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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6 Responses to “Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency”

  1. Duncan C Kinderon 06 Nov 2008 at 11:40 am 1

    In my own economically depressed, rural neck of the woods, I sometimes tell folks that – if they want to promote the local economy – rather than seeking to “attract business” or to “promote tourism,” they should legalize drugs. This really would be a great area for marijuana plantations.

    That is good for a few laughs.

    But unless my suggestion were to be taken seriously, the Mexican situation will only continue. And the marijuana jobs are really but one more victim of outsourcing.

  2. JJon 06 Nov 2008 at 1:43 pm 2

    “If we value our security, we must assist Mexico–providing aid for capacity building of police forces, improving intelligence support, and rebuilding its judiciary.”

    Aren’t we, the US taxpayers, going to fork over several billions for Mexico to “fight the drug war”?

    I’m sure, quite sure, very sure that would be money well spent, absolutely.

    “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.”

    Sensible gun-safety laws, I’ve heard Mr Obama is quite a proponent of such.

    Gee whiz any one of our fellows know where they are selling grenades, full-auto Kalishnikovs, anti-tank weapons, RPGs, suppressors, SAWs, on the American black market? Must be at those evil gun shows that Obama and Mr Soros speak about.

  3. EmeryNelsonon 06 Nov 2008 at 6:11 pm 3

    It’s certainly true that the Cartels can be violent but what’s not stated is that they are also honest. They make deals, which they live up to, employ an untold number of Mexicans, loan money to businesses and home buyers, and generally do this without the corruption of the Mexican government.

    As one who lives in a drug growing/producing county it’s easy to see what the authors don’t. Governments are much more corrupt then drug cartels and the force of law is unevenly used and makes a mockery of justice. Our county SD doesn’t bother much with the local growers but do go after the Mexicans because they have bad habits in our pristine national forests. However, this all changes once a year when CAMP starts up. But it’s over soon and we return to our daily lives where the cares of the state mean little. I wonder if it’s not the same in Mexico?

  4. rethinking_securityon 06 Nov 2008 at 11:03 pm 4

    All,

    Thank you for your comments on this article. If you are interested in further exploring the issue, the NYT has run a very good series on Mexico’s drug war from the ground-level perspective.

    Duncan,

    Whatever the merits or demerits of drug legalization, it’s clear that such a policy option is not going to be seriously considered by the establishment. As such, we are going to have to work with the options we have available. One better thing (which may be explored in future writings) could be to better brainstorm means of countering the “urban terror” that Robb describes in many of his best writings about Latin America (PCC vs. Brazilian police and his postings about Mexico) should it migrate to our own soil.

    JJ,

    The point of the piece is not to advocate that we fight Mexico’s drug war–drugs and crime are always going to be with us, and the Mexicans need to fight their own battles. The point is to help (from afar, without serious human investment) to help rebuild Mexico’s institutions, or at least keep the problem contained.

    In terms of the monetary cost, security, like any other public good, isn’t free. As it stands, such an investment in building a more stable neighboring state is far more justified than some of our recent adventures abroad.

    I do agree that gun control is not a panacea. But making a meaningful effort to stem the flow of weapons south isn’t a completely lost cause, and more can certainly be done to do so.

    Emery,

    The problem is not the drugs but the power of the cartels and the fragmentation of the Mexican state. The violence that has resulted isn’t purely cartels vs. the government, but the cartels vs. each other. Such creates a Hobbseian climate of fear and violence where the populace is trapped between a corrupt government and predatory criminals–both with absolute power.

  5. rethinking_securityon 06 Nov 2008 at 11:12 pm 5

    To elaborate, we don’t see this in the sense of merely throwing money at the situation and such–but directing national attention to the threat and bringing the political-legal tools we have in place to attempt to at the very least to contain the situation. This is a collaborative process–only Mexicans can take back their country but there is much we can do to help them without crossing the border. See, for example, the partnership in the past between America and Italy that helped cut on on endemic criminal insurgency in Sicily.

    The problem is that we have been so focused on the Middle East that policymakers have forgotten about Latin America. This has certain national security implications (The rise of cartels, networked gangs, and totally ungoverned spaces) but also diplomatic consequences in our failure to pay attention to the shifting ideologies and geopolitics of the region.

  6. […] John Sullivan and Adam Elkus, Defense and the National Interest – Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency; 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. […]