Mexico’s Drug War: A Society at Risk – Soldiers versus Narco-SoldiersBy: COHA Research Fellow Alex Sánchez
In early May, five Mexican soldiers, including an army colonel, were killed in a shootout 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.
These weapons in the thousands, are being smuggled into Mexico from U.S. sources; policing such shipments are given low priority by U.S. officials. Not only have the country’s various police forces been completely discredited, but much of the military has been as well. 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 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 payments (a soldier earns less than a policeman) and a lack of unity, integration and communication between the regular troops and career officers. It is also important to note that the military salaries for troops as well as non-commissioned officers is low, while the annual budget for the entire armed forces is estimated to be a modest $3.1 billion.
The question remains as to how a military with no direct external enemies manages to spend even this relatively modest budget. In a 2000 article in U.S. News & World Report, Sergio Aguayo, a political analyst at El Colegio de Mexico, described the Mexican military as “the last bunker,” still waiting to be taken in the country’s democratization process.
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.
An important moment in the history of the Mexican military took place in 1981, when the Mexican National Defense College or CDN (Colegio de Defensa Nacional) was inaugurated. The goal of the college is to provide a higher level of military and strategic education to junior military officers; additional offerings have included conferences on human rights and terrorism. However, as important as the CDN may be, it seems that its ideals as well as its educational dividends have not always been successfully transmitted to the foot soldiers.
Even though the military today is a fairly popular institution in the country, it also has experienced some very dark episodes. An example of this was the 1968 massacre in Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City, when troops shot and killed as many as 300 student protesters to avoid to avoid unsightly protests during the upcoming Olympic games. Sotomayor explains that accusations of human rights violations by military personnel are common but seldom penalized, with soldiers rarely having to face civilian trials even if accused of committing a crime. Such immunity before the law most likely creates a feeling of invincibility within the rank-and-file of the Mexican military that they have a license to badger, steal and even kill with impunity.
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 almost certain that these former special forces also have trained regular members of the Gulf Cartel’s security forces, making the criminal organization even more dangerous. 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. It is an established fact that the Zetas have built training camps in the states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Michoacan.
Multiple reports indicate that the Zetas are also in contact with “Los Kabiles,” former Guatemalan soldiers who were members of elite units who then deserted and have become enforcers for various Central American drug-trafficking operations. The strength and efficiency of the Zetas have created a kind of “Zeta-effect,” where those they train are now better equipped to professionally perform due to the instructions that the Zetas provide to their students, potentially making them deadlier than normally would have been the case. The result of this lugubrious training has been a wave of increasingly violent and brutal armed confrontations across the country with local security forces and military units in recent years, as drug death squads assassinate those affiliated with their rivals with impunity, including hundreds of corrupted law enforcement agents.
To understand the composition of Los Zetas, it would help to read the reports of captured or killed Zeta members. In November of 2006, two former army corporals were identified by the Mexican prosecutor general’s office as Zetas. Efraín Teodoro Torres, known as “Zeta 14,” and Gustavo González Castro, were trained in assault operations during their seven years in the military, serving in the Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (SEDENA). After leaving the army, they joined the Zetas, and it is believed that they led an infamous raid against the prison at Apatzingán on January 5, 2004, in which 25 prisoners were freed.
An important apprehension took place in early February 2007, when José Ramón Dávila López, known as “El Cholo,” was being detained in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas. Dávila López had served in the army for six years from 1995 to 2001, as part of the Air Mobile special forces group. In another incident, one of the founders of Los Zetas, Nabor Vargas García, “El Débora,” was captured in a shoot-out in Tabasco on April 18th in which two people were killed. He was arrested with 20 other individuals, many of whom presumably were also Zetas. The government claims that Vargas García ran a unit of Zetas in Tabasco, Campeche and Chiapas. He later admitted that he had served in the army, leaving the Presidential Guard’s assault battalion in 1999.
One has to wonder, when looking at the breadth of desertion which has taken place in the army, what kind of training the members of the Mexican military receive. Are the regular troops being given adequate instruction from their officers regarding issues of national identity which can be counted on to instill in them sufficient respect for the nation and civil society, even after they leave active duty?
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. On May 10, Mexico’s SEDENA published a communiqué, stating that during a routine bus inspection in Cucupa, troops from the 22nd Motorized Cavalry regiment found 336 packets of cocaine (amounting to an overall weight of 381 kg), and an additional 23 packets of methamphetamines (weighing 11 kg), hidden inside the motor and restroom of a bus. Similar successes have prompted 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 with COHA, 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.
Finally, soldiers are trained for search and destroy missions, often relying on large scale mobilizations, which could lead to widespread destruction and wide scale human rights abuses. During the Central American wars of the 1980s, militaries across the region were used to fight leftist rebels, leading to civilian massacres and brutal techniques like Guatemala’s ‘scorched earth policy’ or El Salvador’s death squads. Professor Child explains that “even among the more professional of the Latin American militaries, there is a process of “desgaste” (grinding down) as they act as a domestic police force. The military tends to have an end and means problem when faced with violent situation, reacting sharply and violently when faced with a violent adversary.”
A similar scenario may eventually begin to take place in Mexico. The country’s daily Mural reported on May 9 that soldiers went to Carácuaro and Nocupétaro to look for those who attacked a military convoy encouraging massive looting and abuses against the civilian population. Numerous witnesses state that the soldiers, looking to revenge their fallen comrades, stole money and jewelry from ordinary Mexicans; in some cases women were sexually assaulted, while men were verbally harassed, threatened, and pushed around.
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”).
The fight between Mexican security forces and the cartels rages on. Even as kingpins and hitmen are being detained, tried and sentenced in large numbers, others are being brought in to fill in the vacated spots. A number of presumed Zetas have been either killed or detained in recent months. On May 7, the army attacked a house being held by gangsters in the centre of Apatzingán. In an operation significant for the powerful weaponry utilized – military units attacked the house, starting with MK-19 grenade launchers, as a result of which they killed four criminals and wounded three others.
Meanwhile, the armed forces’ death toll is slowly beginning to rise. The May 1 incident which killed five soldiers and wounded four others involved an ambush against a military convoy composed of members of the 12th infantry battalion. The ambush was carried out by between 12 to 30 Cartelistas, all heavily armed and well organized. It is believed that at least some of them may have been Zetas. It is unclear if any of the attackers were either injured or killed in the attack that took place on a road between Morelia and Huetamo in the state of Michoacan. Huetamo has been the location of a hotbed of drug violence and the scene of several confrontations between the army and gangs. Calderón has since sent some 6,000 soldiers to Michoacan in a crackdown on this hub of the Gulf Cartel. Another casualty was Jacinto Pablo Granda, a Mexican infantry captain, who was kidnapped and later murdered on May 13 in the state of Guerrero. His body was found on a highway and had two gunshots to the head.
Luis Astorga, a specialist in drug trafficking from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM), stated to the Mexican daily La Opinión that organized crime is now using guerilla-style strategies that are managing to “enloquecer” (“drive crazy”) the militiary. Astorga explained to La Opinión that the cartels are carrying out isolated attacks to distract the government forces, while drug trafficking goes on as usual. These strategies seem to be working – after the attack on the military convoy that killed the five soldiers, the military deployed over 1,300 troops throughout the area to root out the culprits. While attention was centered on these search missions, one can only speculate as to how many shipments of drugs were moved throughout the state during this period. Astorga added that drug-trafficking organizations are very good at adapting to new situations, and, right now, there is a transition taking place as drug kingpins switch from hiring common hitmen to recruiting premium forces such as the paramilitary Zetas, with their specialized military training. In response to the growing violence perpetrated by former members of this force, the Mexican government and its armed forces are rumored to be discussing plans to impose much longer prison sentences of 30 to 60 years on deserters who later become involved in criminal activities.
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. Regarding this chronic problem, Calderón announced in April that his administration will tackle corruption in the police, claiming that “coludirse con quienes atentan contra la seguridad es traicionar a Mexico” (“colluding with [criminals] is betraying Mexico”). His success in this ambitious project remains to be seen. Too little is known about corruption in Mexico’s military, however its magnitude is believed to be huge. At the same time, too little is known of Calderon’s bona fides on the drug question. Is he using it as a distraction, as was the case with his predecessor, Vicente Fox, or does he really believe that it should be the leitmotif of his presidency? The discussions about increasing prison penalties to former soldiers who join drug traffickers, namely Los Zetas, may be an indirect way for Calderon to admit that corruption is endemic in the country’s military, as it is in almost every other sector of Mexico’s public life.
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.