In Mexico, Drug Trade Flourished With the Help of the State

It was, even by the usual high standards of New York Times investigations, an article that took my breath away.

On Saturday, my colleagues Natalie Kitroeff and Ronen Bergman published a story that used a vast cache of text messages, investigation records and other secret documents to shed light on one of Mexico’s most notorious cold cases: In 2014, 43 college students disappeared after the police stopped their buses, forced them into patrol cars and handed them over to a drug cartel. They were never heard from again.

The attack gripped the nation, not just because of the scale of the disappearances, but because of the questions it raised about who was involved. After all, as Natalie and Ronen wrote, “how could a relatively unknown gang pull off one of the worst atrocities in Mexico’s recent history, with the help of the police and the military watching the mass abduction unfold in real time?”

The answer, as they painstakingly documented, was that the cartel, known as Guerreros Unidos, was colluding with nearly every local arm of the Mexican government, including the military. The gang effectively had the resources of the state at its disposal.

That level of collusion may be unique to the state of Guerrero, experts say, where the long history of drug trafficking and a heavily militarized state presence would have created fertile ground for such relationships. But in Mexico, the lines between trafficking organizations and the state have long been blurry, scholars say. And that has had profound consequences not just for organized crime, but for the development of the Mexican state itself.

“There really is no binary between the ‘bad’ cartels and the ‘good’ state,” said Alexander Aviña, an Arizona State historian who studies the drug trade in Mexico. “I think those of us who work on the history of drugs in 20th-century Mexico will say that drug trafficking actually emerges within the confines of the Mexican state, particularly the long running PRI party that was in power from 1949 to 2000.”

In the popular imagination, collaboration between cartels and state officials tends to take the form of corruption: criminals pay bribes to officials, who then tolerate drug trafficking in exchange for private wealth. But that story doesn’t quite fit Mexico, said Benjamin T. Smith, a professor at Warwick University in the U.K., and the author of a book on the history of the Mexican drug trade.

Rather, he said, there is a long history of Mexican officials taking money from drug traffickers to fund the government, not just personal bribes. He described it as a kind of “criminal state-building.” But that state-building later proved to be dangerously fragile.

Documents from the 1940s show that police in the state of Sinaloa, for instance, were extorting money from opium growers, Smith said. But they then handed the money over to state tax collectors to be deposited into the public coffers.

Later, after U.S. demand for drugs surged in the 1970s, making the trade far more lucrative, federal officials took over from state police, often violently. But the traffickers still paid for state protection, and that money went, at least in part, to fund state operations.

In a 2000 interview with NPR, Guillermo González Calderoni, then a former top narcotics officer of the Mexican federal police, described the agency’s work as taking “the money from some of the traffickers to fight the other traffickers.” (A few years after the interview, he was shot to death.)

That system was possible partly because of the political stability brought by single-party rule. “The democratic system in Mexico did not fully open until the year 2000,” said Rachel Nolan, a historian at Boston University who studies violence and conflict in Central America. “So when you have one-party rule, it’s very easy to have collusion with cartels because you have a lot of stability.”

But then things began to change. The Institutional Revolution Party, or PRI, whose single-party regime had held power for decades, began to splinter in the 1990s and 2000s, ushering in democracy and new political competition.

At the same time, there was a shift in the drug trade. Small-time traffickers consolidated into large cartels, which took over major smuggling routes, Smith said. The drug trade and the state were still closely intertwined, but the traffickers now held more power within the relationship than before.

“It’s a tension that exists to this day,” Smith said. “Who’s the boss, who’s subservient?”

The experts I spoke to cautioned against drawing overly broad conclusions from the cache of text messages about the disappearance and murder of the 43 students. These messages are not evidence that other state officials or agencies, particularly in other areas of the country, are involved in drug trafficking or organized crime.

But, they said, cartels cannot be successful without help from the state.

“No one has gone totally, completely autonomous,” Smith said. “That never works.”

The complicated power dynamics between the Guerreros Unidos cartel and the different arms of the Mexican state come through clearly in the messages about the 2014 killings. The cartel members seem to treat the local police almost as subcontractors. One emergency responder referred to a Guerreros Unidos leader as “boss,” sending him minute-by-minute updates on law enforcement’s actions.

By contrast, some of the cartel members’ conversations about the military seemed less certain: in some messages, members grumbled about the military’s demands, while in others they described relying on the military to keep rivals out of their territory.

It is the paradox of the drug trade: state weakness, and its failure to keep control over its own security forces, allowed the cartels to flourish. But at the same time, access to state power, and particularly the enforcement power of the military and law-enforcement agencies, is one of the most valuable resources that a cartel can control.

“Another narrative we’ve heard about Mexico since at least 2017, is that it’s potentially a failed state, that these drug trafficking organizations are more powerful than the state. And I think that’s a really mistaken way to look at this,” Aviña said. “The scarce resource, or scarce commodity, in this case is state protection.”

State protection was, of course, even scarcer for the ordinary civilians who could find no protection from cartel violence.

The messages suggest that the 43 students were essentially the victims of a case of mistaken identity. They had commandeered several passenger buses to go to a protest in Mexico City, a practice that had long been tacitly condoned by local authorities. But the buses looked similar to those used to smuggle drugs to the United States, investigators say, and the cartel, paranoid about encroachment on its territory, mistook them for invading members of a rival group. They ordered the police — the same officers who were supposed to protect citizens like the students — to attack.

And documents show that days after the students were taken, when some may still have been alive, the army knew the location of two suspects in the attack, but did not intervene.

“Instead of looking for our children or telling us the truth, they protected themselves,” Cristina Bautista Salvador, the mother of one of the missing students, told The Times.