What every American should know about the war on drugs in Chihuahua, but was afraid to ask

By Víctor M. Quintana S.

“Twin plants” is a common phrase along our border that arrived with the offshore assembly plants. The establishment of the maquiladora industry obeys a binational logic: What Mexico assembles is either manufactured or will be finished in a U.S. factory. The production process is not contained within a single nation; the cycle can only be completed by the flow between the two nations.

That’s how we should think about the “war on drugs”. Ordered by Felipe Calderón at the beginning of his administration in December 2006, the war came to Chihuahua in March 2008 with “Joint Operation Chihuahua”. This is a binational war. The only way to adequately understand it is to think about the decision-making, capital flows, social networks, institutions, and beneficiaries on each side of the border.

Chihuahua, state of many forms of violence

The media often talk about the alarming number of homicides, kidnappings, extortion, shoot-outs, and arson attacks on businesses in the state of Chihuahua. But criminal violence is not the only kind of violence that is shaking up this northern border state. In Chihuahua, government violence, interpersonal violence, economic violence and social violence all come together.

Criminal violence:

§ Intentional homicide is the bloodiest and most visible form of crime. In 2007, the year before the Joint Operation began, there were around 469 homicides in the entire state– a rate of 14.4 per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2010, the number of assassinations reached 5,212–148.91 for every 100,000 inhabitants. In other words, since the beginning of the war on drugs, the intentional homicide rate has multiplied by ten.[1] According to the online publication La Opción, in 2011 there were 2,459 cases of intentional homicide in the entire state of Chihuahua: 1,502 in Ciudad Juarez and 526 in the state capital. These numbers bring the total number of assassinations in the state during the past three years to more than 11,000. Almost one in every three homicides in Calderon’s war on drugs has occurred in the state of Chihuahua.

§ Youth homicides: INEGI, Mexico’s national statistics institute, reports that from 2007 to 2009 homicide became the leading cause of death of youth aged 15 and 29. Nationally, the numbers went from 2,977 deaths a year to 7,438–an increase of 147%. In Chihuahua, in 2007, the year before Operation Conjunto Chihuahua went into effect, 201 were killed. In 2009, the number was 1,647–an increase of 719%. This means that the chance that a young person in our state will be a victim of homicide is five times greater than the national average.

§ Common crime: According to figures from the Attorney General’s Office, the total number of crimes committed in the state of Chihuahua in 2007 was 34,800; by 2010, the number had increased to 66,125, some 90% more than before the operation began.[2]

§ Reported kidnappings: In 2007 there were 21 reported cases of kidnapping; in 2008, 42. By 2009 the number had risen to 190; it declined to 132 in 2010.[3]

§ Vehicular robbery: In 2007 there were 9,490 cases reported in the entire state. In 2010, the number of cases rose to 30,757–an increase of 224%. Carjackings, defined as stealing a motor vehicle by force or violence, now represents a growing percentage of cases of vehicular robbery.[4].

§ Disappeared persons: From March 2008 to April 2011 there were around 200 cases of forced disappearances. From January to August of 2011 there have been 107 cases.[5]

§ Femicides: The Attorney General’s Office and the Women’s Institute of Chihuahua document the number of assassinations of women in the state. In 2010, the number of cases reached 370. The non-governmental organization Justicia para Nuestras Hijas reports that as of September 24, 2011, the number of women assassinated this year in the state of Chihuahua was 282. [6]

§ Since operations began under Felipe Calderón and Governors Reyes Baeza and César Duarte, 10,000 children in the state of Chihuahua have been orphaned. Thousands have been displaced from their homes, among them 230,000 residents of Ciudad Juarez—one of every five residents of that border city. Incursions by gangs of hit men against unarmed villages, such as Nicolás Bravo and El Alamillo in the municipality of Madera, Jicamórachi in the municipality of Uruachi, Pachera in Guerrero and many others, have also increased dramatically.

State-sponsored violence:

  • As of September 22, 1,092 complaints of human rights violations committed by police or military forces had been registered since the Chihuahua Joint Operation began. It’s estimated to be only 10% of the actual number. (El Diario, Sept. 22, 2011).
  • Emblematic cases of forced disappearances: Carlos and José Luis Guzmán Zúñiga (November 2008, Ciudad Juárez). Nitza Paola, Rocío Irene and José Angel Alvarado, (December 2009, Ejido Benito Juárez). Eight men from the Muñoz Veleta family (Col.Anáhuac, June 19, 2011). Five inmates and two employees of the Centro de Rehabilitación CAADIC, (Cuauhtémoc, June 21). Five members of the Ibarra Rodríguez family. (Cuauhtémoc, July-August).

Social violence in Chihuahua:

Chihuahua has highest suicide rate of any state in Mexico, with 1,562 cases between 2004 and 2010. The second-highest number of accidents, at 1,267 for every 100,000 inhabitants; the fourth-highest rate of family violence, 128 cases a month; and the highest rate of reported rapes in the nation. In 2010, there were 26 cases of rape reported for every 100,000 inhabitants.

Impact of violence in Chihuahua

The human and social costs of violence in this northern state are very high. In just three years, in addition to the orphans and displaced mentioned above, 116,000 homes have been abandoned in Ciudad Juárez alone.[7] Vast areas of the state’s rural zones are being depopulated. Many communities are dying. Terror and uncertainty reign throughout the region.

The economic costs have also been very high: Between 2007 and 2010, 92,474 full-time jobs have been lost. As of August 2010, the official unemployment rate in Chihuahua was the fourth highest in the nation: 7.44% of the economically active population, compared to a national average of 5.55%. Foreign direct investment declined by one third from 2005 to 2010, from $1.514 billion USD to $1.002 billion. From 2005 to 2010 the national GDP grew at an average rate of 2.03%, while in Chihuahua the rate was 1.33%. Salaries also deteriorated: the average salary declined to 12th place in the nation, 224.39 pesos a day, compared to the national average of 247.06 pesos.

As a result of all of the above, poverty in Chihuahua has increased at a higher rate than it has in most of the rest of the country. Chihuahua was one of three states with the highest increase in poverty between 2008 and 2010, with 255,000 newly impoverished residents. It also declined one level between 2005 and 2010 in measurements of programs and services designed to alleviate poverty.

Hypothesis about violence: Causes and effects

  1. Mexico, especially Chihuahua, is experiencing a total crisis of security on all levels: human, economic, social, public. It is a humanitarian emergency.
  2. However, the violence and insecurity and their effects should not be seen as a phenomenon exclusive to Mexico. The war on drugs is a binational, or transnational, war, with binational actors, social networks, government resources and strategies.
  3. All the capital implicated in this war has at least binational circulation and beneficiaries, if not transnational.
  4. The United States has imposed a strategy and model to fight drug trafficking in which the highest human and social costs are paid in Mexico, above all in Chihuahua, while north of the border costs are minimized.
  5. The roots of the violence are national, binational and transnational, beginning with the economic model of the maquiladora industry. With its dramatic start-and-stop cycles of growth, recession, and growth in accordance with international economic cycles, the maquiladora industry generates periods of intense demand for labor followed by periods of unemployment and then a return to demand for labor. This is an industry that bases its competitiveness on dumping in the price of labor.
  6. Another root cause is the model of economic integration of Mexico with the United States and Canada through the North American Free Trade Agreement. This has led to serious imbalance and left many marginalized in the Mexican and Chihuahuan economy. Among those excluded from benefits in this model are the many farmers in the state who have gone broke due to the lack of comparative advantage with U.S. counterparts.
  7. The model of urban growth has also generated violence. Housing and transportation have been dominated, not by the need to provide decent services, but by the desire to profit at all cost.
  8. The immediate roots of the violence in Chihuahua can be detected on various fronts: in the first place, the implantation and expansion of criminal gangs, not only in Mexico, but on both sides of the border. One specific case is that of the Los Aztecas gang, originally from El Paso, Texas, but with broad criminal activity in Ciudad Juárez.
  9. State impunity is also an important factor in the violence. The actions of organized crime often take place in the context of complicity on the part of public servants, law enforcement agents and the military.

10. Another factor in the persistence and intensification of violence is the fact that the strategy used to combat drug trafficking is principally and almost exclusively focused on police-military operations aimed at dismantling the cartels. As a result when capos are apprehended, criminal groups multiply; violence among those groups and against the population also multiplies

11. The basis for this binational strategy, the Merida Initiative, provides little or no funding to attack drug trafficking on the two fronts where it is most vulnerable: money laundering and arms trafficking. Even worse, U.S. government agencies, such as the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives), have allowed the influx of thousands of weapons to Mexico, where those weapons are later used by organized crime.

Binational War, Binational Solutions

The “War on Drug Trafficking” declared by Felipe Calderón at the beginning of his administration was imposed by the United States and launched by Calderon to try to legitimize his ascent to power. It is a binational war to attack what is not only a Mexican problem, but also a U.S. problem: the trafficking and consumption of drugs.

The strategy used has been deployed in an unequal way in both countries: The U.S. government unilaterally makes decisions on policies related to drug consumption and supplying its own addicts, and employs a very limited strategy for combating drug trafficking at the retail level. Nevertheless, it imposes the Merida initiative on the Mexican government, which favors punitive actions against drug traffickers and unleashes bloody confrontations between cartels, and between cartels and police. The principal victim of this strategy is the civilian population of Mexico, which has suffered terrible loss of life, safety, freedom and its increasingly scarce property.

Víctor M. Quintana is an advisor to the Democratic Farmers Front (Frente Democrático Campesino) of Chihuahua and researcher/professor at the Autonomous University in Ciudad Juárez and collaborator with the Americas Program www.americas.org.


[1] Information from the Fiscalía General del Estado and INEGI.

[2] Information from the Fiscalía General del Estado.

[3] Idem.

[4] Idem.

[5] Information from Justicia para Nuestras Hijas, A.C.

[6] Idem.

[7] Jusidmann, Clara and Almada Hugo (coords), estudio sobre Las violencias en Ciudad Juárez, September 2010.

Translation: Barbara Belejack