Mexico’s Military and the Drug War

I already discussed the drug war in Mexico in an earlier blog posting on the UNC website. But it’s worth returning to this topic, because of many new developments since last February. At this point, over 45,000 people have been killed in the drug war since President Calderon began it in December 2006. The toll of this carnage has been described in detail by the Los Angeles Times, which has had the best coverage of this conflict from its inception. Sadly, its very difficult for Mexican reporters to cover this conflict, because the drug cartels have infiltrated the major media organizations, and are killing reporters who cover the war. For this reason, Mexicans have turned to twitter and blogsfor information. While these sources provide a great deal of information,  one topic, in particular, seems to me to be under-covered: the struggle’s impact upon Mexico’s armed forces.

Photo of army truck by Stuart Miles

Hillary Clinton was widely denounced within Mexico in September 2010 for declaring that the conflict had taken on the appearance of an insurgency. But the reality is that Mexico is no longer primarily engaged in law enforcement, but rather a war between the government and the cartels. Mexico has become a frequent topic in the Small Wars Journal, which is devoted to low-intensity warfare (the British term) and counter-insurgency operations (COIN, the American term). Consider a recent communique from the Zeta’s drug cartel, as described on a blog covering the war:”A communique from the special forces of the Zetas. Message to the nation, the government, and all of Mexico and to public opinion. The special forces of Los Zetas challenges the government and its federal forces. Not the Army, not the marines nor the security and anti-drug agencies of the U.S. government can resist us. Mexico lives and will continue to live under the regime of Los Zetas. Let it be clear that we are in control here and although the federal government controls other cartels, they cannot take our plazas. You want proof? Look at what happened in Sinaloa and Guadalajara. If we can get all the way into their kitchen we are not going to lose control of our territory. Sincerely, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, Z-40.” Such statements leave little question how the cartels themselves view the contest.

While a great deal of attention has been given to the insurgents -the drug traffickers- much less has been given to the other side of the conflict, the Mexican armed forces.As someone who began his career studying civil-military relations, and has done fieldwork in southern Mexico, I have a number of questions. How does the Mexican military understand this contest, and its changing role in society? How does the military view the Zeta cartel, since it was created from within the military itself? How do the armed forces discuss the contest internally, in sources such as military journals? Are there contests and disputes within the military about the war, and in particular, amongst the services? Does the military fear that Mexico may become a failed state, as many commentators in the U.S. suggest? And does the military have a vision for the endgame in this contest? Is its vision the same as that of Mexico’s civilian leadership?

To fully discuss the impact of the Drug War on Mexico’s military is too much for any single post. But a few thoughts, based on some reading in this area. It’s common to note that under the PRI, an authoritarian political party managed the drug trade, so that it was less threatening to the state. During this period, some elements of the army itself became engaged in this trade. It is no coincidence, therefore, that los Zetas were originally soldiers, who had gone to work for the Gulf cartel, before turning on their former masters. Because the drug cartels have managed to infiltrate some components of the army, the Mexican state has turned to the navy to lead the drug war. If one examines which services have led high-profile arrests of senior cartel leaders, the navy often has taken the lead. This means that drug war threatens to create internal divisions between the military’s services.

Another important question is how the military itself views the struggle, about which very little has been written. What is the grand strategy of Mexico’s military? Based on the little that has been published, it seems that the military itself believes that it is in for a long struggle, most likely for at least decade. While this is probably realistic, the fact that this will be a long contest likely means that the casualty count will become even more horrific. And there will be no final blow in this contest, as the Colombian case illustrates. Although Colombia is often held up as a model, neither the struggle nor the drug trade has ended there.The best that Mexico’s military can hope to do is to gradually displace the cartels to Central American states that are much less capable of dealing with an armed insurgency, as may be happening now in Guatemala and El Salvador.

As the military has been fought the drug war through ever widening areas of Mexico, the reports of human rights abuses by soldiers have increased. The government has sought to see justice in the most egregious cases. But the fact remains, that many people have suffered as a result of these abuses, which have undermined civilian’s trust in the armed forces. In sum, the military has fought bravely, and has had many successes. But the contested has also created inter-service tensions, corruption and human rights abuses.

None of this has decreased the availability of drug’s on American streets. Indeed, there is an argument to be made that the drug war serves the interests of the U.S. customers in the drug market, by fracturing large cartels that might acquire monopoly control over the market, and thereby drive up prices. By fracturing the major transhipment organizations or cartels, the drug war brings competition to the market, which may have helped to consistently lower drug costs over time in the United States, without inhibiting supply. In short, the drug war may actually decrease the costs to new customers’ entry into the market. Certainly, there is no evidence that it has diminished either supply or price, particularly during the last few years. This is true not only in the United States, but also in European countries, such as Britain. Meanwhile, the global drug supply has climbed sharply. For more information on drug prices in the United States, check out the dope stats website.

One topic that embodies the failure of the drug war is that of “Round-Up ready” coca (coca is the plant from which cocaine is made). The Colombian military -with funding from the United States- conducts aerial spraying of coca fields in remote areas of Colombia. Of course, the spraying kills not only coca, but also all other plant life on the site. The chemical also washes into local waterways, which is a problem, because throughout Latin America there are concerns about the product’s impact on people. Because the spraying is not always accurate, other crops are also destroyed. In the last few years, rumors have spread within the Colombian military about Round-up ready coca. Some argue that drug traffickers must have hired plant geneticists to transfer the gene that resists Round Up into coca. Others argue that it is the result of selective breeding by peasants, who have bred the coca plants that found surviving after spraying. Still others argue that Round Up ready coca is a myth. In a perfect world, I’d like to submit a grant to hire Colombian graduate students in botany, to collect coca cultivars from throughout the nation, and test them for Round-up resistance. This will never happen. But I think that this makes the point that technology -chemical or otherwise- is not going to eliminate the drug supply.

The U.S. needs to accept that this war is not only a failure, but also its creation, because the conflict is fought with weapons that the drug cartels purchase from the United States. The numbers are impressive: “In fact, some 87 percent of firearms seized by Mexico during the previous five years were traced to the U.S.” The drug war is a two way exchange with drugs coming north, while money and guns (the source of the cartels’ power) flow south. Indeed, “according to the L.A. Times, the amount of laundered money could reach $50 billion, or around 3 percent of the national economy.” The United States needs to take the initiative to end this process. Mexico cannot win this war on its own.

Anyone who has followed the drug war is widely aware of the suffering it has caused. In a true sign of the depravity of the drug cartels, kindergarden teachers recently have become murder targets. There is no end to the violence in sight. For this reason, I think that we need to rethink the drug war, and as I argued in an earlier blog, consider the Portuguese path of decriminalization. For a critical perspective on drug policy, see the following blog.

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