Mexico is a major staging post on the cocaine-smuggling route from Colombia to the US, and use of cocaine is widespread and growing, with crack a blight in parts of the capital and some northern cities. Also growing is the use of methamphetamine (“hielo”), which is manufactured in Mexico, especially in areas close to the US border. Heroin is also manufactured in some northern states. In this ever-growing and increasingly lucrative trade, powerful, well-connected cocaine- and methamphetamine-smuggling cartels, known as “narcos” have long fought over territory, with each gang having its own pet politicians and police in the states it controls.

The situation changed radically in 2007 when President Felipe Calderón declared war on the narcos, who turned their guns on the police and army as well as each other. Innocent civilians often got caught in the crossfire, and thousands of people a year were killed in incidents related to the drugs war, with the biggest hot spots in areas bordering the US, and in major drug-producing states such as Sinaloa, though nowhere was safe.

Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, initially changed tack, setting up a national police force, the gendarmerie, to tackle the problem. However, a surge in violence in Michoacán soon forced him to send in the army again.

Civicus, an international civil society NGO, stated in 2015: “Successive Mexican governments have ramped up the rhetoric about getting tough on drug trafficking. The result has been an egregious and sustained assault on human rights: it is estimated that 100,000 people have been killed in the drug war, and a further 25,000 ‘disappeared’. ”

The drugs war and tourism

Tourists are not usually affected, but June 2009 saw tourist hotels hurriedly evacuated as a two-hour gun battle engulfed a section of Acapulco. At the time of writing, drug-related violence was a particular problem in the northern states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa and Durango, and also in Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacán and Nayarit. Armed clashes between security forces and drug groups may break out without warning, and you should exercise extreme caution outside of tourist areas in all of these states.

Essentials

Everything you need to know before you set off.

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