Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency

John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus
November 6, 2008
Special to Defense and the National Interest

Grenades are thrown at popular gatherings. Mutilated corpses flood the morgues. Heavily armed gunmen blast police to shreds with high-powered automatic weapons. Just another day in Iraq or Afghanistan? No-all of the events described occur regularly in Mexico. Our southern neighbor is imploding under the weight of a criminal insurgency just as dangerous any crew of bomb-tossing jihadists–an insurgency that may soon envelop our borders.

The deteriorating situation in Mexico

Mexico has always struggled with crime and corruption, but its present troubles can be traced to the mid-90s downfall of the Colombian cartels. Those mega-cartels, epitomized by the excess of Pablo Escobar, directly threatened the Colombian state and lost. As nature abhors a vacuum, the gap was filled by Mexican drug cartels bolstered by gargantuan drug profits. These cartels burrowed into the superstructure of the Mexican state, corrupting the poorly paid civil servants and police officers that make up the Mexican bureaucracy. Those who refused to take a bribe earned a bullet to the brain for their scruples. The cartel evolution in political and financial affairs was matched by a rise in military power, as the narco-gangs built up a capable cadre of enforcers poached from the Mexican military’s Special Forces. These men, known as the Zetas, enabled the cartels to gain a tactical advantage against the poorly equipped Mexican local and state police.

Worst of all, the sheer size of the black economy–$40 billion as estimated by Stratfor’s George Friedman–strangles legitimate enterprise and concentrates power in the hands of a few narco-warlords. These criminal enterprises amass power and legitimacy as the Mexican state loses the trust of its citizens. As a result, Mexico’s periphery has become a lawless wasteland controlled largely by the drug cartels, but the disorder is rapidly spreading into the interior. In a cruel parody of the “ink-blot” strategy employed by counterinsurgents in Iraq, ungoverned spaces controlled by insurgents multiply as the territorial fabric of the Mexican state continues to dissolve.

President Felipe Calderon has tried to stem the bleeding by unleashing the military and federal police on the narco-gangs. But the cartels responded in kind by massively targeting police officers and innocent civilians. They are waging a war of attrition to force the Mexican state to cease re-asserting its power. Sadly, the cartels are winning. Criminal violence continues in the borderlands, and high-ranking federal officials have been killed without meaningful government response. As the head of Mexican intelligence service CISEN admitted to reporters, the cartels pose a threat to Mexican national security.

Mexico’s narco-war is beginning to migrate north

We ignore it at our peril. Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez suffer increasingly frequent and brutal outbreaks of extreme cartel violence. Police and journalists are assassinated, rivals beheaded, ambushes and kidnapping become near-routine. Mexican drug cartels already control distribution through the MS-13 gang, another violent transnational networked gang operating in the Americas. Cartels operate training camps near the border, from which they send operatives to kidnap and assassinate American citizens.

One infamous example was the recent Phoenix, Arizona, incident, where a heavily armed squad of cartel gunmen impersonating police tactical officers killed a man and attempted to lethally ambush a police assault team. Drug money and criminal control can give the cartels power to begin corrupting our myriad governmental bureaucracies, while stimulating an increase in violent gang warfare in our troubled inner cities.

What we must do

If we value our security, we must assist Mexico–providing aid for capacity building of police forces, improving intelligence support, and rebuilding its judiciary. Enhancing Mexico’s capacity to sustain the rule of law, limit the reach of cartels, gangs, and their corrupting influence, while modernizing their security and judicial organs to ensure open and transparent interaction with the community must be priorities. Cross-border partnerships are needed to build much needed capacity. Cooperation must be intensified between American and Mexican police forces.

Efforts to eradicate small arms trafficking to stem the flow of American weapons into the hands of cartels on both sides of the border must also be bolstered. Cartels use their drug profits to buy American weapons on the black market. These weapons are routinely used to slaughter grossly under-armed Mexican police. As a whole, the effort must shift from fighting the drug war to shoring up the Mexican state. We will always have crime and drugs, but criminal cartels must be cut down to size so they cannot threaten whole governments. This must become a priority on both sides of the Rio Grande!

John P. Sullivan is a career police officer. He currently serves as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department where he is assigned to the Emergency Operations Bureau. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism (CAST). His research focus is on counterinsurgency, intelligence, terrorism, and urban operations. He is co-editor of Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a global counter-terrorism network (Routledge, 2006).

Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security. His articles have been published in Defense and the National Interest, Foreign Policy in Focus, International Tactical Officer’s Association (ITOA) SWAT Digest, and other publications. His work has been cited in reports by the Center for Security Policy and highlighted by the Arms Control Association and the Project on Defense Alternatives.

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