Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

Big Battle Brewing In Juarez

Friday, October 2, 2009 |

In 2007 the drug cartels started encouraging desertion in the Mexican Army. The army had proved to be the government's most formidable weapon against them, so the cartelistas began offering money to soldiers to desert. Undermining the military isn't the only reason. Soldiers have tactical skills the cartels can use, like knowing how to shoot weapons and at least the basics of small unit operations.

There is no evidence that the cartel's promised bribes are succeeding, other than boasts from Los Zetas (the Gulf cartel enforcers who increasingly act as a special paramilitary gang with connections throughout Mexico). The Zetas were formed by deserters from the elite Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFES), an airborne and airmobile outfit with special forces capabilities.


Desertion, however, is an old problem in Mexico and when you consider the statistics, it is a chronic problem. In the five year period before the cartel war kicked off (January 2002 through December 2006), the Ministry of Defense said that 140,000 troops deserted the military. That is around 2000 a month. The figure from January 2007 to mid-2009 is 48,000, or roughly 1500 a month. The armed forces has about 600,000 troops, have on active duty and the rest organized reserves.

Why desert?




According to one retired general, the reason is purely economic. A soldier basic salary is about $340 (US) a month, low in any standard.

The low pay and terrible living conditions are the major gripes. Counter-drug duty itself and frequent re-deployment from one drug conflict zone to another also crop up in the Mexican press as complaints from soldiers. Units are frequently moved from one area to another, to lower the possibility of corruption by a particular cartel. Soldiers also complain about corruption in the government. This ought to be a worry for the government.


The Mexican Army is highly respected by most of the citizens, in part because it is considered to be far less corrupt that other governmental institutions. Soldiers and many citizens come to believe the military's efforts against the drug cartels will be wasted because the government does not go after the drug kingpins themselves (ie, they are protected by corrupt political leaders). The government recognizes this, which is one reason it keeps insisting that it is fighting a “systemic war,” which includes judicial, financial, and political reform.

Many believe that the major problem facing the army today is the scores of soldiers that leave their ranks to join the cartels — a trend that has been on the rise since the early 1990s, when Mexico’s largest cartels began experiencing an unprecedented expansion. Even with a low-level of training, deserting soldiers bring with them a great deal of knowledge from the army.


Despite mounting evidence of corrupt army elements, this has not prompted any structural changes or incremental reforms to reverse this trend. As one source notes with irony: “Mexico is perhaps the only country in the world where the state knowingly recruits and trains personnel for its own enemy.”

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