War on the Southern Border: The Mexican Drug Cartels



On Sunday, March 14th two Americans were shot in a drive by shooting in the city of Ciudad Juarez which lies on the border between Mexico and United States. This violence is just one of many examples of the so called “Mexican Drug War” that is currently ongoing just south of the United States border. This represents one of the first national interests at play, the need for the United States to protect its citizens both at home and abroad. There have been a number of attacks that have crossed the border. In 2009 there were grenade attacks carried out in south Texas by the Zetas, a paramilitary organization within Mexico. This issue is complicated by the fact that the United States shares an almost 2,000 mile border with Mexico.

The second interest which ties into all of the others is the desire of the United States to have full control of their southern border. This touches on the root interest of all nations to have sovereign control over their territory.

The third interest at play is the United States restriction over mind altering substances which it has declared illegal. In the United States marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines are all classified as illegal, and it has made the control and eradication of these substances a clear objective. Columbia, a chief producer of cocaine is being provided $500 million USD to continue programs to eliminate production and capture producers. The United States wishes to promote a society in which these substances are not used by anyone, and as such considers it high enough of a priority to use militaristic and economic tools of power to achieve those ends. As such these are the three most prevalent interests of the United States relating to the Mexican Drug war.

The actors within Mexico:

The country of Mexico itself is a major source of marijuana and heroin, as well as a conduit for South American cocaine running. Mexico’s drug production capacity is quite large, with the ability to produce 18 metric tons of pure heroin annually, as well as an additional 50 metric tons of “black tar” heroin. Mexico’s marijuana production capacity falls just shy of 16,000 metric tons annually. Clearly it is not the Mexican government doing the running, so then who are the major actors within Mexico involved with the drug trade and violence.
Already mentioned are Los Zetas. They are a paramilitary organization originally hired to act as a private army for the Gulf Cartel in the late 1990’s. Members were initially recruited out of the Mexican Army’s airborne elite “Gafes” enticed by the offer of significantly better pay than they were receiving from the Mexican government. There were approximately 30 individuals who deserted. However the original members turned around and set up training camps to increase their numbers. It is estimated that Los Zetas number somewhere in the vicinity of 200 strong. These members constitute the core of the group. It is also estimated that there are approximately 2000 extended members. The core members constitute the original membership, and replacements that have been trained in the same special combat operations, where as the extended members constitute auxiliary forces, family members, contractors and support personnel. Their headquarters are in Nuevo Laredo and operate mostly within the northern and eastern portion of Mexico. There is a certain level of redundancy built into the organization, as the Gulf Cartel also has a headquarters in Matamoros, 120 miles away. The United States government considered both Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel if not the same entity, one that is closely aligned. However this has changed in recent months with the two beginning to war against each other for territory. Geographically this region borders the southeast most region of Texas and is one of their chief smuggling routes into the US.
The military capabilities of Los Zetas are significant. In the mid 1990’s the Gafes, which are the Mexican army airborne elites were trained by foreign specialists which included American, French, and Israeli instructors. This instruction gave the original members significant advantage over Mexican police and regular army when it comes to combat operations.
In weapons and armaments they are well armed with small arms and light weapons which include and are not limited to AR-15 and AK-47 assault rifles, 50mm machine guns, 40mm grenade launchers, surface to air missiles and the use of limited air support via helicopters, primarily for insertion. They also have access to other non-weapon hardware as well. Los Zetas frequently use night vision equipment, bullet proof vests, and armored vehicles. They maintain the ability to wiretap phone lines at will and use encrypted radios with rolling codes. They are the best armed and equipped drug cartel among the various groups residing in Mexico.
There also should be a consideration of operational capability, and the variance between operations by Los Zetas in Mexico and their operations within the United States. Within Mexico, they engage on various levels of conflict. In some areas they operate as low as organized crime, and in others clearly in low intensity conflict. They are willing to shift modes of operation and the level of violence along with it to suit their needs and based on how easily they can control territory. Within the US, Los Zetas contracts to local gangs, and this is only confirmed when sting operations net arrests. They do not operate out in the open, they engage in quiet kidnappings and assassinations.
Then the question becomes a matter of intent for Los Zetas. Despite starting as a paramilitary organization, it has evolved into its own drug cartel just like many others. As such they have attempted to expand their markets for drug shipments and trafficking within America and Mexico. There is a marked expansion of Los Zetas activities, from simply enforcing from the Gulf cartel to running their own drugs, to then trafficking weapons and humans, kidnapping for ransom, and assassinations for hire. It is believed that they not only want to expand operations, but the territory in which they operate and have under their control. It is difficult to assess the intents of a criminal organization, though safe to assume that it has interests like any other organization in self preservation, and expansion. It is clear however that out of all of the various cartels and enforcer groups operating within Mexico today, Los Zetas is both the largest threat to United States interests, and representative of the threat that all the drug cartels represent.
The second actor that should be examined is the Sinaloa Cartel. As recently as April 2010, the Sinaloa Cartel had taken control of the border city of Juarez away from the Juarez Cartel. Juarez is the chief drug shipping corridor across the border from El Paso, Texas. Traditionally the Sinaloa Cartel has controlled the western portion of Mexico, leaving the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas to control the eastern portion. The Sinaloa’s also established their own enforcer gang, very similar to the establishment of Los Zetas. This group known as Los Negros has less military capabilities than the Zetas. They are similarly armed, using small arms and light weapons procured from around the world.
In February of 2009, the United States government managed to arrest 750 members of the Sinaloa cartel in Operation Xcellerator. Despite this mass blow, the Sinaloa cartel still maintains strong operation capacity both within Mexico and the United States.
Both of these cartels represent the same threat to the United States interests, and share very similar capabilities in regards to drug and weapon trafficking. The capability to smuggle weapons, drugs, and money across the border must also be examined. The cartels prefer to use ports of entry to smuggle their goods, as these border crossings are heavily trafficked with massive amounts of shipping, and thus the chaos makes for an easy way to bypass border security. One of the preferred routes is the Juarez-El Paso port of entry, thus the cause for the cartel fighting for control on the Mexican side of the border. The cartels will simply load semi-haulers filled with cocaine, heroin and marijuana and take it right across the border at this crossing into El Paso where warehouses wait to act as distribution centers.

Key Objectives:

In regards to this threat there are three main objectives that should be addressed and achieved. The first is to begin to eradicate production of these illegal substances to reduce the supply available for the market. It works out to simply if you reduce the supply, you reduce the amount that can be consumed, and have effectively begun eliminating the ability of the drug cartels to move product. The second objective is to secure the southern American border to prevent the illegal smuggling of goods and people, while still allowing for legitimate business to cross in the various ports of entry. There are 42 border crossing points between the United States and Mexico, many of which are on state and interstate routes. These must be adequately secured to prevent the inflow of illegal drugs. The third and final objective is outright elimination of the cartels themselves. It is important to note that this will only be effective as long as the first two objectives are achieved. Once effective control over the ports of entry and destruction of the ability to grow the crops has occurred, then elimination of the cartels will have an effect. Otherwise elimination of one cartel will just give room for another to seize territory and continue where the previous left off.

America’s Response:

The United States has already begun to combat the cartels and the threat they pose via the Merida Initiative that was begun in 2008. The initiative is a primarily economic and informational program, where the United States is providing $450 million USD to Mexico in 2010 to combat the drug cartels. Use of this massive economic aid has not stemmed the flow of drugs into the United States. Reliance on Mexican counter-narcotics or Mexican military to handle the issue has not worked, thus the focus should be shifted from using the Mexican government to combat the cartels. Instead funds sent to the Mexican government should be specifically used to eradicate growing fields. Any further financial aid delivered to Mexico must be earmarked specifically for programs in identifying and eliminating growing fields, leave cartel eradication to the United States.
If the United States it is going to effectively combat the growing drug problem, it needs to begin applying more military pressure on the drug cartels. As explained these cartels are not simply drug organizations, but rather paramilitaries and as such, a shift must take place from traditional crime fighting and counter-narcotics to special operations and conventional military use.
The first aspect of military power that should be employed in Mexico is the use of Predator drones for reconnaissance purposes, both on the United States border, and within Mexico as well. Drone patrols will be used in border areas that have high levels of illegal entry and suspected drug trafficking. It will require cooperation between United States Air Force, the Air National Guard and Army National Guard units as well as local law enforcement officials. It is an estimated $4.5 million USD per drone to produce. Procurements will need to be made for Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California with an additional five drones per state. This will result in an estimated cost of $90 million. These drones can be used to patrol the border and spot illegal crossings, as well as scope out Mexican territory and easily hunt for marijuana and opium fields. Intelligence gathered from these missions can be then delivered to Mexican authorities. The drones allow us to achieve both the first and second key objectives, of eradicating the source of the drugs, as well as securing the border.
As well as the use of Predator Drones for patrol and reconnaissance there is a need for regular Army soldiers to be stationed along the US/Mexican border. A minimum of an additional army division is required to help stem the tide of smugglers. This division could be supplemented with an army National Guard division. The primary purpose of these soldiers would to work in conjunction with the Border Patrol and capture individuals crossing the border illegally. They would also provide additional personnel at the Ports of Entry for inspections and detection procedures to try and catch drug shipments as they are coming in from Mexico.
These first policies only deal with the securing of the border and the beginning of the eradication of the fields. As the Mexican government has been completely incapable of dealing with these cartels it is time the United States take a more active role in their outright elimination. In that pursuit the President will need to redirect the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency to begin using agents of the Clandestine services to identify the cartels and their members, infiltrate them and where possible eliminate high ranking members.
To combat the paramilitary Los Zetas and its counterparts in other cartels, the United States will need to employ special operatives under the Special Command, specifically the employment of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta. These units are specifically tasked with counter-terrorism purposes. Due to their training, they are uniquely suited for rapid response missions to strike at cartels.
There are some clear downsides to the heavy use of military power just south of the border. The first is that by militarizing the US-Mexican border, there will be criticism from the Mexican government. As demonstrated whenever the United States or one of the various border States pass legislation having to do with border control, there will be an outcry from the Mexican President. In the same vein public opinion is likely to decrease among the Hispanic population. We have seen this when states have passed immigration control legislation to try and reduce the problems of drug runners and illegal immigrants within their own borders. This political damage could be very damaging during the midterm elections as such it would be best to wait to implement this until after they are over.
With any sort of military action there are the inherent risks of casualties. However the use of classified special operatives and CIA special agents should keep it out of the public eye leaving the cost at strictly human, taking the political element out of it. The benefits from taking this route are clear. It allows for the dismantling of the cartels without the risk of public official corruption that has been so rampant within the Mexican government. It will put the cartels on the defensive and hinder their ability to transport drugs. With the cartels out of the way, the Mexican government can re-establish control over its own territory.

Are there any other options?

We have seen with the Merida Initiative the use of primarily economic aid to Mexico and information sharing. We have not seen a substantial drop in either the drug trafficking or the violence as a result. Each year the United States is spending over $400 million in support of Mexico to achieve no noticeable gains. If we cannot reasonably expect the Mexican government to take care of its own territory we should take care of it for them.
As such it has fallen to the use of military power then to end this issue. If the situation has not improved within five years of initial implementation, it may then fall to the United States to take on a full scale counter-insurgency within the Mexican borders to counter-act Los Zetas and the other cartels. After assessing Los Zetas and Sinaloa Cartel we can draw parallels to the militias that have at one point or another run around Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States should then consider the Mexican government to either be failed, or in severe danger of failing and intervene using large quantities of U.S. troops to establish and maintain effective counter insurgencies in regions currently held by the cartels.

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