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Non-international armed conflict in Mexico

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

The Government of Mexico is involved in a non-international armed conflict against at least the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG, Jalisco Cartel New Generation).

The Government of Mexico has engaged in armed violence against a number of cartels over the past decades. Notably, it is party to a non-international armed conflict against at least the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG, Jalisco Cartel New Generation).

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.

Over the past years, Mexico has pursued the so-called kingpin strategy, whereby it has arrested or killed the leaders of the major drug cartels operating in the country. While this has contributed to prosecute a number of notorious members of the criminal organizations, it has also led to a fragmentation of the Mexican criminal landscape. Notably, several relatively small and extremely violent cartels have started to characterise the conflict in Mexico and have posed unprecedented challenges to the government. P. Asmann, ‘Fragmentation: The Violent Tailspin of Mexico’s Dominant Cartels’, InSight Crime, 16 January 2018. Indeed, following the fragmentation of the cartels that have dominated the criminal arena for years, violence levels in Mexico have increased sharply and dramatically. In particular, armed confrontations took place between the government and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG). International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Human security updates - 2018’, Armed Conflict Database.

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.

As a reaction to the increased 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 authorised 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. In November 2018, the Supreme Court overturned the Internal Security Law, which was vetoed by 9 of 11 judges. J. Carrasco Araizaga, ‘La Suprema Corte declara inconstitucional la Ley de Seguridad Interior’, Proceso, 15 November 2018; D. Oré, ‘Mexico overturns law meant to regulate troops in drug war’, Reuters, 15 November 2018. In January 2019, the lower house of Mexican Congress approved a law which would create a national gard composed by 60.000 members with the aim to fight against organized crime. In mid February 2019, the senate is going to discuss and vote on the same law. ‘Mexico's new crime fighting national guard easily wins lower house approval’, Reuters, 16 January 2019; ‘Ponen fecha para aprobar la Guardia Nacional en Senado: 19 de febrero’, I. E. Saldaña, ‘Ponen fecha para aprobar la Guardia Nacional en Senado: 19 de febrero’, Excelsior, 7 February 2019.

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. Nevertheless, following the fragmentation of the major criminal organizations and the subsequent creation of small groups loosely organised, 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.

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.

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 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.

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. ‘Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG)’, InSight Crime, 30 March 2018.
Last updated: Monday 3rd June 2019