Small Wars Journal

Policy and Strategy in the New Drug War

Wed, 10/24/2012 - 5:30am

The recent targeting of two alleged Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives near Tres Marias underscores a shift in the character of the Mexican drug war. Increased American participation in the conflict will make Americans targets.  Moreover, the proposed establishment of a gendarmerie or paramilitary force marks a new stage in Mexico’s own internal strategy against the cartels. This unfolds amidst a shift in the internal cartel balance of power and the further internationalization of the drug war.

Understanding the “New” Drug War

Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón began the crackdown on Mexican drug cartels, we can understand the effects of Mexican policy as a confluence of several broad trends: militarization, internationalization, fractalization, and consolidation.

By involving the armed forces, Calderon responded to the inability of the Mexican local police to crush the effort. The chief problem with the effort was that the enemy’s strengths were truly multimodal: the cartels could achieve local dominance through their firepower and the selective use of Mexican political institutions they had captured for their own means. Carl von Clausewitz has noted that war is “politics by other means” and in war violence serves the purpose of policy. The political end state—the purging of cartels from Mexican institutions and the curtailment of their networks—demanded violence to serve politics but required political maneuver as well.

Mexico’s drug war is in large part an elite conflict born of the consequences of political transition, and any strategy that neglected the cartel role in the constitution of internal Mexican political space would be doomed to either political failure at worst or protracted war at best. The latter was exactly what occurred, as Calderón’s effort faltered at the local levels of implementation. Cartels frustrated the Mexican government’s efforts to tame their networks in the plazas that dominate the Mexican drug economy. Moreover, throwing the military at the cartels resulted in a severe cartel reaction fueling extreme hyper-violence, barbarization, symbolic violence, and attacks on journalists to shape the information space.

Cartels also responded to the challenge with their own militarization. In a new environment with fiercer competition from a now predatory state and rivals seeking to exploit gaps in the market, they turned their illicit capital towards acquiring heavy arsenals, command and control equipment, and armored vehicles for tactical mobility. Moreover, leaders optimized for warfare came to dominate cartel organizations as the “old guard” borne of a more peaceful time were shuffled aside. Cartels, in response to the challenge levied against them, became warmaking entities with concrete military capabilities.

Of course, the rapid pace of the drug war and the attrition it inflicted also caused cartels to shift their structure as well. Many broke apart, whereas others, like the Zetas, grew from humble roots to become transnational networks. Cartel leaders, though bound by common rituals, quasi-ideologies, and local backgrounds also constantly struggle for control of their own organizations. Prior to the death of ‘El Lazca’ the Zetas were reportedly experiencing an apparent large power struggle. In the aftermath, internal Zeta power may be consolidating; rival cartels may exploit the transition.

Two competing trends are seen in the battle for cartel dominance.  First, we see fractalization where cartels split into factions and smaller gangs fill the void in power.  Second, there is a rise in alliances or ‘megacarteles’ (mega-cartels) such as the Sinaloa Federation and the Zetas. The oligarchy of multiple competing cartels at the national level appears to be shifting to a bi-polar duopoly.  Should one bloc dominate after the battle between the Zetas and Sinaloa, the resulting uni-polar power structure would essentially result in a neo-feudal arrangement where a single narco-overlord would oversee a network of local tributary gangs.

The impact of cartel business has always been viewed as US centric. While the ultimate source of the profits is up North, the expansion of cartel base areas in Guatemala, Honduras and other Central American countries as well as links to Europe and West Africa make this a global concern. On the Mexican side, greater US military and intelligence involvement underscored the US’ desire to pursue an indirect strategy to help Mexico deal with a potentially lethal problem. The intensity of the drug war also loosened the traditional Mexican antipathy towards the United States, to the point where many Mexicans (especially in Northern Mexico) came to see American involvement as a net plus. This perception may be fleeting.

The Return of the PRI and Cartel Strategy

The return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is a sign of both continuity and change in the conflict. The Mexican public is weary of the war but does not necessarily support giving up. Rather, it is looking for a different strategy. The PRI does not–at least initially–tremendously differ from the National Action Party–PAN’s approach, save in one important aspect: it does not buy into Calderón’s idea of a theory of victory over the cartels. This reflects an erosion of public trust in institutions that has occurred as a result of the unfavorable cartel war, the capture of federal and local institutions by cartels, and the military’s own heavy-handed efforts. In fact, the PRI, like the PAN, neglected talking much about the drug war at all during the election campaign.

During the campaign, Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN) eschewed talk of the military role or even the large seizures characteristic of the Calderón era. The central political idea that prompted the drug war—a Mexico free of drug cartel capture of its institutions and political spaces—is gone. EPN has discussed instead creating a civilian gendarme force for local security, targeting small gangs, and other similar ideas. This, of course, does not mean that EPN will simply make a “pact” with drug cartels—a political, if not practical impossibility. Even if the PRI could strike a bargain with one or several cartels the result wouldn’t be a simple return to the status quo ante where the party and state had the upper hand in state-cartel relations and could dictate terms favorable to the state and moderated violence.  The cartels have gained too much relative power and control over turf and transactions to turn back the clock. But it does mean that the PRI is looking to moderate or stabilize the drug war, continuing previous policies while attempting to lower the political cost. An enhanced focus on ‘counter-violence’ strategies can be expected. As some Mexican analysts have noted, if Calderón had a faulty theory of victory, EPN has not articulated one.

There are long-term costs to protracted war without concurrent reform of political institutions and law enforcement systems. These costs are not only human, but also are political in nature. Erosion of public faith in institutions and the expansion of cartel power bases have had a destabilizing effect on the Mexican public sphere, as well as making efforts at establishing local security more difficult.

One wild card is the appointment of former Colombian national police chief Óscar Naranjo Trujillo as chief security advisor. While many analogies to Mexico and Colombia have been articulated, the configuration of government authority and local threats in both nations differ immensely. From one perspective, Naranjo could be a sign of the PRI’s commitment to continue to fight the cartels. But his appointment may also be more indicative of symbolism than resoluteness.

Contrary to some predictions, EPN has not curtailed American involvement. Indeed, one of the gradual trends of the last few years has been the deepening of American military involvement in the cartel wars. Such involvement, however, brings new risks. As in other areas in Latin America, the US is heavily involved in cooperation with Latin American law enforcement and military agencies. The cartels networks, however, are noting the presence of the US as an important actor in the war and could be testing American willingness to fight.

Attempting to kill intelligence operatives is one way to send a message that American involvement will have costs, but not one as potentially dangerous as targeted killings of American law enforcement officers on US soil. Mexico is not a permissive operational environment. Cartels can and will utilize their control of Mexican institutions—especially at state and municipal levels—strategically to frustrate American attempts at neutralizing their control.   Corruption, collusion, and confrontation will remain the key instruments of narcopolicy (narcopolítica).

Towards Strategy?

Strategy for the drug war must rest on strong assumptions. First, cartels are warmaking entities with substantial firepower, intelligence, and political clout.  Reducing violence as a strategy in order to create a new equilibrium will not in itself resolve the basic political dispute between a state and substate actors looking to seize control or manipulate the state’s legitimate and illegitimate institutions. Second, American involvement will not be ignored or regarded as neutral. Rather, cartels will seek to thwart American involvement while remaining careful to avoid undue escalation.

Lastly, the drug war will continue regardless of EPN’s election. The drug war has upset the delicate equilibrium that formerly existed between the state and organized crime. The Mexican public may be weary of war but still desires a crackdown against crime. The cartels themselves has changed and political accommodation is no longer possible. As the US draws down in Afghanistan, the struggle south of the border continues. 

About the Author(s)

Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at Small Wars Journal, CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.

Dr. John P. Sullivan was a career police officer. He is an honorably retired lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, specializing in emergency operations, transit policing, counterterrorism, and intelligence. He is currently an Instructor in the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California. Sullivan received a lifetime achievement award from the National Fusion Center Association in November 2018 for his contributions to the national network of intelligence fusion centers. He completed the CREATE Executive Program in Counter-Terrorism at the University of Southern California and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government from the College of William and Mary, a Master of Arts in Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis from the New School for Social Research, and a PhD from the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya). His doctoral thesis was “Mexico’s Drug War: Cartels, Gangs, Sovereignty and the Network State.” He can be reached at