Small Wars Journal

Understanding Support for the Mexican Military and Its Role in Combating Organized Crime

Thu, 05/16/2024 - 2:42pm

Understanding Support for the Mexican Military and Its Role in Combating Organized Crime

Jonathan D. Rosen

Drug trafficking, organized crime, and violence have continued unabated over time in Mexico. President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) launched a war on drugs, utilizing the military to combat drug trafficking and organized crime-related violence.[1] Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador—often referred to as AMLO—called the war on drugs a failure. He said that Mexico needs a strategy of “hugs, not bullets” and rejected the militarization of the security situation in Mexico.[2] Yet AMLO created a newly minted national guard—most of the members were from the military—and deployed them throughout the country.

This article looks at the trends in militarization in recent decades in Mexico. It argues that Mexican presidents, despite their discourse, have overused the military. The analogy is that of a hammer and a nail. The Mexican military is better trained, better equipped, and trusted more than the police. Despite a litany of reforms, the Mexican police have been plagued by systematic levels of corruption and remain highly distrusted.[3]

Mexican Marina EOD Technicians Formulate Plan to Counter Simulated IED. Public Domain.

After examining trends in utilizing the military in combating drug trafficking, organized crime, and violence, this article examines factors that may influence the level of trust in the armed forces. Polling data reveals that Mexicans feel unsafe and are distrusting of many institutions. Yet the military remains—and has historically been—one of the most trusted institutions in the country. Previous studies analyze the factors that influence support for tough on crime policies, which, in the case of Mexico, have resulted in the deployment of militarized units to combat drug trafficking, organized crime, and violence.[4] Public opinion has an impact on politicians and can influence their decision-making processes. Mexican politicians have responded to fear, perceptions of insecurity, and trust in the armed forces to combat the litany of criminal actors operating in the country. And, in the case of AMLO, he has used the same strategy, just with a different discourse.

The Calderón administration

In 2006, Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional – PAN) won the Mexican presidency in a controversial election with numerous allegations of fraud. Consequently, Calderón was an inherently weak president. His first security order was to declare a war on drugs and organized crime and deploy the military to Michoacán, a state that has seen numerous criminal actors vying for power and control.[5]

President Calderón adapted the constitution of Mexico to deploy the military to the streets. The Calderón administration and its efforts were also bolstered by support for the United States government through the Mérida Initiative (MI). [6] The MI provided not only equipment but training and support to help the Mexican government combat rising levels of organized crime and insecurity.[7]

Critics contend that the Calderón administration’s policies had various unintended consequences. First, Mexico saw the fragmentation of organized crime. Some scholars have referred to this as the cockroach effect, as criminal organization scatter as the government cracks down.[8] Second, Mexico experienced increasing levels of violence, and Calderón finished with around 120,000 drug-related deaths. Criminal organizations not only fought amongst each other for control of plazas but with the government security forces. Cities such as Ciudad Juárez suffered from high levels of violence. In fact, Ciudad Juárez was the most violent city in the world for several years during the Calderón government. Third, insecurity in Mexico persisted. Fourth, the polling data shows that Mexicans did not feel safe, as crime and violence continued to increase.[9]

In 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto, a rising star in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Instituciona l– PRI), ran for the presidency and won. During his administration (2012-2018), Peña Nieto focused less on marketing the victories of the drug war, e.g., arresting drug traffickers and drug seizures. Scholars such as Roberto Zepeda note Peña Nieto touted the need for reform in other sectors, e.g., energy and education. Despite the discourse about a different security strategy, President Peña Nieto first deployed the military to Michoacan.[10]

The Peña Nieto administration published a list of more than 100 traffickers that the government wanted to capture.[11] While the Peña Nieto government achieved this goal, Mexico saw a fragmentation of organized crime.[12] In addition, Mexico experienced increasing levels of violence. States like Tamaulipas and Guerrero became metaphorical headaches for the Peña Nieto government. Peña Nieto finished his presidency with more than 150,000 deaths.[13]

Peña Nieto left office highly unpopular for several reasons. He finished his six-year term with more homicides than the Calderón administration. There were numerous scandals, including the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa.[14] The capture and escape of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, was an international embarrassment for the Peña Nieto administration. Guzmán escaped from the Altiplano maximum security prison after the attorney general said that the government would extradite him to the United States once the Sinaloa cartel kingpin served his several hundred-year sentence in Mexico. The escape was disastrous for Presidente Peña Nieto and investigations occurred about the corruption within a maximum-security prison where Guzmán was housed.[15]

The AMLO Administration

In 2018, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leader of the Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (National Regeneration Movement–Morena) party, ran for the presidency three times; the third time proved to be the charm. As a candidate, he criticized the PRI and the PAN, calling them the PRIAN.[16] He focused on the need to decrease the levels of corruption in Mexico and address many of the underlying socioeconomic issues that the country has faced, i.e., poverty and inequality. AMLO railed against the war on drugs and said that Mexico needed “hugs, not bullets.”

Despite his rhetoric, he created the national guard in December 2018.[17] The newly minted national guard—the majority of members are from the military—lost a battle that occurred live on social media between this organization and members of the Sinaloa cartel protecting the capture and extradition of Ovidio Guzmán López, one of the sons of “El Chapo” Guzmán. The national guard was outgunned and forced to retreat.[18]

Critics of the AMLO administration have questioned his security strategy but many argued that he has militarized the security conflict and increased the role of the military in the country. The armed forces have been involved in massive construction projects, and AMLO eventually handed over the national guard to the military.[19] Ultimately, AMLO will finish his sexenio with more violence recorded in recent history in Mexico.[20]

The next section of the article turns to some of the perceptions of (in)security in Mexico and trust in institutions. It then examines some of the factors that may influence trust in the military, which, as noted above, has played an integral role in the fight against drug trafficking, organized crime, and violence.

Descriptive Statistics on Security and Trust in Institutions

When asked their levels of trust in the armed forces, 25.58 percent of Mexicans answered, “a lot” on a seven-point Likert Scale in the 2023 LAPOP survey with one being “not at all” and seven representing “a lot.” The armed forces remain much more trusted than the police. In fact, only 6.43 percent responded “a lot” when asked their level of trust in the national police on a seven-point Likert Scale. When questioned about their level of trust in the president, 33.62 percent responded “a lot” on a seven-point Likert Scale. When asked about their personal economic situation over the last 12 months, 28.48 percent of Mexicans responded that it was worse, while 42.11 percent said that it was the “same.”[21]

Security remained the most serious problem on the minds of Mexicans.  According to the 2023 LAPOP survey, 45.03 percent of the population responded “security issues” when asked the “most serious problem” facing the country. The second highest response was economic issues with 26.94 percent. In addition, 26.39 percent of the population reported being a victim of a crime in the last 12 months. When asked about their level of faith in the criminal justice system if a victim of crime, 35.75 percent of Mexicans responded “none,” while 31.47 answered “little.” In fact, only 10.74 percent of Mexicans answered, “a lot.”

Methodological Approach

This article utilizes the 2023 Americas Barometer individual country data on Mexico created by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP). The survey has a sample size of 1,622 and a sampling error of plus or minus 2.43. LAPOP utilizes a sophisticated survey design, which consists of multi-stage cluster sampling based on the size of municipalities, urban/ rural areas, and regions.[22]

I ran an ordinary least squares (OLS) regression in Stata 18 with trust in the military as the dependent variable.[23] The independent variables are gender, age, victim of a crime in the last 12 months, living in urban or rural zones, trust in the president, and one’s economic situation. In terms of the coding, trust in the military is a seven-point Likert Scale with one representing “not at all” and seven representing “a lot.” Gender is coded man/male and woman/ female, while age is from 18 to 94. Victim of a crime of the last 12 months is a dummy variable coded “no” and “yes,” while urban is coded urban and rural. Trust in the president is a seven-point Likert Scale with one representing “not at all” and seven “a lot.” Finally, one’s personal economic situation is coded “better,” “same,” or “worse.”

Unfortunately, the 2023 LAPOP survey did not ask questions about support for increased penalties for crime. Moreover, it neither asked about the presence of organized crime nor issues related to fear of crime. Previous studies have asked these questions, but quantitative studies have stressed the importance of fear in influencing tough on crime strategies in some Latin American countries.[24]

After running the regression, I checked the model by conducting several tests. The Breusch-Pagan test for heteroskedastic produced a Prob > chi2 of 0.000, indicating that the model had issues with heteroskedasticity. I adjusted the model using robust standard errors. Furthermore, the linktest produced a hat squared that was not statistically significant, indicating the model does not have any specification errors. Finally, the model has a Variance Inflation Factor (VIF) of 1.08, indicating that there are not any issues of multicollinearity.


The results indicate that gender was statistically significant at the 95 percent confidence interval, while age and victim of a crime in the last 12 months was not statistically significant. Women/female compared to male produces an anticipated a -.401 shift in the dependent variable. The findings suggests that women have less trust in the armed forces than men.

Trust in the president was statistically significant at the 95 percent confidence interval. For every one-unit increase in trust in the president, we anticipate seeking a .309 shift in the dependent variable, holding all other variables constant. This suggest that people who have more trust in the president are more likely to trust the armed forces.

Finally, for every one-unit increase in personal economic situation over the past 12 months, we expect to see a -.140 shift in the dependent variable, holding all other variables constant. This finding implies that people who think their economic situation is getting worse have less trust in the armed forces.

Table 1

Table 1. Descriptive Statistics

Table 2


This article has examined the role of the military during the past three presidents. Given the high levels of distrust in the Mexican police, the military has been utilized to combat organized crime and violence. The military is one of the most trusted institutions. Moreover, it is better trained than the Mexican police. The military is involved in training programs with other countries such as the United States. In addition, they are perceived to be more professional and have more resources than the police forces. Data reveals that the local police are highly distrusted. This has been compounded by cases of corruption, given the lack of transparency and accountability.

The descriptive statistics show that many Mexicans feel unsafe and view security as a major issue on the political agenda. The regression analysis reveals that gender, trust in the president, and one’s economic situation are statistically significant at the 95 percent confidence interval. Urban was statistically significant at the 90 percent confidence interval. Interestingly, age and having been a victim of crime were not statistically significant in this regression model.

Ultimately, AMLO, who remains very popular, has touted his successes, and put his political clout behind Claudia Sheinbaum, the former head of government of Mexico City. What is clear, however, is the next president of Mexico faces many security challenges, as there are hundreds of criminal actors operating in Mexico, high levels of violence, and continued drug trafficking.


[1] John P. Sullivan, “Crime wars: Operational perspectives on criminal armed groups in Mexico and Brazil.” International Review of the Red Cross Vol. 105, no. 923. 2023: pp. 849–875;; Benjamin Lessing, Making peace in drug wars: Crackdowns and cartels in Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017; Nathan P. Jones, Mexico’s illicit drug networks and the state reaction. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2016.

[2] Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, “Chronicles of a War Foretold: Reversing Mexico’s current course toward redoubled militarization requires a shift in US policy away from the disastrous ‘war on drugs’ and toward a respect for Mexican sovereignty.” NACLA Report on the Americas. Vol. 52, no. 1. 2020: pp. 41–46,

[3] For more, see: Antonio Ugues Jr, and Diego Esparza, “The relationship between crime victimization, corruption, and public attitudes of Mexico’s armed forces,” Democracy and security. Vol. 14, no. 3. 2018: pp. 211–237,

[4] For more, see: Craig A. Deare, A Tale of Two Eagles: The US-Mexico Bilateral Defense Relationship Post Cold War. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017; Paul J. Angelo, From peril to partnership: US security assistance and the bid to stabilize Colombia and MexicoNew York: Oxford University Press, 2024.

[5]  Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda, Drug war Mexico: Politics, neoliberalism and violence in the new narcoeconomy. London: Zed Books, 2012; Nathan P. Jones, Irina A. Chindea, Daniel Weisz Argomedo, and John P. Sullivan, “A Social Network Analysis of Mexico’s Dark Network Alliance Structure,” Journal of Strategic Security. Vol. 15, no. 4. 2022: pp. 76–105,; John Bailey and Matthew M. Taylor, “Evade, corrupt, or confront? Organized crime and the state in Brazil and Mexico,” Journal of Politics in Latin America. Vol. 1, no. 2. 2009: pp. 3–29,

[6] Op. Cit., Paul J. Angelo at Note 4.

[7] Clare Ribando Seelke and Kristin M. Finklea, "US-Mexican security cooperation: The Mérida initiative and beyond." Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2017,

[8] Bruce M. Bagley and Jonathan D. Rosen, Eds. Drug trafficking, organized crime, and violence in the Americas today. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2017,

[9] David Shirk and Joel Wallman, “Understanding Mexico’s drug violence.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 59, no. 8. 2015: pp. 1348-1376,; Michael Jerome Wolff, “Violence and criminal order: The case of Ciudad Juarez.” Urban Geography. Vol. 39, no. 10. 2018: pp. 1465-1483,    

[10] Jonathan Daniel Rosen and Roberto Zepeda Martínez, “La guerra contra el narcotráfico en México: una guerra perdida.” Revista Reflexiones Vol. 94, no. 1. 2015: pp. 153−168,

[11] Victoria Dittmar, “The Mexico Crime Bosses Peña Nieto’s Government Toppled.” InSight Crime. 24 September 2018,

[12] For more, see: Nikolas Kouloglou, “Militarization of the State in Mexico: Perspectives from the Administrations of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) and Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018).” Estudios en Seguridad y Defensa. Vol. 15, no. 29. 2020: pp. 71-93,

[13] “150 mil 992 ejecutados: la herencia de Peña (Reportaje del semanario 'Zeta').” Aristgui Noticias. 4 December 2018,

[14] Jorge Hernández-Valdés, Cruz García-Lirios, Eyder Bolivar-Mojica, and Oscar Coronado-Rincón, “Enforced Disappearances And Social Services: Reconstruction of the Ayotzinapa, Iguala, Guerrero (Central Mexico) Case.” Revista Eleuthera. Vol. 22, no. 1. 2020: pp. 149171,

[15] For more, see: June S. Beittel, “Mexico: Organized crime and drug trafficking organizations.” Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. 2022,

[16] Rodrigo Castro Cornejo, “The AMLO Voter: Affective Polarization and the Rise of the Left in Mexico,”Journal of Politics in Latin America. Vol. 15, no. 1. 2023: pp.  96−112,

[17] For more, see: John P. Sullivan, and Nathan P Jones. “The Establishment of the Mexican Guardia Nacional (2012-2019): A Gendarmerie Force for Crime Wars and the Fourth Transformation of Mexico” in Forza Alla Legge Studi Storici Su Carabinieri, Gendarmerie e Polizie Armate. FVCINA DI MARTE 14, Rome: Società Italiana di Storia Militare, 2023: pp. 413–39,

[18] Azam Ahmed, “The Stunning Escape of El Chapo’s Son: It’s Like ‘a Bad Netflix Show.’” New York Times. 18 October 2019,; Daniel Weisz Argomedo, Nathan P. Jones, and John P. Sullivan, “Virtual Urban Siege: Modern Urban Siege and Swarming in Culiacán 2019 & 2023,” Journal of Strategic Security. Vol. 16, no. 3. 2023: 30–52,

[19] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “AMLO’s security policy: Creative ideas, tough reality,” The Brookings. March 2018: pp. 1–38,; Diego Oré, “Mexico gives Army control of National Guard, sparks clash with U.N.” Reuters. 9 September 2022,

[20] Andrea Navarro, “AMLO Expanded Mexico’s Military. It Built Airports Instead of Reining In Murders.” Bloomberg. 18 April 2024,; Omar Tinoco Morales, “Suman más de 150 mil homicidios dolosos en lo que va del sexenio de AMLO, más que con Peña y Calderón.” Infobae. 23 April 2023,

[21] Vanderbilt’s Americas Barometer LAPOP Survey can be found here:

[22] Americas Barometer 2023: Technical Information. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University, LAPOP),

[23] There are numerous debates among scholars about how to deal with a dependent variable that is ordinal. Some scholars rescale the Likert Scale to 100, divide by two, and run a binary logistic regression. There, however, are various consequences when one transforms the dependent variable. Moreover, ordered logistic regressions violate the Brant Test of Parrell Regression Assumptions. Ultimately, my colleagues and I discuss our justification for running an OLS model in another paper dealing with support for tough on crime policies. For more, see: Jonathan D. Rosen, Sebastián Cutrona, and Katy Lindquist, “Gangs, violence, and fear: punitive Darwinism in El Salvador,” Crime, Law and Social Change. Vol. 79, no. 2. 2023: pp. 175–194,

[24] Jonathan D. Rosen, “Understanding support for toughoncrime policies in Latin America: The cases of Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras,” Latin American Policy. Vol. 12, no. 1. 2021: pp. 116–131,

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. Jonathan D. Rosen is Assistant Professor in the Professional Security Studies Department at New Jersey City University. Dr. Rosen earned his Master of Arts in political science from Columbia University and received his PhD in international studies from the University of Miami in 2012. Dr. Rosen’s research focuses on drug trafficking, organized crime, and security. He has published 20 books with Routledge, Lexington Books, Palgrave Macmillan, the University of Florida, and the State University Press of New York. He has published journal articles in Trends in Organized Crime, the Journal of Criminal JusticeDeviant BehaviorInternational Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, and Contexto InternacionalRevista CS, among other journals. He has participated in grant-funded research studies in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Mexico. In 2017, for example, Jonathan and his colleagues at Florida International University interviewed and surveyed nearly 1,200 active and former gang members in El Salvador.