Authoritarianism On The Rise: The War on Drug’s Erosion of Mexican Democracy

By: Otto Raul Tielemans, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs


Church bells that once called Mexico’s pious to mass no longer carry the uplifting melody that they once did. For nearly a decade, church bells throughout the country have echoed the multiple sounds of sorrow and pain experienced by Mexico’s parents, siblings, and spouses—all of whom have lost loved ones in the War on Drugs.

Since its inception in 2006, the War on Drugs has succeeded in amassing a death toll estimated to be over 120,000 [1]. A whopping 1.6 million people have been displaced [2]. All the while, the Mexican government continues to bankroll a multi-billion dollar “war” with the unilateral help of its northern neighbor, the United States.

As if the burgeoning Latin American country has not suffered enough, the War on Drugs has progressively managed to disintegrate the country’s ever-frail democracy. Through the enactment of estados de excepción (states of exception), Mexico’s executive branch has enabled itself to rule by decree, effectively circumventing Congress and bypassing the nation’s constitution [3]. Freedom of press, speech, and movement have all been left handicapped, with the military being able to operate freely outside of its constitutional confinements. These infringements on democracy will be addressed throughout the course of this essay in order to highlight the danger that human rights periodically face in this most troubled Latin American country.

Restoring Public Safety: Mexico Fights Back

Responding to crippling levels of violence, President Felipe Calderon swept into office in 2006 with the intention of combatting organized crime. His declaration of a “war” on drugs was met with the deployment of Mexican military personnel to combat the country’s numerous criminal organizations. At the end of 2008, some 40,000 soldiers and 5,000 federal police officers were involved in the fight against drug trafficking [4].

Although President Calderon’s decision to use the armed forces was highly controversial domestically, his administration was quick to obtain support abroad. The United States, Mexico’s largest trade partner, pledged $400 million USD for military assistance in 2008 [5]. Since then, the Americans have given an excess of $1.3 billion USD, an exuberant amount that continues to grow under both Republican and Democrat presidencies [6]. Ironically, Washington has been extremely hospitable to an influx of another cohort of Mexican citizens, all of whom are soldiers that stay temporarily to be educated on American military tactics, necessary to execute counterinsurgency operations in their own country [7].

The pooling together of these assets (i.e. U.S.-trained military personnel, foreign financial assistance, etc.) has enabled the Mexican authorities to orchestrate systematic counternarcotic operations in which soldiers attempt to apprehend criminals involved in drug production and trafficking.

While drastic in its goal to tackle organized crime, the drug war has shown considerable success in the apprehension of more than 121,000 criminals [8]. With less than 9,000 convictions made, the government has shown some success in crippling the production and trafficking of narcotics—even if the impact on criminal organizations is only temporary.

 An Imperial Presidency Restored

When commencing the War on Drugs, the Mexican government aspired to freely persecute those it believed to be part of the illicit drug trade. However, the country’s 1917 constitution, designed to safeguard civilians from an overbearing government, prevented the government from initiating broad military campaigns.

In 2009, President Calderon submitted a bill to the Mexican Congress that would effectively enable the executive branch to circumvent the nation’s various constitutional restraints and legislative “checks.” Although the Calderon administration legitimized its power grab by emphasizing the need to restore public safety, the bill catalyzed the erosion of various democratic institutions that resulted in the consequences analyzed below.

Circumventing Congress: The Waning Power of Mexico’s Legislature

To his credit, President Calderon followed the constitutional procedures required to enlarge his powers as chief executive. His actions, while damaging to civil liberties and the country’s democracy, did obtain the required legislative approval.

That being said, President Calderon’s 2009 bill endowed the executive with the ability to have his Consejo de Seguridad Nacional (National Security Council), an entity filled with presidential appointees, declare estados de excepción [9]. This power, previously reserved for Congress, abandons legislative approval and allows the executive to suspend civil liberties systematically with little to no opposition coming from the country’s major political ranks.

Even more damaging is the fact that through estados de excepción, the country’s executive has been able to govern through decree [10]. Allowing the president to circumvent congress, the executive is able to pass bills without consulting the country’s elected representatives. Most recently, President Peña Nieto has initiated various reforms concerning taxation and water regulation, demonstrating his ability to manipulate current political instability in order to implement reforms in areas not relevant to the War on Drugs [11].

The Siege of Civil Liberties: Mexico’s Suspension of Human Rights

By means of declaring multiple estados de excepción in “states” throughout the country, the Mexican government has acquired the power to restrict basic human rights. Freedom of speech, movement, and assembly are all suspended upon the request of the government [12]. Much like the U.S. National Security Agency, government officials also have the option of engaging in the systematic monitoring of citizens’ private communications [13]. Those perceived to be involved in drug trafficking face even greater scrutiny – especially since habeas corpus is suspended under estados de excepción and suspected criminals can be kept in prison for 80 days without being presented with specific charges [14].

Although the Mexican government has a legitimate conflict to address, the suspension of previously guaranteed civil liberties not only cripples civil society, but also leaves citizens vulnerable to the mercy of government officials. In a country whose police force has 50 percent of its officers engaging in corrupt activities, it is disturbing that common citizens may be extorted or brutalized on a daily basis, with no one to turn to for help [15].

Estados de Excepción: A Golden Ticket For The Mexican Military

Mexico’s military has played an extensive role throughout the country’s history, particularly in its governance. In order to prevent the armed forces from endangering the nation’s democracy, Mexico’s constitution confines the military to a role that is separate from the political process. While this confinement is beneficial in safeguarding the country’s democracy, Mexico’s military lacks transparency in its operations and is known to be indiscriminate in its acts of aggression.

Under estados de excepción, the armed forces have been given sweeping powers to quell violence and demolish organized crime [16]. Allegations have surfaced by two mothers that soldiers abducted their two sons, atrociously torturing one and brutally beating the other one to death [17]. Reports of more than 70 individuals having been tortured, raped, and/or murdered by members of the military add to the seemingly unending list of atrocities committed by government forces that claimed to be protecting the public [18].

While calls by the public to have soldiers prosecuted in civilian courts have emerged, the country’s judicial system has been active in ensuring that the Mexican military is shielded from public scrutiny. The Supreme Court of Mexico validated the authority of military courts to judge soldiers involved in crimes against civilians in August 2009 [19]. This strategic move not only further bolstered the strength of the armed forces, but also assigned them with the approval to conduct mass violence against those they perceive to be enemies of the state without fearing any retaliation by the country’s judicial system.

In addition to their exception from the law, evidence has surfaced implicating various military figures in corruption scandals with narcotic trafficking organizations. Most notably, General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo was found to have accepted bribes from drug traffickers in 1997 [20]. Under the presidency of Vicente Fox, 2,600 federal law officers were fired or suspended for bribery and corruption-related charges [21]. In 2008, both the head of the Sub-Prosecutor for Special Investigations into Organized Crime (SIEDO) and two heads of Interpol in the country were investigated for receiving bribes from a Sinaloa drug cartel [22]. The list of corrupt military and state officials appears almost endless.

It should be noted that an excess of 120,000 Mexican soldiers, many of whom were trained in the United States, have deserted the military in order to pursue a lucrative career with drug cartels [23]. Effectively, this leaves the government in a fight against a self-created enemy that contains vast insight into the military’s operations and tactics.

Violence and Poverty: Setting The Stage For Authoritarianism?

Mexico’s progressive shift towards authoritarianism is not simply the result of the executive and military actively pursuing greater power; it is also the net result of a crippling economic environment and violent social atmosphere.

Following a series of bank crises and global financial meltdowns, Mexico has been plagued with having to battle a series of economic catastrophes. Its economy has been estimated to have an annual GDP of $1.2 trillion USD, which is limited in its ability to expand due to the high cost of security that is needed for economic enterprises to operate within the country. According to some scholars, security expenditures add an additional 8 to 15 percent to business operations [24]. And although the Mexican government has been on an aggressive campaign to attract foreign investors to the country’s burgeoning manufacturing sector, the fact of the matter is that the danger and high costs of business operations handicap economic prosperity. This, in combination with an increased level of militarized warfare, is estimated to decrease economic growth by approximately 1% [25]. The combination of these factors inhibits the government from creating jobs that would otherwise help employ some of the county’s 6 million unemployed citizens.

With more than 52 percent of the population living in extreme poverty, financial disparity makes the country’s impoverished persons prime bait for drug cartels [26]. While dangerous, the hefty salary paid by organized crime ensures the loyalty and steady supply of countless workers. As it stands, drug cartels employ over half a million people in Mexico alone [27]. Their growing network of well-paid criminals not only ensures a steady flow of narcotics to North America and Europe, but also guarantees the perpetuation of the War on Drugs by having citizens feed into the very system that the Mexican government is attempting to dismantle.

Due to the increasing scope of the conflict, the government is likely to restrict civil liberties and continue to endow the executive and military with relatively unchecked powers in order to resolve the issue at hand. This erosion of liberal democratic values, regardless of good intentions, will ensure the growth of authoritarianism in a country whose history is blotched with right-wing dictatorships and vast periods of oppression.

The War on Drugs is approaching a decade of violence with increasing evidence that the endless violence is setting the stage for antidemocratic governance to engulf the country. With reports citing an approximate 1.6 million people as having been displaced, momentum has grown within the public to equip the government with the power necessary to end the drug cartels’ reckless actions [28].

Polls from 2012 demonstrate that 80 percent of the Mexican population supports using the army to combat drug violence [29]. Studies show that almost three in every four individuals (73 percent) viewed the military positively in 2012. Moreover, trust in national government leaped from 54 to 65 percent between 2011 and 2012 [30]. With the average citizen demonstrating an increased sense of trust in their government and the armed forces, civil society has overwhelmingly rejected the notion of defending human rights and basic liberties. As a matter of fact, the argument could be made that the Mexican public has decided to trade basic liberties for security. Especially with one-third of the population being in favor of having the United States send troops to Mexico, sovereignty and civil liberties are viewed as insignificant by a considerable number of the Mexican populace when it comes to combating unmanageable levels of violence [31].

Finally, ambitious politicians and power-hungry military leaders are not the only catalyst in Mexico’s reactionary shift towards an illiberal democracy. The government’s failure to create an adequate number of jobs, in addition to prolonged warfare between government forces and criminal organizations, has driven desperate citizens into fostering a climate that favors the deterioration of democratic values in exchange for a perceived sense of security.

Prospects For A Better Tomorrow?

Mexico is cursed by its geography. Although blessed with vast oil reserves, the fact that the country is nestled between the United States (the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs) and South America (a region of vast narcotic production) ensures that it is constantly battling with drugs trafficking across its borders [32]. Needless to say, U.S. pressures to dismantle the operations of drug producers, in addition to social unrest, puts the Mexican government in a difficult position.

While everyone who loves Mexico wants to see it flourish as a developed country, the fact is until Mexico can attract investments, create a greater number of jobs, and restore social tranquility; it is inevitable that criminal organizations will continue to prey on impoverished and poorly educated persons. These shortcomings will only add to the conflict, resulting in continued violence and countless fatalities.

It is highly unlikely that Mexico’s War on Drugs will be resolved in the near future. If violence does subside, then the country will have a much easier task addressing issues of wealth disparity, lackluster education, and poor labor conditions. Sadly, the reality of the situation is that violence will continue and the government will actively attempt to grant itself with greater, unchecked powers to combat the problem. Doing so will inevitably dismantle what remains of the country’s democratic fabric and condemn the nation and its people to oppression by corrupt government officials.

If the government truly wishes to help its people in its campaign against narcotics, then it should also be proactive in safeguarding civil liberties and ensuring that the country’s constitution, especially regarding the judicial and legislative bodies, is respected. The failure to reverse the erosion of liberal democratic values and traditions will condemn the country to return to another period of dictatorship and political oppression. This act, which would unjustly damage the daily life of every Mexican citizen, will also inevitably add to the country’s perils by condemning future generations to a life of continued hardship, disparity, and persecution.

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: and Rights Action.


[1] Ferreira Rodriguez, Octavio and Molzahn, Cory and Shirk, David, “Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2011,” Trans-Border Institute: University of San Diego, March 2012, accessed May 18, 2014,

[2] Mitchell Oswald, Dave, “Killers in high places: Drugs, gangs, and Harper’s war on the poor,” Briarpatch Magazine, Jane 1, 2013, accessed May 17, 2014,

[3] Willliams, Gareth, The Mexican Exception: Sovereignty, Police, and Democracy, (New York: Palgrave Macmillian 2011), 4 – 10.

[4] González E., Francisco, “Mexico’s Drug War Gets Brutal,” Current History, February 2009, accessed May 17,

[5] Nieto, Catalina, “More U.S. Aid Won’t End Mexico’s Drug War,” Common Dreams, March 5, 2011, accessed May 21,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Grillo, Ioan, “U.S. Troops Increase Aid To Mexico In Drug War,” NPR, October 6, 2011, accessed June 3, 2014,

[8] “Oficial: más de 22 mil 700 muertos por violencia,” El Universal, April 13, 2010, accessed May 25,

[9] Lindau D., Juan, “The Drug War’s Impact on Executive Power, Judicial Reform, and Federalism in Mexico,” Political Science Quarterly: 177 – 200, 2011, accessed May 28, 2014,

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Mexico’s President issues Decree granting tax incentives to maquiladoras,” Global Tax Alert, December 30, 2013, accessed June 1 2014,$File/2013G_CM4064_Mexicos%20president%20issues%20decree%20granting%20tax%20incentives%20to%20maquiladoras.pdf

“The President Signs Two Decrees To Regulate Water Rights For The Benefit of Over 23 Million Users,” México: Presidencia de la República, March 26, 2014, accessed June 1, 2014,

[12] Lindau D., Juan, “The Drug War’s Impact on Executive Power, Judicial Reform, and Federalism in Mexico,” Political Science Quarterly: 177 – 200, 2011, accessed May 28, 2014,

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Annual Report 2013: Mexico,” Amnesty International, 2013, accessed June 2, 2014,

[15] Morris D., Stephen, “Corruption, Drug Trafficking, and Violence in Mexico,” Middle Tennessee State University, 2012, accessed June 7, 2014,

[16] Lindau D., Juan, “The Drug War’s Impact on Executive Power, Judicial Reform, and Federalism in Mexico,” Political Science Quarterly: 177 – 200, 2011, accessed May 28, 2014,

[17] “Neither Rights Nor Securities: Killings, Torture, and Disappearances in Mexico’s ‘War on Drugs’,” Human Rights Watch, 2011, accessed June 10, 2014,

[18] Ibid.

[19] Lindau D., Juan, “The Drug War’s Impact on Executive Power, Judicial Reform, and Federalism in Mexico,” Political Science Quarterly: 177 – 200, 2011, accessed May 28, 2014,

[20] Helms, Jesse, Mexican and American Responses to the International Narcotics Threat, (New York: Diane Publishing Co. 1999), pp. 125 – 130.

[21] Lindau D., Juan, “The Drug War’s Impact on Executive Power, Judicial Reform, and Federalism in Mexico,” Political Science Quarterly: 177 – 200, 2011, accessed May 28, 2014,

 [22] Ibid.

[23] Lloyd, Marion, “Mexican army’s soldiers fleeing for drug cartels,” Houston Chronicle, June 18, 2007, accessed June 10, 2014,

[24] “Doing Business in Mexico: 2013 Country Commercial Guide for U.S. Companies,” United States Chamber of America Department of Commerce, 2012, accessed June 9, 2014,

[25] Gould Erik, Jens and Levin J., Jonathan, “Mexico’s GDP Expands 4.3% Even as Calderon’s Drug War Drags on Economy,” Bloomberg, May 20, 2010, accessed June 9, 2014,

[26] “Mexico: Data,” The World Bank, 2012, accessed June 9, 2014,

[27] Wilton, Jen, “Mexican Politics and Economy: New Law Compensates Victims of Drug Violence,” Pulsa Merica, January 14, 2013, accessed June 8, 2014,

[28] “Desplazados, tragedia silenciosa en México,” El Economista, January 7, 2012, accessed June 2, 2014,

[29] “Mexicans Back Military Campaign Against Cartels,” Pew Research Global Attitude Project, June 20, 2012, accessed May 28, 2014,

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Warner, Jennifer, “U.S. Leads the World in Illegal Drug Use,” CBS News, July 1, 2008, accessed May 27, 2014,



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