May 25, 2007

Mexico’s Drug War: A Society at Risk - Soldiers versus Narco-Soldiers

By Alex Sánchez

In early May, five Mexican soldiers, including an army colonel, were killed in a shoot-out with drug traffickers. It is believed that some of the attackers were members of Los Zetas, former members of Mexico’s Special Forces who have deserted or retired and who now work for the drug-trafficking Gulf Cartel. This violent incident is an example of the brutal tactics routinely utilized in the current daily confrontations taking place in Mexico.

Upon assuming office last December 1st, President Felipe Calderón quickly came to the conclusion that he had to deploy the Mexican armed forces to fight alongside the police, and often in place of them, against the drug-trafficking cartels. This decision has created a situation in Calderón’s war on drugs that has firmly pinned Mexican Zetas against their former comrades, taking the conflict to a new level of violence in which military-style tactics, equipment and weaponry are now being utilized in an all-out conflict between the state and the para-state of the drug cartels.

Today, Mexico is a country dangerously devoid of any security; a country which cannot defend itself against a pathological danger that has rendered its citizens completely vulnerable to what is little better than a state within a state. Along with the endemic corruption there is an unacceptable level of domestic and imported crime and a surge of weapons for which a deeply complicit Washington shamefacedly does little better than shrugs its hands.

Mexican Military – The Human Side

As a result of their secrecy of operation and their often antiquated combat style, the Mexican armed forces are often characterized as a relic of a bygone era. While the rest of the nation works on developing more accountable government institutions, the armed forces remain virtually unchanged in organization and tactics. Today, the military has a combined force of around 183,000 troops, with only a very small percentage of them being combat-ready. While this is a significant level of troops, their relatively poor quality along with the phenomena of desertion has reached alarming levels.

A January 29 article in the Mexican daily Reforma found that between 2001 and November 2006, a total of 99,767 members of the armed forces deserted, of which 88,889 were from army units. This means that, on average, 46 soldiers deserted every day from the Mexican army. This intolerably high desertion rate has been attributed to hazing, low pay (a soldier earns less than a policeman) and a lack of unity, integration and communication between the regular troops and career officers.

Mexican Military: Mouse or Lion

The military’s mandate is ostensibly routine: mainly to protect the nation from traditional external threats to the state to the more contemporaneous task of ensuring the internal security of the citizenry. Mexico’s somewhat unique geo-strategic position means that it faces no such major external security threat. As stated by Arturo Sotomayor in an April 2006 issue of Hemisphere, the Mexican military is too weak to battle the American military, but, at the same time, it is far too strong to be concerned about any form of hostile action from its Central American neighbors such as Belize or Guatemala. The history of Mexico’s military is also somewhat of an aberration when compared to other Latin American armed forces, due to their almost complete lack of involvement in domestic politics. While South America went through a period of harsh military governments during the 1970s and 1980s, there hasn’t been a Mexican military coup in over seventy years.

Los Zetas

More mysterious and less transparent than the regular Mexican military are Los Zetas. Little is known about the members of the “military wing” of various drug cartels, in part in order to spare the Mexican military of the embarrassment that scores of former special forces have been lured into being criminals for much higher wages. It is known that Los Zetas are more often than not former members of the Mexican Special Air Mobile Group.

In the late 1990s, this unit was sent to the Mexican state of Michoacan, where it is believed that the unit’s command made its initial contacts with the leaders of the Gulf Cartel. Over the next several years, the desertion level within the elite group began to mount. It is now known that most of these former soldiers were hired by the Gulf Cartel, becoming essentially hitmen and contract killers. It is unclear how many Zetas are currently under the control of the Gulf Cartel but various reports put the number at no more than several hundred.

Calderon Raises the Stakes

As one of his first mandates as president, Felipe Calderón deployed the armed forces throughout the country to help law enforcement agencies tackle crimes associated with drug trafficking and related matters. Michoacán was the first state to which Calderón deployed the army when he took office on 1 December. Since early December 2006, over 24,000 troops have been rotated to various areas by the military high command. In the Acapulco area, for example, 7,000 troops were sent to in an attempt to halt the turf war between the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels.

This massive national military mobilization has yielded some limited, successes, prompting General Guillermo Galván Galván, Mexico’s Defense Secretary, to declare that “el narcotráfico no doblegará al Ejército” (“drug traffickers will not defeat the army”). Other experts see Calderon’s reliance in the armed forces from a different perspective. In an interview Professor Jack Child of American University explains that Calderon’s use of the military “is a measure of desperation as he tries to make good his campaign promises to get tough with the drug cartels (in contrast with his predecessor Fox, whose administration appears to have reached an unofficial understanding with them).”

Dangers of Reliance on the Military as a Police Force

Different issues have come up regarding Calderon’s utilization of the country’s military as a police force. The first one is that greater use of the military in domestic affairs actually might have the negative effect of affording the armed forces more power and control in the nation than traditionally has been the case. The Mexican military has traditionally been known for being relatively apolitical, only rarely showing much partisan interest in domestic politics. This condition—which normally would keep the military out of politics—may be undermined if the military high command begins to believe that, as protectors of the nation both from external and internal security threats, they should have a greater say in the government’s decision-making process, perhaps also demanding an increase in the defense budget, or a fixed percentage of it.

Another potential effect of the military’s expanding functions is strained relations between the military and the police. Calderon’s decision to turn to the military may be meant to impart an indirect message to the police that he does not trust this institution due to its endemic corruption and ineptitude. Strained relations between two forces that should be fighting in union against a common enemy may have other negative effects like a lack of intelligence information sharing or mutual assistance. This may already have happened. During the May attack in which five soldiers were killed by cartel hitmen, it was discovered that the ambush took place only 30 meters away from the Presidencia Municipal (the mayor’s offices) of Carácuaro. Yet despite the proximity to the mayor’s office, the police officials stationed there took no effort to come to the aid of the besieged soldiers.

The Price in Blood

Despite some successes as a result of the military’s crackdown operations, Mexican drug cartels do not appear to be visibly shaken as the violence at their hands continues to rage. In 2006, over 4,000 were killed in Mexico in drug-related violence.

So far this year, according to various unofficial Mexican newspaper accounts, between 900 and 1000 people have fallen. On May 16 alone, over 30 people died across the country in cartel-related violence in the bloodiest day since Calderón took office. A shootout that day between the Mexican police and drug hitmen (it is unclear if they were Zetas) left 15 suspected criminals dead, along with five policemen and two civilians. The firefight took place on a ranch in the state of Sonora, around 100km from the border with Arizona. In a speech delivered the next day, Calderón declared that he will continue to use the military against the traffickers and that the drug war “es una batalla que vamos a ganar […] vamos a rescatar a Mexico de esos grupos [criminales]” (“a battle that we are going to win […] we are going to save Mexico from those [criminal] groups”).

Additional Factors

Zeta operations are not directed solely at fighting the Mexican security forces. The different drug cartels operating in the country are in a constant struggle for territory and greater control of the drug flow. The Zetas therefore also fight the security wings of other drug cartels. Some of these groups include “Los Negros” of the Sinaloa cartel and “Los Chachos” of the Juarez cartel. It is unknown whether the other cartels are also employing former soldiers as hitmen, but if they are not yet, it seems only a matter of time until they do, further escalating this inter-cartel drug war to a new level of paramilitary violence.

Finally, the Mexican military will essentially be fighting the various cartels “alone.” It is well known that many members of the Mexican police are on the drug-traffickers’ payroll, which provides a major explanation behind the ineffectiveness thus far of police efforts in tackling organized crime gangs.

Accepting Realities

In order to be effective and make an impression on the nation, Calderón’s aggressive drug policy will have to go hand in hand with a number of other reforms. There is an ever-growing need to reconstitute, modernize, and professionalize the Mexican armed forces, which will have to include greater accountability for its personnel, better pay and treatment for the troops, and also more ideological courses to insure that military members’ respect for the nation is institutionalized, even after they leave active duty.

Another practical option is that the government should create high quality jobs specifically designed for former military, to give them less reason to consider joining drug cartels for the easy cash to be made; for example, authorities could give job-hiring preference to former soldiers that for a position in the law enforcement agencies. Lastly, the military’s high command should establish a monitoring committee to keep track of the troops once they retire or desert in order to make sure that they do not join criminal organizations.

The Mexican drug war is reaching a new level, not only because of the widespread violence, but because of the contending forces now being pinned against each other. Calderón’s continuous statements about defeating the cartels may be bordering on the naïve unless immediate reforms be made in the military and a massive crackdown on corruption occurs at the same time.

Today, Calderón faces the hard fact that both Mexico and its drug cartels each have their own professionally-trained militarized forces. It is certain that the death toll on both sides will continue to mount while the ultimate victor is not at all clear. What is clear is that the viability of the Mexican state is now at risk.

This analysis was prepared by Council on Hemispheric Affairs Research Fellow Alex Sánchez. For the full report: visit their web page at

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