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Mexico’s Drug “War”: Drawing a Line Between Rhetoric and Reality

Written by  Andrea Nill Sánchez

In August 2011, gunmen burst through the doors of a casino located in Monterrey, Mexico, doused the premises with gasoline, and set it on fire. Five members of the Zetas drug cartel were arrested in connection with the incident, which killed fifty-two Mexicans. Although Mexican officials have traditionally rejected using terrorist or insurgency terminology to describe drug cartels, former Mexican President Felipe Calderón responded to the mass killing by condemning the “aberrant act of terror and barbarity.” Later, he also asserted that, “it is evident that we are not faced with ordinary delinquents but by actual terrorists who know no boundaries.” Calderón’s description of the violent act initially appeared indicative of a new way of thinking. Although Calderón promptly “backed off” of the terrorism label, his remarks reenergized a vigorous debate concerning the status of the Mexican government’s confrontation with the region’s violent drug cartels. Across the border, lawmakers and public officials in the United States are increasingly confronted with a loaded question: is Mexico’s metaphorical drug war transforming into a verifiable armed conflict under the laws of war?

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This Note argues that the answer is no. Although the current approach is largely inadequate, applying a law-of-war framework is not legally appropriate, nor would it provide the appropriate remedies. The worsening violence in Mexico has rightfully motivated many people to reassess the current anti-cartel strategy. Nevertheless, redefining the situation in Mexico as an armed conflict and recasting drug cartels as terrorists or insurgents would misapprehend the drug cartels’ true nature. Further, applying the law of armed conflict framework would trigger a military approach and accompanying legal regime that are ill suited to meet the challenges that drug cartels pose.