SWJ El Centro Review Essay – La guerra improvisada: Los años de Calderón y sus consecuencias (The Improvised War: The Calderón Years and their Consequences)
Patricia H. Escamilla-Hamm
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera and Tony Payan, La guerra improvisada: Los años de Calderón y sus consecuencias. Mexico: Océano, 2021 [Español. ISBN: 978-6075573045, Paperback, 344 pages; Ebook Available]
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera and Tony Payan are highly respected academic researchers living in the United States, though born and raised in Mexico. Their expertise includes firsthand knowledge of Mexican politics as well as border security, criminal organizations, drugs, immigration, and US-Mexico relations. Correa-Cabrera´s publications include Los Zetas Inc.: Criminal Corporations, Energy, and Civil War in Mexico (2017) and Payan´s The Three U.S.-Mexico Border Wars: Drugs, Immigration and Homeland Security (2016). Together, they have published a book in Spanish titled Las cinco vidas de Genaro García Luna (The Five Lives of Genaro García Luna, 2020).
The book La Guerra Improvisada (in Spanish) sheds light on the decision-making process of the so-called “war on drugs” (from here on referred to as war) launched and implemented in Mexico by President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) in collaboration with the United States. It explores key questions like why launch the war? Who designed and implemented it and how? Who determined the strategy? What was the US role? And why use military forces? Undoubtedly, the role of the military has been one of the most persistent and controversial issues about the war.
The main argument of the book is that Calderón´s war was improvised. The testimonials reveal that it was decided without proper diagnosis of the problem; strategic planning of objectives, modes and means; metrics of results; or concern for its human costs. Moreover, the book argues that the strategy was designed to serve US interests not Mexico´s. The interviewees identify President Calderón as the key decision-maker. The US and Genaro García Luna are characterized as determinant actors in the strategy. García Luna was Calderon´s closest collaborator and Secretary of Public Security. Since December 2019, he sits in a US jail awaiting trial on charges of narco-related activities.
La Guerra Improvisada contains a Prologue, an Introduction, six chapters, a Final Comments section, an Epilogue, 11 Appendices, and a select Bibliography per chapter.
Introducción (Introduction), (pp. 13-22). This section provides an overview of the contents of the book and explains the research methodology. Between 2014 and 2018, the authors conducted 34 interviews with actors belonging to what is known as the “red circle”—i.e., those in position to influence decision-making, like government security officials, diplomats, former governors, analysts, and academics—as well as journalists. Their testimonials reveal different opinions about the war and its development during the Calderón Administration. Correa-Cabrera and Payan systematically compare and contrast them to address the research questions and draw conclusions.
- Chapter 1 (pp. 23-66) El contexto: un escenario complejo (The Context: A Complex Scenario). The authors identify Mexico´s security and political context that prevailed throughout the Calderon Administration and influenced the war´s decision-making. Based on the testimonials, the authors try to ascertain how Calderon´s militarized war on drugs was decided and why. Faced with diverse opinions, Correa-Cabrera and Payan conclude that it is difficult to ascertain the truth. They argue that “the truth does not exist, only interpretations and perceptions” (p. 53). Nonetheless, most of the testimonials suggest that, regardless of why Calderón launched the war, he succumbed to US pressure to implement a kingpin strategy.
- Chapter 2 (pp. 67-102) Personas y personalidades (Persons and Personalities). This chapter reviews testimonials about the personalities of key players and their policymaking impact. Most interviewees perceive Calderón´s personality as a key factor in how the process and the war turned out.
- Chapter 3 (pp. 103-128) Las fuerzas armadas (The Armed Forces). This chapter presents testimonials to explain why Calderon deployed the Mexican Armed Forces to counter transnational drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). They indicate that the interviewees do not provide definite answers about the use of a militarized strategy. However, they agreed in that the involvement of military forces was problematic and should have been temporary.
- Chapter 4 (pp. 129-172) Una guerra improvisada. This chapter reviews testimonials about how the war was planned and implemented. Its main argument is that “it was, in many ways, an improvised war” (p. 131). However, the authors say that the testimonials led them to realize that improvisation is typical in Mexican policymaking. Also, the authors distinguish watershed events that offered crucial opportunities to modify the outcome of the war, but were missed due to improvisation. They discuss the lack of a well-designed diagnosis of the problem and pre-established metrics to assess results. Nonetheless, the testimonials blame the Mérida Initiative—a key US mechanism in the security partnership with the Calderón Administration, at least partly, for the strategy´s failure.
- Chapter 5 (pp. 173-212) Los “gringos” (gringos is a slang term in Spanish used to refer to Americans). This chapter presents testimonials that discuss the US role in Calderón´s war and the formulation and implementation of a kingpin strategy to dismantle DTOs. The authors conclude that contrasting opinions make it hard to say with certainty if the strategy was a Mexican or US initiative. But the interviewees agree in that, under the Mérida Initiative, “US influence in the design, development and implementation of the strategy was primordial” and extensive to unprecedented levels (p. 173).
- Chapter 6 (pp. 213-248) El legado de Calderón (Calderon´s Legacy). This chapter explores the legacy of Calderón´s war for subsequent Administrations. It argues that the strategy of the Peña Nieto Administration (2012-2018) was worse and had “more catastrophic results than Calderón´s” (p. 18). But the authors emphasize that, despite differences, similar structural conditions prevailed that help understand Mexico´s persistent security problems. Nonetheless, the authors conclude that it is impossible to ascertain definitively “what really happened, and above all, why did it happen, and much less what continues to happen in Mexico and why in terms of public security” (p. 214).
Comentarios finales: lecciones para la Cuarta Transformación (Final Comments: Lessons for the 4th Transformation) (pp. 249-272). Based on Calderón´s and Peña Nieto´s failed experiences, the authors draw seven crucial lessons for Mexico to overcome the vicious circle of organized criminality, violence, and militarization that plagued the two presidencies. One of them is that a proper, accurate, and timely diagnosis is crucial. Another is that strong and effective justice institutions are essential to disrupt the vicious circle. A third one is that Mexico must beware of the risks of involving the US in a security strategy. And a fourth lesson is that a militarized strategy has proven to be counterproductive and have catastrophic results.
The authors assert that the current Administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (a.k.a. AMLO, 2018-2024) does not seem to have learned most of the lessons. Nonetheless, they acknowledge that, unlike the previous presidents, AMLO has been cautious to avoid letting the gringos in all the way into Mexico´s “kitchen;” and has tried to curb their role in Mexico´s security policy and pressure to abide by American interests. However, they say, AMLO has adopted a militarized strategy. Moreover, the authors suggest that AMLO´s creation of a new law enforcement agency—the Guardia Nacional (National Guard)—was an improvised decision. Nevertheless, they remark that, considering the serious domestic security situation in Mexico, the Guardia Nacional—as an intermediate force—is a step in the right direction. If and when it consolidates as an effective federal law enforcement institution, it might be able to substitute the military as a complement to state police forces.
Epílogo: sobre el caso de Genaro García Luna (Epilogue: About the case of Genaro García Luna) (pp. 273-282). This section is not based on testimonials, but on the authors´ opinions about García Luna´s arrest on US charges of narco ties. Although this epilogue was written after his arrest, the authors do not discuss García Luna´s presumed guilt or innocence. Instead, they focus on arguing that the timing of his arrest is suspicious and probably politically motivated.
Apéndices (Appendices): There are eleven appendices with information that researchers might find interesting and useful. These include a list of interviews, a Cronología (2006-2012) (Chronology) of significant events related to the war on drugs during the Calderón Administration; a listing of Desertores(Deserters). Tables and graphs with number of deserters by year and rank from the Secretaría de Defensa Nacional (SEDENA, National Defense Secretariat including de Army and Air Force), a listing of security cabinet appointments during the Calderón sexenio (six-year term) follow. The security cabinet listing includes position, names and dates in the Office of the President; Security Cabinet; National Security Council; Governors; Congress and Public Security Commission; and Mexican and US Ambassadors. An additional appendix details the Oficina de la Presidencia de la República (Office of Mexico´s Presidency) in a figure with related positions.
This is followed by an organizational chart of the Consejo Nacional de Seguridad Pública (CNSP, Public Security Council); the Security Secretariat budget, Presupuesto de Secretarías de Seguridad (2000-2012); SEDENA salary graphs: Incremento anual en sueldos del Ejército y Fuerza Aérea (2007-2011) (Annual Salary Raises in the Army and Air Force). A chronology of Federal security operations, Operativos de seguridad federales (2006-2012) (Federal Security Operations); Details on seizures: Aseguramientos logrados en operaciones mixtas (2007-2011) (Seizures during Mixed Operations), including graphs with data of detentions; firearms and grenades; Mexican pesos and US dollars; marijuana fields; and other seizures; and a list of key unfortunate events during Calderóns sexenio: Eventos desafortunados clave durante el sexenio de Calderón. A Bibliografía (Bibliography) divided by chapter completes the text.
This book has three main strengths. First, it is probably one of the few systematic attempts to address key questions that, years after the war began, still beg for substantiated answers. Its main argument—that the war was improvised—makes sense. Indeed, this interpretation reminds me of what a high-ranking Mexican Navy Admiral told me years ago about how President Calderón decided US assistance. He said that, late one night, he asked him and other admirals to prepare a list of what they needed to conduct the war. Calderón wanted to take it with him to Washington the next day! Hence, if what the testimonials reveal is accurate, readers might be shocked to read that the war that persists today with tremendous costs in terms of human lives was the result of irresponsible decision-making.
Second, the book´s focus on Mexico´s security decision-making process makes a special contribution to the literature on the war and Mexico´s security policy-making. For one, there is no significant body of literature on the latter. The authors refer to two American classics—The Essence of Decision (Allison and Zelikow 1999) and “The Science of ‘Muddling Through’” (Charles Lindblom 1959) to put Mexico´s process into theoretical context. They assert that Mexican decision-makers usually muddle through and improvise. Thus, although the book does not take a systematic look at how policy is made and develop a decision-making model for Mexico, it represents a strong case study from which to build hypotheses and use in graduate courses.
Third, the authors´ use of key players´ testimonials as main or only sources is a special feature of this book. They seem to let the testimonials speak directly to the reader. This methodology makes a unique contribution to the study of the war, because it offers a rare glimpse of what the security policymaking “red circle” says about it. Generally, such testimonials have not been available to the public.
One caveat is that, sometimes, the testimonials do not contribute enough to explain the war. In fact, some testimonials might leave readers with the impression that those in Calderón´s “red circle” do not seem to assume responsibility for the war and how it turned out. Mostly, they seem to blame others, especially the gringos and Calderón as a President incapable of making the right decisions.
Another caveat is that the “voice” of Genaro García Luna is not heard more often throughout the book, despite the fact that he is described as “one of the most important architects of Calderón´s security strategy and one of the key characters in this book” (p. 273). He is frequently mentioned by other interviewees and the authors, but his testimonials are mostly absent in the first five chapters. It surprises, especially after his arrest, because the authors interviewed him for several days in 2017. However, on p. 21 one can read García Luna´s stern warning that “improvisation cannot occur again” in Mexico.
Also, readers might wonder why the authors do not discuss García Luna´s presumed ties to the Cártel de Sinaloa while being Calderón´s top security man. They do not mention in their discussion of his role in the drug war that, since early in the Calderón Administration, there had been rumors that García Luna was colluded. Nor do they elaborate on the testimonial of a top intelligence official that says that the Calderon Administration had been “accused of protecting El Chapo,” Cártel de Sinaloa kingpin (p. 144). In the Eipilogue, they do not elaborate either on the US charges leading to his arrest. To be fair, the authors argue that they will not pass judgement on García Luna, because he must be presumed innocent unless proven guilty. Nonetheless, it would have been interesting to read the authors´ reflections upon the possible implications of García Luna´s alleged narco ties for the outcome of the war.
 Christopher Woody, “The Architect of Mexico´s War on Cartels was just Arrested in Texas and Accused of Drug Trafficking and Taking Bribes,” Business Insider. 10 December 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/genaro-garcia-luna-arrested-in-texas-on-drug-trafficking-charges-2019-12?r=MX&IR=T.
 The kingpin strategy seeks to dismantle criminal organizations by targeting high-value cartel figures.
 The 4th Transformation is the name given by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (2018-2024) to his project of political, social, and economic transformation in Mexico. It is frequently used also to refer to his administration (sexenio or six-year term).
 Patricia Escamilla-Hamm, “The Guardia Nacional (The National Guard): Why a New Militarized Police in Mexico.” Small Wars Journal. 8 December 2020, https://smallwarsjournal.com/index.php/jrnl/art/guardia-nacional-national-guard-why-new-militarized-police-mexico.
 See Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Second Edition). New York: Pearson (Longman), 1999 and Charles E. Lindblom. “The Science of Muddling Through.” Public Administration Review. Vol. 19, No. 2. Spring, 1959: pp. 79-8, http://www.jstor.org/stable/973677.
 For more García Luna´s testimonials, see Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera and Tony Payan, Las Cinco Vidas de Genaro García Luna. Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2020. It reviewed by Daniel Weisz in English and Spanish: “SWJ El Centro Book Review – Las Cinco Vidas de Genaro García Luna.” Small Wars Journal, 1 February 2021, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/swj-el-centro-book-review-las-cinco-vidas-de-genaro-garcia-luna and Daniel Weisz, SWJ El Centro Reseña del libro – Las Cinco Vidas de Genaro García Luna.” Small Wars Journal. 1 February 2021, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/swj-el-centro-resena-del-libro-las-cinco-vidas-de-genaro-garcia-luna.
 George W. Grayson, “High Drama Over Mexico´s Next Defense Secretary.” Foreign Policy Research Institute. 1 September 2012, https://www.fpri.org/article/2012/09/high-drama-over-mexicos-next-defense-secretary/.