Defence against external threats is the raison d’etre for forming a military establishment. However, things don’t always go to plan, as has been proven by Mexico’s military. Instead of fighting against external enemies, Mexico’s military is embroiled in a civil war with the country’s drug cartels. It’s an battle with no apparent end in sight, and in which the very reason for bringing troops into the fray may well be their undoing.
Today, the ‘Mexican Armed Forces’ consist of the Mexican Army (MA), Navy (MN), and Air Force (MAF). In terms of manpower, “its total ranks are about 245,000, made up of volunteers and conscripts,” says Dr. Roderic Camp, a Professor of the Pacific Rim at Claremont McKenna College in California. The Mexican Army is equipped with Lynx 90 wheeled armoured vehicles, HMMWVs and AMX-VCI tracked armoured vehicles. The Navy has destroyers, frigates, missile boats, amphibious ships and patrol boats. The MAF is mainly equipped with helicopters and propeller-driven airplanes, with one squadron of 1960s-vintage F-5E/F jet fighters.
Entering The Drug War
The hunger of Americans for illicit drugs has long fueled the drug trade along the Mexican-U.S. border. Initially, this wasn’t a major problem compared to other areas of drug-related activity. However, government success in fighting drug smuggling in South Florida and the Caribbean has made the overland Mexican route critically important and profitable to drug traffickers. The result has been an upward spiral of violence in Mexican border states between rival drug cartels; made worse by drug-funded corruption of local police and government.
Historically, the Mexican military has been used to eradicate drugs. In the 1990s, they began taking a more overt role in drug interdiction. After President Vincente Fox took power in 2000, the military took on the task of capturing and opposing the drug traffickers; “although not with very much gusto,” Hooper comments.
Current President Felipe Calderón altered that policy in 2006 by sending mobile units to hot spot areas to combat crime and drug related violence. Today, some 45,000 Mexican troops are seizing drug shipments, destroying illegal crops, locating laboratories and battling with well-armed criminals – aided in their efforts by the MA and MAF. According to the Mexican Attorney General’s office, over 10,000 people have been killed since the troops were deployed.
“President Calderón brought in the military because they are the least corrupt arm of the government,” says Hooper. “Essentially, the army was brought in to do law enforcement’s job, because local police have been thoroughly corrupted by the drug cartels and their deep pockets.”
Results to Date
The growing violence in Mexico’s drug war is frightening American legislators. They fear that the bloodshed underwritten by U.S. illicit drug buyers will cross the Mexican border and come north.
Ironically, the increase in violence is a “sign of success,” says Karen Hooper. “The Mexican military has succeeded in disrupting the alliances between the cartels, and has made life much harder for them. As a result, they are fighting amongst themselves, trying to muscle in on each other’s territory. Unfortunately the public tends to get in the crossfire, due to the open street violence and the collapse of law enforcement.”
“Calderón is attempting to atomize the leading cartels into approximately 50 smaller units, having already increased the original four to eight,” says Dr. Camp. “This should make them easier to defeat on an individual basis. Of course, the problem is that the gap left by one defeated group of drug smugglers is quickly taken by another, because the appetite for drugs remains.”
Threats and Challenges
For the troops, fighting the drug dealers and their well-armed thugs is a dangerous proposition. What makes it even more dangerous is when the ‘bad guys’ are former military themselves.
A case in point: The Gulf cartel’s private army – known as the Zetas – was “created by a group of 30 lieutenants and sublieutenants who deserted from the Mexican military’s Special Air Mobile Force Group (Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales, GAFES) ... in the late 1990s,” says a 2007 report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS). “As such, the Zetas were able to carry out more complex operations and use more sophisticated weaponry.”
“I’ve seen .50 calibre armour-piercing ammunition from a Barrett rifle captured from the cartels,” notes Dr. Camp. “This is ammunition that can be accurately fired up to a mile in range. It is far superior to anything the army has.”
According to the CRS report to Congress, “The Zetas act as assassins for the Gulf cartel. They also traffic arms, kidnap, and collect payments for the cartel on its drug routes.” Just how dangerous the Zetas are to public order is made clear in the following quote: “In July 2006, local police in the southern state of Tabasco unknowingly arrested Mateo Díaz López, believed to be a leader of the Zetas,” says the CRS report. “The arrest prompted an assault on the police station killing 4 people, including 2 police officers.”
Certainly the jobs are out there, and the Zetas make no bones in advertising this fact. For instance, in the city of Nuevo Laredo, a banner was posted on a public bridge that read: “Operative group ‘The Zetas’ wants you, soldier or ex-soldier. We offer a good salary, food and benefits for your family. Don’t suffer anymore mistreatment and don’t go hungry.”
Not surprisingly, this level of violence unnerves Mexican troops; particularly conscripts who didn’t want to fight in the first place. “This may contribute to the desertion rate, although the Army reports that most enlisted personnel desert in the first two weeks of service,” says Dr. Camp. “Even the volunteers didn’t sign on to fight the drug lords. They signed on to be soldiers.” (The situation isn’t helped by the Mexican Army’s relatively low wages and poor working conditions.)
For those reluctant soldiers who just want to escape the violence, “it makes a lot more sense to sneak up north and get a kitchen job for more pay than risk your life fighting the cartels at home,” Hooper says.
Those troops who stick to their jobs are at risk of being corrupted by drug money; the same way local law enforcement has been, she adds. Meanwhile, the soldiers’ lack of police training is resulting in human rights abuses, plus neglect towards criminal matters such as theft, assault and domestic abuse. “The troops were never trained to be police,” Hooper says. “Yet, in much of Mexico today, they are the only police-like agency in force.”
An Unending Struggle?
The deployment of Mexico’s military to fight drugs was a bold move by a president trying to make a difference. However, in doing so, President Calderón may have ultimately switched one problem for another; namely by replacing untrustworthy police with similarly human, similarly corruptible soldiers.
The problem is simple: As U.S. – and Canadian – consumers are willing to pay billions of dollars for illegal drugs, the drug trade and its accompanying violence and corruption will continue. Nothing short of outright military occupation and control stands a chance of motivating the drug lords to do their business elsewhere.
“The United States is probably the one country that can really end the Mexican drug war, by convincing its people to stop taking drugs and thus dry up the demand that is behind all of the violence,” Dr. Camp notes. “It is not as if we are ignorant of this fact: Government just doesn’t have the courage to go to Congress and say, ‘tell your district that we have a serious social problem in this country’.”
Sadly, without a cessation in demand for drugs, it is impossible to see an end to the Mexican drug war. As a result, the Mexican military seems committed to this fight indefinitely, simply because there is no one to take their place. It’s a thankless mission that is a far cry from what traditionally constitutes ‘national defense’, and it is not a mission that any military is trained for.
James Careless is a freelance writer
© FrontLine Defence 2010