The process of Transnationalization of Drug Trafficking Organisations: The case of the Mexican Cartels

  • Diorella Islas

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


This thesis seeks to develop a better understanding of the transnational behaviour of drug trafficking organisations (DTOs) by documenting the role that Mexican DTOs had in the cocaine trafficking to Europe after 2008. This was the year when the Italian authorities announced their discoveries that there were business interaction between the Mexican DTOs and the Italian mafia groups. At the same time the Italian authorities were announcing their findings, my literature review showed a lack of analysis and documentation regarding the transnationalization of Mexican DTOs to Europe.

While most of the literature focuses on the explanation of the cartels inside Mexico, my research question focused on clarifying whether or not the Mexican DTOs are expanding their cocaine trafficking activities to Europe. At this point I considered the reports of the Italian authorities that affirm that the Mexican DTOs are relevant drug trafficking intermediaries in the cocaine trafficking routes to Europe.

To answer my research question, and to systematically describe the evolution of DTOs, a qualitative methods approach was deployed (Mohajan, 2018) with a case study design adapted from Yin (2003). My analysis was carried out through the use of multiple triangulation techniques that helped me to collect and study different types of data to understand the subject. I collected empirical information through 28 interviews with security personnel with experience in countering Mexican DTOs or in the cocaine routes to Europe. The information gathered from the security personnel, complemented by official reports and open source information, was useful to answer my research question and test my hypothesis.

The analysis showed that despite Italian authorities’ claims and perceptions, the power of the Mexican cartels is very limited when talking about their presence and links in Europe, and resulted in four key findings. Firstly, that the perception of the Mexican DTOs as having trans-Atlantic powers is erroneous, because the evidence showed that there is no transatlantic expansion. Secondly, the analysis uncovered the internal, national and international variables that were observed to alter the evolution and behaviour of the Mexican DTOs. At the internal level, the variables included the loss of leadership and the grievances between groups. At the national level the identified variables were the democratic transitions, corruption and impunity networks. And at the international level the variables were the international drug demand, the changes in the international illicit world, the situation of governance and corruption in foreign countries and the geography of the region where the illicit business are taking place.

The third finding was that the transatlantic cocaine trafficking routes are not controlled by an specific actor, but they are horizontal structures that are highly adaptative. The final key finding refers to a methodological observation which I describe as the “paradox of referencing”; when many sources reference something that was true in the past –like the links between Mexican DTOs and Italian mafia discovered in 2008– they help to perpetuate the present perception of a past phenomenon.
Date of Award16 Sept 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SponsorsConsejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia
SupervisorJuan Ferrero (Supervisor) & Felia Allum (Supervisor)


  • International Security
  • National security
  • Security
  • security studies
  • Drugs
  • Transnational organisations
  • Criminal organisations
  • Transnational Organised Crime
  • TOC
  • DTOs
  • Sinaloa Cartel
  • Mexico
  • cocaine smuggling
  • War on drugs
  • Zetas
  • Securitization
  • Transnational criminal organizations
  • Drug trafficking organizations
  • Drug smuggling
  • Illicit drugs
  • marihuana
  • History of Drug Cartels
  • Mafia
  • 'Ndrangheta
  • Calabrian Mafia
  • Gulf cartel

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