A “NEW” DYNAMIC IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE SECURITY ENVIRONMENT: THE MEXICAN ZETAS AND OTHER PRIVATE ARMIES

 

Por Max G. Manwaring

 

 

 

September 2009

 

The views expressed in this report are those of the author

and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of

the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or

the U.S. Government. Authors of Strategic Studies Institute

(SSI) publications enjoy full academic freedom, provided

they do not disclose classified information, jeopardize

operations security, or misrepresent official U.S. policy.

Comments pertaining to this report are invited and should be

forwarded to: Director, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War

College, 122 Forbes Ave, Carlisle, PA 17013-5244.

*****

There is a large number of nonstate actors in the

Western Hemisphere and around the world that

exercise violence to advance their causes, radicalize

the population, and move slowly but surely toward the

achievement of their ideological and self-enrichment

dreams. In Mexico, these nonstate actors have included

a complex and enigmatic mix of transnational criminal

organizations (TCOs) (cartels and mafia); enforcer

gangs; political and ideological insurgents; and

paramilitary “vigilante” organizations that generate

violence and instability, erode democracy and the

state, and challenge national security and sovereignty.

The author, Dr. Max Manwaring, explains that a

new and dangerous dynamic has been inserted into the

already crowded Mexican and Western Hemisphere

security arena. That new dynamic is represented

by a private military organization called the Zetas.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the Zetas was organized

and staffed by former members (deserters) from the

Mexican Army’s veteran elite Airborne Special Forces

Group (GAFES). That private military organization

now also includes former members from the formidable

Guatemalan Kiabiles Special Forces organization.

Thus, the Zeta is better trained, equipped, motivated,

and experienced in irregular war than the Mexican

police and army units that are supposed to control and

subdue them. That new dynamic, as a consequence,

employs an ambiguous mix of terrorism, crime, and

conventional war tactics, operations, and strategies.

This, in turn, generates relatively uncontrolled coercion

and violence, and its perpetrators tend to create and

consolidate semi-autonomous political enclaves

(criminal free-states within the Mexican state) that

develop into what the Mexican government has called

 

“Zones of Impunity.” In such zones, criminal quasi

states may operate in juxtaposition with the institutions

of the weak de jure state, and force the local population

to reconcile loyalties and adapt to an ambivalent and

precarious existence that challenges traditional values

as well as the law.

This volatile and dangerous security situation

does not imply that Mexico is now a “failed state.”

Nevertheless, the threat exists and cannot be wished

away. The purpose of this monograph, then, is to help

political, military, policy, and opinion leaders think

about explanations and responses that might apply

to the unconventional, irregular, and ambiguous

threats that privatized military violence generates.

This monograph is also intended to help bring about

a more relevant response to the strategic reality of the

“Guerrillas Next Door” from the United States and the

rest of the hemisphere. The author’s analysis is cogent,

and the Strategic Studies Institute is pleased to offer

this monograph as a part of the ongoing dialogue on

global land regional security and stability.

DOUGLAS C. LOVELACE, JR.

Director

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

MAX G. MANWARING is a Professor of Military

Strategy in the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) of the

U.S. Army War College, and is a retired U.S. Army

colonel. He has served in various military and civilian

positions, including the U.S. Southern Command, the

Defense Intelligence Agency, Dickinson College, and

Memphis University. Dr. Manwaring is the author

and coauthor of several articles, chapters, and books

dealing with Latin American security affairs, politicalmilitary

affairs, and insurgency and counterinsurgency.

His most recent book is Insurgency, Terrorism, and

Crime: Shadows from the Past and Portent for the Future,

University of Oklahoma Press, 2008. His most recent

SSI monograph is State and Non-State Associated Gangs:

Credible “Midwives of New Social Orders.” Dr. Manwaring

holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Political Science from

the University of Illinois, and is a graduate of the U.S.

Army War College.


Leftist insurgent groups such as Comandante

Zero’s Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN)

are not the only nonstate political actors in Mexico

or the Western Hemisphere that exercise violence to

advertise their cause, radicalize the population, and

move slowly but surely toward the achievement of their

ideological and self-enrichment dreams.1 But a new

and dangerous dynamic has been introduced into the

Mexican internal and the Western Hemisphere security

environments. In Mexico, that new dynamic involves

the migration of traditional hard-power national

security and sovereignty threats from traditional state

and nonstate adversaries to hard- and soft-power

threats from small, nontraditional, private nonstate

military organizations.2 This “privatized violence”

tends to include a complex and enigmatic mix of

Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) (cartels

and mafia); small private military organizations such

as the Zeta enforcer gangs (the Aztecas, Negros, and

Polones); mercenary groups (the Central American

Maras, Guatemalan Kaibiles, and paramilitary

triggermen [gatilleros]); and other small paramilitary or

vigilante organizations (hereafter cited as the gangs-

TCO phenomenon).3

What makes these small private armies so effective

is the absence of anyone to turn to for help. Weak and/

or corrupt state security institutions, as in Mexico,

are notoriously unhelpful and tend to be a part of the

problem—not the solution. In such a vacuum, only a

few relatively well-armed and disciplined individuals

are capable of establishing their own rule of law. The

 

2

dynamic of privatized violence (which has been on

the global scene for centuries and is not really new)

involves a powerful and ambiguous mix of terrorism,

crime, and conventional war tactics and operations.

This violence and its perpetrators tend to create and

consolidate semiautonomous enclaves (criminalfree

states) that develop into quasi states—and what

the Mexican government calls “Zones of Impunity.”4

Leaders of these quasi-state (nonstate) political entities

promulgate their own rule of law, negotiate alliances

with traditional state and nonstate actors, and conduct

an insurgency-type war against various state and

nonstate adversaries. Additionally, criminal quasistates

may operate in juxtaposition with the institutions

of weak de jure states and force the populations to

adapt to an ambivalent and precarious existence that

challenges traditional values as well as local law.5

The dynamics of privatized military force in Mexico

signal two cogent trends. The first addresses the threat.

It illustrates a “new” and unconventional battlefield

that represents a nontraditional security threat to

Mexico and its northern and southern neighbors. The

second trend deals with response. These dynamics

signal a new stability-security reality that is changing

relations and roles among and between state security

and service institutions. The “new” threat is not just a

law enforcement problem, a national security issue, or

even a social issue. It is much more, requiring a wholeof-

government approach to dealing with the causes as

well as the perpetrators of terrorism, criminality, and

military violence. Ultimately, depending on response

to threat, there is another signal that will define an

underlying shift in state identity: a shift in state identity

toward, or away from, some manifestation of state

failure.

 

3

The mention of a possible shift in state identity here

does not imply that Mexico is now a “failed state.” That

country has a vibrant middle class that supports law

and order, and it has a relatively robust economy that

can sustain a president willing to use the powers of the

state to confront the gangs-TCO phenomenon. Under

President Felipe Calderon, Mexico is responding

constructively to the threat and can be seen as shifting

away from the possibility of state failure.6 Nevertheless,

the threat exists; it is exacerbating the “new”

privatized violence, and it cannot be wished away. As

a consequence, this cautionary tale is intended to help

political, military, policy, academic, and opinion leaders

think strategically about explanations and responses

that might apply to many of the unconventional,

irregular, and ambiguous threats that Mexico and other

countries face now and in the future. At the same time,

this monograph is intended to help generate a more

relevant response in the United States and the rest of

the hemispheric community to the strategic reality of

the “Guerrillas Next Door.” 7

In this connection, we examine the macro “what,”

“why,” “who,” “how,” and “so what?” questions

concerning the resultant type of conflict that has

been and is being fought in Mexico. A useful way to

organize these questions is to adopt a matrix approach.

The matrix may be viewed as having four sets of

elements: (1) The Contextual Setting, the “what” and

the beginning “why” questions; (2) The Protagonist’s

Background, Organization, Operations, Motives, and

Linkages, the fundamental “who,” “why,” and “how”

questions; (3) The Strategic-Level Outcomes and

Consequences, the basic “so what” questions; and (4)

Recommendations that address the “so what” issues.

These various elements are mutually influencing and

 

4

constitute the political-strategic-level cause-and-effect

dynamics of a given case. This approach is helpful and

important in policy, practical, and theoretical terms.8

 

THE CONTEXTUAL SETTING

Two contextual themes are relevant to the analysis

of Mexico’s past, present, and future criminal and

militarized violence. First, armed insurgent groups

have arisen and prospered primarily as a response

to historical sociopolitical factors. Yet the Mexican

political structure has not developed programs and

policies to remedy the societal ills that have generated

and supported all these “revolutionary” movements.9

Second, the continuing existence of political insurgents

and armed criminal groups in Mexico “since forever”

says much for their ability to adapt to and use the

political system for their own purposes. This ability

says much about both the motivational dedication of the

insurgent-criminal leadership and the basic corruption

within the postrevolutionary political system. Such

corruption is likewise a result of long-standing politicalhistoric

factors, as well as new political-economicsocial-

military dynamics being introduced into the

Mexican internal security situation.10

 

 

Historical-Political Context of Mexican Politics.

Many scholars agree that the key to understanding

the contemporary Mexican political system lies in its

origins in the social upheaval of the Revolution of 1910–

20. The radical change precipitated by that event almost

completely destroyed Mexico’s past and forged a new

and somewhat different nation. Some important old

political habits did survive the revolution, however.11

 

5

Caudillismo (political control by “strong men”) never

has been very far under the surface of Mexican politics,

and the constitution that emerged out of the Revolution

did not promulgate the kind of democracy that liberals

might champion. Thus, every president of Mexico

since the Revolution has been a “great revolutionary

leader” (caudillo), and the Mexican constitution is

mostly an expression of hopes and wishes for future

political, economic, and social justice. Accordingly,

every president of the Republic represented historical

continuity with the Revolution and defined the

revolutionary goals that would be pursued during his

6-year term of office. And in true caudillistic fashion, the

president provided justice. All actions of government—

executive, legislative, and judicial—were taken in his

name and were administered by his loyal political

appointees.12

If the president was the leader (strong man) of

the Revolution, the Institutional Revolutionary Party

(PRI) was his functional representative. The PRI

was the single, all-powerful mechanism of electoral

activity, recruitment, and social control. Through

the manipulation of the party mechanism and all

its symbols during each 6-year term of presidential

office, the political elites were able to maintain and

enhance their power and wealth—and to enshrine

Mexican personal freedom of political opinion, while

systematically repressing political organizations that

operated outside the limits allowed by the PRI.13

 

A New National Security Context.

With the malaise of corrupt caudillistic selfaggrandizement

rooted at all levels of the Mexican

political-economic-social system, forces for new and

fundamental change began to emerge in the 1980s.

 

6

At that time, a set of economic measures designed to

reduce inflation, control currency devaluation, and cut

back on government spending led to bankruptcy in the

business sector, increased unemployment, growing

income inequality, and a much larger role for the

private business sector in the government-controlled

economy. Politically, the middle class, disaffected by

public-sector inefficiencies generated by PRI corruption

and resistance to serious reform—and declining living

standards—began to abandon the PRI and vote for other

party candidates for public office. As a consequence,

Mexico began to devolve from a strong, centralized,

de facto unitary state to what Professor (Ambassador)

David C. Jordan calls an “anocratic” democracy. That

is, Mexico is a state that has the procedural features

of democracy but retains the characteristics of an

autocracy, in which the ruling elites face no scrutiny or

accountability.14 At the same time, Mexico has become

a market state that is moving toward “criminal free

state” status. That is, Mexico is a state in which political

power is migrating from the state to small, nonstate

actors who organize into sprawling networks that

maintain private armies, treasury and revenue sources,

welfare services, and the ability both to make alliances

with state and nonstate actors and to conduct war (the

gang-TCO phenomenon).15 This correlation of political,

economic, and military forces, in turn, has generated

an extremely volatile and dangerous internal security

situation in Mexico that has been all but ignored in the

United States.

The Anocratic Democracy. The policy-oriented

definition of democracy that has been generally

accepted and used in U.S. foreign policy over the

past several years is best described as “procedural

democracy.” This definition tends to focus on the

 

7

election of civilian political leadership and, perhaps,

on a relatively high level of participation on the part of

the electorate. Thus, as long as a country is able to hold

elections, it is considered a democracy—regardless of

the level of accountability, transparency, resistance

to corruption, and ability to extract and distribute

resources for national development and the protection

of human rights, liberties, and security.16

In contemporary Mexico, we observe important

paradoxes in this concept of democracy. Elections

are held on a regular basis, but leaders, candidates,

and elected politicians are regularly assassinated;

hundreds of government officials considered

unacceptable to the armed nonstate actors have been

assassinated following their elections. Additionally,

intimidation, direct threats, kidnapping, and the use

of relatively minor violence on a person and/or his

family play an important role prior to elections. As a

corollary, although the media institutions are free from

state censorship, journalists, academicians, and folk

musicians who make their anti-narco-gang opinion

known too publicly are systematically assassinated.17

Consequently, it is hard to credit most Mexican

elections as genuinely “democratic” or “free.” Neither

political party competition nor public participation in

elections can be complete in an environment where

violent and unscrupulous nonstate actors compete with

legitimate political entities to control the government

both before and after elections. Moreover, crediting

Mexico as a democratic state is difficult as long as

elected leaders are subject to corrupting control and

intimidation or to informal vetoes imposed by criminal

nonstate actors. Regardless of definitions, however, the

persuasive and intimidating actions of the gang-TCO

phenomenon in the Mexican electoral processes have

 

8

pernicious effects on democracy and tend to erode the

will and ability of the state to carry out its legitimizing

functions.18

The Market State and the Gang-TCO Phenomenon.

John Sullivan has identified an important shift in state

form: from nation-state to market state and thereupon

from market state to criminal-free state status. As

the ability to wage war (conflict) devolves from

traditional hierarchical state organizations to Internetworked

transnational nonstate actors, we can see the

evolution of new warmaking entities (small private

armies) capable of challenging the stability, security,

and sovereignty of traditional nation-states. These

private entities (terrorists, warlords, drug cartels,

enforcer gangs, criminal gangs, and ethno-nationalistic

extremists) respond to illicit market forces (such as

illegal drugs, arms, and human trafficking) rather than

the rule of law and are much more than “stateless”

or nonstate groups. They are powerful organizations

that not only can challenge the rule of law and the

sovereignty of the nation-state but also are known to

promulgate their own policy and laws—and impose

their criminal values on societies or parts of societies

(creating criminal-free zones and “badlands and bad

neighborhoods” all around the world).19

In Mexico, as an unintended consequence of

devolving political power from the state to private

nonstate entities, we see not only the erosion of

democracy but also the erosion of the state. Jordan

argues that corruption at all levels is key to this problem

and is a prime mover toward “narco-socialism.”20

Narco-politics has penetrated not only the executive,

legislative, and judicial branches of the Mexican

federal government but also state governments and

municipalities.21 The reality of corruption at any level

 

9

of government favoring the gang-TCO phenomenon

mitigates against responsible governance and the

public well-being. In these terms, the state’s presence

and authority is at best questionable in over more

than 233 “Zones of Impunity” that exist throughout

large geographical portions of Mexico. At the same

time, the corruption reality brings into question the

issue of effective state sovereignty. This is a feudal

environment defined by extreme violence, patronage,

bribes, kickbacks, cronyism, ethnic exclusion, and

personal whim.22

Given the rise of the market state and violent

privatized market-state actors, long-standing

assumptions about national security and law

enforcement are being challenged. Most notably, the

ability (and power) to conduct conflict is moving from

the traditional hierarchical nation-state to the privatized,

horizontally-networked market state. Again, as noted

above, that transition of power blurs the distinctions

between and among crime, terrorism, and warfare.23 At

the same time, privatized violence is becoming (and in

many regions has become) a feature of the transition to

the market state and beyond. In this milieu, terrorists

and organized crime come into conflict with warlords,

insurgents, governments, private corporations, and

nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Any and all

of these types of state and nonstate entities can hire

and operate a small private army. In addition, all

these entities can interact and blend or share attributes

at given points in time. This is particularly relevant

in the case of al-Qaeda jihadi terrorists operating in

Spain, state-supported popular militias operating out

of Venezuela, and nonstate criminal-political gangs

operating in Colombia that seek to foment global,

regional, and/or national or subnational instability,

 

10

conflict, and political change. The linkage among war,

terrorism, and crime is especially relevant in cases in

which we see these types of actors making alliances

with or declaring war against other similar privatized

organizations, transnational criminal organizations,

NGOs, and governments.

Typically, private armies and warlordism are the

providence of failed or failing states. The common

wisdom predicts that such states will eventually

dissolve into nothing and provide no problems.

Yet reality warns us that failed states do not simply

go away. They normally devolve into international

dependencies, people’s democracies, narco-socialist

states, criminal states, military dictatorships, or

worse.24

The Resultant Internal Security Situation in Mexico. In

the mid-1980s and later, a new political-economic force

inserted itself into the changing internal security milieu.

At a time when the political system was weakening and

the economy privatizing, illicit drug trafficking started

to become very big business. This is not to say that the

illegal drug trafficking industry had theretofore not

been operating in Mexico. It was. But in the 1990s, air

and sea routes to the U.S. market from South America’s

“White Triangle” (main cocaine-producing regions in

Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru) were being shut down.

The narcotics-producing cartels, along with their

TCO allies, began to use land routes through Central

America and Mexico to transport their products to

the U.S. market. As a consequence, between 60 and 90

percent of the illegal cocaine entering the United States

is estimated to transit Central America and Mexico.

Estimates of the money involved—in the billions of

dollars—are mind-boggling.25

 

11

In this context, gangs and their TCO allies in Mexico,

as in other countries, share many of the characteristics

of a multinational Fortune 500 company. Thus, the

phenomenon is reified in the form of an organization

striving to make money, expand its markets, and move

and act as freely as possible in the political jurisdictions

within and between which it works. By performing its

business tasks with super-efficiency and for maximum

profit, the general organization employs its chief

executive officers and boards of directors, councils,

system of internal justice, lawyers, accountants, public

affairs officers, negotiators, and franchised project

managers. And, of course, this company has a security

division, though somewhat more ruthless than one of

a bona fide Fortune 500 corporation.26

Authorities have no consistent or reliable data on

the gang-TCO phenomenon in Mexico. Nevertheless,

the gang phenomenon in that country is acknowledged

to be large and complex. In addition, the gang situation

is known to be different in the north (along the U.S.

border) than it is in the south (along the Guatemala-

Belize borders). Second, the phenomenon is different in

the areas between the northern and southern borders

of Mexico. Third, a formidable gang presence is known

to exist throughout the entire country (regardless of

the accuracy of the data estimating the size and extent

of this gang presence), and—given the weakness of

national political-economic institutions—criminality

has considerable opportunity to prosper.27 As a result,

the rate of homicides along the northern and southern

borders is considered epidemic, and Mexico has the

highest incidence of kidnapping in the world. Finally,

violent gang and TCO activity in Mexico clearly

threaten the socioeconomic and political development

of the country.28

 

12

More specifically, the Central American Mara

Salvatrucha 13 and Mara Salvatrucha 18 gangs

(referred to collectively as the “Maras”) have made

significant inroads into Mexican territory and appear

to be competing effectively with Mexican gangs. In

the south—along the Belize-Guatemalan borders—the

Maras have gained control of illegal immigrant and

drug trafficking moving north through Mexico to the

United States. The Central American Maras are also

used as mercenaries by the northern drug cartels.

Between the northern and southern borders, an ad hoc

mix of up to 15,000 members of the Mexican gangs and

Central American Maras are reported to be operating

in more than 20 of Mexico’s 30 states. Additionally,

members and former members of the elite Guatemalan

Special Forces (Kaibiles) are being recruited by the Gulf

Cartel and the Zetas as mercenaries.29

The gangs operating on the northern border of

Mexico are long-time, well-established, “generational”

(that is, consisting of Mexican grandfathers, sons, and

grandsons) organizations with 40-to-50-year histories.

There are, reportedly, at least 24 different gangs

operating in the city of Nuevo Laredo and 320 active

gangs operating within the city of Juarez—with an

estimated 17,000 members. The best-known gangs in the

north are the Azteca, Mexicles, and Zeta organizations,

whose members generally work as hired guns and

drug runners for the major cartels operating the area.

The major cartels include “the big four”—Juarez, Gulf,

Sinaloa, and Tijuana cartels, which operate generally

in the north. Despite the fact that most of the reported

violence is concentrated in three northern states—

Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Baja California—the Juarez

Cartel maintains a presence in 21 Mexican states; the

Gulf Cartel is found in 13 states; the Sinaloa Cartel (see

the later discussion of El Chapo) has located itself in 17

 

13

states; and remnants of the reportedly disintegrating

Tijuana Cartel (Areliano Felix) are present in 15 states.

There are also the Colima, Oaxaca, and Valencia

cartels, which generally operate in the southern parts of

Mexico. The Mexican Mafia (EME) further complicates

the Mexican gang-TCO picture. At one time, all gangs

operating south of Bakersfield, California, and into

northern Mexico had to pay homage to and take orders

from EME. That is no longer a rigid requirement,

however; the Central American Maras are known to

have broken that agreement as early as 2005.30

This convoluted array of gangs and TCOs—Central

American Maras, Mexican Zetas, Guatemalan Kaibiles,

Mexican drug cartels, and the Mexican Mafia—leaves

an almost anarchical situation throughout Mexico. As

each gang and TCO violently competes with others

and within itself and works against the Mexican

government to maximize market share and freedom of

movement and action, we see a strategic internal security

environment characterized by ambiguity, complexity,

and unconventional (irregular) war. In addition,

we see the slow erosion of the Mexican state

and the establishment of small and large criminal-free

enclaves in some of the cities and states of Mexico.

Moreover, the spillover transcends the supposedly

sovereign borders of Mexico and its neighbors

(both south and north). This situation reminds one

of the feudal medieval era. Violence and the fruits

of violence—arbitrary and unprincipled political

control—seem to be devolving to small, private,

criminal nonstate actors. This is a serious challenge

to democracy, stability, security, and sovereignty in

Mexico and its neighbors.31

 

14

Conclusions.

The internal security environment that we see in

Mexico today is dangerous and volatile. And it goes

well beyond a simple law enforcement problem.

Thus, the internal security situation is characterized

by an unconventional battlefield which no one from

the traditional-legal Westphalian school of conflict

would recognize or be comfortable with. Instead

of conventional, direct interstate war conducted

by uniformed military forces of another country,

we see something considerably more complex and

ambiguous.

First, thanks to Steven Metz and Raymond Millen

and their theory-building efforts, we see unconventional

nonstate war, which tends to involve gangs, insurgents,

drug traffickers, other TCOs, terrorists, and warlords

who thrive in “ungoverned or weakly governed

space” between and within various host countries. At

the same time, we also see unconventional intrastate

war, which tends to involve direct and indirect conflict

between state and nonstate actors.32 Regardless of

any given politically correct term for unconventional

intrastate war, all state and nonstate actors involved

in unconventional intrastate conflict are engaged in

one common political act—war. That is, the goal is to

control and/or radically change a government and to

institutionalize the acceptance of the victor’s will.33

Additional strategic-level analytical commonalties in

the contemporary battle space include the following:

• No formal declarations or terminations of war;

• No easily identified human foe to attack and

defeat;

• No specific geographical territory to attack and

15

hold;

• No single credible government or political actor

with which to deal; and,

• No guarantee that any agreement between or

among contending actors will be honored.

Experience in unconventional nonstate and

intrastate war further demonstrates that:

There are no national or international laws,

conventions, or treaties that cannot be ignored

or utilized;

• There is no territory that cannot be bypassed or

utilized;

• There are no national boundaries (frontiers) that

cannot be bypassed or utilized; and,

There are no instruments of power (military,

diplomatic, economic, political, informational,

or psychological) that can be ignored or left

unused.

In these strategic-level terms, contemporary war

(conflict) involves everyone, and the battlefield is

everywhere. There are

No front lines;

• No visible distinctions between civilian and

irregular forces personnel; and,

• No sanctuaries.34

In this fragmented, complex, and ambiguous

political-psychological violence–dominated environment,

conflict must be considered and implemented

as a whole. The power to deal with these kinds of

situations is no longer hard combat firepower or even

the more benign police power. Rather, power consists

of the multilevel, combined political, psychological,

 

16

moral, informational, economic, social, police, and

military activity that can be brought to bear holistically

on the causes and consequences—as well as the

perpetrators—of violence.35

 

ZETAS: THE “WHO,” “WHAT,” AND “WHY”

ARCHITECTURE

The “Who,” “What,” and “Why” case study

methodological architecture focuses on protagonist

leadership and organization, operations, motives, and

linkages. Long-standing common wisdom has it that

virtually any nonstate political actor with any kind of

resolve can take advantage of the instability inherent

in anything like the current Mexican internal security

situation. The tendency is that the best-motivated and

best-armed organization on the scene, or an alliance of

these entities, will eventually control that instability

for its own purposes. Carlos Marighella, in his wellknown

Manual of the Urban Guerrilla, elaborates on that

wisdom: “A terrorist act is no different than any other

urban guerrilla tactic, apart from the apparent facility

with which it can be carried out. That will depend on

planning and organization [and its resultant shock

value].”36 Thus, even though other privatized military

organizations (including enforcer gangs) are operating

in Mexico today, the Zetas appear to be the group

most likely to be able to achieve their objectives. Zeta

organization and planning has been outstanding, and

the shock value of Zeta operations has been unequaled.

Thus, as Marighella teaches, terrorism is a major force

multiplier—“a weapon the revolution cannot do

without.”37

 

17

Background.

During the 80 years from 1920 through 2000 when

Mexico was effectively a one-party unitary state

controlled by the PRI, the drug cartels and the party

made an accommodation. The question was, “Silver

or lead?” Silver was a bribe; lead was a bullet to the

head. The understanding that existed between the

cartels and the party was that the political functionary

would be better off to choose silver—simple as that!

This does not mean that everyone was compromised,

but it does mean that many party officials who were

not compromised directly nevertheless chose not to

see much that was going on. Vicente Fox’s election to

the Mexican presidency in 2000 broke the PRI’s grip

on Mexico and changed the status that allowed the

cartels to go quietly about their business and share

some of the wealth with their “friends.” President Fox

and later President Calderon became progressively

more aggressive in confronting both the cartels and

the police and the politicians whom the cartels had

corrupted and co-opted. At about the same time, the

flow of illegal narcotics through Mexico increased to

the point such that drugs in Mexico are now estimated

to produce $25 billion (in U.S. dollars) per year.38

Everything changed. The party and government

were no longer as cooperative with the cartels as they

had once been. The government was trying to exercise

its traditional sovereignty over the Mexican national

territory. The government, finding that to be more

difficult than expected, recognized the possibility that

the country might be moving toward “failed state

status.”39 The various cartels were competing more

violently than ever before. The cartels found themselves

fighting with each other—and the government—for

 

18

position in the new milieu. The profits to be had for the

cartels, and the stakes for Mexico, were enormous. So,

what is a businessman to do? Somehow, he must protect

and enhance his resources, including trafficking routes

and political and physical space from which to operate

more freely, and he must simultaneously protect and

expand his share of the market.

As a result of carefully watching the indicators

noted above, the Gulf Cartel started to recruit members

of the Mexican Army’s elite Airborne Special Forces

Group (GAFES) in the late 1990s. The GAFES members

who defected to the Gulf Cartel called themselves Los

Zetas. The intent of the cartel was to provide protection

from government forces and other cartels, and the Gulf

Cartel paid the Zetas salaries well beyond those paid

by the army to make the effort worth their while. The

idea proved to be a great success. Once the former

soldiers were in place and functioning, their superior

training, organization, equipment, experience, and

discipline led them from simple protection missions

to more challenging operations. The Zetas began to

collect Gulf Cartel debts, secure new drug trafficking

routes at the expense of other cartels, discourage

defections from other parts of the cartel organization,

and track down and execute particularly “worrysome”

rival cartel and other gang leaders all over Mexico and

Central America.40 Subsequently, the Zetas expanded

their activities to kidnapping, arms trafficking, money

laundering, and creating their own routes to and from

the United States, as well as developing their own

access to cocaine sources in South America.41 All this

has been accomplished using the means delineated by

Carlos Marighella, “often with grotesque savagery.”42

The Zetas is the first private military organization

in the Western Hemisphere to be made up of former

 

19

military personnel from a regular army. Because of its

considerable military expertise, previous experience

in counterinsurgency combat, and guerrilla and urban

warfare against leftist Mexican insurgent groups, the

Zetas has made itself into a major private militarycriminal

organization in its own right. As a result, it has

been labeled by Mexican scholar and TCO authority

Raul Benetez as “the biggest, most serious threat to the

nation’s security.”43

 

Organization and Operations.

Despite the lack of precise figures and specific and

authoritative organizational charts, the Zetas appears

to be much more than an ordinary enforcer gang

organization working within a larger business model

of a contemporary Mexican drug cartel. At first glance,

there appears to be a hierarchical pyramid structure

that is common among military organizations and

some TCOs around the world.44 A closer examination

of the multilayered and networked structure, however,

indicates a substantial corporate enterprise designed

to conduct small and larger-scale business operations,

along with terrorist, criminal, and military-type

activities over large pieces of geographical territory

and over time. As a result, the Zeta private military

organization looks very much like any global business

organization that can quickly, flexibly, and effectively

respond to virtually any opportunity, challenge, or

changing situation. As a consequence, there is probably

more analytical utility in placing the traditional pyramid

on its side and conceptualizing the Zeta organization

as constituted by horizontal concentric circles.45

Organizational Structure. At the top, or at the center of

the organizational structure, depending on whether one

 

20

is looking at a pyramid or at concentric circles, is a small

command structure. This group of senior individuals

provides strategic- and operational-level guidance

and support to its network of compartmentalized cells

and to allied groups or associations. This structure

allows relatively rapid shifting of operational control

horizontally rather than through a relatively slow

vertical military chain of command. Then, a second

layer (circle) of leadership exists. These individuals

oversee or manage guidance received from above,

particularly in the areas of intelligence, operational

planning, financial support, and recruitment and

training. Additionally, this leadership group may

manage special geographically and functionally

distributed “project teams.”46

At a third level, cell members may be involved

in lower-level national and subnational, as well as

international, activities of all kinds. The fourth and

last level (circle) of the generalized and horizontalized

organizational pyramid comprises a series of groups

(clickas). These groups may be constituted by aspirants

(that is, new recruits trying to prove themselves) and/

or by specialists. The specific subgroups include the

following: (1) Los Halcones (The Hawks), who keep

watch over distribution zones; (2) Las Ventanas (The

Windows), who whistle or signal to warn of unexpected

dangers in an operational area; 3) Los Manosos (The

Cunning Ones), who acquire arms, ammunition,

communications, and other military equipment; (4)

Las Lepardas (The Leopards), who are, as prostitutes,

attached to the intelligence section of the functional

organization and are trained to extract information

from their clients; and (5) Direccion (communications

experts), who intercept phone calls, and follow and

identify suspicious automobiles and persons, and

have been known to engage in kidnapping and

 

21

executions.47

The Zetas’ organizational structure strongly

indicates that it is much more than an ordinary

enforcer gang that is subordinate to a cartel’s general

structure. The Zetas has its own agenda and timetable

and appears to be quite successful in achieving its

short- and longer-term objectives. Militarily, and in the

short term, the Zetas has developed an organizational

structure and mystique that allows a relatively small

force to accomplish the following objectives:

• Convince the people of a given area that the

Zetas—not local politicians or local police, not

federal authorities, and not other cartels—is the

real power in that specific geographical terrain;

• Exert authority within its known area of

operations, even if not physically present at a

given moment;

• Fight both a larger force (such as police or the

military or a rival gang) and another political

actor at the same time.

Examples of terrorist means of convincing

populations regarding prowess would include but not

be limited to the following:

• November 2008–March 2009—several very

senior police officials, including the commander

of the federal police, were murdered in Mexico

City.

• December 2008—severed heads of eight Mexican

soldiers were found dumped in plastic bags

near a shopping center in Chilpancingo, capital

of the southern state of Guerrero.

• February 2009—another three severed heads

were found in an icebox near Ciudad Juarez in

22

the northern state of Chihuahua.

• February 20, 2009—The chief of police for

Ciudad Juarez, Roberto Orduna, resigned under

pressure—after his deputy was murdered

and it was revealed that another police officer

would be killed every 48 hours until the chief

(interestingly, a former army major) resigned.

As the body count grew, Chief Orduna resigned

and left the city.48

Over the longer term, the Zetas’ first priority is to

operate a successful business enterprise, with more

than adequate self-protection and self-promotion.

This private military organization encourages

diversification of activities, diffusion of risk, and

the flexibility to make quick adjustments, correct

mistakes, and exploit developing opportunities. In

that connection, the organization can deliberately

expand or contract to adjust to specific requirements,

and to new allies or enemies, while increasing profits.

And, of course, this organization maintains a coherent

mechanism for safeguarding operations at all levels

and enforcing discipline throughout the structure.

Consequently, over the past 10 or more years, the

Zetas has slowly but surely moved from Gulf Cartel

protection to developing drug trafficking routes of its

own, to expanding from drug trafficking to arms and

human trafficking and money laundering, and to an

ambitious expansion policy into new territories and

markets. In short, the Zetas appears to have taken over

the main structure of the Gulf Cartel and launched an

aggressive expansion strategy.49

Motives and Program of Action. The Mexican Zetas

organization is credited with being self-reliant and

self-contained. In addition to its own personnel, it has

 

23

its own arms, communications, vehicles, and aircraft.

The general reputation is one of high efficiency and

absolute ruthlessness in pursuit of its territorial and

commercial (self-enrichment) interests. As such, the

Zetas is credited with the capability to sooner or later

take over the Gulf Cartel and expand operations into

the territories and markets of the other cartels. And as

it progresses toward the control or incapacitation of

rival organizations, it dominates territory, community

life, and local and regional politics. Thus the explicit

commercial motive is also implicitly and explicitly a

political motive. Yet unlike some other enforcer gangs,

TCOs, other private military organizations, insurgent

groups, and neopopulists, the Zetas organization does

not appear to be intent on completely destroying the

traditional Mexican state political-economic-social

system and replacing it with its own. Rather, the Zetas

demonstrates a less radical option; it apparently seeks

to incrementally “capture” the state.50

To accomplish this aim, the leaders of the Zetas have

determined that—at a minimum—they need to be able

to freely travel, communicate, and transfer funds all

around the globe. For this, they need to be within easy

reach of functioning population centers. Thus, the Zetas

does not find the completely failed state particularly

useful. It would prefer to have Mexico as a weak but

moderately functional international entity. The shell

of traditional state sovereignty protects the Zetas

from outside (U.S.) intervention, but Mexican state

weakness provides freedom to operate with impunity.

And, importantly, although continued U.S. pressure

will prevent Mexican authorities from abandoning the

fight against illegal drug trafficking, there are many

ways a functional state could exhibit a kind of cosmetic

conformity while doing little in practice to undermine

 

24

the power of the drug trafficking organizations.51

John Sullivan and Robert Bunker tell us exactly how

the incremental capture of a state might conceivably

take place. This pragmatic model of military and

nonmilitary methods demonstrates the ways and

means by which a transnational nonstate actor such

as the Zetas can challenge and capture the de jure

sovereignty of a given nation-state. This model has

already proved to be the case in parts of Mexico,

Central America, South America, and elsewhere in the

world. This is how it works.

If an irregular attacker—criminal gangs, terrorists,

insurgents, drug cartels, private military organizations,

militant environmentalists, or a combination of the

above—blends crime, terrorism, and war, he can extend

his already significant influence. After embracing

advanced technology, weaponry, including weapons

of mass destruction (WMD) (including chemical and

biological agents), radio frequency weapons, and

advanced intelligence gathering technology, along

with more common weapons systems, the attacker can

transcend drug running, robbery, kidnapping, and

murder and pose a significant challenge to the nationstate

and its institutions.

Then, using complicity, intimidation, corruption,

and indifference, the irregular attacker can quietly and

subtly co-opt individual politicians and bureaucrats

and gain political control of a given geographical or

political enclave. Such corruption and distortion can

potentially lead to the emergence of a network of

government protection of illicit activities, and the

emergence of a virtual criminal state or political entity.

A series of networked enclaves could, then, become a

dominant political actor within a state or group of states.

Thus, rather than violently competing directly with a

nation-state, an irregular attacker can criminally co-opt

 

25

and begin to seize control of the state indirectly.52

This model represents a triple threat to the authority

and sovereignty of a government and those of its

neighbors. First, murder, kidnapping, intimidation,

corruption, and impunity from punishment undermine

the ability and the will of the state to perform its

legitimizing security and public service functions.

Second, by violently imposing their power over

bureaucrats and elected officials of the state, the TCOs

and elements of the gang phenomenon compromise the

exercise of state authority and replace it with their own.

Third, by neutralizing (making irrelevant) government

and taking control of portions of the national territory

and performing some of the tasks of government, the

gang phenomenon can de facto transform itself into

quasi-states within a state. And the criminal leaders

govern these areas as they wish.53

 

Conclusions.

As one watches TV and reads newspapers, the

asymmetric Zeta challenge might appear to be ad hoc,

without reason, and inordinately violent (terroristic).

Nevertheless, a closer examination of organization and

activities illustrates a slow but perceptible movement

toward the capability to increase its freedom of

movement and actions in Mexico, Central America, and

elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere. After reviewing

the basic facts of the brutal methods the Zetas use to

insinuate their power over people, one can see that

these seemingly random and senseless criminal acts

have specific political-psychological objectives. After

getting even closer to the situation, one can see that

these objectives are not being lost on the intended

 

26

audience.

Commercial enrichment seems to be the primary

objective of gang-TCO phenomenon protagonists

playing in the Mexican internal security arena. This

is a serious challenge to existing law and order in

Mexico and to the effective sovereignty of Mexico and

the other nation-states within and between which the

Zetas and other TCOs move. It is that, but it is also

more. Sullivan warns us that resultant “para-states

or criminal-free states fuel a bazaar of violence where

[warlords, drug lords] and martial entrepreneurs fuel

the convergence of crime and war.”54 At the same

time, because political, military, and opinion leaders

do not appear to understand how to deal with this

ambiguous mix of intrastate violence, Peter Lupsha, a

wise and long-time observer, argues that those leaders

“are doing little more than watching, debating, and

wrangling about how to deal with these seemingly

unknown phenomena. As a consequence, territory,

infrastructure, and stability are slowly destroyed, and

thousands of innocents continue to die.”55

OUTCOMES AND CONSEQUENCES: SOME

CONTEMPORARY REALITY IN ONE DAY

IN THE LIFE OF AN AMERICAN REPORTER

SEEKING TO INTERVIEW A DRUG KINGPIN IN

SINALOA

This vignette, taken from a very interesting and

instructive article written by Guy Lawson,56 is an

attempt to capture the essence of the article. The intent

here, however, is to briefly examine contemporary

sociopolitical life in Sinaloa with a critical eye on the

reality of effective state sovereignty.

 

27

The Individual Being Interviewed: Juaquin Guzman

Loera, better known as “El Chapo” (Shorty).

El Chapo controls a Sinaloa Cartel that controls

the Arizona border towns of Nogales and Mexicali.

He has opposition, however. First, there are erstwhile

friends who have developed a personal feud with El

Chapo that seems to go on and on and become more

and more violent. These antagonists are two brothers,

Mochomo (Red Ant) and Barbas (the Beard), who are

leaders of the Beltran Leyva cartel. Then there are the

seemingly ever-present Zetas agents trying to expand

their own and the Gulf Cartel’s illegal drug routes into

the United States. The Gulf Cartel and the Zetas appear

to have teamed together with Mochomo and Barbas in

an attempt to eliminate El Chapo from the market.

In the capital of the Mexican state of Sinaloa,

Culiacan, El Chapo is known as “a kind of folk hero—

part Robin Hood, part Billy the Kid.” He has more

money, more women, and more weapons than any

other TCO in the area—except the Zetas. Because El

Chapo is relatively generous with some (actually, very

little) of his money, people “respect him.” He grew up

poor, planting corn and marijuana. Over time, he built

massive underground tunnels to smuggle cocaine

into Arizona, and he subsequently assembled a fleet

of boats, trucks, and aircraft that made him one of the

most wanted drug dealers in the world. And, he now—

among other things—finances new entrepreneurs as

they grow both marijuana and poppies for heroin. El

Chapo, however, is most famous for his “miraculous

escape” from a federal prison in 2001 just before he was

to be extradited to the United States for trial on U.S. drug

charges. “He had a plush suite in prison, complete with

 

28

a personal chef, plenty of whisky, an endless supply of

Viagra, and a girlfriend called Zulema.” The common

wisdom is that El Chapo gave all that up to go back to

Sinaloa and help out his friends and neighbors.

Moreover, the people of Sinaloa are convinced that

the federal government in Mexico City let El Chapo

escape because he is the only drug lord who has the

resources and intelligence to face up to the other

cartels and to the Zetas.57 The argument, simply put,

is that the federal government cannot do much. The

police are incompetent and corrupt; laws constrain

government, while a TCO can do whatever it wants;

and regular army troops are a poor match for the much

better armed, equipped, and trained Zetas. In short, it

is better to let the TCOs destroy themselves rather than

fight them directly.

Principal Locations Where the Search for “Shorty”

Took Place, and Some of the Topics of Conversation

That Helped Pass the Time.

The State of Sinaloa, Mexico. Sinaloa is a small

state on the Mexican Pacific coast across the Gulf of

California from the Baja California peninsula. It is

situated between the sea and the almost impassable

Sierra Madre Occidental on the east. There are probably

not many more than a million inhabitants of the entire

state, but an average of three drug-related murders

are estimated to take place every day of the year in

Sinaloa. That statistic explains the front-page headline

of the local newspaper on the day that our American

reporter arrived in Culiacan: “Worse Than Iraq.”

The Capital City of Culiacan, Sinaloa. That first day

in Culiacan, everyone in the city was wondering what

El Chapo might do to take revenge for the death of

his 20-year-old son a few weeks earlier. The young

 

29

man was shot and killed in broad daylight during a

drive-by attack by 15 gunmen, one of whom fired a

bazooka. The murder was attributed to the Beltran-

Leyva cartel. Weeks later, four more decapitated bodies

were dumped in the center of Culiacan with a note

addressed to El Chapo, saying, “You’re next.” Three

days later, three more bodies—this time with legs as

well as heads severed—were found. Among them was a

former police comandante. Within hours, another police

officer was shot and killed, along with a companion

and a bystander. Within another few days, two more

grotesquely decapitated bodies were dumped outside

a farm owned by a capo (criminal chieftain) allied with

El Chapo.

That was just one series of events discussed on

that first day in Culiacan. Something less important

than the murder of El Chapo’s son was also a topic of

conversation. Only a few days before the arrival of our

reporter, a gang of gunmen pulled up in front of an

auto shop in the center of the city. They opened fire

with AK-47s and AR-15s. Within minutes, nine people

were dead. Then, as the assailants fled along Zapata

Boulevard, they gunned down two police officers. On

Insurgentes Avenue, the killers opened fire on federal

troops stationed outside a judicial building. There was

no pursuit and no arrests. All that anyone seemed to

know was that the gunmen were after a small time

narcotraficante known as “Alligator.” A local official

succinctly explained, “No one will talk.”

As one might have guessed,

Culiacan is a drug-industry town the way Los Angeles

is an entertainment town. Every business is connected,

directly or indirectly, with illegal drugs. There are

narco discos and narco restaurants. In the upscale malls

scattered around town, high-end jewelers sell gaudy

 

30

and expensive necklaces favored by narco wives, and

girlfriends, and hookers. Narco chic is Valentino and

Moschino pants, ostrich-skin boots, a black belt with a

narco nickname (such as ‘Alligator’) engraved on it, and

a Versace hand bag big enough to hold a stash of drugs

and cash needed to pay off the police.

Thus, every day, Culiacan stages a sort of ongoing soap

opera. But Culiacan is much smaller than Los Angeles.

In Culiacan, one can see everyone and everything in

one or two episodes.

On the Road and into Tamazula de Victoria. The

American reporter was hoping to meet El Chapo and

interview him. Through professional connections, he

was introduced to “Julio,” an opium (poppy) farmer,

who considered himself a good friend of El Chapo. He

has partied many times with El Chapo and his friends,

and El Chapo supplies him with the seeds for the

poppies he grows. Julio told the reporter that he could

take him to a town called Tamazula where El Chapo

lives—“if he isn’t in Guatemala or El Salvador.”

The highway inland and toward the mountains

from Culiacan is dotted by large haciendas (ranches),

sheltered behind 30-foot-high walls. Tamazula itself

boasts a new school and condo developments—signs

of the prosperity bought with narco dollars. In the

middle of the village, on a hill overlooking the valley,

a mansion stands behind large black steel gates. “At

the bottom of the hill, just under the gaze of the narco

mansion, there is a kind of contradiction common in

the Sierra Madres. It is an army outpost ironically

illustrating that the fortunes of the law and outlaws

are inextricably entwined.” Julio explained that the

house belongs to one of El Chapo’s allies. But El

Chapo is not there, “he is up there, at a ranch of a capo

named Nachito.” Julio pointed to a rough dirt track

that could be seen leading up into the mountains from

 

31

Tamazula.

On the way out of town and toward the mountains,

Julio stopped and ducked into a tiny office to collect

the monthly subsidy he receives from the Mexican

government for not growing illegal drugs—despite

the fact that he does grow opium and marijuana. This

is another closely related contradiction and irony in

Sinaloa, illustrating the “you leave me alone and I’ll

leave you alone” armistice that exists between the

narcos and the government. A few minutes later, in the

distance they spotted what appeared to be a platoon

of soldiers. Julio suddenly decided that they should

turn around and go back. He insisted that it would be

unsafe to go any further. He argued that the armed

men could be federal troops, El Chapo’s men, gatilleros

(triggermen) for the Beltran-Leyva cartel, or Zetas. In

any case, they would recognize a gringo (American)

in the car and assume that he was from the U.S. Drug

Enforcement Agency (DEA) or U.S. Central Intelligence

Agency (CIA). Julio was prickly and insistent: “If you

want to find El Chapo, you should look near the village

of La Tuna. I know people who can take you there.”

On the way back to Culiacan, conversation stayed

centered on the inordinately high level of violence and

impunity to prosecution for it in Sinaloa. In the capital

city, the front page of the newspaper now featured a

street-by-street diagram of the most recent beheadings

and assassinations: “El Mapa De La Muerte” (the death

map).

Our reporter never did find out how the vendetta

between El Chapo and Mochomo and Barbas came out.

It really did not matter. The back and forth violence

continues apace and seems to blur into a deep gray fog.

In that fog, the violence between and within the rival

cartels, the enforcer gangs, and government forces

 

32

does not appear likely to end anytime soon. There is

too much money to be made. In a lull in the almost

ever-present self-enrichment process, a bunch of

headless bodies—or just the heads—will be dropped

somewhere conspicuous. And there may or may not be

another note. Messages in Sinaloa no longer have to be

written or explicit.

 

Conclusions.

The TCOs, their enforcer gangs, and the Zetas

members operating in Sinaloa have marginalized

Mexican state authority and replaced it with a criminal

anarchy. That anarchy is defined by bribes, patronage,

cronyism, violence, and personal whim. The present

vision of the human capacity to treat automatic

weapons’ fire and the terrified screams of victims from

“down the street” as mere background noise to the

Sinaloa soap opera should create, at the least, a vague

unease. A future vision of larger and larger parts of

Mexico and the global community adapting to criminal

values and forms of behavior should be, at a minimum,

unsettling.

This cautionary tale of a significant criminal

challenge to effective state sovereignty and traditional

Western values takes us to the problem of response.

Even though commercial enrichment remains the

primary motive for TCO and Zeta challenges to state

security and sovereignty in Mexico, the strategic

architecture of the Zetas (organization, motive,

practices, and policies) resembles that of a political or

ideological insurgency. The primary objective of the

political insurgents, drug cartels, and private armies

such as the Zetas is to attain the level of freedom of

movement and action that allows the achievement of

 

33

the desired enrichment. This defines insurgency: that is,

coercing radical change of a given political, economic,

and social system in order to neutralize it, control it, or

depose it. Rephrased slightly, it also defines war: that

is, compelling an adversary to accede to an aggressor’s

policy objectives.58

By responding to this kind of challenge to security,

stability, and sovereignty with a piecemeal and

incoherent law enforcement approach or with an ad

hoc and violent military approach, political leaders

are playing into the hands of the cartels and TCOgang

phenomenon. Even worse, by condoning corrupt

practices and hoping that the problem will go away,

legitimate leaders are letting their adversaries play all

the proverbial cards. Contemporary political, military,

and opinion leaders must change their fundamental

thought patterns (mindsets) and strengthen national

and multilateral organizational structures in order to

deal more effectively with this overwhelming reality.

 

 

RECOMMENDATIONS

Again, as stated above, the power to deal effectively

with the kinds of threats posed by the gang-TCO

phenomenon is not hard combat firepower or even

the more benign police power. Power is multilevel

and multilateral and combines political, psychological,

moral, informational, economic, and social efforts—

as well as police, military, and civil-bureaucratic

activities—that can be brought to bear holistically on the

causes and consequences, as well as the perpetrators,

of violence. Ultimately, then, success in contemporary

irregular conflict comes as a result of a unified effort

to apply the full human and physical resources of a

nation-state and its international partners to achieve

the individual and collective well-being that leads to

34

sustained societal peace with justice.

The actions, investments, and reforms needed to

generate the kind of power that can address the macrolevel

strategic socioeconomic and police-military

problems exacerbated by the gang-TCO phenomenon

must come from the Mexican government and society.

In the meantime, there is still much to be done. The

United States, under the Merida Initiative, is providing

a 3-year $1.4 billion aid package aimed at helping Mexico

fight the drug cartels with increased law enforcement

training, military equipment, and improved bilateral

intelligence cooperation.59 Even though more micro

tactical-operational level aid will help, the fundamental

question is whether the Mexican, U.S., and other

interested governments will focus on the problem long

enough to change the drug war paradigm from a micro

to a macro approach.

A macro strategic and practical approach to the

gang-TCO phenomenon must begin with a mindset

change and the promulgation of a cognitive basis

for effective change. That is, while a combination of

law enforcement and military power is necessary to

deal with the problem, it is insufficient. The key to

greater success in this kind of irregular conflict is “a

shift in emphasis toward thinking better and fighting

smarter.”60 Accordingly, the author of this statement

from a RAND Occasional Paper argues that there are

two requirements to fighting smarter. They are to

(1) create institutional conditions conducive to using

brains more than bullets; and (2) implement measures

designed to develop brain power and put it to good

use.61

The first recommendation, then, requires the

following:

• A flat (rather than traditional hierarchical)

35

organizational structure, with leadership

cognitively prepared to coordinate and

implement macro whole-of-government efforts

to address the multifaceted and dynamic threat

in a timely manner.

• That, in turn, requires professionalization

and modernization of civilian-police-military

leadership capable of identifying and meeting

critical analytical, planning, operational, and

strategic decisionmaking needs (for example,

institutional reform and personnel investment)

for a prioritized and balanced approach to

the larger issues of Mexican and hemispheric

security.

The second recommendation involves a serious

investment in people and brain power. That would

entail:

• Revising current personnel policies to recruit

and promote individuals who demonstrate great

intellectual aptitude for solving unfamiliar and

ambiguous problems;

• Providing continuing professional education

and training and bilateral personnel exchanges

at all levels;

• Exploiting networks and networked information

quickly and fully; and,

• Decentralizing authority to make decisions.62

These recommendations call for some organizational

reform and serious investment in improving civilpolice-

military cognitive capacity. It is time to take the

wisdom of Sun Tzu seriously. He left for posterity this

exhortation from the opening of his famous Art of War:

“War is a matter of vital importance to the State. The

province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It

36

is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.”63

 

 

ENDNOTES

 

1. Lincoln B. Krause, “The Guerrillas Next Door,” Low Intensity

Conflict & Law Enforcement, Spring 1999, pp. 34–56. Also see Jose

Luis Velasco, Insurgency, Authoritarianism, and Drug Trafficking in

Mexico’s Democratization, New York: Routledge, 2005; and Max G.

Manwaring, “Sovereignty under Siege: Gangs and Other Criminal

Organizations in Central America and Mexico,” in Insurgency,

Terrorism & Crime, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008,

pp. 104–128.

2. See note 1. Also see Mark Stevenson, “Commission says

Central American Mara gangs have taken root in Mexico,” www.

signonsandiago.com, 4/4/2008; Alfredo Corchado and Laurence

Iliff, “Ex-rivals merge to ‘megacartel’ intensifies brutality in

Mexico,” www.dallasnews.com, 7/9/2008; Ioan Grillo, “Behind

Mexico’s Wave of Beheadings,” www.time.com, 1/22/2009; Ioan

Grillo, “Confessions of a Mexican Narco Foot-Soldier,” www.time.

com, 1/22/2009; Robin Emmott, “Mexico’s Gulf Cartel undaunted

by military assault,” www.reuters.com, 1/22/2009; and Tim

Padgett, “The Killers Next Door,” www.time.com, 1/22/2009.

3. Private armies are not new. They have been operating at

one level or another for centuries, and John Sullivan cites data to

the effect that “[s]everal hundred currently operate in over 100

nations, on six continents, generating over $100 billion in annual

revenues.” See John P. Sullivan, “Terrorism, Crime, and Private

Armies,” Low Intensity Conflict & Law Enforcement, Winter 2002,

pp. 239–253.

4. James Rosenau, Turbulence in World Politics, Princeton, NJ:

Princeton University Press, 1990. Also note that Mexico admits to

233 “Zones of Impunity”; see Marc Lacey, “In Drug War, Mexico

Fights Cartels and Itself,” New York Times, March 30, 2009, at www.

nytimes.com/2009/03/30/world/americas/30mexico.html. Also see

Peter W. Singer, “Peacekeepers, Inc.,” Policy Review, June 2003.

5. See note 1. Also see author interview with the personal

representative of the attorney general of Mexico in the United

States, Dr. Manuel Suarez-Meir, in Washington, DC, January 29,

37

2009.

6. Sullivan, 2002, pp. 244–249.

7. This term comes from the title of Krause’s article cited in

note 1.

8. The methodology is taken from Robert K. Yin, Case

Study Research: Design and Methods, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Publications, 1994, pp. 1–10, 15, 31–32, 140, and 147.

9. Charles Gibson, Spain in America, New York: Harper and

Row, 1966; Hubert Herring, A History of Latin America from the

Beginnings to the Present, New York: Knopf, 1968; Thomas E.

Skidmore and Peter H. Smith, Modern Latin America, New York:

Oxford University Press, 1984; and Frank Tannenbaum, Ten Keys

to Latin America, New York: Knopf, 1962. Also see George W.

Grayson, “Los Zetas: The Ruthless Army Spawned by a Mexican

Drug Cartel,” Washington, DC: Foreign Policy Research Institute,

April 30, 2008; George W. Grayson, Mexico’s Struggle with “Drugs

and Thugs,” Washington, DC: Foreign Policy Association Headline

Series, Winter 2009; Colleen W. Cook, “Mexico’s Drug Cartels,”

Congressional Research Service Report to Congress, February 25,

2008, Order Code RL34215, hereafter cited as CRS Report; Machael

Patrou, “Mexico’s Civil War,” Maclean’s, December 8, 2008; and

Sullivan, 2002, 239–253.

10. Robert E. Scott, Mexican Government in Transition, Urbana:

University of Illinois Press, 1964; Roger D. Hanson, The Politics of

Mexican Development, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University

Press, 1971; Martin C. Needler, Mexican Politics: The Containment

of Conflict, New York: Dragon, 1982; and Daniel Levy and Gabriel

Szekelup, Mexico: Paradoxes of Stability and Change, Boulder, CO:

Westview Press, 1983.

11. See notes 8 and 9.

12. Tannenbaum, 1962.

13. Ibid.; and note 9.

14. David C. Jordan, Drug Politics, Norman: University of

38

Oklahoma Press, 1999, pp. 19, 142–157.

15. Sullivan, 2002.

16. Jordan, 1999, p. 19.

17. Ibid. Also see Mark Stevenson, “Mexican Singer Slain

in Hospital while Recovering from Gunshot Wounds,” www.

signonsandiego.com, 12/4/2007; Ana Arana, “How the Street Gangs

Took Control of Central America,” Foreign Affairs, May–June 2005,

pp. 98–110; and John P. Sullivan, “Maras Morphing: Revisiting

Third Generation Gangs,” Global Crime, August–November 2006,

pp. 488–490.

18. Jordan, 1999, pp. 142–157.

19. Sullivan, 2002, pp. 239–253. Also see Brian Jenkins,

“Redefining the Enemy: The World Has Changed, But Our

Mindset Has Not,” Rand Review, Spring 2004.

20. Jordan, 1999, pp. 193–194.

21. Ibid., p. 152. Also see Grayson, 2009; “Sinaloa Drug Cartel

Said to Infiltrate Executive Branch,” Economic News & Analysis

on Mexico, www.thefreelibrary.com, 1/23/2009; Jane Bussey,

“Organized Crime Takes Control in Parts of Mexico,” McClatchy

Washington Bureau, www.mcclatchydc.com, 9/20/2008; and

“Reports: Cancun Police Chief Questioned in general’s Killing,”

www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/americas , 3/17/2009.

22. Phil Williams, From the New Middle Ages to a New Dark Age:

The Decline of the State and U.S. Strategy, Carlisle, PA: Strategic

Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2008.

23. Sullivan, 2002, p. 239.

24. Chester A. Crocker, “Engaging Failed States,” Foreign

Affairs, September–October 2003, pp. 32–44; Steven D. Krasner

and Carlos Pascual, “Addressing State Failure,” Foreign Affairs,

July–August 2005, pp. 153–155.

25. CRS Report. Also see “Central America and Mexico Gang

39

Assessment,” Washington, DC: U.S. Agency for International

Development, Bureau for Latin America and Caribbean Affairs,

April 2006, hereafter cited as AID Paper, 2006.

26. W. Lee Rensselaer III, The White Labyrinth, New Brunswick,

NJ: Transaction, 1990. Also see Max G. Manwaring, Street Gangs:

The New Urban Insurgency, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute,

U.S. Army War College, 2005, p. 24.

27. See note 26. Also see Mark Stevenson, “Mexico: Drug

Gangs Using Terror Tactics,” Miami Herald, May 17, 2007, www.

miamiherald.com/915/story/110509.html.

28. Ibid. Also see Kevin G. Hall, “Mexican Drug War Getting

Bloodier,” Miami Herald, March 21, 2007; and AID Paper, 2006.

29. See note 28. Also see statement of Chris Swecker, Assistant

Director, Criminal Investigation Division, Federal Bureau of

Investigation, before U.S. House of Representatives Committee

on Judiciary, November 17, 2005, www.fbi.gov/congress05/

swecker111705.html, 1/22/2009; “President Felipe Calderon

Launches Ambitious Campaign against Drug Cartels,” Economic

News & Analysis on Mexico, January 24, 2007, www.thefreelibrary.com,

1/23/2009; and Oscar Becerra, “A to Z of Crime—Mexico’s Zetas

Expand Operations,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, January 30, 2009,

www.Z.janes.com/janesdata/maps/jir/history/jir2009...2/5/2009.

30. See note 29. Also see Grayson, “Mexico and the Drug

Cartels,” August 17, 2007, www.fpri.org; and notes 2, 8, 23, and

24.

31. See note 30. Also see Williams, 2008.

32. Steven Metz and Raymond Millen, Future Wars/Future

Battlespace, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army

War College, 2003, pp. ix, 15–17.

33. Paul E. Smith, On Political War, Washington, DC: National

Defense University Press, 1989, p. 3. Also see Carl von Clausewitz,

On War [1832], Michael Howard and Peter Paret, trans. and eds.,

New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1976, p. 75.

40

34. Ibid. Also see Jorge Verstrynge Rojas, La guerra asimetrica

y el Islam revolucionario (Asymmetric War and Revolutionary Islam),

Madrid, Spain: El Viejo Topo, 2005.

35. General Sir Frank Kitson, Warfare as a Whole, London: Faber

and Faber, 1987. Also see General Sir Rupert Smith, The Utility of

Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, New York: Alfred A.

Knopf, 2007.

36. Carlos Marighella, Manual of the Urban Guerrilla, Chapel

Hill, NC: Documentary Publications, 1985, p. 84.

37. Ibid.

38. CRS Report, pp. 4–5. Also see “Mexico’s Civil War,”

Maclean’s, December 8, 2008, pp. 24–25; and Grayson, 2008 and

2009.

39. Subdued debate regarding whether Mexico was or is

moving toward failed state status was enlivened both in Mexico

and the United States by General (Retired) Barry R. McCaffrey’s

presentation to Roger Rufe, entitled “A Strategic and Operational

Assessment of Drugs and Crime in Mexico,” dated March 16,

2009. See www.brm@mccaffreyassociates.com. Also note that Velasco,

2005, p. 2, states that Mexico’s democracy is “partial, weak,

contradictory, and superficial.”

40. Grayson, 2008.

41. CRS Report, p. 11. Also see Martin Morita, “Desaten

carteles guerra en el sureste” (“Separating Cartels and War in the

Southeast”), Reforma, July 27, 2006.

42. Marighella, 1985. Also see Grayson, 2008. Also note that

in response to Gulf Cartel initiatives, the rival Sinaloa Cartel has

created its own enforcer gangs. The Negros and the Polones are

less sophisticated and effective than the Zetas, but they appear

to have little problem confronting local police and—of course—

unprotected civilians. See Alfredo Corchado, “Cartel’s Enforcers

Outpower Their Boss,” Dallas Morning News, June 11, 2007.

43. See note 43. Benetez is quoted in the Corchado article in

the preceding note.

41

44. AID Paper, 2006.

45. Max G. Manwaring, “La soberania bajo asedio: Las

Pandillas y otras organizaciones criminales en Centroamerica y en

Mexico” (“Sovereignty Under Seige: Gangs and Other Criminal

Organizations in Central America and Mexico”), Air & Space

Power Journal, 2nd trimester 2008, pp. 25–41.

46. Alejanddro Suverza, “Los Zetas, una pasadilla para el

cartel de Golfo” (“The Zetas, Two Faces for the Gulf Cartel”),

El Universal, January 12, 2008; Oscar Becerra, “A to Z of Crime:

Mexico’s Zetas Expand Operations,” Jane’s Intelligence Review,

January 30, 2009; and Grayson, 2008 and 2009.

47. Ibid.

48. Economist, March 7, 2009, pp. 30–33; and Marc Lacey,

“With Deadly Persistence, Mexican Drug Cartels Get Their Way,”

New York Time, March 1, 2009, pp. 1, 9.

49. Becerra, 2009, pp. 1–9; and Grayson, 2008, p. 2.

50. Williams, 2008; and Phil Williams, Mexican Futures,

unpublished monograph, n.d.

51. See note 51.

52. John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Drug Cartels,

Street Gangs, and Warlords,” in Robert J. Bunker, ed., Nonstate

Threats and Future Wars, London: Frank Cass, 2003, pp. 45–53.

53. Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Cartel Evolution:

Potentials and Consequences,” Transnational Organized Crime,

Summer 1998, pp. 55–74.

54. Sullivan, 2006, p. 501.

55. Peter Lupsha, “Grey Area Phenomenon: New Threats

and Policy Dilemmas,” unpublished paper presented at the High

Intensity Crime/Low Intensity Conflict Conference, Chicago, IL,

September 27–30, 1992, pp. 22–23.

42

56. The following vignette is taken from Guy Lawson, “The

War Next Door,” Rolling Stone, November 13, 2008.

57. Mark Stevenson, “Top Mexico Cops Charged with

Favoring Drug Cartel,” Associated Press, January 24, 2009, www.

news.yahoo.com, 1/26/2009.

58. See, as an example, Clausewitz, [1832] 1976, p. 75.

59. Elise Lebott, “U.S. Puts Finishing Touches on Anti-Drug

Effort with Mexico,” CNN News, March 27, 2009, www.CNN.

com.

60. David Gombert, Heads We Win: The Cognitive Side of

Counterinsurgency (COIN), Rand Occasional Paper, Santa Monica,

CA: RAND National Defense Institute, 2007, pp. 35–56.

61. Ibid.

62. Ibid.

63. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Samuel B. Griffiths, trans., London,

United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1971, p. 63.

 


 

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