Organized Crime in Mexico and the United States: Fighting two problems

Monday, October 28th, 2013


Mexican marines in an operation against Los Zetas. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.


Organized crime contains key elements that distinguish it from other forms of criminal activity. In the case of organized crime in the United States and Mexico, a contextual emphasis on the categorization of organized crime by thier scope of action is crucial. In this sense, this essay borrows the distinction between Transnational Organized Crime and Territorial Organized Crime, as used by Nathan Patrick Jones. The first focuses its activities in drug smuggling or money laundering and tends to use the means of corruption in order to profit from illicit goods. The latter is prone to the use of violence and tends to depend on extortions, robberies, and kidnappings as their source of income. Evidence shows these categories are not exclusive from each other, particularly in the case of Mexico. However, in recent years both countries have implemented policies common to one another to fight organized crime.

This essay explores how each side of the border faces different challenges regarding organized crime and the importance in addresing them properly within their uni- and bilateral efforts.

In both the United States and Mexico, the myths and legends of organized crime loom large. Separating these unreal, fantastical ideas of Italian mafioso and Mexican drug lords is the first step in fully comprehending what organized crime is, and the challenges it represents in the region of the United States and Mexico.

There is no universal definition of organized crime, since it takes a wide variety of forms in the world. However, there is a general consensus among authorities and academics on its structural characteristics. The FBI, for example, defines organized crime as “any group having some manner of a formalized structure and whose primary objective is to obtain money through illegal activities. Such groups maintain their position through the use of actual or threatened violence, corrupt public officials, graft, or extortion, and generally have a significant impact on the people in their locales, region, or the country as a whole.”[1]

This definition underscores several key attributes of an organized crime syndicate: 1) it operates over a period of time; 2) it has an identifiable structure; 3) its main purpose is to obtain income through illegal activities; and 4) it uses violence and corruption to protect its members from authorities and rival groups.”[2] Other characteristics not included in the FBI’s definition are that organized criminal groups have a public demand for services, they have monopoly over a particular market, they have restricted membership, and that they are non-ideological.

Moreover, organized crime could be categorized by the type of illegal crimes they commit, or by their scope of action. This last approach in particular appears to be suitable to understanding organized crime in Mexico and the United States. On the one hand, transnational organized crime focuses its income-generating activities on the smuggling of drugs and money laundering, and tends to use the means of corruption in order to profit from illicit goods. On the other hand, territorial organized crime is prone to violence and funded by informal taxation to the population in the forms of extortions, robberies and kidnappings.[3]

Mexico and the United States have both exerted a significant amount of effort to fight organized crime. To address this problem, the Mexican and U.S. governments have already begun to implement policies that adhere to the idea of addressing the organized crime via the “Four Pillar Strategy” of the Merida Initiative. The four pillars are: 1) disrupting organized criminal groups; 2) institutionalizing the rule of law; 3) building a 21st century border; and 4) building strong and resilient communities.[4]

Defining the Problem

Public policy research shows us how policymaking is a cycle of a few basic steps: problem definition, setting the agenda, policy adoption, implementation, and evaluation. In the case of organized crime, the definition of the problem is the first and most important step to implementing a successful policy.

In recent decades the consumption of illegal drugs has been at the heart of the U.S. battle with organized crime. It has led to a lengthy campaign against drugs, which in turn has driven the international agenda. The U.S. has fought against drugs for over forty years and has more than quadrupled its budget over the years to attain its objective.[5] However, the flow of illegal drugs across U.S. borders has remained the same in spite of the increased spending on border security and technology. Internally, the U.S. is facing a severe social problem of drug abuse. Externally, according to the Cato Institute, it has intruded into the social contexts of dozens of countries and severely aggravated the political and economic problems of drug-source nations and increased financing of criminal organizations.[6]

Drug consumption in the U.S. is without a doubt a social problem that has influenced its foreign policy. It is the only country on the continent where its population has a consumption rate of cocaine of over 2 percent. In contrast, Mexico’s consumption of cocaine is less than 0.5 percent. This behavior is accentuated in the case of marijuana. Consumption in the U.S. has the higher rates in the continent with 14 percent of its population using this drug, while in Mexico it represents 1 percent.

Drug consumption is a domestic problem the U.S. must urgently address. The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy has recognized that the biggest consequences of drug usage in the U.S. are accidents, crime, domestic violence, illness, lost opportunities, and low productivity. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC), the U.S. is reported to have the highest rate of arrests caused by drug-related crimes.

Most of the drugs that are trafficked into the United States transit through its border with Mexico. The approach the U.S. has taken to fighting organized crime in the region is directed against drug trafficking organizations, since these transnational profit seeking networks are responsible of smuggling drugs across the border. In fact, Chicago has declared Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman its Public Enemy No. 1.[7]

It is clear that organized crime has been responsible for smuggling drugs into the country and thus affecting the wellbeing of the population. Nevertheless, this effect has been felt differently on both sides of the border. Compared with the United States, Mexico does not have a drug consumption problem. In fact, it has one of the lowest levels of drug consumption in the world. This means that, in spite of being intertwined, the issues caused by organized crime in each country are different from one another.

Mexico is currently undergoing a severe security crisis caused by organized criminal organizations. However, this recent increase of violence does not involve a general state of violence amongst population. Although it is certain that there are many cases of self-inflicted violence and interpersonal violence within families and communities, the type of violence that has aggrieved the country falls within what the World Health Organization defines as social violence, which is carried out by groups that seek to impose a social agenda.

The increasing rates of homicides, kidnappings and violent robberies in the past few years throughout the country illustrate that social violence is an important concern. It is true that not all homicides, kidnappings and violent robberies are committed by organized crime. However, there is significant evidence to discern how many of these crimes are carried out by organized crime and how are they affecting Mexico.

In the case of homicides, Mexico’s General Attorney (Procuraduria General de la Republica) provides data specifically for homicides carried out by criminal organizations, using the term “executions.” Additionally, the federal law regarding organized crime in Mexico defines kidnappings as related to organized crime when there are two conditions present: they are perpetrated by more than three individuals, and they occur more than once.

The case is more complex regarding violent robberies, however, considering there is a strong correlation between the number of violent robberies committed by organized crime and the total number of violent robberies; thus, the crimes of homicide, kidnapping, and violent robbery, according to the Mexican authorities, are considered forms of violence carried out by organized crime.

In Mexico, these three crimes are regarded as high impact crimes, since they have a considerable impact on the population’s perception of security. The perception of insecurity has increased significantly in most states and has caused a shift in the population’s regular activities.

In addition to high-impact crimes, it is important to consider that since according to the Secretería de Gobernación (SEGOB), there are seven important criminal organizations operating in Mexico (the Sinaloa Cartel, the Gulf Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel, the Beltran Leyva Cartel, the Familia Michoacana Cartel, the Juarez Cartel and the Zetas Cartel) these organizations have developed a strong territorial dispute among each other to obtain absolute control over different regions. These disputes and the open confrontation with government institutions have generated a high cost on human lives, which ascended over 70,000 by the end of 2012.

Authors such as Molzahn, Rios, and Shirk (2012) have demonstrated how the number of executions during the years of 2010 and 2011 accounted for 64 percent and 53 percent of the total homicides in the country. This reflects the association between organized criminal organizations’ disputes and the increasing number of homicides. Disputes over territory have shifted power between cartels as well as the regions where they operate. As the dynamics continue to change, cartels increasingly resort to other forms of violence such as kidnappings and violent robberies in order to maintain their sources of income.

Kidnapping and violent robberies were actually declining and both activities reached a nadir in 2005, whence they went back on the rise. Since 2005, the reported incidents of kidnapping, for example, have increased nearly 300 percent by 2012.[8] In the year 2011 alone there were 1,323 kidnappings. It is important to note that this type of crime is usually not reported to the authorities and therefore the number of actual kidnappings is significantly larger.[9]

While such figures are a bit more difficult to gauge for violent robberies in connection with organized crime syndicates, the reported incidents has risen in tandem with kidnappings, though not to the former’s degree.

Cartels that have diverted into kidnappings and violent robberies typically develop alliances with smaller local criminal bands to accomplish their objectives.[10] Therefore both drug cartels that engage in transnational illegal activities and smaller criminal groups have been important agents of violence in Mexico. This has generated negative consequences in the population by affecting their perception and a shift in their regular activities.


This analysis has shown us a general background of what might be the problem with organized crime. The alarming numbers of drug consumption and levels of infiltration of Mexican drug cartels in the U.S. are more than enough evidence to suggest that drugs are a serious problem. The increase of high-impact crimes and territorial disputes in Mexico proves it has negatively affected the perception of security felt in the country, suggesting that violence has been the population’s main concern regarding organized crime.

It is clear that we have two different problems that are intertwined as they cross the border between Mexico and the United States. Consequently, both contexts should be equally addressed at the time of defining our shared problem. Violence has been proven to be a much more complex issue than drugs.

Fighting organized crime and its trafficking of drugs does not seem to be solving the problem, since criminal organizations seem to have diverted into other crimes at a more territorial level such as extortions, kidnappings, and robberies.

It is very likely that securing the border to stop the flow of drugs will not end violence within Mexico since violent robberies and kidnappings are not drug-related crimes. Programs intended to promote the rule of law and the constructions of resilient communities are yet to be evaluated in the long term.

It is urgent to further study the problem of violence taking into consideration more factors such as access to firearms or unemployment. At the same time, it is important to study the causes of drug consumption in the U.S. in order to reduce its demand internally.

Bilateral efforts between Mexico and the United States to halt organized crime must include policies that are effectively designed to address the problem. Both of the issues addressed in this essay them be equally tackled in the shared definition of the problem. Policymakers must fully comprehend the causes with in order to fashion efficient solutions. As John Dewey once said, “a problem well-put is a problem half-solved.”


Author Biographies

Eugenio Weigend is a PhD candidate from EGAP Tecnologico de Monterrey. He has focused his work on Public Security and National Security in Mexico. His work includes violence in democracy, arms trafficking, organized crime and police reform. He is co-author of the Security Index in Mexican States. He has a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from EGAP Tecnologico de Monterrey and a Master’s Degree in Public Affairs from Brown University.

Silvia Villarreal is a specialist on Public Program Evaluation and has developed several projects with organizations for international development.  Her work includes crime prevention, civil society organizations and community development. She has a Master’s Degree on Public Policy from EGAP Tecnologico de Monterrey.

[1] Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Glossary of Terms” Organized Crime, accessed 26 Oct. 2013,

[2] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “The Threat of Transnational Organized Crime” United Nations Publishing, 2010, accessed 26 Oct. 2013,

[3] Nathan Patrick Jones. The State Reaction: A Theory of Illicit Network Resilience, Proquest, UMI Dissertation Publishing, 19 October 2012.

[4] Congressional Research Service. “U.S. Mexican Security Cooperation: The Merida Initiative and Beyond,” 12 June 2013, accessed 26 Oct. 2013

[5] CATO Institute, “CATO Handbook for Congress: The International War on Drugs,” accessed 26 Oct., 2013

[6] Ibid, pg. 575

[7] ABC News Chicago, “Cartel kingpin ‘El Chapo’ Chicago’s new Public Enemy No. 1,” 14 February 2013, accessed 26 Oct. 2013

[8] Damien Cave, “In Mexico, a Kidnapping Ignored as Crimes Worsen,” New York Times, 18 March 2012, accessed 28 Oct. 2013,

[9] InSight Crime, “92% of Crimes in Mexico Go Unreported: Survey,” 28 September 2012, accessed 26 Oct. 2013, [English language site on crime in the Americas, citing Spanish-language report by INEGI]

[10] Office on Drugs and Crime. “Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean,” 2012, accessed 28 Oct. 2013,