the 1985 “Camarena affair,” in which an undercover DEA agent was killed amid intrigues between government officials and traffickers). Before long, the original Sinaloa organization splintered into a series of regional “cartels.”

The DEA gauged the revenue flow of the early-1990s Sinaloan cartel, now autonomous of Colombian suppliers, well above Medellín’s earlier boom. After 2000, Mexican dealers took further steps by initiating direct purchases from peasant producers across borders in faraway zones like Peru’s Huallaga, outflanking the original Colombian connection, a factor in the recent revitalization of Peruvian coca trades. Other forces entered into cocaine’s rise: Mexico’s 1980s “lost decade” of economic meltdown, the political death throws of the authoritarian PRI state (1988–2000), the social transformation of frontier towns like Juárez and Tijuana into sprawling, misery-laden metropolises, and the boom in commerce along the U.S. borderlands before and after the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. In other drug lines, Mexicans embraced methamphetamine trades pushed over the line from the United States, and in recent years, a revival of marijuana production for its boom in California.

The hyper-profits of cocaine spurred a geographic shift in Mexican drug organizations, which proliferated across the north. From Sinaloa, and pioneering smugglers Pedro Avilés Pérez and Félix Gallardo, the drug moved north to bases in Tijuana, Juárez, to Matamoros and Reynosa in the eastern Golfo, and transit points throughout the Mexican republic. As in Colombia, successive anti-drug sweeps since the 1970s worked to strengthen these groups, insofar as they weeded out weaker and least efficient operators, and favored protective vertical structures (though these are too market-oriented, fluid, and innovative to accurately call “cartels”). A key transition occurred in the mid-1980s when Pablo Acosta established a wholesale cocaine transshipment center in Ojinaga, Chihuahua (near El Paso river crossings), that tapped cargo planes to ferry the product out of Colombia. His nephew Amado Carrillo Fuentes earned the moniker Lord of the Skies from his domination of air routes and became Mexico’s richest and most notorious trafficker of the 1990s.

This business merged with the Juárez cartel, a group formed by real estate mogul Rafael Muñoz Talavera with the hand of the local federal police commander. Carrillo Fuentes was able to forge ties with the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988–94), producing in the mid-1990s the golden age of the Juárez cartel, until his mysterious death during plastic surgery in 1997. By the mid-1990s Juárez bypassed Sinaloa as the world’s top drug re-export platform. Like Cali’s rise over Medellín in Colombia, Juárez interests exploited the government’s post-1985 drive against the Sinaloans. Félix Gallardo dispersed his men throughout northwestern Mexico, until jailed by Salinas in 1989, and other rival organizations grew out of regional partners who expanded or split from their Sinaloan forefathers, like Tijuana’s Arrellano-Félix brothers.

Other groupings included the Matamoros or Gulf cartel, organized by Juan N. Guerra and dramatically- enlarged by Juan García Ábrego during the Salinas era. After García Ábrego’s capture, and new President Ernesto Zedillo’s move to extradite him to the United States—a blunt political message to his successor—the fortunes of the Gulf cartel rose as the Mexican state mainly targeted the Juárez cartel. The death of Juárez’s Carrillo Fuentes and Zedillo’s militarization of drug conflicts in the late 1990s allowed the Gulf cartel’s innovator Osiel Cárdenas to recruit Los Zetas, a hit gang comprising former members of a military anti-drug unit originally trained at the U.S. School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. A stunning case of blowback, the ruthless and now infamous Zetas grew with the Gulf forces and branched out on their own across Mexico after 2003.

By the 1990s, the billions in spectacular cocaine money and the trade’s risky needs both underscored and undermined the Mexican state’s traditional collusion with regional drug traders. Smuggling rings had enjoyed a degree of complicity with northern political bosses, local police and military, since the Mexican Revolution. As the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party (PRI) rose as an authoritarian national political machine by the 1940s, these arrangements, if sometimes unstable, served to manage border trades and illicit financial flows at acceptable levels and with a PRI-like minimum of violence and competition—a statist equilibrium sorely missed after the 1980s.

But the Operación Cóndor assault on pot and poppy zones in Sinaloa, Chihuahua, and Durango during the late 1970s, abetted by the United States, plus the revealing Camarena kidnapping in 1985, signaled breakdowns of this traditional compact between the state and Sinaloan traffickers. The United States readjusted its support of Mexico’s authoritarian regime, in trouble after the fraudulent 1988 elections, conditioned on commitments to drug suppression as well as to commercial liberalization.

The neoliberal government of Salinas, seeking to refurbish Mexico’s image in the United States amid NAFTA negotiations, marked a dual turning point in the politics of drugs. On the one hand, under Salinas, Mexico for the first time embraced a major national-level role in U.S.-led drug wars. In 1992–93, with U.S. assistance, the country’s drug-policing institutions were revamped on the inter-agency model of the DEA, and its attorney general’s office became a well-funded drug-combating force. The focus also shifted on the U.S. side of the border, which was militarized as a “High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Region” during the Southwest Border Initiative, a cooperative enforcement program launched in 1994.7

On the other hand, cocaine interdiction and its risk premium multiplied opportunities for graft. Soon enough, the legitimacy of Mexican “drug control” was undercut by revelations of the deep involvement of high-placed Salinas appointees and family members (like the president’s brother Raúl Salinas) in the burgeoning drug trades, as well as high-level political assassinations linked to drugs. According to a 1994 study by the National Autonomous University of Mexico, overall trafficker bribes rose from between $1.5 million and $3.2 million in 1983 to $460 million in 1993, larger than the Mexican attorney general’s entire budget.8 Thousands of federal agents became active in facilitating drug trades during this time.

The drug destabilization of Mexico went public during Zedillo’s term in office, when in a break from custom, the new president openly condemned the corruption of his predecessor, freeing the new PRI regime from association with the political-economic mess left by Mexico’s 1994 transition. The apogee of this state exposure, in 1997, was the highly embarrassing discovery that the military chief of Mexico’s equivalent of the DEA, General Gutiérrez Rebollo, was in cahoots with the Juárez cartel, an incident sampled in the Hollywood drama Traffic. The U.S. war on cocaine had come home to roost.9

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Today’s DEA officials, eager for signs of victory, see Mexico as a replay of Colombia’s “success” breaking up its cartels in the late 1980s. They are apparently oblivious to how those pressures helped improve the strategies of Colombian exporters and fostered over the next decades the tense and bloody process that remade the U.S.-Mexican border, in Howard Campbell’s terms, into a “permanent drug-war zone.” If any lesson is to be had for Mexico today, it is that the early-1990s war on the Medellín and other cartels did not really “work.” What it mainly did was shift cocaine’s center of gravity from that besieged city’s drug mafias to their rivals in Cali. And, as deftly illustrated by criminologist Michael Kenney, U.S. intervention and drug repression in 1990s Colombia ultimately led to far more effective drug trafficking organizations.10 Colombia is now home to some 600 or more well-camouflaged drug export networks, so-called cellular “boutique” cartelitos, which have diversified with global export strategies (to Brazil, Africa, and Europe), branched into complementary drugs (heroin in the 1990s and lately counterfeit pharmaceuticals), and upgraded technologies (high-tech counter-intelligence, genetically modified coca, submarines).

The denouement of these shifts in the cocaine business was 1999’s Plan Colombia, instituted in his final year by Democratic president Bill Clinton and later embraced in Bogotá as a de facto strategic alliance by conservative president Álvaro Uribe. Much has been debated about Plan Colombia—the costs in human rights include as many as 4 million internal refugees, versus apparent gains against urban crime and an old leftist insurgency. But one outcome is pretty clear: as a drug policy, it has utterly failed to stem the cocaine trade, which continues to thrive and spread across the Andes.11 Lavishly sold as the targeted extinction of illicit cocaine, Plan Colombia is now hailed instead in Washington as a successful “security” or nation-building program—the prequel and model for fighting drugs in Mexico. Indeed, Washington drug warriors, whose past policies helped push cocaine violently north, are now pushing the panic button about a destabilized U.S. border.

Calderón’s 2007–10 Mexicanized war on drugs may further U.S. objectives in the short run, but is bound to unleash larger and longer problems ahead. Calderón, who took office in 2006 a few thousand disputed votes ahead of a charismatic leftist candidate, was like George W. Bush in 2000: a leader in search of a mission. His rightist PAN party, under Vicente Fox in 2000, broke the PRI’s party-state monopoly and entered office with greater autonomy from traffickers than the outgoing PRI, though it too was soon tainted by drug politics. Other, weaker states like Guatemala and Honduras are poised to absorb any cocaine trades that Mexico deflects. Thus far, despite the panic, spillover violence from Mexico into the United States has been minimal, meaning that Mexicans, like the Colombians before them, are doing the dying for us.

If there is any good news in cocaine’s drive north, and the escalating drug violence each step along the way, it is that the crisis is also playing out in a rapidly changing international scene. The latest blowback is actual dissent from Latin America. In 2008, a broad coalition of Latin American political leaders (including former presidents of Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil) issued a scathing critique of the past 30-year U.S. drug war, calling for a major paradigm shift toward public health, harm reduction, and activated civil society. Some UN agencies, burned in Colombia, are for the first time questioning the failed U.S. obsession with supply control and eradication, and European criticism of Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative is on the rise.12 Hemispheric change is brewing, from President Evo Morales’s defiant nationalist pro-coca politics in Bolivia (where the DEA has officially withdrawn from the scene) to an experimental decriminalization of possession in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, where even conservative former president Vicente Fox now urges legalization to stem the violence, as well as in Mexico’s former northern province of California. It is time for the U.S. public, and political elite, to take heed of this change, and the backfiring history of cocaine’s long and volatile trek north.


Paul Gootenberg teaches history at Stony Brook University in New York. He is the author of Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug (University of North Carolina Press, 2008).


1. Froylán Enciso helped edit this article and outline Mexican drug “cartels.”

2. Rubén Aguilar and Jorge Casteñeda, El Narco: La guerra fallada (Mexico City: Punto de Lectura, 2009); Transborder Institute, Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis From 2001–2009 (University of San Diego, 2010); “DEA Intelligence Chief Likens Mexico to 1980s Colombia,” in Jesús Esquivil, Mexidata.Info, March 2, 2009 (originally published in Proceso magazine [Mexico City], February 22, 2009).

3. Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Cost and Consequences of American Empire, 2d. edition (Holt Paperbacks, 2004).

4. Ron Chepesiuk, Drug Lords: The Rise and Fall of the Cali Cartel (Milo Books Ltd, 2003); Stan Zimmerman, “From Handshakes to Handguns,” chap. 8 in A History of Smuggling in Florida: Rumrunners and Cocaine Cowboys (The History Press, 2006); see also map in Zimmerman, p. 104.

5. Luis Astorga, Mitología del ‘narcotraficante’ en México (Mexico City: Plaza y Valdés, 1995).

6. For similar “push” analysis and statistics, see Peter Andreas, “The Escalation of Border Control,” chap. 4 in Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexican Divide, 2d. edition (Cornell University Press, 2009).

7. Andreas, Border Games, 55–57.

8. Ibid., 62.

9. For lack of space, I omit a series of key adaptive drug organizational shifts after 2000.

10. Michael Kenny, From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptations (Penn State University Press, 2007).

11. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, World Drug Report (2008), section 1.3, esp. pp. 67–68). The hemispheric interception rate is higher—42% in 2006, up from 29% in 1998—and sites are rapidly changing again: Simon Romero, “Coca Growing Surges in Peru as Drug Fight Shifts Trade,” The New York Times, June 14, 2010.

12. Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, Drugs and Democracy: Towards a Paradigm Shift (2008), drugsanddemocracy.org. For de-escalation ideas, see Peter Reuter, “Do No Harm,” The American Interest 4, no. 4 (spring 2009): 46–53.

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