Small Wars

This Week at War: Mexico’s Narco-Armies

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images
OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images

Mexico’s drug gangs don’t want to destroy the state, they just want to rent it

The U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute has published a disturbing research paper written by Professor Max Manwaring. Titled A "New" Dynamic in the Western Hemisphere Security Environment: The Mexican Zetas and Other Private Armies, the paper discusses how Mexico’s drug cartels and the private armies they finance are systematically displacing legitimate state authority across Mexico and Central America. Those who follow events in the region will not find much new in that assertion. What is new is Manwaring’s description of the untapped potential of Los Zetas – the private army associated with the powerful Gulf Cartel — and why it will be especially difficult for either the Mexican or U.S. governments to counter the organization’s power.

Los Zetas was born in the late 1990s when the Gulf Cartel began recruiting soldiers from the Mexican army’s Airborne Special Force Group. The Gulf Cartel was able to provide the deserters with far more pay, prestige, and side benefits than the Mexican government could. The project was a huge success; the cartel used the organization, training, discipline, experience, and equipment the former soldiers provided to greatly expand its operating territory, smuggling routes, debt collection, and capacity to intimidate or kill opponents. Los Zetas went on to recruit soldiers from the Guatemalan army’s special forces and from other militaries in the region.

According to Manwaring, Los Zetas is no longer merely an enforcer for the Gulf Cartel, but an independent military force that rivals the power of legitimate governments in the region. It has used the enormous cash flow it receives from drug smuggling to acquire state-of-the-art weapons and electronics technology and to build intelligence-gathering, logistics, and operational planning staffs that Western military commanders would not only recognize but envy.

So do Los Zetas’s commanders aim to seize control of the Mexican state? Probably not, according to Manwaring — at least not directly. Los Zetas (and other cartel leaders in the region) want to weaken but not completely destroy the traditional authority of the state. Los Zetas and cartel members need to travel outside the country, communicate, and conduct financial transactions. Most important, these transnational criminal organizations greatly benefit from the Mexican government’s zealous protection of its sovereignty — this keeps the U.S. government one step away from interfering with the cartels

Viewed in this light, Los Zetas and other such transnational private military forces may be much more dangerous to stability and legitimate governance than al Qaeda or religion-inspired terror groups. The multi-billion-dollar drug-smuggling business seems to buy far more military capability, foot soldiers, high and low-level government officials, and neighborhood support than religious exhortation does. It is easy to organize against al Qaeda’s highly unpopular vision of society. For Los Zetas, it’s business, not political — there can be a cut of the action for everyone. That might make Los Zetas and their private military cousins the more insidious threat to legitimate governance.

Does Afghanistan need the Phoenix Program? Part II

A Dec. 8 Washington Post article by Griff Witte discussed the Taliban’s shadow government in Afghanistan. According to Witte, the Taliban is preparing for its return to power "by establishing an elaborate shadow government of governors, police chiefs, district administrators and judges that in many cases already has more bearing on the lives of Afghans than the real government." In the 1960s the Viet Cong organized a similar shadow government in South Vietnam. The United States and South Vietnamese governments responded with the controversial Phoenix program, which infiltrated and crippled the Viet Cong cadre organization. President Barack Obama has tasked General Stanley McChrystal and the rest of the U.S. government to "reverse the Taliban’s momentum." Does Afghanistan need its version of the Phoenix program?

In my July 31 column, I discussed a recent RAND Corporation report on the Phoenix program that was commissioned by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The purpose of the report was to review the effectiveness of Phoenix’s techniques and assess whether the U.S. and Afghan governments could use those techniques effectively in Afghanistan.

Phoenix’s principal technique for attacking the Viet Cong’s organization was to recruit South Vietnamese citizens (many former soldiers) and send them back to their home provinces and villages. There they would make contact with the Viet Cong, infiltrate the organization, and collect intelligence on its structure and membership. Military and paramilitary forces would then arrest or kill the Viet Cong members. The Central Intelligence Agency, which was the lead agency for Phoenix, carefully selected the infiltrating agents based on an assessment of their motivation (often based on revenge), reliability, and adaptability.

The RAND report noted that, aside from a few exceptions, neither in Iraq nor Afghanistan has the U.S. government aggressively recruited indigenous agents to infiltrate insurgent organizations. The report offered no explanation for the neglect of this seemingly basic counterinsurgency technique.

Witte’s recent article on the Taliban’s shadow government showed why the employment of Phoenix techniques in Afghanistan might be a waste of effort. Even if such a program did reveal and destroy the Taliban shadow government, all that would remain in many parts of the country would be an empty political vacuum. According to Witte, the legitimate government has virtually no presence in many areas. And where officials and the government bureaucracy are present, their demand for bribes and inability to enforce security only seem to be alienating the population and increasing the appeal of the Taliban.

"Reversing the Taliban’s momentum" might require a ruthless Phoenix program. But that alone would be insufficient. U.S. planners are well aware of the requirement for better and cleaner Afghan governance. Delivering that in a timely manner would seem to be more difficult than eradicating the Taliban’s shadow government.

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