Small Wars Journal

Coordination Failures Among Mexican Security Forces

Mon, 06/16/2014 - 3:38pm

Coordination Failures Among Mexican Security Forces: How the Mexican Government Botched the War on Drugs

Irina A. Chindea

This is the second essay in a series of three essays tackling the issue of drug-related violence in Mexico. The first article proposed a typology of the violence related to the illicit drug trade in the country. In this essay and in a third follow-up article, I explore the causes behind the exacerbation in levels of violence, particularly under the Calderón administration (2006-2012). The main argument that I advance in these two follow-up articles states that the violence is the result of the interconnected and reinforcing relationship between the anti-organized crime security measures taken by the Mexican government, and the shifting dynamics and realignments taking place in the underworld among the cartels. In contrast to the prevailing explanations for the extreme rise in violence during the Calderón administration that focuses exclusively on the dynamics at either the state or the underworld level—for example, the faulty and “blind” implementation of the kingpin strategy from the Colombian context into the Mexican one,[1] or the bloody competition among narco-traffickers for control of drug routes and transshipment corridors,—this argument provides a more comprehensive interpretation for the rise in violence in Mexico.


Amidst soaring and gruesome violence, the random and indiscriminate targeting by both drug traffickers and state officials of innocent civilians and government security providers suspected of criminal ties, it is critical to understand whether the main domestic security measures adopted and implemented during Felipe Calderón’s administration have been the sole drivers behind the rise and subsequent fluctuation in levels of violence during his presidential term or sexenio,[2] or whether there have been additional factors at play. In this vein, this essay series examines the following questions: What role have coordination and cooperation among government security agencies and across jurisdictional levels played in the rising violence in Mexico? What has been the impact of the shifts and reconfigurations in alliances among fragmenting criminal organizations on violence levels in the country?

The core argument that this series proposes is that the increase in violence during the Calderón administration was the cumulative result of two factors acting simultaneously, and fueling one another:

  • The lack of coordination among the federal, state and local government security agencies charged with fighting organized crime. Much-needed coordination efforts failed as federal forces often undertook unilateral action when deployed at state and local level, while corrupt state and local police undermined the actions of federal forces in the interest of self-preservation. This factor is discussed in detail in this essay.
  • The continuing ability of the remaining criminal organizations to form capability-aggregating alliances amongst themselves. Despite the intra-organization splits that many groups had suffered and the break-ups of previous inter-cartel alliances, the option to form new capability aggregation alliances allowed these groups to continue their fight, both against rivals and the government. An in-depth analysis of this second factor is provided in the third and last essay of the series.

An Alternative Explanation for the Soaring Violence under Calderón

Based on the findings of my doctoral research, I propose an alternative explanation that focuses on two levels of analysis, the state and the underworld, as a two level game interaction:[3]

  • The “upper-world” or the level where the state’s security agencies operate;
  • The “underworld” level where the drug trafficking organizations are the main actors.

The framework focuses on one major variable pertaining to each of the two key levels of analysis. At the “upper-world” level, I focus on the degree of coordination and cooperation among security agencies delegated to implement the Mexican government’s antinarcotics strategy, especially in the context of using joint operations as a temporary substitute for local and state police forces under reform. Under the police reform measures undertaken by the Calderón administration, federal forces,—mainly military personnel and federal police,—have manned these joint operations and were supposed to coordinate their efforts on the ground with state and local security organizations.

At the “underworld” level, I focus on the ongoing availability of alliances among criminal organizations in spite of the fragmentation of the underworld resulting from the implementation of the kingpin strategy. The blows the cartels suffered have not been crippling enough to prevent them from continuing to operate and entering new alliances. These alliances have been a means for the cartels to gain additional resources and manpower to increase their clout and survive in the face of threats coming from other cartels and the state.

These two levels are conceptually in opposition and in competition, one upholding the rule of law and the other undermining it. In the context of their interconnectedness, the simultaneous fragmentation of authority structures in both the upper-world and the underworld has resulted in the acceleration of violence on the ground across several levels of analysis: state security institutions, criminal organizations, and the general population. Thus, the framework proposed brings together the issues of inter-agency and cross-jurisdictional coordination and cooperation among security agencies within a federal state structure, and the availability of alliances in the underworld as predictors of the dynamics of social violence.

Coordination Failures Among Mexican Security Forces

When it comes to the issue of cooperation among security forces in Mexico, the issue can be conceptualized in two main ways:

a. Across the state’s major security agencies: the Mexican Army (which includes the Air Force and the Special Forces Corps); the Navy; the Police forces; the country’s main Intelligence agency (CISEN or the National Security and Investigation Center); the Mexican Independent Forces (independent reserve troops stationed in Mexico City); and the Rural Defense Corps (La Guardia Rural).

b. Across administrative or jurisdictional lines: federal, state, local or municipal.

The military forces, composed of the Army and the Navy, are exclusively federal forces, while the police are divided across administrative lines in federal, state, and municipal units. Throughout the years, in the fight against the drug cartels cooperation and coordination has taken place—or very often failed to take place—across both agency and jurisdictional lines. In recent times, Mexican presidents have been deeply aware of the coordination problems plaguing the security forces, and especially the police, and attempted to pass and implement legislation that would lead to a more unified and coherent government response to the threat of illicit and criminal networks active in Mexico. Unfortunately, these measures either did not receive sufficient support to become effective legislation, or their implementation was left wanting with the goals that they were supposed to achieve never seeing the light of day.

In the face of the threat posed by narco-trafficking in the country, the corruption of police forces and their collusion with drug trafficking organizations[4] has been one of the severest challenges the Mexican state has been facing for decades, irrespective of the administration in power. The degree of rapprochement between the actors supposed to maintain a monopoly over the internal use of force and provide citizen security and safety, and those challenging this very monopoly, has varied across time, federal state, and governmental agency. Some of the major consequences of the guardians of public security and safety developing ties and colluding with criminal organizations have been the proliferation, empowerment and embeddedness of these criminal entities into the social, economic and political make-up of the country, which ultimately resulted in the weakening of domestic sovereignty,[5] and an openly declared warfare between the non-corrupt elements of the state, and the traffickers and their allies both within and outside the Mexican government.

As a general rule, the police and military forces “have a clear-cut institutional role with police utilized for intrastate crime prevention and the military utilized for interstate warfare to protect the state from opposing state militaries.”[6] Although part of a Latin American community of countries where military rule has been prevalent throughout history, Mexico has successfully avoided to the day the curse of military coups[7] and the deep involvement of the army into the country’s politics. At the same time, due to the countrywide high levels of corruption of police forces, Mexico has accelerated in recent years its experiment with the involvement of armed forces in the exercise of domestic security functions.

In this vein, Felipe Calderón’s government followed the trend first started by President Ernesto Zedillo in 1999, and increased the role of the armed forces in the provision of domestic security while simultaneously trying to eradicate police corruption and dismantle all the major drug trafficking organizations in the country. Part of this war on drugs and anti-organized crime strategy, Calderón deployed “tens of thousands of military personnel to supplement, and in many cases replace, local police forces, as well as to lead civilian law enforcement agencies.”[8] His efforts led to the high-profile arrest of twenty-five out of “the top thirty-seven most-wanted drug kingpins in Mexico.”[9]

The use of the army for the provision of domestic security as well as for influence, deterrence, and humanitarian purposes, has already been documented across several cases and it is largely accepted, but according to recent studies on the topic “more problematic is the relationship of landpower to environments in which violent non-state actors dominate.”[10]

In the internal conflict waged in Mexico between the drug cartels and the state, among the narcos themselves, and against the general population, the Army and the Navy have played key roles. These government security agencies ended up in a problematic relationship with the violent non-state actors on the ground, which in this specific case, are organized criminal groups engaged in illicit economic activities and governmental corruption. 

Such a military response has been generated progressively together with the increase in financial and military capabilities of the drug trafficking organizations. These “warmaking” capabilities ultimately got translated into state capturing or making potentials.[11] Hence, given the rise in the threat posed by the Mexican cartels, and the increasing violence in which they engaged against both government officials and their rivals, the use of the military, which “possesses a high antiviolence capability far greater than the landpower-like capabilities of the more threatening violent non-state actors,”[12] seemed to be the most adequate approach to the situation on the ground. Moreover, even though the army ranks low on anti-corruption capability, in the Mexican case it proved to be the backbone behind “Operation Limpieza” (Clean Sweep) in which the Calderon administration “attacked the core of cartel power: the corruption of public officials.”[13]

The Evolution of Cooperation and Coordination Among Security Forces from the 1980s to December 2012

For most of the 1980s, the government, the military and the police acted in a more coordinated manner vis-à-vis the threat posed by narco-traffickers. Throughout the decade, the security apparatus,—including the army that had been widely used since the 1960s in counter-narcotics operations,[14]—were deeply corrupt and coalesced with the then-emerging drug cartels. The coordination and cooperation among Mexican security forces at the time mainly had to deal with keeping the narco-traffickers in check and subordinate to federal dictates, but this approach only backfired in the 1990s when the balance of power between the state and the criminal groups changed in favor of the latter. The shift in balance of power was the result — among other factors — of the rise in the cartel system and of the extensive control the Mexicans were gaining over the cocaine trade. The murder in 1985 of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena at the orders of the Guadalajara Cartel’s leadership, and the pressure that subsequently the U.S. and Mexican government started to put on the narco-traffickers, provided the catalysts for what became in the early 1990s the plaza or cartel system.

Political changes in the 1990s had an impact on the coordination and cooperation among security agencies, and on the relationship between the state and the traffickers. The gradual opening of the Mexican political arena, led to fragmentation across security institutions.[15] Additionally, intra-agency breakdowns in coordination took place along political lines, but not only. Political democratization and economic liberalization had an impact on the way the security forces interacted during the second half of the 1990s with the narco-traffickers and the extent to which the main actors in the upper- and the underworld cooperated. During this period of democratic transition in the country, there was an interpenetration of the divisions that were taking place at government level and in the underworld, with the security forces being caught in the middle. As the upper-world political arena became increasingly fragmented and competitive, it simultaneously led to a fragmentation of the corrupt elements present across the ranks, which raised the competition among the narcos and further divided them. Once these divisions in the underworld took place and became entrenched, they fed back into the corrupt ranks of government officials, and further divided the government forces along the lines of alliances and rivalries in the underworld until many of the divisions in government agencies mirrored the alliances and rivalries among drug trafficking organizations.

A contributing factor to the exacerbation of rivalry among narco-traffickers in the 1990s, were the higher stakes involved by the rising participation of the Mexicans into the cocaine trade. The profit margins generated by the cocaine trade were significantly higher than those involved in smuggling marijuana across the border into the U.S. At the same time, there was a lot of untapped market potential for the transportation and distribution of cocaine of which the Mexicans became aware with their expanding domination of the trade, which made the competition among the existing organizations even fiercer.

In this context of increasing rivalry among the Mexican organized criminal groups and of these rivalries mirroring themselves into the ranks of the country’s police forces (and beyond), President Zedillo expanded the role of the military in police roles. Just like his successors will aim to the temporary use of the military while cleaning the corrupt police forces, Ernesto Zedillo created in 1999 the Federal Preventive Police (PFP). The PFP had 10,000 officers, out of which half—or 5,000—were military personnel. According to a 2007 Washington Office on Latin America report, eight years later, the military continued “to have a strong presence within the PFP, and the number of military personnel in its ranks ha[d] actually increased.”[16]

In 2000, the election of Vicente Fox — the candidate of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN)—to the Mexican Presidency represented another game-changer both for the narco-traffickers and the government security agencies charged with suppressing them. Starting with the Fox administration in December 2000, the full opening of the Mexican political system created a more complex environment that rendered more difficult coordinated action across jurisdictions and levels of government. The advent of free elections in which both PRI and non-PRI candidates won seats in municipal and state governments introduced a high level of insecurity and stress for the narco-traffickers who had now to bribe a new, diverse and revolving set of government officials.[17]

Summary of the Evolution of Cooperation and Coordination at Upper- and Underworld Level

Source: Figure Prepared by the Author

President Fox recognized the coordination problems created and that were impeding the police agencies to carry out their mission. Consequently, in March 2004, he presented a solid police reform proposal, Iniciativa de Reforma de Seguridad Publica y Justicia Penal, with the principal goal of unifying “some of the nation’s police organizations and to give a greater number of police officers the power to conduct investigations.”[18] Alongside the reform of police forces and in response to the rise in drug-related violence in northern Mexico in 2004 and 2005, President Fox “launched Operation Safe Mexico (Operativo Mexico Seguro) on June 11, 2005, deploying over 1,500 army soldiers and federal police to several cities including Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros, and Tijuana.”[19]

In spite of these efforts to increase coordination and cooperation across security agencies and cross-jurisdictions, the weekly Tijuana magazine “Zeta” reported in June 2006 an environment in which municipal and state police were avoiding responsibility for taking any preventive or investigative actions against organized crime. In the aftermath of the slaughtering of municipal police forces in Playas de Rosarito, both the municipal police and the office of the State Attorney declined any responsibility in preventing and investigating the murders, and called for the intervention of the Attorney General of the Republic (Procuraduría General de la Republica or PGR). As the magazine’s analysis correctly pointed out, both the local and state levels authorities seemed to ignore the role each is supposed to play when it comes to such events: prevention of the crime by the municipal authorities, and investigation and prosecution by the state Attoney’s Office once the crime took place.[20]

Furthermore, based on Zeta magazine reporting, the lack of will on the part of municipal police in Tijuana to prevent crimes related to drug trafficking organizations was obvious given that by mid-2006 the police had aready mapped the areas with the highest homicides rates, and that the local government had installed a very high number of security cameras for surveillance.[21]  However, the difficulties in achieving inter-agency cooperation and coordination were not limited solely to the city of Tijuana or the state of Baja California. The examples provided above are illustrative of a larger coordination and cooperation problem among security forces and government agencies affecting all Mexican states.

Felipe Calderón Hinojosa assumed the Mexican Presidency on December 1, 2006 in the aftermath of a highly contested election. Although he ran on a platform of increasing security in Mexico and curbing the violence associated with drug trafficking organizations, during his election campaign Calderón never mentioned his intention of using the army to bring order to the country. The use of federal troops to ensure domestic security while cleaning and reforming—mainly—the local police ended up being one of the landmarks of Calderón’s administration.

At the same time, on his campaign trail, he let the electorate know of his intentions to purge the police forces of corrupt elements. In one of his last interviews at the end of June 2006 before the elections were held on July 2, 2006, Felipe Calderón the candidate promised that upon assuming the Presidency his government “would engage in a purge of the police corps, would create a Federal Agency against narco-trafficking, and would establish public ministries and specialized judges, better paid, better recruited, better watched over and protected to investigate, process, prosecute, sentence and execute the sentences of those involved with organized crime.”[22]

Accordingly, to improve security in Mexico, Felipe Calderón engaged in a multi-tier security strategy: adoption and implementation of new tactics and strategies to inflict major blows to criminal organizations, such as leadership decapitation; reform of the government institutions responsible to apprehend and sentence the traffickers—reform of the judiciary and of the police forces; and de facto changes in the personnel responsible with carrying out the law enforcement mission and corresponding judicial process by replacing the actors colluding with the drug trafficking organizations with a highly professionalized police and judiciary corps across all three levels of government.

Under the Calderón administration, his declaration of war against organized crime and his commitment to clean various segments of the security forces inadvertently led to a nadir in terms of coordination among security agencies across the three levels of government. Ironically, since the very beginning of his presidency, Calderón realized the coordination problems that plagued the various levels of the police and he proposed “dissolving the state and municipal police forces and creating a unitary national police force (…) to offer a unity of command (mando unico), and facilitate reform.”[23] Unfortunately, he was not able to gather the political capital needed to implement such a significant institutional restructuring that, moreover, required constitutional reform, but Calderón continued to try to find ways to bring coordination among the key agencies in charge of security and public safety.

Subsequently, he proposed the unification of the investigative and preventive forces within the federal police. But, once more, the Calderón administration was incapable to garner the congressional support necessary to pass the measure, and the most they could do was in mid-2009 to dissolve the existing investigation and preventive federal bodies (AFI and PFP), replace them with new ones. In the process, the administration transferred certain investigative functions to the new created agencies.[24]

Additionally, in the 2009 revision to the General Law of the National Public Security System, various measures related to police professionalization were included such as requirements that all states create “state trust control centers to provide ongoing vetting and certification of state and municipal officers.”[25] In the context of these measures, the administration “fired crooked cops by the hundreds, and hired new ones—rigorously vetted and college educated—by the thousands.”[26] The salaries of police officers were doubled, while at the same time “new standards were imposed and officers were subjected to extensive background checks.[27]

Besides these measures to professionalize the municipal and state police, and attempts to induce more coordination across the Federal Police, Calderón’s other security measures against organized crime backfired and resulted in more friction among security agencies across jurisdictional lines. He mobilized the Army and the Navy, security institutions perceived as the least corrupt, to temporarily replace and clean the municipal security agencies perceived as the most corrupt. Calderón’s approach disrupted the equilibrium on the ground. His declaration of war on narco-traffickers and their associates resulted in an overt and open battle not only against narco-traffickers, but also against the people on their payroll who were part of various branches of the government and who, in the interest of self-preservation, had every incentive to sabotage the administration’s efforts, sharpen the divide between various government agencies, and undermine the efforts to clean house. [28]

An empirical account of the difficulties faced by the Calderón administration to improve coordination across police agencies once it took office in December 2006, is provided by the failure of the “Plan Emergente Zona Costa.” Two weeks after the Presidential elections of July 2, 2006, the Federal government, the government of Baja California and the Town Hall of Tijuana announced their intent too cooperate under the banner of “Plan Emergente Zona Costa” to increase security in the city, and reduce the rate of homicides and kidnappings. At the same time, the agencies did not specify which of them was responsible for monitoring and control of which part of the city.[29] Thus, no less than two weeks after the implementation of the Plan, clashes were reported between the municipal police forces directed by the mayor Jorge Hank Rhon, and the Preventive State Police in charge of patrolling certain districts of Tijuana, as part of the coordination effort among municipal, state and federal forces to reduce crimes related to organized crime.[30]

In this context of poor coordination among security forces, the arrest in August 2006 of Francisco Javier Arellano Felix led to rising homicide levels in Tijuana in the fall of that same year. Hence, the Calderón administration responded by sending federal forces into Tijuana at the beginning of January 2007 as part of the “Joint Operation Against Drug Trafficking.” The operation was initially called “Operativo Tijuana,” but as it extended beyond to Tijuana and across the state of Baja California, its name was subsequently changed into “Operation Baja California.”

“Operation Baja California” brought together 3,296 officers of the Secretary of Defense, Navy, Federal Police/Secretariat of Public Security and the Office of the Attorney General of Mexico. The Secretariat of Public Security was responsible “of patrolling, intelligence and investigation as well as taking part in executing orders of arrests, searches and seizures,”[31] while AFI, the investigations arm of the Federal police was in charge of “tactical analysis, crime investigation, regional security and special operations.” [32]

Similar to “Operation Tijuana/Baja California” in terms of joint federal initiatives imposed from the Calderón administration on local and state levels, was “Joint Operation Chihuahua” initiated in March 2008. These two operations directed from the highest echelons of the federal government and involving joint coordination of several federal agencies in charge of security, came as a result of previous increases in levels of violence in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez due to inter-drug cartel rivalry and leadership decapitation. As mentioned previously in this essay, in August 2006, in Tijuana, Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, one of the organization’s capos and member of the Arellano Felix family who has direct control over the Tijuana cartel’s operations, was arrested on board of a boat in international waters, off the coast of Baja California. In subsequent months, starting with September 2006, the levels of violence in the Tijuana underworld significantly increased, mainly due to the battles among local narco-traffickers. The arrest of Francisco Javier Arellano Felix produced a temporary disequilibrium in the underworld, and given the characteristics of this highly unregulated environment, the main actors on the ground made recourse to violent means to reach a new equilibrium point and stabilize the system, mostly attempting to impose an outcome favorable to them.

This increase in the levels of violence prompted the reaction of the state and thus, “Operation Tijuana” was born. The presence of federal troops had an initial positive effect temporarily deterring the violence until an accommodation was reached between the existing actors (the narcos) and the incoming ones (the federal troops). Until both sides got a hold on the new reconfiguration of forces on the ground, an apparent calm and tempering of violence seemed to be in place. But as the lull before the storm, this calm was equally deceptive marking only a transition point to a higher level of violence, significantly exceeding the previous ones.

The additional increase in violence rendered the state more determined to respond with increasing kinetic pressure. In Tijuana, Julian Leyzaola, a former army officer, was named chief of municipal police at the end of December 2008, and given free hand to deal with the violence as he saw fit. At the same time, in Ciudad Juarez, more federal forces were sent into town as reinforcements in response to an identical upward trend in intentional homicides. Thus, between 2007 and 2011, in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez a vicious circle of violence seemed to be in place. The violence emanating from narco-traffickers generated kinetic responses on the part of the state. To these government actions, the narco-traffickers responded with even more violence, to which the state responded with even higher kinetic pressure. In this way, the violence went out of control and a “perverse effect” came into being: the measures supposed to quell the violence, bred more violence.

In the course of its fight against drug traffickers and their corrupt allies within the government, the Mexican state engaged in a purge of the police forces, which had also led to the victimization of innocent policemen, and to a further breakdown in coordination and cooperation across jurisdictional lines. Heriberto Garcia Garcia with the state commission on human rights issued a report in August 2010 “documenting accusations by former police officers who say they were tortured by Leyzaola” (…) “in his zeal to root out corruption and cleanse the ranks of the Tijuana police.” [33] Leyzaola denied the accusations of his oversight of “interrogations in which suspects were severely beaten, shocked and even suffocated,” and justified the harsh treatment some suspects might had been subjected to by the nature of the activities in which they were involved. “These criminals aren’t babies who can be handled, in his words, with feathers.” [34]

Unfortunately, the degree of anomie and anarchy on the ground had such a destabilizing impact on the security forces supposed to bring order and implement public safety, that it had led to a situation in which each individual—either part of municipal, state or federal forces—had to fend for himself. In certain instances, this environment in which impunity prevailed, pushed some individuals to surpass their legal attributions and abuse power to a higher degree than what was previously experienced in Mexico. In such instances, federal forces committed random acts of violence and extortion against civilians, acting with impunity and, at their turn, perpetrating the “state of impunity” created by the narco-traffickers. The military itself was not immune to such abuses. In certain situations, “soldiers have been caught protecting loads of narcotics,”[35] and members of the top military brass were arrested and “charged with being on a cartel payroll.”[36] These instances of corruption and impunity only intensified the Hobbesian-like environment of violence of all against all, and in this way, the institutional disconnect between the center and the “periphery” led to additional counter-productive outcomes and increased levels of violence.

Ultimately, in Ciudad Juarez in the aftermath of the deadly shooting in January 2010 of 16 teenagers at a private party by narco-traffickers, in a case of mistaken identity, and of the ulterior public statements made by Felipe Calderón that the shoot-out was a settlement of accounts among narcos, in March 2010 the state, realizing that the kinetic responses were futile, undertook a soft-power approach under the banner of operation “Todos Somos Juarez.” Although federal forces remained on the ground, in April 2010 the army was relieved from command and policing efforts were transferred to the federal police deployed into the city.

Despite the federal government’s efforts to respond and continuously adapt to the evolving security realities on the ground, the disconnect between the federal administration in Mexico City and the in-situ challenges faced by the local governments in both Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana, represents one of the issues that regularly come up in journalistic accounts as well as in this author’s interviews conducted with locals. Especially in Ciudad Juarez, the terrible acts of violence witnessed have led many local citizens and civil society groups to accuse the administration in Mexico City of being disconnected from the realities on the ground, not understanding how the country works and what it takes to reduce the levels of violence and stop the futile and arbitrary victimization of innocent civilians.

Last but not least, another factor very likely to have impeded the smooth coordination among the various government security agencies across all three bureaucratic levels is the federal structure itself. As other scholars and analysts have already discussed, the decentralized structure of the Mexican state allowed in the past the local and state bureaucracies to engage in corruption and collude with the narco-traffickers, and once the PRI lost its grip on national politics, the divisions within the government along administrative lines have only deepened. 

It can also be argued that the federal structure of the state and the division along administrative lines is what has actually allowed the preservation of integrity of some security agencies such as the Mexican Navy, as opposed to the extremely corrupt police forces operating at municipal level. These jurisdictional divisions ended up in de facto isolating those segments of the security forces that were corrupt from the “clean elements” and their temporary replacements in place while a new professionalized local police corps was being developed.

Consequently, it can be concluded that the federal structure played a dual role. On the one hand, traditionally it empowered local power brokers isolated from the federal center of power in Mexico City, and made corruption easier. On the other, it allowed a compartmentalization within the state security forces across jurisdictional lines that did not allow corruption to permeate the entire security body of the state.

Conclusions and Policy Recommendations

As Daniel Sabet argued: “The devil is in the implementation process.”[37] Implementation and on-the-ground-conditions when a policy is carried out do matter. Improved coordination of police forces across jurisdictions, as well as the strength of preventive police and their effectiveness in containing a breakout in violence upon the arrest, death or extradition of an organized crime leader, does make a difference in the upcoming extent of rivalry and brutality in which the drug trafficking organizations operating in a certain area can engage, and in the levels of violence that result.

In Mexico’s case, besides the cartel leadership decapitation strategy in place, the federal government also needs an effective domestic force in the territory capable of carrying out its mission at the following levels: mid-level cartel leadership apprehension/decapitation; prevention of violence outbreaks, especially in the aftermath of leadership decapitation missions; securing the population from drug traffickers, particularly at key moments in the execution of anti-organized crime operations and in the immediate aftermath when the population and core government players are susceptible to fall victims to retaliation activities emanating from the drug gangs; securing the population from other corrupt officers acting on behalf of the drug traffickers; training the federal, state and local police forces so that they do not engage in predatory or unethical behavior themselves.

Moreover, since February 2013, the current administration of Enrique Peña Nieto has been facing the challenge of rising self-defense forces throughout the country, and particularly in the state of Michoacán. The presence of the vigilantes only demonstrates the extent to which the domestic sovereignty of the country has deteriorated during the past administration. The escalating abuses in which the vigilantes themselves have engaged against the population they were supposed to have secured from the preying hands of the drug gangs, only emphasizes the on-going drama faced by the Mexican people who end up the victims of violence and abuse at the hands of those supposed to provide for their security, be they the federal forces, the local police, or the community self-defense forces. Hence, many villagers have been left with a very limited set of options: accept the abuses (e.g., extortion, looting, kidnapping, rape); join the bad guys; take up arms and fight; or flee leaving behind many abandoned villages and depopulated areas.

In the context of the abuses taking place, the Mexican government had to take action. The Peña Nieto administration tried several approaches when dealing with this problem, and the only one that could be realistically implemented has been the integration of the vigilantes into the Rural Defense Corps starting with late January 2014. Under the integration plan, the Rurales are supposed to coordinate their activities with the federal forces on the ground. This adds an extra layer to the already very complex and complicated issue of coordination and cooperation among security forces in Mexico. In this light, a thorough understanding of the lessons, fiascos and challenges faced by the Calderón administration and its predecessors is indispensable.

End Notes

I would like to thank Dr. Robert J. Bunker, SWJ El Centro Senior Fellow, in the preparation of this essay.

[1] “Fear and Loathing in Mexico: Narco-Alliances and Proxy Wars,” by Irina A. Chindea, Fletcher Security Review, Vol. I, Issue II, May 22, 2014,!chindea/c1l3f

[2] In Mexico, the Presidential mandate lasts six years without possibility of re-election. The six-year duration of the mandate is called “sexenio” in Mexican Spanish, and it will be used in this research as shorthand for and interchangeably with “mandate,” or “Presidential mandate.”

[3] Robert D. Putnam, “The Logic of Two-Level Games,” International Organization, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Summer, 1988), pp. 427-460.

[4] In this text, the terms drug trafficking organization (DTO), cartel, criminal group or organization, narco-trafficking group will be used interchangeably despite the conceptual limitation each of them encompasses given that the Mexican criminal organizations are not limiting their illicit activities to narco-trafficking, and are not actually engaging in price fixing behavior.

[5] In “Sharing Sovereignty: New Institutions for Collapsed and Failing States,” International Security, Vol. 29, No. 2, Fall 2004, pp. 85-120, Stephen D. Krasner proposes the following definition of domestic sovereignty: “Domestic sovereignty is rather a description of the nature of domestic authority structures and the extent to which they are able to control activities within a state’s boundaries. Ideally, authority structures would ensure a society that is peaceful, protects human rights, has a consultative mechanism, and honors a rule of law based on a shared understanding of justice.” Thus, the present research uses the term “domestic sovereignty” in the spirit of the definition proposed by Stephen Krasner, and considers it conceptually distinct from international legal sovereignty, and Westphalian sovereignty.

[6] “Fighting Irregular Fighters – Defeating Violent Non-State Actors,” by Robert J. Bunker, Parameters 43(4) Winter 2013-14, page 60, available at

[7] Chapter 5: A Profile of Police Forces in Mexico by Benjamin Nelson Reames in “Reforming the Administration of Justice in Mexico”

[8] “Mexico’s Drug War,” by Brianna Lee, a Council on Foreign Relations Report, March 5, 2014,

[9] “Mexico’s Drug War,” by Brianna Lee, a Council on Foreign Relations Report, March 5, 2014,

[10] “Fighting Irregular Fighters – Defeating Violent Non-State Actors,” by Robert J. Bunker, Parameters 43(4) Winter 2013-14, page 57, available at

[11] Ibid., page 59.

[12] Ibid., page 61.

[13] Testimony of Kevin L. Perkins and Anthony P. Placido, Assistant Director, Criminal Investigative Division and Assistant Administrator for Intelligence, Drug Enforcement Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation in front of the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, Washington, D.C., May 05, 2010

[14] “Mexico's Plan to Create a Paramilitary Force,” Stratfor Security Weekly, April 19, 2012 available at

[15] Snyder R, Duran-Martinez A (2009) “Does illegality breed violence? Drug trafficking and state-sponsored protection rackets.” Crime, Law, and Social Change 52:253–273

[16] “Reforming the Ranks: Drug-Related Violence and the Need For Police Reform in Mexico,” by Maureen Meyer, Associate, Washington Office on Latin America, Roger Atwood, Director of Communications, Washington Office on Latin America, June 29, 2007,

[17] Snyder R, Duran-Martinez A (2009) “Does illegality breed violence? Drug trafficking and state-sponsored protection rackets.” Crime, Law, and Social Change 52:253–273

[18] Chapter 5: A Profile of Police Forces in Mexico by Benjamin Nelson Reames in “Reforming the Administration of Justice in Mexico.” Page 117.

[19] “Reforming the Ranks: Drug-Related Violence and the Need For Police Reform in Mexico,” by Maureen Meyer, Associate, Washington Office on Latin America, Roger Atwood, Director of Communications, Washington Office on Latin America, June 29, 2007,

[21] Ibid.

[22] Translation of the author: “Avanzaríamos en un proceso de depuración integral de los cuerpos policíacos, se creará la Agencia Federal Contra el Narcotráfico, y estableceremos ministerios públicos y jueces especializados, mucho mejor pagados, mucho mejor seleccionados, mucho mejor vigilados y protegidos para investigar, procesar, enjuiciar, sentenciar y ejecutar las sentencias de quienes están en el crimen organizado”. Excerpt from weekly magazine Zeta, no. 1682, June 2006, “Ganaré elección: Calderón,ónElecciones.html

[23] Page 11, {Sabet, 2012 #464}

[24] Ibid.

[25] Sabet, 2010, page 15.  For municipal police, one measure included in the reform act concerns the development of “model police units of 100 officers who undergo “confidence control” testing, or vetting, which involves psychological and intelligence testing, drug-testing, medical examination, asset declarations and background checks, polygraph (lie-detector) test, and examinations on basic police knowledge and tactics.”

[26] “Mexicans see a losing battle in the war on crooked police,” by Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times, August 29, 2012,

[27] Ibid.

[28] “Fixing Mexico police becomes a priority,” by Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times, November 17, 2009,,0,6284386.story#axzz2ysMWAgmP

[29] Zeta, no. 1685, July 14-20, 2006, “Parches al plan de seguridad,

[30] Ibid.

[31] Borderland Beat: Operation Baja California. Link last accessed on August 16, 2013.

[32] Ibid.

[33]Tijuana Police Chief Battles Corruption,” transcript NPR “Morning Edition,” November 22, 2010.

[34] Ibid.

[35] “Mexico's Plan to Create a Paramilitary Force,” Stratfor Security Weekly, April 19, 2012 available at

[36] Ibid.

[37] “Police Reform in Mexico: The Challenge of Institutional Change,” by Julia Yansura, June 21, 2012, Inter-American Dialogue,


Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. Irina A. Chindea is a Political Scientist with the Washington D.C. office of the RAND Corporation. Irina's research interests focus on transnational illicit networks, irregular warfare, asymmetric threats, the nexus between finance and the activities of non-state armed groups, with a regional focus on Latin America and the Middle East. Irina has conducted extensive field research in Mexico,Colombia, El Salvador, and Canada for her doctoral dissertation on patterns of cooperation and conflict among criminal organizations. She holds a PhD in International Relations and an M.A. in Law and Diplomacy from The Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a B.Sc. in Business Administration from the Academy of Economics in Bucharest, Romania. Prior to joining RAND, she was a post-doctoral research fellow in the International Security Program at the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and a Visiting Assistant Professor with University at Albany (SUNY), where she taught classes on International Relations Theory, Comparative Foreign Policies, Homeland Security, and Research Methods.  Dr. Chindea is a Small Wars Journal-El Centro Fellow.