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.
In 2006, President Felipe Calderón had ended decades of government inaction by sending federal troops to the states affected by drug violence, a policy that had led to an estimated 60,000 deaths by the end of his administration in 2012. President Peña Nieto has changed tactics slightly, focusing on reducing violence rather than head-on conflict. Zeta leader Heriberto Lazcano was killed in 2012; top Zeta bosses the Morales brothers were arrested in 2013; and Mexico’s most-wanted men, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán (Sinaloa Cartel), Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (Juárez Cartel) and Héctor Beltrán Leyva (Beltrán Leyva Cartel) were captured in 2014. Though Nieto’s polices have so far succeeded in reducing the number of killings, the drug cartels are still very much in business. El Chapo escaped from prison in 2015, and in 2014, the Iguala mass kidnapping of 43 students by a drug gang in collusion with local police in Guerrero horrified the nation (months later it was confirmed that all 43 had been killed); the case led to national and international protests and a string of high-profile resignations and arrests.
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