A combination of political officeholders, senior military personnel, social elites, and criminal cartels working together in Mexico – both directly and indirectly – have turned the country into a deteriorating narco-state unwilling to combat violence, stop drug and human trafficking, and maintain a productive partnership with the United States, according to new research by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

The recently published paper, “Abrazos no Balazos? The Mexican State-Cartel Nexus,” spells out the complicated history between the United States and Mexico over the past two decades. It argues that under the current administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (commonly known as AMLO) the relationship has devolved to a new low. This stems from Mexican leadership effectively colluding with criminal cartels, either through direct corruption of public institutions or by official indifference at the highest levels.

“[AMLO’s] ‘abrazos no balazos’ approach —’hugs not bullets—offers a sense of passivity toward security threats rather than a serious plan. His administration’s insouciance in combating cartel activity is coupled with a curtailing of U.S.–Mexico law-enforcement liaison—for example, in effectively hampering several decades of Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) operations in Mexico,” the paper states. “The unwillingness to work with the United States is paired with gestures of Mexican presidential sympathy toward particular criminal cartels and a chronic unwillingness to confront or even rhetorically condemn their activities. The AMLO administration, more than any of its predecessors, has labored to foster a distinct impression of persistent Mexican state-cartel collusion— sanctioned at the highest level of that state.”

After a mostly sincere effort at cooperation with the United States under former President Felipe Calderon, whose term in office ended in 2012, Mexican officials in the two presidencies since have given increasingly less assistance to United States law enforcement to help identify, capture and detain cartel members responsible for building a massive drug and human trafficking network across the southern border. The nature and quality of the cooperation has neared rock-bottom under AMLO, who has paid public respects to cartel-kingpin family in his official capacity.

“Criminal organizations continue to commit brazen acts of violence, threaten citizen security, and undermine gover­nance in both Mexico and, increasingly, the United States. Moreover, they increasingly supplant the legitimate sover­eignty of the Mexican state with their own—often in coop­eration with major elements of that state,” the paper concludes. “The qualitative difference since 2018 has been the near-open role of the current Mexican president in allowing, and perhaps even participating in, that cooperation. It is a new scenario that demands new solutions from U.S.-side policymakers, who must understand that the Mexican state as a meaningful partner against criminal cartels is likely a thing of the past.”

Given the reality that Mexico is an unfortunately dangerous country for researchers and writers, the Texas Public Policy Foundation has taken the unusual decision to publish this research anonymously.

Key Points:

  • The Mexican drug trade has seen an increase in both activity and violence used by Mexican drug cartels over the past 50 years.
  • The Mexican government has a mixed history of dealing with the cartels, alternating between nonchalance, inefficiency, or even more recently, collusion.
  • Although the United States has invested money and manpower to help the Mexican government fight the cartels and eliminate the drug trade, the cooperation has largely depended on the inclination of the administration in power.
  • Numerous reports and evidence of corruption at all levels of the Mexican government, including bribes received by high-ranking officials, point to collusion.