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Mexico: Narcotics Trafficking
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Public Order and Internal Security > Narcotics Trafficking


Mexico is a major source of heroin and marijuana destined for the United States, as well as the principal route of transit for South American cocaine. In 1994 Mexico supplied 60 to 80 percent of marijuana imported into the United States, and Mexican heroin accounted for 20 percent of the United States market. The United States government estimates that 50 to 70 percent of cocaine smuggled into the United States comes by way of Mexico, most of it entering Mexico from Colombia by private aircraft or ship, then transported by land across the United States-Mexican border.

Drug abuse among Mexicans has remained relatively low, although cocaine use is on the rise, particularly along the border area, in major tourist centers, in large universities, and among street children in Mexico City. The Mexican attorney general has said that Mexico is fast becoming a drug-consuming nation. He cited economic hardship, urbanization, and the collapse of traditional family life as primary causes. A national drug control campaign, instituted in 1992, introduced drug education in schools, gave extensive publicity to prevention measures, and created a program to assist hospitalized drug addicts.

Coordination of United States and Mexican efforts to combat drug trafficking increased greatly during the terms of presidents Salinas (1988-94) and Zedillo (1994-). Mexico widened the scope and intensity of its counternarcotics effort, increasing personnel and budgets threefold between 1989 and 1993. As in the past, corruption among the police at both low and higher levels, lax enforcement, and weak legal constraints have continued to hinder the effectiveness of Mexico's interdiction campaign.

Cooperation between the two countries on narcotic crop eradication dates from 1961. For two decades until Mexico assumed all of the costs of the programs in 1993, the United States gave financial support of as much as US$20 million a year to the antidrug campaign. DEA agents continue to serve in Mexico, and the United States supplies leased helicopters to aid Mexico's efforts.

In 1992 the United States estimated that about 6,600 hectares of opium poppies used in the production of heroin had been eradicated, representing 50 percent of the opium poppy crop. The potential amount of heroin that could be produced increased to 6 tons in 1994 from 4.9 tons in 1993. Some 8,500 hectares of marijuana under cultivation, or 44 percent of the crop, were destroyed in 1994. In many areas, marijuana is difficult to detect because it is planted with corn or in small plots concealed by trees or shrubs.

Cocaine shipments generally reach Mexico from Central America by plane or are shipped to Mexican ports on the Pacific. They are then trucked to locations throughout Mexico for later transshipment over land to the Mexican-United States border. In 1990 a joint United States-Mexico air interception program was launched. The Mexican/United States unit responsible is the Northern Border Response Force. It consists of 1,800 members, overwhelmingly Mexican. Their equipment includes UH-1H transport helicopters leased from the United States and Citation II tracker aircraft. The DEA and the United States military supply radar intelligence. The success of the air interdiction operation has forced traffickers to depend more on drugs delivered by sea or hidden in vehicles. In 1994 the Northern Border Response Force seized 22 tons of cocaine, about half of the amount seized in 1993.

Stiffer drug trafficking penalties have been introduced in the Federal Penal Code, a law covering asset seizures has been passed, and laundering operations through domestic or foreign banks have been made more difficult. Few major traffickers have been arrested, however. Although corruption remains a persistent problem, some limited success has been achieved in prosecuting public officials -- who face twenty-five- to forty-year sentences -- for drug-related crimes. The murder of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo in a shoot-out among drug traffickers near the Guadalajara airport in 1993 brought public outrage. Whether Cardinal Posadas was a target of the attack or was shot accidentally was not clear. Many were arrested, including a number of federal and state police. Other gunmen, however, were able to escape aboard a departing scheduled aircraft, and the failure of police to capture the gunmen suggested collusion.

Although laws on money transfers have been tightened, it remains relatively simple to disguise the source of drug money by making cash transactions in currency exchange houses along the United States border. Mexican drug cartels have little difficulty converting their profits into legitimate business operations and real estate. Mexico also plays a critical role in the supply of precursor chemicals needed by South American producers of cocaine and heroin. Most chemicals can be purchased in Mexico and can transit Mexican ports without detection by Mexican customs.

Sensitivities over what Mexico views as United States pressures on its sovereignty have hampered cooperation over drug interdiction. The 1985 kidnapping and murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena caused lingering tension, in part because of evidence of complicity by Mexican security forces linked with the drug trade. In 1990 bounty hunters hired by the DEA captured a Mexican doctor believed to have participated in the torture of Camarena. He was spirited to the United States for trial, and his conviction in a United States court was upheld by the United States Supreme Court despite Mexican protests over what it viewed as violations of Mexican sovereignty and international law. Mexico's indignation over the United States action resulted in a revision of the rules under which the DEA operates in Mexico.

Last Updated: June 1996

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Mexico was first published in 1996. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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