Entering the Void: Chinese illicit networks in Mexico

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This CEIAS paper aims to shed light on cooperation between Chinese businesses and Mexican criminal groups. It specifically analyzes cases related to drug trafficking and the exploitation of natural resources in three states in Mexico. The topic is particularly relevant for countries in Latin America that have been expanding their commercial ties with China. This research suggests that the lack of state supervision in some of these countries could allow alternative structures—such as criminal groups and Chinese organized networks—to thrive and fill the security and economic void if not regulated properly.

Entering the Void:

Chinese illicit networks in Mexico


  • Mexico’s macroeconomic stability and abundant natural resources have made the country into an attractive destination for Chinese businesses.
  • The country still suffers from a lack of internal security, most of it stemming from the Mexican Drug War, an ongoing multilateral low-intensity conflict between the Mexican government and a large number of criminal organizations.
  • In some of Mexico’s states, pervasive violence and instability have resulted in a power vacuum. With the government being unable to guarantee security, non-state actors such as criminal organizations and/or civilian militias seize the opportunity to establish their own rule.
  • When foreign companies operate in such troubled areas, they inevitably run into problems caused by Mexico’s security issues.
  • Within this trend of foreign companies operating in Mexico, some level of tacit cooperation has been observed between Chinese businesses and non-state actors. This cooperation is often an outcome of localized security vacuums that are exploited by alternative security providers, such as criminal organizations, that can fill them and provide operational safety for local businesses.
  • A growing body of research has identified the existence of Chinese illicit networks and their involvement in the trafficking of people, narcotics, and contraband goods, as well as money laundering and illegal arms trade in Mexico.
  • Concealed under the guise of legal commercial activity, networks of Mexican criminal organizations and their Chinese business partners exploit the dire security situation in some areas of Mexico.
  • Despite attempts by the Chinese and the Mexican governments to regulate certain sectors that contribute to the existence of the illicit networks in Mexico, there are still substantial opportunities that are ripe for exploitation by the criminal group-legitimate business partnerships.


  • Barbara Kelemen is a non-resident research fellow at CEIAS. She holds a double masters degree in International Affairs from London School of Economics (LSE) and Peking University. Previously she worked at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London and Mercator Institute of China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin writing on issues regarding China's security policy. She currently works as a Research Associate for Asia-Pacific at the the Risk Advisory Group in London.

  • Ján Slobodník is a writer with an interest in parallel economies, modern warfare, state subversion, and the international drug trade. He holds a master's degree from the University of Buckingham's Modern War Studies program, where his research focused on the militarization of the Mexican Drug War.