Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

Mexico army's failures hamper drug war

Thursday, December 30, 2010 |

The army often relies on numbers over intelligence and falls back on time-worn tactics, such as highway checkpoints, of limited use against drug traffickers. The shortcomings alarm U.S. officials.



Mexican troops destroy more than 7 tons of illicit drugs in Ciudad Juarez,… (Alejandro Bringas, EPA)

By Tracy Wilkinson and Ken Ellingwood,
Los Angeles Times

Four years and 50,000 troops into President Felipe Calderon's drug war, the fighting has exposed severe limitations in the Mexican army's ability to wage unconventional warfare, tarnished its proud reputation and left the U.S. pointedly criticizing the force as "virtually blind" on the ground.

The army's shortcomings have complicated the government's struggle against the narcotics cartels, as the deadliest year of the war by far comes to a close.

Though long employed to destroy marijuana and poppy fields in the countryside, the army hadn't been trained for the type of operations needed to fight groups trafficking cocaine through border cities.

"The army has never worked in urban operations against drug trafficking, in urban cells," said Raul Benitez, a national security specialist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "It's the first time it is engaged in urban warfare. It has to learn."

Instead, the army often relies on numerical superiority over intelligence and has frequently fallen back on time-worn tactics, such as highway checkpoints, that are of limited use against drug traffickers, especially in cities.

Checkpoints have also been the scene of serious human rights violations, including deadly shootings of civilians. Allegations of abuse at the hands of the army, one of the most respected institutions in the country, have soared. Mexico's human rights commission this year received nearly double the number of complaints it had gotten in the previous three years combined.

The military has delivered important victories to the government by killing or capturing several senior cartel figures and confiscating large drug shipments. And the decision to put retired and active army officers in charge of police departments around the country has helped bring relative quiet to some violence-plagued cities, such as Tijuana.

But in places such as Ciudad Juarez, where Calderon has staked his political reputation, the death toll has skyrocketed since last year. Seven of every 10 stores have been forced to shut down as a result of extortion and threats, and nearly a quarter of a million people have fled the city in the last two years.

The failures have alarmed U.S. officials, who for more than a year have been training Mexican forces in counter-narcotics operations and who are footing a large part of the drug-war bill.

A series of secret diplomatic cables leaked recently revealed the United States' profound unease over Mexico's efforts, despite public assurances to the contrary, with stinging language criticizing the army as stymied by well-protected fugitive drug lords.

U.S. diplomats and Mexican intelligence officials say the Mexican military and police distrust each other, refuse to share intelligence and resist operating together, squandering important potential gains.

The Mexican army appears to have lost favor with U.S. officials who turn increasingly to the navy, whose special forces are more eager to work with the Americans and small enough in number to remain agile and less susceptible to corruption.

At the same time, however, the naval marines' small size confines them to limited commando operations taking out targeted cartel leaders or dismantling small cells, not the massive presence needed to rein in the most widespread violence and retake lost territory such as Juarez, the eastern border state of Tamaulipas or the Golden Triangle drug bastion where Durango, Chihuahua and Sinaloa states meet.

Not that the army has succeeded in those missions either.

"Mexicans are paying a high price … for a strategy that does not seem to have much impact," said Roderic Ai Camp, an expert on the Mexican military at Claremont McKenna College. "It is not reducing drug consumption in the U.S., it is not reducing drug-related income for the trafficking organizations, nor is it reducing their influence in other activities," such as kidnapping and people-smuggling.

"I don't see the army, or anyone else, winning this 'war' in the immediate future."

In the four years since Calderon launched an offensive against the cartels shortly after assuming office in December 2006, he has deployed more than 50,000 military troops, plus an estimated 30,000 federal police officers, to more than half of the country's 31 states.

In the diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks website and published in numerous newspapers, U.S. officials noted that the army's inability to contain violence in Ciudad Juarez represented a demoralizing failure. Troops were eventually pulled out of Juarez and replaced with federal police officers.

Calderon's strategy relies in large part on taking down capos and splintering their organizations. In the short term, however, that has often led to more bloodletting as the battles for turf and succession escalate.

U.S. officials, who are giving Mexico $1.4 billion as part of the Merida Initiative to fight cartels and shore up law enforcement, repeatedly emphasize that their relationship with Mexican forces, including training exercises and intelligence-sharing, is stronger than ever.

Instead of relying on the army, however, U.S. efforts have focused on revamping the police and providing assistance to the navy special forces.

As The Times reported a year ago when marines killed drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva, Washington has moved into an ever-tighter relationship with Mexican naval forces involving the exchange of real-time intelligence. In that Dec. 16, 2009, attack, U.S. officials supplied their Mexican counterparts with the precise location of Beltran Leyva, holed up in a luxurious apartment building in Cuernavaca. Beltran Leyva and four of his bodyguards died in the ensuing shootout.

What was unknown until the cables were leaked, however, is that the Americans gave that piece of intelligence to the army first, and the army refused to act. (The army did, however, kill Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel Villarreal, a top leader of the Sinaloa cartel, this summer in an upscale Guadalajara suburb.)

The navy "is well trained, well equipped and has shown itself capable of responding quickly to actionable intelligence," U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual wrote in a December 2009 cable. "Its success puts the army in the difficult position of explaining why it has been reluctant to act on good intelligence and conduct operations against high-level targets."

U.S. officials have found the navy a far more cooperative ally, describing its 2,000- to 3,000-strong commando forces as "willing, capable and ready." The army by contrast was viewed as slow and "risk averse."

The reasons are to be sought in the differing training, history and cultures of the two forces.

Army doctrine contains long lessons on the perceived expansionist ambitions of the United States, with the history of U.S. military interventions in Latin America a foremost topic. Consequently, the army has retained its long-standing wariness of the U.S., and that interferes with the intelligence-sharing central to the fight against drug cartels.

The navy, by contrast, is willing to share. It is a more goal-oriented force whose main task is interdiction at sea, a duty that fits more naturally with the work of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In addition to taking out Beltran Leyva, Mexican marines acting on U.S.-supplied information last month killed Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas Guillen, alias Tony the Storm, a major leader of the Gulf cartel.

The army appears to be keenly aware of its shortcomings and has expressed interest in changing the nature of its relationship with U.S. authorities. In another leaked cable, the army's top commander, Gen. Guillermo Galvan Galvan, requested more U.S. help and acknowledged the need for rapid-deployment units that can better act on intelligence.

He described frustrated efforts to capture Mexico's most wanted fugitive, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, saying the Sinaloa cartel kingpin was moving around among 10 to 15 locations and was surrounded by "security circles of up to 300 men" and a network of spies that "make launching capture operations difficult."

U.S. officials said the army, following the navy's lead, has requested special operations training "for the first time."

Galvan acknowledged the risk to his institution's prestige that comes with its involvement in the drug war. Still, Galvan said he was reconciled to what many here see as an ominous prospect: The army anticipates fighting this treacherous war "for the next seven to 10 years."

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10 Borderland Beat Comments:

Anonymous said...

It seems that the US government, now led by Barack Obama, is totally unsatisfied with the results of all that training of Mexican military done out there in Georgia at Fort Benning. Go figure? What has it all produced? The LA Times says a mess.

How long has this training of the Mexican military by the US military been going on, too, inquiring US tax payers might want to ask themselves? Well here is a link to a global security.orgg article that might give us a clue to just how long????

'...a training camp this specialty in the United States, which would be in the future, who would be responsible for the training of Mexican military parachutists. In April 1946 Second Captain Lopez Albarran Plutarch, was instructed to gather volunteers to integrate the new unit, were considered 170 officers and 190 elements of troops, which were selected 20 officers and 30 troops, who organized 2 groups, moved to Fort Benning, Georgia, USA (from Mexico!).'

http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/mexico/army-orbat-paracaidistas.htm

The LA Times article mistakenly leads us to think that all this training is of relatively recent origen, but it is not. It started way back in the times of the dinosaurs and the old time PRI regime!

'The failures have alarmed U.S. officials, who for more than a year have been training Mexican forces in counter-narcotics operations and who are footing a large part of the drug-war bill.'

No, this US training of Mexican military has been going on for far longer than just for a year, Folk. Heck though... US citizens don't need that money for the US but for butting into Mexican affairs, says all the big wig fat cats of the USA. Too bad so many US 'paupers' seem to want to agree.

Ernest1

Anonymous said...

Beyond the corruption, this 'broad and frontal attack strategy' would remind us north of the border, of our own failed strategy in Vietnam.
It is the identical doctrine of our US Army to this day. We defeated two standing armies in less than five years. German, and Japanese. Yet, we have been in Iraq and the Afghanistan
for ten years.....no victory in sight. My point being, the Mexican army is not alone in it's lack of capability to fight the 'urban insurrection'.. In a nutshell, it's tactically superior, and strategically inferior. You would think, someone smarter than us would have a solution.

Anonymous said...

I totally disagree with you serving in Iraq for two tours and in the Marines for four years total. We made ourselves into to great urban fighters. We are rebuilding countries there as well, there is not one similarity in what my father and seven uncles faced in Vietnam that you can compare to Iraq or Afghanistan. We don't use large number of boots on the ground anywhere even though in Mexico they will have a use. Everything is search and destroy or go through areas looking to draw fire from some bad guys then getting them. You have to remember as well Al Quieda in Iraq did not come to the party till a couple years after the war started. Then we dealt with Al quieda, Sadr, left over bathist and Iranian forces.So we not only trained ourselves to be great urban fighters we also trained ourselves in following non stop intelligence to get our guys. None of these tactics were used in Vietnam were not used in my granddads wars in WW2 or Korea. But to say first we have not won in Iraq is ridiculous we are leaving 50k troops there we did the same thing in Korea. Mexican Army is being trained right now by the US Army and Marines on urban fighting it does not come over night it takes awhile to become good at it. It relies completely on two small groups of two or three getting into the fire zone, then communicating by visual what is happening so that you can bring in more people in small groups. Eventually you have surrounded the area call in air support if needed block all exits and quickly get your target arrested or killed and get out of there letting others come in an secure the area. When you go neighborhood to neighborhood you send two guys walking beside a tank going through a neighborhood and one out front waiting till you hear something or see something or they fire on the front man then you open up on them from all angles or air support if needed then again get your target dead or alive and get the area secured. But in Mexico they will need large number of army to keep the areas secure and get the people taken care of. This is not your Vietnam and we can do this in Mexico and train them in Mexico to be good at this in 10 months bare minimum. We only started putting real intelligence in the country about four months ago and look how much success there has been, I am telling you right now these Want to be Cartels are women compared to what we have seen in Iraq. We will wipe the floor with them if they let us in there in no time. I am hoping we get our chance before these punks and junkies with guns get across our border in a large number.

Anonymous said...

So 'we' won in Iraq? Just what is it 'we' won, Jack? Rah! Rah! Rah!

'But to say first we have not won in Iraq is ridiculous.'

And your next point is pretty funny, Anonymous, since I just put a link of a globalsecurity.comm article on another thread talking about how the US was training Mexican troops all the way back in 1946.

'Mexican Army is being trained right now by the US Army and Marines on urban fighting it does not come over night it takes awhile to become good at it.'

That would make at least 64 years now that the US government has been training the Mexican army at Fort Benning in Georgia. I would hardly call that 'overnight'. Do you think that we will 'secure' the entire globe for our US super elites soon?

Ernest1

Anonymous said...

Mexico is a product of its own making
The politicians are to blame

Anonymous said...

I just got through reading a commentary about how a released wikileaks document showed the US paying money out to an 'opposition' grouping in Belarus that subsequently led a riot that thrashed the principle government building here this year post national elections recently held. Yet so many Americans (the overwhelming majority of them, it seems) want to delude themselves into totally believing that the US doesn't intervene into Mexican government affairs any or at all. It's really unbelievable!

There are actual cave dwelling fish out there who are less blind than most Americans keep themselves. In some ways, this is an almost childlike innocence of sorts, that most Americans hold in their views that Mexico is all 'independent' of US machinations. When will my paisanos begin to grow up?

Ernest1

Anonymous said...

Ernest , can u read? U missed what the dude was saying about the training in "urban" area combat, something new, not done over the last 64 years as u say. U know so little about armed warfare. Yet talk so much bs. Lol. Take it from a marine. Its a different type of fighting now than 64 years of training . LOL!!! funny though.

Anonymous said...

Sure it's all a different sort of fighting you say, Anonymous, yet it really isn't anything different at all, now is it?

What is the EXACT same thing is the US government training the troops of another country's reactionary government for them, is it not? And it happens to be the Mexican government yet again. You know... that country where most all our BB troopers want to tell us that the US government has nothing to do with intervening in Mexico's affairs???

Ernest1

Anonymous said...

That would make at least 64 years now that the US government has been training the Mexican army at Fort Benning in Georgia. I would hardly call that 'overnight'. Do you think that we will 'secure' the entire globe for our US super elites soon?

Read the Merida initiative before you comment on two totally different subjects by combining them together to make an absurd point. Mexico is not the size of the Globe is it. Iraq is not as large as Mexico but Iraq is a lot more dangerous then Mexico could ever think about. You will not see terrorist from other countries flooding into Mexico to help the Cartels. We let terrorist from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan etc to come over the borders to fight because we knew we could kill them and they would never be able to attack anyone again. Do you really know the numbers of terrorist fanatics we killed that were from other countries? I bet the numbers could possible come to 150,000 if not more there was a time when I was there that every dead enemy seemed to have an ID from some other country these were not people from Iraq.

Ermest comment:Sure it's all a different sort of fighting you say, Anonymous, yet it really isn't anything different at all, now is it?

Ernest if you do not know the difference in the way we fought in WW2 compared today then don't make another ridiculous comment. The methods we use now save civilian lives and military lives. Until we became involved in training for Urban warfare there was never a plan actually put in place period all we did in the other wars was make sure we had a 10:1 ration of boots on the ground compared to the enemy and we blanket bombed areas then sent 1000's of troops in there to kill everything. Now everything is precise as it can be and is set up to secure the people from danger once you get rid of the enemy so again Ernest if that is your real name before you make these remarks read up some.

Anonymous said...

What is the EXACT same thing is the US government training the troops of another country's reactionary government for them, is it not? And it happens to be the Mexican government yet again. You know... that country where most all our BB troopers want to tell us that the US government has nothing to do with intervening in Mexico's affairs???

Ernest1

Do you think Mexico does not dabble in our affairs. Just off the top of my head the Mexican government was trying to sue the state of Arizona for the bill 1070. Do you think our taxpayer paying for the education of illegals is intervening in our affairs. You need to do more reading than posting brother.

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