Since 2006 the escalating Mexican drug wars – a violent struggle between rival cartels to control the flow of narcotics into the US, and increasingly, between these gangs and the Mexican government – has put a huge dent in the nation’s tourist industry. The violence made prime-time news in the US in 2009, and has led to a stream of official travel warnings to Mexico ever since.

Mexican gangs began to take over the US cocaine trade from the Colombians in the 1990s, and were originally drawn into roughly two rival camps led by the Gulf Cartel, based in Matamoros, and the Sinaloa Cartel with its ally the Juárez Cartel (Gulf ally the Tijuana Cartel has been dramatically weakened in recent years). In 2007, however, the Juárez Cartel started a vicious turf war with the Sinaloa Cartel, for control of Ciudad Juárez. Drug violence and political corruption has also plagued the state of Tamaulipas, and to a lesser extent parts of Veracruz. In 2011 the attention turned to the Tamaulipas border town of Nuevo Laredo, and another grisly turf war between Los Zetas (an especially terrifying group of former Mexican special forces soldiers), and the Gulf Cartel (until 2010 the Gulf Cartel were actually allies of the Zetas). The Zetas have so far dominated, ruling the city with fear; a string of chilling crimes in 2012 included the hanging of nine bodies from a Laredo bridge and the dumping of 49 decapitated and dismembered bodies on a highway near Monterrey.

Alliances are always changing, but today Los Zetas, the Beltrán Leyva Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel seem to be locked in battle with the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel (led by Mexico’s most-wanted man, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán) and La Familia Michoacana. In 2006, President Felipe Calderón ended decades of government inaction by sending federal troops to the states affected by drug violence, but it remains to be seen whether the policy will continue under President Nieto.

Despite the sensational headlines, it’s important to remember that most of Mexico remains peaceful. As a visitor it is extremely unlikely you’ll see any sign of drug violence and there’s actually little evidence that tourists are targeted by drug gangs – headlines in the media often attribute petty crime or muggings, which can happen anywhere, to drug gangs, adding to the sense of fear. It obviously makes sense to avoid the major trouble spots, however, particularly along the US border. If driving a car from the US, check the current situation with US authorities before you go.

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