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Opinion Briefing: Mexico's War on Drug Traffickers

Opinion Briefing: Mexico's War on Drug Traffickers

by Jesus Rios and Julie Ray

Issue at Hand: The torture and murder of a top anti-drug official and his associates near Cancun, Mexico, two weeks ago is another macabre reminder of the epidemic of drug-related crime that continues to threaten Mexico's stability. Mexico's President Felipe Calderon said in an interview last week with Excelsior that drug-related violence claimed more than 6,000 lives last year, which is more than double the count in 2007.

Violence has soared since Calderon declared war on drug traffickers in late 2006 and deployed tens of thousands of troops to combat the cartels; much of the surge is viewed as backlash against the crackdown. Bloodshed across the U.S. border has prompted some experts in recent months to issue dire warnings about Mexico's future stability and the potential security risks to the United States.

High levels of corruption in law enforcement and the judiciary continue to hinder the Calderon administration's success in its war, but Mexico's president remains committed and seeks further cooperation from the United States. "This common problem of organized crime, terrorism, drug trafficking, which is an international problem, we can fight together," Calderon said after meeting then-President-elect Barack Obama in mid-January. "The more secure Mexico is, the more secure the United States will be."

Obama's Stance: After the January meeting, Obama applauded Calderon for his "extraordinary courage and leadership" in dealing with drug trafficking and the related violence in Mexico. According to Obama's press secretary Robert Gibbs, the then-president-elect expressed support during the meeting for "the valuable work being done under the Merida Initiative," the $1.4 billion U.S. counter-drug and anti-crime assistance package for Mexico and Central America.

Funds from the first Merida installment started to flow with the release of $197 million to Mexico in December and another $99 million last month. The initiative, which provides funds for equipment, training, and intelligence, is viewed as a positive step, but insufficient because it does not allot enough for reforming Mexico's police and other public-security institutions.

Mexicans' Views: Gallup Polls conducted in mid-2008, as casualties headed toward record levels, suggest Mexico is indeed facing a precarious situation regarding its stability and rule of law.

On Drugs, Gangs: Between 2007 and 2008, Gallup observed significant spikes in the percentages of Mexicans who said drug trafficking takes place in their neighborhoods, and who said gangs are present in their neighborhoods.

  • Nearly 6 in 10 Mexican residents (59%) said gangs are present, up from 51% in 2007.
  • More than 4 in 10 (43%) said drug trafficking or sales take place in their neighborhoods, up from 38% in 2007.


On Safety, Faith in Law Enforcement: Over the same period between 2007 and 2008, Mexicans' confidence in their local police dipped and fewer residents reported feeling safe.

  • Forty-four percent of Mexicans expressed confidence in their local police, which is down from 50% in 2007 and roughly similar to the 42% measured in 2006 before Calderon's crackdown.
  • Fifty-one percent of Mexicans said they feel safe walking alone at night, which is down from 57% in 2007 and 56% in 2006. Nearly half (48%) said they do not feel safe.
  • Mexicans who said there were gangs in their neighborhoods were roughly half as likely as those who said there were not to express confidence in the police and say they feel safe. A similar split was seen between those who said drug trafficking takes place in their neighborhoods and those who did not.


On Stability: Particularly troubling for Mexico's leadership is the sizable percentage of Mexican residents (42%) who view the sociopolitical situation in their country as unstable. Only 8% of residents said the sociopolitical situation in Mexico was very stable, while 46% said it was somewhat stable.

Residents who said gangs and drug trafficking are present in their areas were far more likely than those who said they were not present to perceive the situation as unstable. This would appear to indicate the destabilizing effect that gangs and drug traffickers are having on the sociopolitical environment.


Mexico vs. Colombia: Since 2000, the United States has sent billions in military and non-military aid to assist Colombia's anti-drug strategy, referred to as Plan Colombia. Critics of the Merida Initiative, who also refer to it as Plan Mexico, point to Plan Colombia's failure to tackle the drug-trafficking problem and eradicate illegal crops in that country. While violence is down drastically and rule of law is stronger in Colombia, coca cultivation and cocaine production are reportedly up.

A comparison of Gallup Polls conducted in Mexico and Colombia suggests that the Merida Initiative, like Plan Colombia, may help stabilize Mexico but may not necessarily control drug trafficking. Gallup's findings in Colombia tend to support the claim that rule of law has been strengthened and that corruption has been reduced; results on most measures stand in sharp relief to those in Mexico.

However, the similar percentages of Mexicans and Colombians who said drug trafficking takes place in their neighborhoods (43% and 40%, respectively) suggests drug trafficking is not likely to be lowered significantly if little is done to curb consumption with the best customers -- illicit drug users in the United States. In Colombia and Mexico, the percentages of residents saying in 2008 that drug trafficking takes place in their neighborhoods is up from the previous year.

But to avoid oversimplification, it's important to provide some context to these figures and note the differences between Colombia's and Mexico's situations. The 2008 scores reflect where the two countries have arrived in processes that have developed over the years and the tipping points each has recently reached. In Colombia's case, improvements in security and rule of law are the result of years of efforts, as is evident in surveys conducted before and since Plan Colombia and President Alvaro Uribe's Democratic Security policy.


Conversely, the situation in Mexico had been deteriorating gradually, and reached its tipping point last year when the government launched its crackdown on organized crime. Mexico's explosion in violence is the result of years of smaller-scale violence and relatively less aggressive government action.

Policy Implications: Strengthening institutions and the rule of law in Mexico is not only in the best interest of the citizens of Mexico, but also in the interests of their neighbors in the United States and Central America. Gallup's data suggest that aid to the Mexican government needs to be framed as a comprehensive anti-drug strategy aimed not only at fighting the conditions that favor production and trafficking, but also at reducing consumption in the United States.

Survey Methods

Results are based face-to-face interviews with approximately 1,000 adults, aged 15 and older, conducted in August 2008 in Mexico and Colombia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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