Peter H. Smith
Organized international crime exerts its most powerful influence in Mexico through drug trafficking. Transnational syndicates and local organizations involved in the production, transportation, and distribution of illicit drugs have engaged in large-scale corruption of public officials, fostered waves of brutal violence, created nearly autonomous territorial fiefdoms, and openly flouted the rule of law. Soon after taking office in December 1994, President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León received an official report warning that “The power of the drug-trafficking organizations could lead to situations of ungovernability…. [T]he advance of drug-trafficking promotes impunity and uncertainty in [public] institutions, justifies violence, and increases intimidation of the authorities.” 1 For all these reasons Zedillo, like his predecessors, has proclaimed that drug trafficking represents a paramount threat to Mexico’s national security.
The narcotics trade also creates serious problems for Mexico’s relationship with the United States. According to U.S. government data, there are roughly 13 million current users of illegal drugs in the United States, spending approximately $60 billion per year on this habit. 2 And it is estimated that Mexico now transports 50-60 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States, 20-30 percent of the heroin, and up to 80 percent of the imported marijuana. As a result, drugs and drug trafficking inevitably constitute a major issue in U.S.-Mexican relations.
How did this criminal activity develop? Where does it appear to be heading? What can law enforcement do? To examine these questions, I here explore four interrelated themes: first, the transformation of narcotráfico in Mexico from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s; second, the economic and political implications of