Mexico’s criminal industry

The intersection of Transnational Organized Crime and instability. UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

By: Raul Romero*

The official narrative imposed on Mexico around drug trafficking and the war on drugs has generated a series of confusions in Mexican society that must be cleared up in order to understand the problem we are facing. A first phenomenon to be clarified is the fact that drug trafficking is only one of the businesses of a criminal industry that, in addition, is transnational. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, transnational organized crime is characterized by operating in more than one State and includes more than 20 businesses, including extortion, kidnapping, illegal trafficking in arms, people and natural resources, and drug trafficking, among others.

One key business, as it is one of the contact points between the legal and the illegal, is money laundering: it is here where the resources generated in the criminal industry businesses, and others such as corruption and tax evasion, are laundered to be inserted into the financial systems. For this to happen, a complex web develops between criminal corporations, bankers, politicians, law enforcement, government and financial institutions.

As in other businesses, the criminal industry is made up of corporations, known as cartels. Criminal corporations compete with each other for territory, for branches of their industry, for markets, for communication channels and media, and to expand their influence in other businesses. An example of the latter is the participation of these groups in huachicol (Santa Rosa de Lima), in mining (Caballeros Templarios), in avocado (Jalisco Nueva Generación cartel) or as paramilitaries as a form of surrogate repression (Zetas). In this competition for the control of markets and territories, criminal corporations not only confront each other with their private armies, but also have their allies in the municipal, state and federal security forces, who make or allow them to wage war. The populations that inhabit these territories directly experience the terror of war: assassinations, forced disappearances, forced recruitment… On occasion, they also form alliances with other national or transnational corporations to confront common enemies or to increase their profits.

Diamond-studded guns belonging to a Mexican drug boss.

It was the process of neoliberalization that facilitated the expansion and diversification of these industries’ businesses. Organized crime was also globalized. Weapons produced in Germany reached Mexico, the money of Mexican criminal corporations reached Panama, Switzerland and other tax havens. Poppy harvested by Mexican peasants arrived in the United States in the form of heroin, and chemicals from China are used in Mexican laboratories to produce fentanyl, which is consumed in the neighboring country to the north and increasingly in Mexico.

There are also social classes in the criminal industry. At the top of the pyramid are those who are referred to as white-collar criminals, those who apparently have nothing to do with it, but who are the main beneficiaries. Likewise, the nouveau riche emerged, such as the one who offered to pay the country’s foreign debt if he was freed. [1]

The impoverished sectors are those who perform the jobs of production and distribution, and those who fill out the private armies. Many of the jobs performed by these sectors are carried out through violence, pressure or extortion: indigenous and peasant communities are forced to change their traditional crops for marijuana or poppy. Women are kidnapped and forced into prostitution and production of pornography. Children and adolescents are recruited to do surveillance or scouting work. There have even been cases of kidnapping groups of masons or engineers for the construction of infrastructure and communication systems. The renting of children for illegal human trafficking, or the use of bodies -mainly women- for international drug trafficking, are part of these contemporary forms of slavery.

Criminal corporations also have influence and control over sectors of the administrative apparatus of the Mexican state. Whether financing campaigns, imposing their own members as governors or assassinating candidates or governors, criminal corporations intermingle with political power to guarantee protection, impunity and also the allocation of portfolios. For a better example, the Genaro García Luna case, [2] but it’s not the only one.

Much more could be written about it, such as the patriarchal nature of the criminal industry or the cultural market that has been formed in this regard. Contrary to what many claim, criminal corporations are not a market failure or anomaly, but a consequence of a system that commodifies everything. The problem is neither new nor local, it has been developing for decades and it would be worthwhile to observe with this perspective the place of the criminal industry in the national and global economy. The solution is neither near nor simple, but there are alternatives. Of that there is no doubt.

* Sociologist. @RaulRomero_mx


[1] Rafael Caro Quintero, of the Guadalajara Cartel, after his arrest in 1985, was rumored to have offered to pay Mexico’s foreign debt (at the time 8- billion dollars) for his freedom.

[2] Genaro García Luna, the former Mexican Secretary of Public Security from 2006-2012, was arrested in 2019 for taking millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa Cartel during his term in office.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Saturday, June 18, 2022,  English Translation by Schools for Chiapas and Re-Published by the Chiapas Support Committee

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