Case Study: Mexico's Cartel Problem


Mexican cartels have corrupted the social, political, and public life in Mexico for some time. However, over the last decade, these cartels have evolved into complex criminal networks engaged in various illicit activities, such as human trafficking and smuggling of cash and weapons. The unprecedented increase in recent years in cartel-related violence has presented growing challenges to Mexico’s socio-economic stability as well as to the United States’ (US) National interests. ANSER analysts were asked to identify key dynamics associated with Mexican cartels and their operation, and assess the existing response strategies’ potential to bring about systemic change.


ANSER approached the cartel problem as a complex system. Following a thorough literature review, the study team identified key social, economic, political, and legal variables that shape the broader environment in Mexico that contribute to, facilitate and tolerate cartels’ organized crime activities. Using CLDs, the study team characterized the dynamic relationships and complex feedbacks between these variables involved in different domains of cartel operations, identifying in the process the inherently systemic causal factors (Figure 1).

Figure 1: CLD of Mexican Cartels Operations and Problem Context


The CLD characterization of the cartel problem context in Mexico revealed several insights. Some highlights include:

  • Many systemic ills served as root causes that enabled cartel’s survival and flourishing within Mexico. These root causes ranged from poor socio-economic conditions to political and legal shortcomings in Mexico’s public institutions. For example, problems with education system exacerbated economic underdevelopment, helping cartel recruitments or encouraging illegal population flows into the United States. Similarly, widespread corruption in critical public sectors (e.g., police force, judicial system, prisons and customs) created an environment that lacks credible deterrence from crime, allowing cartels and their affiliate criminal organizations operate with impunity.
  • While these factors are individually important, it is their collective impact on the Mexican domestic environment as well as individual perceptions that provide the incentives, motivations, and favorable cost/benefit evaluations that nurture continued cartel operations.
  • An assessment of the then-leading response strategy (a joint US-Mexico program, the Merida initiative) indicated that authorities invested much of their resources in low-leverage law enforcement measures (e.g., training of Mexican law enforcement personnel and procurement of equipment) addressing what CLD analysis revealed to be the symptoms of the problem (e.g., capture of cartel leaders, seized contraband). These quick fixes promised only short-term improvement that cannot be sustained in the long run as the root causes of the problem went unaddressed.
  • Without high-leverage interventions that address the deeper economic, social, and political root causes (of illicit activities), lasting change (e.g., decreasing recruitment success of cartels, increased rates of prosecution and punishment of cartel members) is not possible. A key goal should be restoring key public institutions’ reputation and credibility.
  • Low-leverage interdiction operations led to the unintended consequence of unprecedented levels of violence as cartels began fighting for turf and seeking new resources to maintain their fighting capabilities.


The study presented practical policy recommendations informed by the systemic assessment of the cartel problem. The assessment acknowledged the demands for and necessity of quick-fix solutions in Mexico in light of the growing public safety concerns and recommended that these solutions be coupled with high-leverage, long-term reform initiatives that simultaneously and systematically address the shortcomings in economic, social, and political institutions within Mexico.

Read more about this project here: