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Non-international Armed Conflicts in Mexico

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

The Government of Mexico is involved in two parallel non-international armed conflicts against at least the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG, Jalisco Cartel New Generation) and the Sinaloa Cartel. Furthermore, violence between the Sinaloa Cartel and the CJNG amounts to a non-international armed conflict.

The Government of Mexico has been engaging in armed violence against a number of cartels over the past decades. Notably, it is party to two parallel non-international armed conflicts against at least the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG, Jalisco Cartel New Generation) and the Sinaloa Cartel. Furthermore, sustained armed violence between cartels has been a constant feature for decades. Specifically, the CJNG is party to a non-international armed conflict against the Sinaloa Cartel.

Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict.

  • First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side to the conflict must be a non-state armed group which must exhibit a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict' in our Classification section.

Although criminal organizations pursue mainly economical objectives, this does not imply that they cannot be party to a conflict under IHL. This was confirmed by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Limaj case, where it was specified that: ‘[t]he determination of the existence of an armed conflict is based solely on two criteria: the intensity of the conflict and organization of the parties, the purpose of the armed forces to engage in acts of violence or also achieve some further objective is, therefore, irrelevant.’ ICTY, Prosecutor v. Limaj et al., Judgment (Trial Chamber) (IT-03-66-T), 30 November 2005, §170.

Intensity of violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing; and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see ‘non-international armed conflict – intensity of violence’ in our classification section.

Deployment of governmental forces

As a reaction to drug-related violence, in December 2017 the Mexican government passed the Internal Security Law, which authorises the army and navy personnel to be deployed in order to combat national security risks. The new law authorises Mexican armed forces, intelligence, and federal police ‘to identify domestic security threats, collect information from civilian institutions and lead security operations.’ International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Military and security updates - 2017’, Armed Conflict Database. Since then, law enforcement regulations have been increasingly militarised. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Military and security updates - 2017’, Armed Conflict Database.

During his electoral campaign, President López Obrador—who was elected on 2 July 2018—committed to address the issue of drug violence with ‘hugs, not bullets’. However, in March 2019 a constitutional reform was approved, which created the National Guard. The idea underpinning the creation of this new guard is that it would represent an alternative to the deployment of the army. Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether the National Guard will constitute a real break from the past: indeed, a number of its members are former members of the army, the army itself has helped with the recruitment of members of the National Guard. Specifically, the National Guard started with ‘35,000 army soldiers, 8,000 navy police members and 18,000 federal police members - a total of 61,000 members.’ E. Melimopoulos, ‘Mexico's National Guard: What, who and when’, Al-Jazeera, 30 June 2019. Furthermore, while the Guard is officially under the civilian Ministry of Security and Citizen Protection, it is headed by an army general and it collaborates closely with the army. P. Corcoran, ‘Is Mexico’s New National Guard Just Another Uniform?’, InSight Crime, 20 March 2019; ‘Mexico election: López Obrador vows profound change after win’, BBC, 2 July 2018; ‘Mexico names army general to lead new National Guard’, France 24, 11 April 2019.

Violence between the Mexican government and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG)

The Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG) is considered the most powerful and dangerous criminal organization by Mexico and US authorities and is currently involved in a non-international armed conflict (NIAC) against the Mexican government. ‘Mexico’s most powerful cartel has also been safest from prosecution’, Mexico News Daily, 17 September 2018.

A number of illustrative confrontations reinforce this conclusion. On 29 September 2018, clashes between the Mexican armed forces and 40 members of the CJNG took place in Guanajuato and lasted for hours, resulting in the death of at least 10 individuals. ‘Enfrentamiento entre Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación y federales dejan 10 muertos en Guanajuato’, Vanguardia, 29 September 2018. Furthermore, in October 2018 CJNG engaged in intense fighting against members of the Mexican army and police officers in the area known as Ejidos de Pentecostés, in the district of Texcoco. The armed confrontations lasted for almost one hour and resulted in the death of two members of the cartel, while one was wounded. ‘Así fue el intenso enfrentamiento entre autoridades y un grupo del Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación en el Estado de México’, Infobae, 1 November 2018; ‘Tiroteo entre policías y el Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación desata terror en Texcoco’, El Sol de Mexico, 31 October 2018. On 4 December 2018, in the district of La Huerta, a convoy of the Mexican security forces was attacked by the CJNG; six policemen were killed. ‘Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, detrás de balacera donde murieron 6 policías en Jalisco’, Vanguardia, 4 December 2018.

In 2019, violence between the Mexican armed forces and the CJNG continued unabated. For instance, in June 2019 in Zamora (Michoacán state) a convoy of two dozen vehicles belonging to CJNG attacked police forces and resulted in the death of 3 people, while 10 individuals were wounded. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, June 2019. The following month, clashes between CJNG and the National Guard took place at the border of Guanajuato and Michoacán states. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, July 2019. Moreover, on 14 October 2019 at least 30 members of the Cartel opened fire against a state police convoy, killing 13 police officers. J. Tuckman, ‘'They were sent to the slaughter': Mexico mourns 13 police killed in cartel ambush’, The Guardian, 15 October 2019. More recently, on 13 December 2019 in  Villagrán (Guanajuato state) a CJNG armed commando attacked police officers, killing 3 of them and kidnapping 4, ‘who were later found dismembered in plastic bags.’ International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, December 2019.

Violence between the Mexican government and the Sinaloa Cartel

Violence between the Sinaloa Cartel and the Mexican forces has been ongoing for more than 10 years. Notably, since the capture of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, leader of the cartel in January 2016, armed confrontations have steadily increased and have dramatically affected the local population. This is particularly true for the period between El Chapo’s arrest and his extradition to the US; which took place the following year. Between 2012 and 2017, an average of 4 drug-related killings per day have been registered in Sinaloa state and is mainly due to increasing confrontations of the Mexican armed forces with the members of the Sinaloa cartel. ‘La Situación de Violencia Relacionada con las Drogas en México del 2006 al 2017: ¿Es un Conflicto Armado no Internacional?’, Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos and Universidad Jesuita  de Guadalajara, 2019, §§145-159; C. Redaelli, ‘Engaging with Drug Lords: Protecting Civilians in Colombia, Mexico, and Honduras’ in Annyssa Bellal (ed.), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2014, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2015, pp. 511–543.

On 18 October 2019, in the city of Culiacán, capital of Sinaloa state, police officers found Ovidio Guzmán, son of el Chapo, during a routine search in a house and captured him. Members of Sinaloa cartel subsequently launched an attack against the Mexican armed forces, that resulted in heavy fighting. Members of the cartel attacked Mexican forces also in other areas of the city. Specifically, ‘[t]hey openly drove in trucks with mounted machine guns, blockaded streets flashing their Kalashnikovs and burned trucks. … They took control of the strategic points in the metro area, shut down the airport, roads, and government buildings and exchanged fire with security forces for hours, leaving at least eight people dead.’ I. Grillo, ‘How the Sinaloa Cartel Bested the Mexican Army’, Time, 18 October 2019. As the situation was more and more out of control, the government decided to release Ovidio Guzmán. F. Ernst, ‘Picking Up the Pieces after Mexico’s Criminal Siege’, International Crisis Group, 2019; ‘El Chapo: Mexican police free drug lord's son as Culiacán battle erupts’, BBC, 19 October 2019.

Violence between cartels and within splinter groups and factions

Mexico has been affected by armed violence between cartels and within splinter groups and factions within the same cartels. See, e.g., International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Human security updates – 2018’, Armed Conflict Database; ‘Un enfrentamiento entre bandas de narcotraficantes deja 24 muertos en el Estado mexicano de Tamaulipas’, El Pais, 11 January 2019. The reasons for the struggles inside the cartels are the aforementioned kingpin strategy and the fact that the cartels have recruited elite soldiers. Indeed, according to Mexico’s Ministry of Defence more than 1.300 elite soldiers have deserted between 1994 and 2015. ‘Defectors included members of units that received training in counter-terrorism, counter-intelligence, interrogation and strategy from French, Israeli and US advisers, according to a 2005 FBI intelligence document.’ F. Ernst, 'The training stays with you': the elite Mexican soldiers recruited by cartels’, The Guardian, 10 February 2018.

Fighting between cartels has been going on for decades and keeps increasing. The area most affected by armed violence between cartels is the Tierra Caliente (hot land), an area that comprises the states of Michoacán, Guerrero and Mexico. F. Ernst, ‘Mexico’s Hydra-headed Crime War’, International Crisis Group, 3 June 2019. In some cases, the violence threshold is met. However, following the fragmentation of the major criminal organizations and the subsequent creation of small groups loosely organized, we concluded that these situations of violence do not reach the threshold established by international humanitarian law to have a non-international armed conflict. This will be further explained in the next section, which focuses on the organization of the cartels.

One example is violence between the CJNG and Los Viagras. Albeit the fact that Los Viagras have been defined by Michoacán Governor Silvano Aureoles as ‘the most bloodthirsty and dangerous’ criminal group operating In Michóacan state, the group does not meet the organization requirement. ‘Los Viagras: a former self-defense force battles the Jalisco cartel over Michoacán’, Mexico News Daily, 9 August 2019; ‘La Situación de Violencia Relacionada con las Drogas en México del 2006 al 2017: ¿Es un Conflicto Armado no Internacional?’,  Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos and Universidad Jesuita  de Guadalajara, 2019, §§145-159.

Nevertheless, over the past years in Michoacán state the CJNG and Los Viagras have been engaging in heavy fighting to control criminal markets and the avocado industry. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, August 2019. For instance, on 8 June 2019, a series of armed confrontations between the cartels resulted in at least 9 deaths in Michoacán state. In Dos Aguas, Aguililla, CJNG and Los Viagras engaged in armed confrontations ‘where armed men traveling aboard trucks clashed in shootouts throughout the town over a period of nearly two hours.’ The same day, in in the Buenavista town, gunfight took place between the two cartels and one bystander was killed during the armed confrontations. Later that day, the state Attorney General’s Office said that the bodies of 6 men killed at gunpoint were found in other two municipalities. ‘9 dead after cartels clash in Tierra Caliente’, Mexico News Daily, 8 June 2019. Violence between the two cartels can be brutal and often results in macabre massacres.  On 8 August 2019, 19 mutilated bodies were found in Uruapan (Michoacán), 9 of them hung semi-naked from a bridge. Besides the bodies, a white banner read: ‘lovely people, carry on with your routines. Be patriotic, and kill a Viagra.’ The massacre was revendicated by CJNG and Michoacán state’s attorney general, Adrián López Solís, confirmed that the killing was related to the fighting between cartels to control the drug market. ‘Los Viagras: a former self-defense force battles the Jalisco cartel over Michoacán’, Mexico News Daily, 9 August 2019; T. Phillips, ‘Mexico cartel hangs bodies from city bridge in grisly show of force’, The Guardian, 8 August 2019. Clashes between the two groups have continued in 2020. For instance, in April 2020 members of CJNG killed at least 20 Los Viagras fighters in Aguililla city. Nevertheless, since then no armed confrontations have been registered between the two groups. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Mexico.

Violence between the CJNG and the Sinaloa Cartel

The CJNG and the Sinaloa Cartel are considered Mexico’s two most powerful cartels and have been fighting over the control of drug and other criminal markets. C. Woody, ‘Mexico's biggest cartel is leaderless, and drug violence may be about to intensify’, Business Insider, 29 October 2016. Since 2016, the quick rise of CJNG and the capture of Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, led to a sharp increase in violence between the two criminal organizations. ‘Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations’, Congressional Research Service, 20 December 2019.

The two cartels compete over the control of strategic areas of Mexico—such as smuggling routes in Tijuana (Baja California state) and extortion, trafficking and oil-siphoning markets in Veracruz state, and the control of Mexico’s Caribbean coast. For instance, on 4 July 2019 two hitmen killed Juan Ulises Galván Carmona, alias ‘El Buda’, in Chetumal, capital of Quintana Roo state. El Buda was working for the Sinaloa Cartel and was in charge of overseeing drug trafficking activities and most notably of managing cocaine shipments from Central and South America. P. Asmann, ‘Is the Jalisco Cartel Winning the Battle for Mexico’s Caribbean?’, InSight Crime, 11 July 2019. Other episodes of violence have been connected to the conflict between the CJNG and the Sinaloa Cartel. For instance, on 9 March 2019 CJNG conducted an attack in a night club in Salamanca (Guanajuato state), where 15 people were killed. Furthermore, on 14 March 2019, the bodies of 27 individuals were found in Salamanca (Guanajuato state). International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, March 2019. More recently, In December 2020 CJNG and the Sinaloa Cartel clashed between 14 and 18 December 2020, causing the death of at least 28 members of the cartels. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Mexico.

Organization of armed groups

A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms; the ability to procure, transport and distribute arms; the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations; the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. ceasefire or peace agreements. If the minimum criterion for organization of the armed groups is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – Organization’ in our Classification section.

It is worth recalling that, while a number of cartels are party to NIACs in Mexico, not all its members are members of an armed group with a continuous combat function, but only the members of its armed wing. While in practice this distinction might be challenging, not every drug dealer is a legitimate target, even if they belong to a cartel that is a party to a non-international armed conflict.

Fragmentation of former cartels

Over the past decade, Mexico has adopted the so-called kingpin strategy, whereby the leaders of the major cartels have been systematically killed or arrested. While this led to the positive outcome of weakening the most powerful criminal organizations operating in Mexico and of bringing to justice their most prominent members, it has also led to the fragmentation of cartels. P. Asmann, ‘Fragmentation: The Violent Tailspin of Mexico’s Dominant Cartels’, InSight Crime, 16 January 2018. For instance, the capture of Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán, the notorious leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, led to profound fractures within the criminal organization and triggered an internal wave of violence that affected the whole country. P. Asmann, ‘Fragmentation: The Violent Tailspin of Mexico’s Dominant Cartels’, InSight Crime, 16 January 2018; International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Military and security updates - 2017’, Armed Conflict Database.

As for Los Zetas, once one of the most powerful and violent cartels, a thorough analysis by InSight Crime explains that ‘[t]he fragmentation of the Zetas has been enormous. … It is difficult to keep track of all of these groups and establish a genealogy as clear as we could before when we knew who was in the hierarchy of this organization. The Zetas structure was never very hierarchical, but there were some very obvious leaders that we could identify.’ P. Assman, ‘Mexico’s Zetas: From Criminal Powerhouse to Fragmented Remnants’, InSight Crime, 6 April 2018.

Splinter groups and factions have started to fight each other. Characterised by a loose organization, heavily armed, and determined to fill the void left by the old cartels, the new criminal groups have posed crucial challenges to the Mexican government. Albeit the fact that they have been engaging in armed confrontations both against each other and against the government, they do not meet the organisation requirement and thus are not party to a non-international armed conflict. P. Asmann, ‘Fragmentation: The Violent Tailspin of Mexico’s Dominant Cartels’, InSight Crime, 16 January 2018.

Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG – New Generation of the Jalisco Cartel)

The Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG – New Generation of the Jalisco Cartel) is a clear example of criminal organization that emerged as a result of the aforementioned kingpin strategy.  It was created in 2010 following the death of the former Sinaloa Cartel capo Ignacio Coronel, alias “Nacho,” killed by the Mexican security forces. The power vacuum caused by Nacho’s death triggered an internal struggle that led to the creation of the CJNG. ‘Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG)’, InSight Crime, 30 March 2018. Since then, the group has taken advantage of the decline of other cartels as well. For instance, it has expanded its operations in Michoacán, once stronghold of the Familia Michoacána cartel. ‘Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG)’, InSight Crime, 30 March 2018.

Nemesio Oseguera Ramos, alias “El Mencho,” is the current leader of the group. ‘Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG)’, InSight Crime, 30 March 2018. In spite of the paucity of information regarding its internal structure, several factors lead to conclude that the cartel meets the organization requirement, such as the capacity to purchase and manufacture weapons. For instance, Mexican authorities discovered a clandestine AR-15 manufacturing facility by in Guadalajara. N. P. Jones, ‘The Strategic Implications of the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación’, 11 Journal of Strategic Security 1 (2018) 19, p 25.

Since late 2017, the group has started to suffer some internal divisions which are causing the emergence of splinter groups, such as the Nueva Plaza Cartel. ‘Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG)’, InSight Crime, 30 March 2018; ‘The New Criminal Group Hitting Mexico’s CJNG Where It Hurts’, InSight Crime, 24 July 2018.

Sinaloa Cartel

The Sinaloa Cartel was created in the 1990s in the Sinaloa state. Until 2012, it has been the most powerful Mexican cartel, with a monopoly of more than 40% of the drug market. It operates in more than 15 Mexican states. Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán and Héctor Luis Palma Salazar created the Sinaloa Cartel in the 1990s. In 1993 they were arrested, but El Chapo proved capable to lead the cartel during his time in prison via his lawyers. In 2001, El Chapo escaped and created an alliance with Ismael Zambada Garcia, alias ‘El Mayo,’ and Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, alias ‘El Azul’ to run the Sinaloa Cartel. 

While the cartel is organized in a command-like structure, it operates as a federation rather than a typical cartel. Specifically, the Sinaloa cartel ‘depends on plaza bosses to coordinate and operate the smuggling of drugs and contraband from Sinaloa to the US and vice versa; these plaza bosses employ sicarios, or hitmen, and maintain their power through violence.’ ‘La Situación de Violencia Relacionada con las Drogas en México del 2006 al 2017: ¿Es un Conflicto Armado no Internacional?’,  Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos and Universidad Jesuita  de Guadalajara, 2019, §§77-85.

The organization requirement is further confirmed by the cartel’s ability to procure, transport and distribute arms. Notably, it uses weapons and military equipment, such as rocket launchers, guns of different calibres, and improvised explosive devices. Furthermore, the cartel has been able to speak with one voice. For instance, it has concluded several agreements with other cartels in order to fight common enemies. M. Garcia, ‘Court Docs Raise Questions about Mexico Sinaloa Cartel Narrative’, InSight Crime, 12 November 2013.

On 17 July 2019, El Chapo has been sentenced to life prison by a court in New York. Since his arrest, ‘El Mayo, the only remaining member from the Sinaloa Cartel’s old guard, and El Chapo’s sons, Joaquín Guzmán López, Ovidio Guzmán López, Iván Archivaldo and Jesús Alfredo, who are also known collectively as “Los Chapitos,’ are now left to head the general direction of the cartel’s operations.’ https://www.insightcrime.org/mexico-organized-crime-news/sinaloa-cartel-profile/" target="_blank">‘Sinaloa Cartel’, InSight Crime, 29 March 2019; A. Feurer, ‘‘El Chapo’ Guzmán Sentenced to Life in Prison, Ending Notorious Criminal Career’, The New York Times, 17 July 2019; ‘Even With ‘El Chapo’ Away, Sinaloa Cartel Remains Mexico’s Top Crime Group’, InSight Crime, 31 October 2018.

All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which provides for the minimum standards to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active part in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials. 

All parties are bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law.

In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.

State parties

Non-state parties

  • Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion (CJNG – New Generation of the Jalisco Cartel). It was created in 2010 following the death of the former Sinaloa Cartel capo Ignacio Coronel, alias “Nacho,” killed by the Mexican security forces. The power vacuum caused by Nacho’s death triggered an internal struggle that led to the creation of the CJNG. Since then, the group has taken advantage of the decline of other cartels as well. For instance, it has expanded its operations in Michoacán, once stronghold of the Familia Michoacána. 
  • Sinaloa Cartel. It was created in the 1990s by Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán and Héctor Luis Palma Salazar. On 17 July 2019, El Chapo has been sentenced to life prison by a court in New York. Since his arrest, ‘El Mayo, the only remaining member from the Sinaloa Cartel’s old guard, and El Chapo’s sons, Joaquín Guzmán López, Ovidio Guzmán López, Iván Archivaldo and Jesús Alfredo, who are also known collectively as “Los Chapitos,’ are now left to head the general direction of the cartel’s operations.’
Last updated: Sunday 30th May 2021