This Week at War: Mexico's Narco-Armies


DFI Technocrat
Oct 10, 2009
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This Week at War: Mexico's Narco-Armies | Foreign Policy

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

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