The drug war in Mexico has been compared to an insurgency, because the heavily armed drug cartels have the power to challenge and defeat the forces of the state. The Mexican government has admitted that large swaths of territory are out of effective state control. Narco-traffickers have their own checkpoints and impose their own law, often leaving the municipal police corrupted, traveling in packs of thirty, resigning, or dead. Not only that, it is often hard to tell when the cartels’ sicarios, or hitmen, are disguised as police or when the police are providing paid assistance to the cartels, because law enforcement has been so thoroughly corrupted as to be unrecognizable from their foes. A new study claims six out of ten of the country’s 430 prisons are controlled by criminal elements, this one week after a jailbreak of 131 members of Los Zetas.
Although Mexico’s conflict is a multi-party, multi-theater ‘mosaic’ war, much of the credit for the disintegration of law enforcement and pervasive terror goes to Los Zetas, now the largest and most feared cartel in Mexico. Their business includes extortion, human and drug trafficking, theft, piracy, and assassinations, among other activities used to launder their illicit proceeds, such as importing goods to Mexico and, most recently, horse-racing. Their tactics of intimidation include the display of mutilated corpses hung over highways and bridges, rolling severed heads onto dance floors, threatening banners, posting videos of tortures and assassinations on youtube, bombing law enforcement offices, and kidnapping civilians for ransom or forced smuggling.
Referring to rumors of a split in the organization, some analysts have declared that Los Zetas will inevitably fragment because the middle managers will easily replicate the business model of organization elsewhere in Mexico, the US, and the Northern Triangle, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. However, according to Grayson and Logan, half of the organization’s income comes from drug-smuggling, which requires international contacts and, often, the complicity of law enforcement. Reports indicate that Los Zetas have high level contacts in the leading DTO in Guatemala (most of whom they assassinated last year) and with the Italian mafia, ‘Ndrangheta, with whom they have formed a lucrative alliance for cocaine trafficking. As such, the conclusion that middle managers in Los Zetas will eventually break out on their own seems unlikely. Nevertheless, rifts between leaders show signs of forming, if the narco-banners left on overpasses in Mexico are to be believed.
Analysts on both sides of the border suggest that Los Zetas may be attempting to cut the Mexican territory in half in what has been dubbed, The Zetas Cross theory. This puts the organization in conflict with a united front of allied DTOs at the easternmost border of the US, near Matamoros, Tamaulipas and with the Sinaloa cartel at the southern end, in Guadalajara, Jalisco, while the group controls plazas, or trafficking points, in Nuevo Laredo, and has its headquarters in Zacatecas, from which it marshals forces to its fronts in Monterrey and to the South and East.
Considering the fierce loyalty which Zetas hold to their leaders and their violent retribution for betrayal, it would seem possible to manipulate and divide the groups with counterintelligence and misinformation, essentially psyops. For instance, when Zetas are arrested without a gunfight, members become suspicious that the arrested member has been betrayed and it causes a destabilizing wave of mistrust to ripple through the organization. Each new high profile arrest brings with it accusations and rumors as to who betrayed him. The ethos of narcos….
However, since many journalists have been silenced through assassination and intimidation, it is difficult to obtain reliable information on the situation inside Mexico. Informal sources have emerged on the internet, in the form of videos released by Los Zetas themselves and by rebel bloggers who pass on rumors often at great personal risk. The D.E.A. has utilized informants from within the leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel in order to obtain intelligence as to the activities of rival cartels, but this policy only strengthens the market share of the Sinaloa Federation, headed by El Chapo’ Guzman, of Forbes’ top 20 renown, which, while less violent than Los Zetas, Sinaloas’ erstwhile sicarios, has the undesirable side effect of opening up Mexican and United States officials to accusations of collaborating with organized crime.
Although the violence of the drug war has been greatly contained from spilling over in the US, the flow migrants and refugees has increased, while illegal drugs are still widely available and of better quality, despite notable victories in assassinating or arresting drug bosses. A US general recently stated publicly that the strategy of killing drug capos is not working. And if Los Zetas breaks into three factions battling with the Sinaloa Federation, the remnants of the Gulf Cartel, and coalitions of other criminal entrepreneurs, it will put great pressure on the fragile institutions and the venal politicians.
One unknown variable that will greatly determine the direction and outcome of the next few years of the drug war is the imminent changes of administration in Mexico. The President-elect of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, has claimed that he will focus on reducing the violence, while doubling spending on security, expanding the police force to replace the military, and chasing illicit financial flows. He has studiously avoided any mention of expanding the involvement of US armed forces in the drug war, although joint operations with ‘boots on the ground’ were heavily relied upon and reportedly successful in the execution of Plan Colombia. Initiatives against money-laundering already restrict the use of dollars, which has forced cartels to buy and ship goods into Mexico with their illicit proceeds, in a process that leaves no trace. It is unknown what Pena Nieto has in mind, but it is probable that he will not offer any novel solutions. That is just as well, because there is plenty to do north of the border to track illicit financial flows and combat the formation of shell companies by DTOs.
Succession wars within drug cartels are more violent than business as usual, so the policy of arresting or assassinating the bosses does not lead to a reduction in violence. US policymakers must reevaluate their priorities with consideration of the posture of the new Mexican President and the limits of collaboration with the Mexican government and others in the region. Securing the border is at best a faulty and temporary solution, both because of the innovation of DTOs and the relentless desperation of illegal immigrants. Policy reform in the US and economic development in Latin America can provide the transformation which military and intelligence strategies have begun.
As maritime routes are more heavily patrolled there is a well-documented migration of trafficking routes to Central American countries, such as Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras, with attendant spillover violence. The US might consider incentivizing the private sector and civil society to address the challenges of development in the Northern Triangle, a region buffeted by a steady stream of deported gangmembers as well as Zetas members seeking new markets and escape from coalition forces.
With rising complaints of the illegal arms trade and the embarrassment of the Fast and Furious scandal, additional vetting of Border Control agents is necessary to reduce the possibility of corruption. South of the border, US security contractors leading team of vetted officers to work with Mexican anti-cartel warriors have failed in the past and are likely to fail in the future. Yet, although the strategies of more vetting and training solutions for Mexican forces are unlikely to yield transformative results, the greater goal of institutional reform is critical and should not be abandoned in Mexico and the rest of the region.
Ultimately, the type of supply side intervention that characterizes the drug war needs to be accompanied by demand side initiatives, like focusing campaigns on raising awareness of consumers of the brutality of their suppliers and treating drug use in the US as a public health issue, while cultivating other sources than the Sinaloa cartel, perhaps in British Columbia and California. Demand side interventions are likely to lower price and profit margins of illicit drugs more than supply side war, which merely makes it profitable on both sides. Campaigns popularizing terms like “conflict marijuana” and “conflict coke” may discourage demand more than the unconvincing anti-marijuana commercials of yesteryear. In the absence of political will to undertake policy reform, intelligence collaboration on private aircraft ownership, money-laundering, and pharmaceutical shipments of precursor substances will aid the efforts of partner governments to crack down on production and distribution operations.
Given that the high unemployment rate among the Mexican and Central American youth is a driving force of new recruits to the ranks of DTOs, young people employed therein face a situation similar to what has been referred to as the ‘insurgent’s dilemma’ in Afghanistan; the inability of demobilized soldiers to reintegrate into their communities propels them to persevere in counter-insurgency activities. Similarly in the areas affected by the drug war, sicarios and other low-level employees of DTOs face a lack of options in their communities, and any policy framework aiming to address this mosaic war will be ineffectual if this factor is ignored. Colombia has implemented an ‘integrated action’ strategy since 2007, which addresses the underlying causes of the expansion of organized crime with social welfare programs administered by civil society. Yet Mexico presents a dilemma because security has not been established and the cartels are likely to unleash brutal retribution on organizations that undermine their position. Nevertheless, Mexico has shown impressive economic growth despite these challenges and presents investors with a burgeoning market as labor and shipping costs rise in China. Whether authentic concerns over sovereignty or a perverse incentive to protect certain drug-traffickers is the reason for the limited role of the US armed forces, we can only speculate. However, considering that it is the demand of the US market and its laws that create this lucrative industry and that Mexico and its Central American neighbors are bearing the brunt of the casualties of war, the least we can do is be flexible.
Tim Tolka is an Analyst at 361Security