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How cartel violence affects the US-Mexico relationship

Drug cartels have wreaked havoc for decades in Mexico. Thousands of people die every year including politicians, students and journalists.
Posted at 8:59 PM, Mar 10, 2023

The latest drug cartel violence grasping American victims is putting U.S. - Mexico relations on full display, with some politicians bellowing tough talk about U.S. military battling the cartels. Mexican politicians remind the U.S. it’s a sovereign nation with a long memory about our shared relationship.  

For many Americans, Mexico is the vacationland of beautiful beaches, cold drinks and delicious food. But last week’s kidnapping and killing of two Americans has reminded us of another Mexico. 

"Mexico is a safe haven. It is a narco terrorists state. The safe haven provides Mexican cartels the ability with impunity to deliver lethal doses of fentanyl into our nation," said Sen. Lindsey Graham. 

Mexico is the second largest trading partner of the United States, with about $726 billion in 2021 according to the U.S. State Department.

"So we trade $1.5 million a minute with Mexico," said Ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

It’s a robust market of oil production, minerals and machinery, automobiles and of course tourism, with Mexico being the top foreign destination for U.S. travelers. Wayne served in the Obama administration. He says Mexico views its northern neighbor through the lens of history and very skeptically.  

"But underneath that surface of building trust in the minds of many Mexicans was always this history. Because they all learned going to elementary and and middle and high school. The United States took half of our country away," Wayne said. 

Drug cartels have wreaked havoc for decades in Mexico. Thousands of people die every year including politicians, students and journalists. 

The Council on Foreign Relations says the cartels dominate the U.S. market for cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl — feeding an appetite estimated to be more than $150 billion annually. 

Jerry Robinette, a retired special agent for Homeland Security Investigations, says inside Mexico, the cartels did foster corruption by bribing police, judges and elected officials. Meanwhile they battle each other for turf control, with innocent people getting caught in the crossfire. 

Mexican police investigator inspects the minivan were four Americans where shot and taken

Apology letter found after US citizens killed in Mexico

Cartels often issue comuniques to intimidate rivals/authorities, but also to do PR work to smooth over situations that could affect their business.


"I mean, the abilities of the cartels to get to the point that they're at today is really because of the amount of drugs that we consume here in the United States," Robinette said. "And so used to be a time when the cartels had to work with the law enforcement, had to coordinate with law enforcement, had to get permission, had to have some sort of coordination. It's it's just the opposite. Now, the governments have to coordinate with these cartels as to what they can or can't do in this region."

Public relations are a key component of the drug trade in Mexico. In the kidnapping and murder of the Americans in Matamoros, there are reports a faction of the cartel known as the Scorpions turned over five men they say are responsible for the killings. 

They included a note of apology, saying they violated rules to respect "the life and well-being of the innocent."

However, gangs have also been known to come up with schemes to blame others for violent incidents. Scripps News has tried to use facial recognition to compare those identified as the kidnappers with video from the incidents. But the low quality of the imagery has made it difficult to independently confirm they are the same people. 

Public relations is also a concern for the Mexican government, trying to head off threats of U.S. military intervention like the one Sen. Lindsey Graham floated this week.  

"We're going to introduce an authorization to use military force where the United States military can go in and destroy these labs and destroy these networks if possible," Sen. Graham said. 

The president of Mexico bristled at remarks from Washington, telling reporters threats like those from Graham are an insult and show "a lack of respect for our independence and sovereignty." 

The U.S. State Department warns Americans that six states in Mexico have been deemed "do not travel" areas and Americans should reconsider visits to seven others. Unwanted attention in a country where tourism makes up about 8% of its gross domestic product.