, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 306-328
Date: 01 Mar 2013

Mexico’s shifting criminal landscape: changes in gang operation and structure during the past century

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Mexico’s battles with criminal groups, organized primarily around the drug trade, are a longstanding source of trouble for the North American nation. They also represent a major bilateral issue for the US, not least because of countless examples of the Mexican government protecting organized crime. But though concern over drug smuggling has been constant on both sides of the border for more than four decades, there has been an enormous amount of change within the criminal landscape during that time period.

As this essay will argue, the gangs that replaced the small-time opium runner of half a century ago are more sophisticated and globalized today. However, a decades-long trend of steady consolidation has reversed; since 1990, the industry has grown far more fractured, despite the increased overall sophistication within the industry. Today’s smaller gangs are also more likely to make their money from activities other than drug trafficking, and have grown steadily more violent in recent ...