Why Isn’t the Drug War Over?

Soldiers from 1st Platoon, Apache Troop, 2-5 Cav, 2nd BCT, 1st Cav Div move tactically as they enter and clear their objective during combat operation in Fallujah on the 9th of Nov 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Photo by SFC Johancharles Van Boers, 55th Signal Company, Combat Camera, Fort Meade, Maryland. Release for Public Use

By Christian M. Bills

The information in this article has no affiliation or association with the United States Government, the United States Military, or the Department of Defense. It is not to be misconstrued as the opinion or belief of the aforementioned parties.

For the last four decades, the War on Drugs has remained a constant in both the United States and Mexico. Since its official beginning in 1971, under the Nixon Administration, the meaning of the phrase “the War on Drugs” has varied depending on who is asked. In the United States, it is presented as an assault against drug abuse and addiction, while those who oppose the struggle claim it to be an attempt to diminish minority communities. In Mexico, the War on Drugs symbolizes the beginning of a long and bloody period full of corruption, violence, and pain. Regardless of which side of the border you live on, one component of the drug war remains a constant: the cartels who are responsible for initiating widespread violence and distributing millions of pounds of narcotics. However, despite the violence and pain felt in Mexico due to these criminal organizations, in 2018 the promises of reform and a new strategy were presented by recently elected Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador. This new breath of life was explained by presidential aid Olga Sanchez: “We will propose decriminalization, create truth commissions, we will attack the causes of poverty, we will give scholarships to the youth and we will work in the field to get them out of the drug situation.”

This contradicts the position of former President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), who had adopted policies of increased militarization and use of troops to fight the cartels in the country. American President Donald Trump seemingly agreed with his former counterpart as the “Trump administration has convened a panel to study ways to better combat the opioid epidemic; on the other hand, [former] US Attorney General Jeff Sessions believes we need to roll the clock back to a “tough on crime” stance to substance abuse. Bringing back harsh minimum sentencing means people struggling with chemical dependency could serve more time than violent, dangerous offenders.” Regardless of the debate on what is the proper course of action to end the war on drugs, data provided by the United States Border Patrol in 2015 suggest that this is not on the horizon. Instead, the data collected indicate that if anything, the War on Drugs is escalating more than ever as thousands of arrests and hundreds of thousands of pounds of illegal substances have been apprehended by tens of thousands of agents along the US-Mexico border.

The total amount of resources and effort expended by both the United States and the Mexican governments is massive. However, this information only offers part of the story. What the data table does not show is the behind- the-scenes efforts by the government, intelligences agencies, law enforcement, and the military.

Though there are numerous questions which could be asked and used to examine the War on Drugs, I investigate the following: 1.) How are military resources being used? 2.) How are law enforcement and counter-narcotic resources being used? The examination of these questions will allow for a better understanding of the War on Drugs and its effectiveness. To properly evaluate my findings, I employed several methods that include official strategy and policy reports, interview statements from current and former officials, and qualitative and quantitative data (i.e. arrest statistics, drug apprehension reports, bank forfeitures, etc.).

Military Resource Use

As the War on Drugs has raged on, a seemingly never-ending cry for troops, resources, and weapons has echoed in legislations. In 2011, Mexican President Felipe Calderón increased the policy of militarization as he “stepped up calls for Mexico’s Congress to approve stalled initiatives to remake state and local police forces, codify the military’s role in fighting crime and broaden its powers, toughen the federal penal code and tighten laws to stop money laundering” (Archibold, Damien Cave and Elisabeth Malkin, 2011).  This strategy followed what was deemed the Colombian model, a strategy that utilized “a combination of law enforcement, social reform, covert intelligence, military special operations, and, as appropriate, selective military action by Mexico with indirect mission assistance from the US military offers a plausible path to success” (Farwell & Arakelian, 2014).

Initially this move was reviewed by many as an appropriate response given the power and strength of the Mexican armed forces, which ranks “32 (of 136) out of the countries currently considered for the annual Global Firepower (GFP) review.” (GFP review, 2018) Using this theory the Mexican government authorized an escalation of troops fighting the cartels from “20,000 soldiers deployed around the country to 50,000,” (Woody, 2017) in hopes to overwhelm the Cartels embedded in Mexican society. Soon after this escalation a reinvigorated domestic military force sought to impose its will on the cartels by initiating code name “Joint Michoacán Operation (Operación Conjunta Michoacán), which sent over 7,000 elements from different police and military groups to patrol the state, especially its southern regions” (Aranda, 2013). Again, this plan mimicked the tactics and strategies utilized during the 1980-1990s in Colombia to dismantle cartel activity. Yet, despite early optimism and brief success, the Colombian model stagnated as the cartels adapted to this new military effort. Now after nearly a decade of applying the Colombian model, it has become clear that the military is not well suited for waging this war. Rice University scholar Tony Payan asserts that Mexico’s military strategy has produced as many as 100,000 deaths and ‘let loose on the civilian population the military and, increasingly, militarized federal police’” (Farwell & Arakelian, 2014).

Nevertheless, convinced by the past success in Colombia, the United States stood by this strategy as three Presidents continued to support the military effort. “President George W. Bush called for up to 6,000 National Guard members to secure parts of the border. Eventually 29,000 military personnel from all over the country were involved in the mission, which had a projected cost of around $1.2 billion in then-year dollars. In 2012, President Barack Obama deployed Army forces from Fort Bliss to the Tucson, Arizona, and El Paso, Texas, areas for Operation Nimbus, a joint operation between U.S. Northern Command and Customs and Border Patrol” (Copp & Mehta, 2018). President Trump has stated that “We’re going to be doing things militarily until we can have a wall and proper security.”(Mil times article) The outlook however, seems unfavorable as “an official estimated that cartels send a stunning $64 billion worth of drugs into the U.S. every year,”(Kolb, 2018) therefore supporting the position of those who argue against the Colombian model, claiming it to be ineffective as “the situation in Mexico is far less favorable to using that strategy” (Carpenter, 2018).

USAssistancetoMXSource: The Yucatan Times

Use of Law Enforcement and Counter-narcotic Resources

Despite the lack of success, the support for the military strategy continues to be acknowledged in all subsequent strategies, including in the National Southwest Border Counter-narcotic Strategy, compiled under President Obama. The policy stated that, “in aggregate, the cross-border counter-narcotics threats involving drug trafficking, alien smuggling, weapons trafficking, and money laundering highlight some of the national security implications of criminal activity along the SWB.” (Southwest Border National Drug Control Policy, 2016) Still the lack in progress has demanded that a shift in ideology occur as the increased presence of the military has failed to decrease the level of violence in Mexico.


One solution adopted by the United States and Mexico is extended use of counter-narcotic and law enforcement agencies to pursue the cartels in a less overt manner. The new strategy relieved the military from policing activities and gave resources to agencies to conduct effective operations to pursue both cartel members and banks who provided service to cartels. The positive effects can be summarized by looking at the statement by Daniel R. Salter, the Special Agent in Charge of the DEA Atlanta Field Division: “Today is a victory, not only for the multitude of law enforcement agencies who dismantled this organization, but for the citizens of the Macon, Griffin and Atlanta, Georgia. Now that these criminals have been removed from the streets, the poisonous drugs that they would have sold will never reach the consumer. This effort would not have been successful without the mission-oriented cooperation between our federal, state and local law enforcement counterparts” (Murphy, 2015).

The tables below indicate the effect that these counter-narcotic and law enforcement agencies have on the cartels, as the arrest statistics and bank forfeitures/fines highlight key victories against the cartels.

Calendar Year Number of Domestic Arrests by the DEA
2006 30,608
2007 29,844
2008 28,559
2009 31,844
2010 31,404
2011 32,519
2012 31,086
2013 31,012
2014 31,083
2015 31,611
2016 28,881   
Source: DEA
Bank Year Total amount (US $) Fined/Forfeited
Bank Atlantic 2006 $20,000,000 Fined
American Express Bank International 2007 $55,000,000 Forfeited
Union Bank of California 2007 $21,600,000 Fined
Wachovia Bank 2010 $160,000,000 Fined
Lloyds 2009 $780,000,000 Fined
Deutsche Bank 2010 $553,000,000 Fined
Credit Suisse 2009 $536,000,000 Fined
ABM Amro Holding NV 2010 $500,000,000 Fined
Barclays Bank 2010 $298,000,000 Fined
USMA PDF Total $2,923,600,000
Source: USMA

Despite some success, this has not been enough to cripple the cartels operations entirely. In fact, it seemed that the overall situation has worsened as the level of violence has again erupted, this time against the government itself: “In the nine months leading up to this weekend’s [July 2018] presidential election, 132 politicians have been killed. That’s according to Etellekt, a risk analysis and crisis management firm. The group’s report, released Tuesday, found that 22 of Mexico’s 31 states have seen a political assassination since campaigning began in September. Etellekt’s tally found 48 of the victims were candidates. The rest included party workers” (Diaz & Campisi, 2018). It can be safely estimated that these attacks are retaliatory against the government for permitting law enforcement and other units to go after their members and money on such as large scale. This response should have been expected, as for many years, the Mexican government tolerated the cartels and seemingly looked the other way.  

Despite initiating an apparent war with the United States and Mexican counter-narcotic and law enforcement agencies, the cash flow for Mexican cartels has not subsided. According to the “Justice Department, Colombian and Mexican cartels reap $18 billion to $39 billion from drug sales in the United States each year.” The Rand Corporation also estimates that the gross revenue of all Mexican cartels amounts to over $6.6 billion dollars, with the Sinaloa cartel, headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman collecting 40-60% of that profit. This means that “Guzmán’s organization would appear to enjoy annual revenues of some $3 billion — comparable in terms of earnings to Netflix or, for that matter, to Facebook” (Keefe, 2012).


It is discouraging to believe that the end of the War on Drugs is not in the near future. Issues such as a threat “to legitimize democracy effectively in Mexico, due to the clashes with the illegal, but in some parts sadly legitimized, business of organized crime, ended up overshadowing his [Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador] top policy agenda priorities,” (Solar, 2014) and stand in the way of large-scale domestic reform on behalf of the Mexican government. Also, some issues are expected to worsen, such as the expansion of illegal drugs, and the subsequent attempts to muddy the waters to hide the presence of drugs through the forms of adapting and embracing new techniques, shipping methods, new drugs and financing tactics. The result is that law enforcement personnel are confronted with an uphill battle as they must decipher “hundreds of slang terms and code words used to cover a wide variety of controlled substances, designer drugs, synthetic compounds, measurements, locations, weapons, and other miscellaneous terms relevant to the drug trade” (DEA.gov, 2018).

These changes in combination with the increased level of violence and murder rate in Mexico and along the Southwest border continues to worsen the problem as counter-narcotic and law enforcement agencies are struggling to keep up with the cartels operations. For example, in “1980, 580,900 people were arrested on drug-related charges in the United States. By 2014, that number had increased to 1,561,231. More than 700,000 of these arrests in 2014 were related to marijuana. In fact, nearly half of the 186,000 people serving time in federal prisons in the United States are incarcerated on drug-related charges” (Coyne, Hall, & , 2017). The military impact is also becoming ineffective and beginning to backfire as anti-military sentiment appears to grow in Mexico. As the brave men and women of both countries are saddled with a nearly impossible task of fighting a non-uniformed enemy driven by greed which they are ill prepared for.

It is advisable that the United States and Mexico employ more covert methods of surveillance and apprehension. These strategies have produced victories that include the arrest of Narco leaders, repossessing of hundreds of millions of dollars, and the apprehensions of tens of thousands of pounds of illegal drugs. However, final victory remains in the distant future as the Drug War continues to affect the everyday lives of millions of people in both the United States and Mexico.


2018 Mexico Military Strength. (n.d.). Retrieved October 9, 2018, from https://www.globalfirepower.com/country-military-strength-detail.asp?country_id=mexico

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Archibold, R. C., Cave, D., & Malkin, E. (2011, October 15). Calderón Defends Militarized Response to Mexico’s Drug War. Retrieved October 8, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/16/world/americas/calderon-defends-militarized-response-to-mexicos-drug-war.html?pagewanted=all

Carpenter, T. G. (2011). Undermining Mexico’s Most Dangerous Drug Cartels. Policy Analysis NO. 688, 1-20. Retrieved September 15, 2018, from https://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/undermining-mexicos-dangerous-drug-cartels.

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Is the Trump Administration Revamping the War on Drugs? (2017, May 11). Retrieved October 9, 2018, from https://drugabuse.com/is-the-trump-administration-revamping-the-war-on-drugs/

Kolby, J. J. (2017, February 13). Mexican official: Cartels send $64B in drugs into US annually. Retrieved October 9, 2018, from https://www.foxnews.com/us/mexican-official-cartels-send-64b-in-drugs-into-us-annually

Oré, D. (2018, July 07). Incoming Mexican president to seek negotiated peace in drug war. Retrieved October 11, 2018, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mexico-crime/incoming-mexican-president-to-seek-negotiated-peace-in-drug-war-idUSKBN1JW22S

United States of America, U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (2015). 2015 Fiscal Year Apprehensions. Retrieved October 2, 2018, from https://www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/documents/USBP Stats FY2015 sector profile.pdf

United States of America, White House, Office of National Drug Control Policy. (2016, May). National Southwest Border Counternarcotic Strategy. Retrieved September 16, 2018, from https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/ondcp/policy-and-research/southwest_strategy-3.pdf

Woody, C. (2017, February 13). After a decade fighting the cartels, Mexico may be looking for a way to get its military off the front line. Retrieved October 8, 2018, from https://www.businessinsider.com/mexican-military-role-in-fighting-drug-war-and-cartels-2017-2

Image: Wikimedia Commons