Drug cartels employ 175,000 people across Mexico making it the fifth largest employer in the country, according to a new study.
A vast network of 150 cartels are recruiting upwards of 350 new members a week. This puts the Mexican drug trade on par with industries like general practice medicine, which employed 189,000 people in 2023; coffee and tobacco cultivation, according to the Mexican government.
The cartels employ a similar number of people as Oxxo, Mexico’s largest corner shop chain.
The study counted everyone from rural peasants cultivating opium to armed men guarding drug labs to cartel leadership organising international smuggling.
The Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels, Mexico’s largest, employ an estimated 46,600 on their own, according to the paper.
“It’s very important to understand the size of the problem,” Rafael Prieto-Curiel, who led the research at the Complexity Science Hub in Vienna, told The Los Angeles Times. “It helps put the issue into perspective.”
The research comes as a black eye for Mexican leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador who had made cracking down on cartel activity as one of the pillars of his presidency.
The study estimated cartel employment levels from statistics on incarcerations and deaths of known members in Mexico.
The research team found that extensive recruitment efforts were necessary to replace the 37 per cent of known cartel members killed or put in prison in the last decade.
In addition to studying the size of the cartels, the researchers also projected how various public safety intiatives would impact their growth.
The paper found that under law-and-order approaches focused on incarceration of cartel members, the groups would still grow 26 per cent by 2027, while peaceful negotiations would have no meaningful effect. Instead, researchers argued, only decreasing recruitment would make a dent.
However some observers questioned the methodology of the study.
“It can be very difficult to say who is a member of a criminal organisation, and who isn’t,” Victoria Dittmar, a researcher for the think-tank, Insight Crime, told The Guardian.
“What about a politician that receives money? Or someone who cooperates with the group just once?”
The US Drug Enforcement Administration estimated in July that the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels employ nearly 45,000 people.
Homicides in Mexico have tripled since 2007, reaching 34,000 murders in 2021, and making the country one of the deadliest in Latin America.
Earlier this month, the United States had a major break against the powerful Sinaloa cartel, when Mexico agreed to extradite Ovidio Guzmán López, the son of legendary traffickerJoaquin ’El Chapo’ Guzmán, on drug charges. He has pleaded not guilty.
“This action is the most recent step in the Justice Department’s effort to attack every aspect of the cartel’s operations,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said.
Mr Guzmán López was captured in January in Culiacan in Sinaloa state, following a massive military operation.
In April, the younger Guzmán was charged with overseeing efforts to steer the cartel towards producing fentanyl, a drug which has flooded the United States in recent years.
“El Chapo” was tried in New York in 2019 and is serving a life sentence at a super-max prison in Colorado.