A War from Within? Drug Cartels and the Mexican State

by Monica Guerrero Ruiz

Federal police agents detain a Gulf Cartel leader in Tamaulipas | Jesús Villaseca P/Latitudes Press

As a Mexican living abroad, I noticed that international discourse regarding Mexico’s relationship with drug cartels is often oversimplified. People tend to assume that the strong state-cartel collaboration at both national and local levels (the so-called “narco-state”) was halted in its tracks in 2006 when the “War on Drugs” began.


The reality on the ground is far more complicated. Mexico’s government, as everywhere else, is far from homogenous. It is a multilevel and multifaceted system, in which organised crime can collaborate with some actors and agencies within the state apparatus, while simultaneously competing with others. Tamaulipas, a north-eastern border state in Mexico, famous for giving birth to powerful cartels such as the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, demonstrates that continued collaboration between local governments and drug cartels has persisted despite the actions taken by the federal police and military against the cartels after 2006.

After an extremely competitive campaign and serious allegations of electoral fraud, Felipe Calderón took the oath of office as president of Mexico and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces in 2006. The new, rather controversial leader launched what became known as the “War on Drugs,” a joint operation involving the Federal Police, the Procuraduría General de la República or ‘PGR’ (state’s Attorney General’s Office), soldiers, and marines. The stated aim of the endeavour was to restore governmental authority over the territory and population, combat drug trafficking, and recover some degree of normalcy and tranquillity for Mexicans. Yet, the collaboration continued in several states and municipalities. In Tamaulipas, for example, a highly collaborative relationship between the state and drug cartels, which had already existed, became even more entrenched after the declaration of the War on Drugs.

At that time, drug cartels in Tamaulipas were already national and transnational networks that trafficked illegal narcotics and reportedly made billions of dollars in revenue each year, smuggling immigrants, arms, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine through the Mexico-U.S. border. This would not have been possible without networks of institutional protection. Since the 19th century, drug cartels have had the protection of government officials, such as agents of the PGR, local police officers, and politicians from the federal, state, and municipal level. Now incarcerated for money laundering, governors Emilio Martinez Manautou (1981-1987) and Tomás Yarrington (1999-2005) systematically integrated the Gulf Cartel into the political and economic system of Tamaulipas during their time in power.

During Manautou’s administration, the governor appointed public officials that enabled the cartel’s growth and political entrenchment. This included the decision to select the nephew of the founder of the Gulf Cartelthe biggest and most important drug cartel in Tamaulipas until 2010as the mayor of Matamoros, the state’s second largest city. He also appointed corrupt security officials, such as Rafael Chao López, as head of the now-dissolved Federal Security Directorate (DFS) and Carlos Aguilar Garza as Coordinator of the Mexican Federal Attorney’s Office in Tamaulipas, both of whom were later arrested with drug trafficking charges, as they had personally been in charge of supervising the transportation of the Gulf Cartel’s cocaine in a federally owned aircraft. In exchange, the cartel paid bribes to government officials in order to avoid prosecution and state interference in their activities.

The existence of drug cartels in Tamaulipas dates back to the 1930s when the Gulf Cartel was created by Juan N. Guerra Cardenas, who started smuggling both people and contraband into the United States. By the mid-2000s, the Gulf Cartel had developed national and transnational logistics that allowed it to traffic drugs across the US-Mexico border and penetrate about 34% of legal goods production in Tamaulipas.

Amidst the declaration of the War on Drugs by the federal government, the Gulf Cartel continued to be integrated into the Tamaulipas state and the local police force. It was through their existing relationship with the state that the Gulf Cartel maintained a monopoly over the Tamaulipas plaza, a delimited territory where drug cartels operate, until 2010, with little to no violent confrontation from the local police.

Federal police agents detain a Gulf Cartel leader in Tamaulipas | Jesús Villaseca P/Latitudes Press

Among Tamaulipecos (people from Tamaulipas), it’s well-known that the Gulf Cartel endorsed and funded Yarrington’s successor, Eugenio Hernandez Flores. In return, Hernandez Flores allowed the Gulf Cartel to not only continue its illicit businesses and pursuits in the state but also to access legitimate businesses as well. It was during Hernandez Flores’ administration that the cartel had the ability to control universities, hotels, casinos, entertainment companies, butcheries, tortillerías (tortilla shops), the transportation systems of several Tamaulipas cities, and the distribution of beer in football stadiums, bars, and shops owned by them. In exchange, Hernandez Flores received and laundered more than 30 million dollars through U.S. banks and real estate transactions.


However, the War on Drugs did in fact have an impact on the relation between the Tamaulipas state and drug cartels. On one hand, it destabilised Tamaulipas’ unspoken agreement of live-and-let-live between the cartels and the state when the leader of the Gulf Cartel was assassinated in 2010. His assassination left a power vacuum within the organisation, which led to a violent struggle for the control of Tamaulipas. The state’s dramatic increase of violence coincided with the Gulf Cartel’s fragmentation. At the same time, established bargains with politicians became costlier and difficult. The cartel’s assassination of Rodolfo Torre Cantu—the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s candidate for governor of Tamaulipas—in 2010 is a prime example of this. According to the state’s Attorney General’s Office, the candidate allegedly refused to protect the investments that allowed the Gulf Cartel’s money laundering practices.


The War on Drugs also brought federal security agencies to Tamaulipas, undermining the capacity of the state to ensure the cartels’ immunity and protection from law enforcement, while evidencing the complicity of local police and the cartels. Unaware of the tacit arrangements between the Gulf Cartel and the state, federal security agencies now represented a threat to the cartels and corrupt police officials. From 2006 to 2011, there were 685 confrontations between the armed forces and drug cartels in Tamaulipas. In many of these confrontations, members of the local police actively participated alongside the cartels. In 2005, for instance, both openly attacked the Mexican army when they were sent to Nuevo Laredo to investigate the assassination of the Director of Municipal Public Security and stem the tide of drug-related violence. This demonstrated that local police had long been escorts, gunmen, and middle managers of the Gulf Cartel.


In sum, the corrupt internal dynamics of the War on Drugs in Tamaulipas exemplifies the complicated and uneven relationship between drug cartels and state actors within Mexico as a whole. Thus, before trying to resolve the security crisis in the country, we must first understand its complexity. In Latin America, criminal politics can cause collusion at best and violent death at worst, so better and more comprehensive policies are urgently required. But unless and until scholars, politicians, and society in general learn that a single and uniform “war on drugs” approach will not work, meaningful change will not take place.


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INTERZINE | 2020