Why the Military Will Never Beat Mexico's Cartels
As the murder rate in Mexico rises yet again, it’s time to admit current policies aren’t working—and start looking for new solutions.
SIERRA MADRE DEL SUR, Mexico — “Any war that requires the suspension of reason as a necessity for support is a bad war,” wrote Norman Mailer in Armies of the Night. That phrase, applied to Vietnam almost 50 years ago, has come back into my head any number of times during the eight months of the last year I’ve spent covering the Mexican drug war.
For most of that time I’ve been on the front lines of the conflict—often in and around the sun-scorched and cartel-dominated valley called Tierra Caliente—where the daily suspension of one’s reasoning faculties can be a useful coping mechanism.
Even so, at times I’ve found it very hard to support the Mexican government’s increasingly surreal approach to drug war tactics and strategy.
For example, on a recent trip to the village of Dos Aguas, high in the Sierra Madre mountains of Michoacán state, I was told by locals that there were no police or military forces present in the vicinity at all. Not even a sheriff. The town had formerly been protected by a group of vigilantes known as autodefensas, but the state government ordered the group to disband last February under penalty of arrest.
Now that the vigilantes are gone, Dos Aguas is run by a chieftain from the Knights Templar cartel, who calls himself “El Tena.” He travels the mountains in a caravan of more than a dozen trucks, led by a pick-up with a .50 caliber machine gun mounted in the bed. El Tena goes where he likes and does what he pleases—including running meth labs and illegal logging operations in the sierra.
When I visited the nearest army base, in the municipal seat of Coalcomán, I asked the commanding officer about El Tena. Why, given his well-known whereabouts, had no operations been undertaken to apprehend him? The CO told me I’d have to put in a request to the army chief of staff in Mexico City for any such questions. Two weeks and many phone calls and emails later, I’m still waiting for an answer, and El Tena is still on the loose.
In addition to disbanding cartel-fighting vigilantes in Michoacán, the federal government is also in the process of shutting down local police forces, or Fuerzas Rurales, in an effort to replace them with state troopers. In the town of Aquila, just an hour west of Coalcomán, the decree comes despite the overwhelming objection from townsfolk, who claim the Rurales are the only ones capable of protecting them from the predations of regional cartels.
“The state police sent a message saying we had to come to a meeting and give up our guns,” says Rurales commander Hector Zepeda. “But we’re not going to the meeting, because the town council didn’t authorize it. We work for the community, and we don’t take orders from anyone else.”
The disconnect between branches of law enforcement is weirdly normal in Mexico, where state and federal authorities are generally considered corrupt until proven otherwise.
“The state wants to assign their own officers, who don’t know anything about the town,” says Zepeda, who I’ve personally seen risk his life going up against the cartels in the past. “They had their chance to protect the people, and they never did anything. That’s why the autodefensas formed in the first place!”
The half-tragic, half-farcical nature of the drug war also makes it tough to (reasonably) justify the $2.5 billion in military aid that Washington has blindly thrown at Mexico since 2008, as part of what’s called the Merida Initiative.
Those questionably spent billions also mean Uncle Sam is complicit in the bloodshed south of the border. And plenty of blood has already been shed.
From 2007 to 2014 the crime wars of Mexico claimed more lives than the combined toll of the wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time. More than 164,000 Mexicans have disappeared or been killed in the conflict, and the extreme and chronic violence, coupled with great poverty, also drives much of the illegal immigration that Donald Trump and his supporters are so worried about.
The killing, moreover, shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Despite the high-profile re-capture of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in early January, Mexico’s murder rate has actually risen so far in 2016. Meanwhile, other crime groups, headed by ever more brutal and bloodthirsty leaders, have stepped up to take El Chapo’s place.
For U.S. citizens the issue is deeper—and thornier—than remote casualties on foreign soil or the migrant dilemma. Americans have a right to know how the billions of tax dollars sent to Mexico are being spent—especially if they’ve been misused or wasted.
Is the fight against the cartels being won? Is it even winnable? Can it be rationally defended by clear-headed citizens as it’s currently being waged?
To help answer those questions, I reached out to an American who’s been living and working in Mexico for the better part of the last three decades. As director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy, and a former Fulbright scholar, Laura Carlsen knows Mexico as well as any gringo alive.
The government “can’t defeat the cartels militarily,” says Carlsen, in an interview with The Daily Beast from her office in Mexico City.
Organized crime in Mexico, she says, is simply “too lucrative.” When a designated “kingpin” is arrested or killed by authorities, the flow of money from the drug trade ensures a former underling or rival will rise up to take his place.
“Massive military deployment and attacks on cartels cannot defeat or eliminate them and invariably lead to greater levels of violence,” Carlsen says, because newly empowered factions do battle for the old crime lord’s turf.
According to Carlsen, the flaw lies not just in tactical execution, but in the authorities’ very will to fight—despite Washington footing much of the bill.
“In Mexico the problem is in the practice as well as the strategy itself. The military can’t defeat the drug cartels,” says Carlsen, “because it doesn’t want to.
“Police and military are often complicit with drug traffickers,” she adds, in a follow-up email. “Huge quantities of drugs flow out of (and presumably cash flows into) areas where the military controls access.” The problem of corruption is not limited to individuals, she notes, it’s “a systemic re-purposing of state agencies” by the cartels.
Carlsen’s comments on official corruption are also echoed by the narcos themselves. On several occasions I’ve heard cartel members brag about the ease with which military and police officers can be evaded or, indeed, controlled.
“The soldiers and cops are all Chilangos (natives of Mexico), and most of them are really on our side,” as a cartel sicario, or hitman, for the Michoacán-based H3 cartel told me this week when we met for an interview on the outskirts of Aquila.
“It’s no problem to run hielo (crystal meth) or whatever through a checkpoint,” said the sicario, who asked to be identified only as Miguel. “All we have to do is pay them off, and they take it—because they’re Chilangos like us, and they understand that’s what Chilangos do.”
While covering what Mexicans call the narcoguerra, I’ve had a chance to study our allies’ crime fighting efforts at close range. Their tactics are loosely modeled on the U.S. counter-insurgency manual, but with one vital difference: Little, if any, attention is paid to winning hearts and minds.
In rural areas, army units tend to cluster in camps outside of towns, hunkered down behind barbed wire barricades where they have little opportunity to gather useful intelligence, run thorough foot patrols in red zones, or fraternize with civilian residents.
The use of the Mexican army as a tool for law enforcement has also led to a spike in alleged human rights violations. Mexico’s top military commander himself recently admitted his troops aren’t up to the task.
Carlsen agrees: “Mexico’s number of extrajudicial executions is among the highest in the world because the armed forces frequently shoot first and ask questions never,” she says.
Carlsen goes on to list other specific infractions that communities occupied by the Mexican armed forces are complaining of, including “rape, sexual violence against civilians, torture, assassinations and beatings.”
Unlike army units, federal police usually bivouac in well-guarded hotels near municipal centers during their deployments—but, as with their military counterparts, almost all federal patrols are carried out with troops riding in armored trucks or helicopters.
Instead of putting boots on the ground, both soldiers and the SWAT-like federal police race through towns and city streets in armored columns due to fear of being ambushed. For the most part, they dismount from their vehicles only at designated refueling stations or to take on food and supplies. That means there’s little chance to conduct detailed recon operations or hold face-to-face meetings with civilians—elements essential to successful police work the world over.
Worst of all, soldiers and federal cops will often remain safely in their bases while cartel forces actively threaten or even invade communities in force to kill or abduct citizens—as was the case when 43 students were “disappeared” in the southwestern town of Iguala in the fall of 2014.
“There’s been no success with the militarization strategy,” Carlsen says, “and there won’t be in the future.”
The Mexican drug war will not be won on the battlefield, nor with a single sweeping policy change. Victory will only come by simultaneously hacking away at the cartels from multiple angles. And some of those steps can be taken by the U.S. and in the U.S.
Much has been written about how the legalization of marijuana in certain U.S. states has reduced cartel revenues, and there’s no question that decriminalizing cannabis helped weaken one of their core industries.
But there are also limits to legal weed as a panacea for crushing trafficking organizations. For one thing, most of the Mexican cartels also specialize in hard drugs like crystal meth and heroin—which are unlikely to be made legal anytime soon, if ever.
In fact, a recent surge in heroin use in the U.S. has been linked to increased opium production in Mexican states like Guerrero. Which illustrates a vital point: As long as there is a high demand for illicit substances in the U.S., Mexican cartels will continue to supply them.
A gradual end to prohibition, coupled with ramped up drug treatment programs in the States, would certainly help the situation. But a focus on narcotics alone is no longer sufficient, because Mexican crime groups have already diversified into other black market activities. Kidnapping for profit, extortion, illegal mining, petroleum theft, and even organ trafficking all provide income streams for the gangsters now.
Lopping off the cartels’ many tentacles is a security issue that will require police and soldiers to take a more pro-active approach. Defending fixed positions is simply not a viable strategy for winning a guerrilla-style war. As vigilante-turned-policeman Zepeda points out, authorities also need to have more contact with the civilian populations they’re assigned to guard, so they can gather valuable intel, and avoid innocent casualties.
Some changes in education and compensation for law enforcement officers might also help stem corruption, says Adam Isacson, chief security analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America, in an email to The Daily Beast.
Isacson would like to see Mexican authorities “improve police training, salaries, and professionalization” and “make being a police officer a career and not a low-status job,” he says.
“Make the justice system work to reduce the horrific impunity rates for crimes like homicides, punish corrupt government personnel, and take apart organized crime networks, especially those producing and transshipping drugs,” Isacson advises.
Just as drugs flow north across the border—weapons are flowing south. Improved gun control, especially for assault rifles and handguns, could go a long way toward eroding the cartels’ collective firepower. That’s another short-term fix that ought to be easy to implement, provided politics don’t get in the way.
In the long term, however, the most effective way to rein in the cartels will be to make them economically obsolete. To do that, the state will have to provide viable, mainstream opportunities for the 46.2 percent of Mexicans who live in dire poverty.
“When young people from impoverished families have no options, the chances that they will in some form become associated with the trafficking and consumption of illicit drugs goes way up,” says Carlsen, who cites economic hardship as a “major factor” behind the cartels’ hydra-like ability to endlessly regenerate themselves.
Independent research shows that U.S.-backed free trade agreements like NAFTA have also hindered legitimate economic growth in Mexico—contrary to what Mr. Trump would have you believe—thus driving many to flee their homes and seek greener pastures in El Norte.
In other words, the U.S. is backing economic policies that inadvertently help bolster organized crime groups, and foster illegal immigration, while spending millions of taxpayer dollars to fight those same problems.
And a large portion of those same tax dollars goes to prop up corrupt, undisciplined, and poorly trained Mexican military and police forces.
If all of that doesn’t make the suspension of reason a prerequisite for blindly supporting Mexico’s drug war, consider this:
Despite the facts outlined above, the Obama administration will send at least $147.5 million in “security aid” to Mexico under the Merida Initiative for fiscal year 2016—while also cutting (PDF) developmental and humanitarian aid from the initiative budget entirely.
What would Mr. Mailer say about that?