Water Security: The Future Prize of the Mexican Cartels

In our new series on water security, we take a look at how shortages of the planet’s most vital resource will carry major conflict risks in the near future. In each article, we will explore the water conflict risks facing a new region, and how these conflicts might play out. In part four of the series, we examine how Mexico’s water scarcity crisis may empower the already formidable drug cartels in their war for influence over the Mexican population.

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Areas of physical and economical water scarcity at the basin level in 2007

Fig 1.0 – Global Water Scarcity at Basin Level, 2007

“Tlãloc is the god of rain and storm. He is the god of water in the sky, the creator of life. But he also carries the lightning and brings the most destructive of storms…”

The Codex Borgia, Vatican translation of Ancient Mexican Manuscript

A Mexico without water might sound oxymoronic. Although much of the country’s tourist appeal is based on its lush jungles and rich biodiversity, and the image of Mayan pyramids rising out of the rainforest has inspired wonder in its foreign visitors for five hundred years, roughly a quarter of the country’s territory is either arid or desert. Most critically, the landscape of the more economically productive northern strip is part of the country’s arid zone. As a warming and drying climate pushes these areas ever southwards, and Mexico’s metropolitan populations outpace their resources, water is certain to become an increasingly critical policy concern for the coming decade.

Fresh water is fundamental, of course, to the sustenance of life, society, and urbanity, and the importance of its national distribution has been increasingly clear for lawmakers and economists for nearly twenty years now. For Mexico City, a former Aztec lakeside settlement and now the largest city in the whole of the Western Hemisphere, water scarcity – or rather, water wastage – is particularly alarming. The effective storage and use of Mexico’s urban water supplies have been hindered by decades of gubernatorial negligence, and the new President will only be the first of many to have to allocate significant funding towards reversing this trend.


Fig 2.0 – Climate types across Mexico

But perhaps a less obvious constituency in this embryonic crisis is the criminal underworld of narcotics traffickers. This shadow sector, which constitutes between $25bn and $40bn of Mexico’s annual GDP, is infamously malleable, and it will always adapt to the challenges of the day, often at a quicker pace than the legitimate authorities. They are just as invested in the proficiency of Mexico’s water infrastructure as their licit counterparts in city councils and large firms.

The producers and traffickers of narcotics are most directly concerned with water because it is the starting point in the production of their products. Naturally, cannabis, heroin poppies and coca – the botanicals most trafficked through the Mexican corridor – begin as living things, and ones that grow best in a humid climate. As cartels increasingly exploit Mexico’s insecure environment to move the production phase of trafficking in-house, they will be faced with gradually changing soil chemistry and desertification that works to make the final products more difficult to cultivate, and as a result all the more valuable. In this sense, the most popular narcotic plants are reflective of the conflict mineral phenomenon evident in central Africa. They fundamentally constitute a natural resource, albeit an illegal one, and will be violently fought over as the climatic conditions become hostile.

Indeed, if anything is to squeeze the illegal drug market from all angles , it is not wasteful governmental security operations, but the nigh-unstoppable changing of the global climate. Plants are still the basis of a cartel’s profit after all: the international market for drugs is far more lucrative, scalable and extensive than those of weaponry, human organs or sex workers for example. Even as synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine (which can be manufactured almost anywhere) become more common, the recession-proof demand for natural narcotics shows no sign of slowing.

But in another sense entirely, water security will become vital to the cartels’ business development. As it becomes more competitive, it will emerge more clearly as a tool of social engineering.

Although it sounds anathema to the more ideologically entrenched counter-narcotics thinkers, social policies are fundamental to a proficient cartel’s revenue, security and growth. Getting local populations on-side has been a part of strategic trafficking since before the Escobar era. From the favelas of Brazil, to the mountainsides of the Andes, all the way up to Texas, large criminal organisations benefit from persuading (or violently forcing) assistance and complicity from local – usually underprivileged – groups. At the very least, this can yield a reluctant social silence towards the police. But at best, this can foster deep-rooted preference of the cartels over any kind of national authority creating an environment akin to population-centric counterinsurgency.

Usually, this power of domination has been derived from sheer abundance of disposable income and brute force. But as water becomes an increasingly valuable asset, especially for the most vulnerable demographics, its access and distribution may become a crucial instrument of control. Access to clean water and plumbing will only become more of a source of stress for small communities in regions of scarcity, and few could blame them for turning to the nearest cartel for their desperate provision. This has happened already in the petroleum sector of states like Puebla, not far from Mexico’s capital.

Mexico is presently the only major drug-trafficking region that faces a water crisis. Over the next twenty or so years to come, however, others will inevitably follow: the Mekong Delta, South America and West Africa among them. Mexican cartels are therefore the lab rats of this coming era of drug violence. Watching how they navigate this coming tide may be a gruesome but educational affair.

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John Scott is a Scottish security analyst with expertise in counter-narcotics and non-state groups. John has degrees in Political Science from St Andrews and Glasgow University, and recently completed a NATO Military Security course in Lithuania. He has contributed policy research for a political group in the Central African Republic and organised crime analysis for Intelligence Fusion, and now works in political risk for a leading intelligence firm in London.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: Cover image – Lance Cpl. Tanner Casares // Global Water Scarcity Map – MDPI // Climate map of Mexico – Adam Peterson