One Giant Graveyard: Understanding Murder and the War on Drugs in Mexico, 2006–2013

By Ignacio Camacho

“I wish you had no narco-trafficking, but it’s not really your fault. Basically, we did too good of a job of taking the transportation out of the air and water, and so we ran it over land. I apologize for that.” — Bill Clinton

On September 26, 2014, 43 students in the state of Guerrero, Mexico disappeared, leaving no clues behind. They became the latest victims in a state in which criminals and politicians work together to kill common enemies. Even though Mexicans have become accustomed to indiscriminate killings, the evidence that this latest event was ordered by the local government generated outrage and massive protests.

The terrible events in September 2014 took place within an important historical context. In December 2006, President Felipe Calderón, with the encouragement of the United States, declared a war on drug cartels. Calderón had neither a clear strategy nor sufficient military intelligence and power to win this war. His actions led to retaliation by the cartels that resulted in a surge of homicides, kidnappings, and extortions in several states of the country.

From 2007 to 2011, violence in Mexico exploded, with the number of homicides rising from 8 to 24 per 100,000. And while the steep increase in violence was initially concentrated in certain states in Mexico, by 2013 it was widespread, likely reflecting the drug cartels’ expanded operations.

The image presented here illustrates the dramatic spread of homicides in Mexico between 2006 and 2013.  The graphic was created using data from Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI). 

As the video makes clear, states near the border with the U.S. experienced substantially more violence than states located in southern region of the country (with the exception of Guerrero). Likewise, those states with the largest number of cartels operating experienced the greatest homicide rates. During the 2006–2013 period, for example, Chihuahua had an average annual murder rate of 94 per 100,000, higher than the most violent country in the world (Honduras, with 90 homicides per 100,000 in 2012) and around 80% higher than the next most violent state, Guerrero. By comparison, Yucatan had a homicide rate of only 2.3 per 100,000, significantly lower than even Chile, the safest country in Latin America. 


It is important to underline that this spread of violence in Mexico did not correspond with the state of local economies: the poorest states were not those with highest levels of violence; likewise, the wealthiest states were not the safest.  Rather, homicides over this period were overwhelmingly driven by the presence of cartels and the proximity to the United States and its enormous drug market.

Less than three months after the disappearance of the 43 students in Guerrero, former President Bill Clinton, speaking in Mexico City, apologized to the people of Mexico for the role that U.S. demand and U.S. policy played in Mexican violence and drug trafficking.

“I wish you had no narco-trafficking,” he said. “But it’s not really your fault. Basically, we did too good of a job of taking the transportation out of the air and water, and so we ran it over land. I apologize for that.”

The analysis conducted in researching this article supports the conclusion implied by the former President in this quote: the War on Drugs appears to have been a failure and to have contributed to the violence plaguing Mexico over the last decade.

Demand for illicit drugs in the United States creates lucrative markets for Mexican drug-trafficking organizations. Mexican cartels earn around US$2 billion each year from exporting marijuana alone to the U.S. along the southwest border.

Despite the seemingly meager results in drug consumption and smuggling, the Mexican government consistently increased the budget allocated to public security and the army between 2006 and 2012. By 2012, the government spent almost US$10 billion on homeland security, compared to about US$5 billion in 2006. And while the government launched consistent attacks upon the cartels, it had a poor strategy for freezing their assets, leading to an ongoing process of new confrontations and exacerbating the violence in the country.  

Variation in Expenditures

At the same time as this spending was increasing, homicides were skyrocketing, particularly in those states along the U.S. border and with heavy presence of drug cartels, as shown below.  

Homicides in Mexico

Taken together, the strategy followed by the Mexican government toward defeating the drug cartels, along with persistent and growing demand for drugs in the United States and Mexico, appears to have contributed to the steep increase in the number of homicides between 2007 and 2011, with no corresponding reductions in consumption or in smuggling. This conclusion is supported by state- and municipal-level analysis looking at violence in Chihuahua and Guerrero over the same time period.  And while it is impossible to isolate the exact impact of the drug war on homicides and other violence in Mexico, this analysis contributes to a growing evidence base suggesting that the War on Drugs has been unsuccessful and has contributed to the astonishing rates of violence and murders in Mexico.

Ignacio Camacho is a Master of Public Policy candidate for 2015 at the Goldman School of Public Policy at University of California, Berkeley.