A war is taking place in Mexico:
An interview with Dr. Robert J. Bunker
An interview with Dr. Robert J. Bunker
By Chris Covert
Some of the 122 digital and analog radios seized by the Mexican Army in Torreon, Coahuila this past Saturday.
Mexican security forces conducting Laguna Segura counternarcotics operations dismantled a sophisticated telecommunications network on Thursday in the Torreon, Coahuila metropolitan area, colloquially known as La Laguna.
The network used a long range radio, as well as networked laptop computers to communicate with aircraft and to control/monitor the movement of ground assets. Other equipment reportedly found included more than 120 separate telecommunications devices. The telecommunication center was operated by Los Zetas criminal drug gang, which used the data from the set up to monitor and evade security forces’ movements.
The operation appeared to be similar to another one which took place earlier in September when Mexican Naval Infantry troops seized several telecommmunications nodes also operated by Los Zetas, this time in Veracruz, Veracruz on the east coast of Mexico. That network was reportedly sophisticated enough that the transmissions were virtually undetectable.
The Laguna Segura counternarcotics operation, which was reinforced late last October, is apparently a more general attempt to gain federal and state government control. This is hoped to be achieved through the increased presence of federal security personnel and by coordinating routine security activities with Coahuila and Durango state police agents, as well as with municipal police agents in the cities of Torreon, Coahuila; Ciudad Lerdo, Durango and Gomez Palacio, Durango. In areas such as these, there patrols with a centralized Mexican Army operations center.
These two operations dismantled a telecommunications network, which seems to be indicative of an increasing sophistication Mexican drug cartels are using in their drug processing and shipping operations.
The higher level at which cartels now operate places them firmly in the rubric of a narco-insurgency, at least if you ask California professor Dr. Robert J. Bunker.
Dr. Robert J. Bunker is a California national security academic whose recent writings place him as one of the top experts in the field as an applied theorist with regard to “non-state threat groups”, “counter-threat strategies”, “future war/conflict”, and other advanced concepts concerning national security.
His most recent contribution to the growing national debate on border security and the threat Mexican drug cartels pose to the national security of the United States came last September 13 when he gave testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. His testimony was about the Merida Initiative, which is the US effort to provide support to Mexico’s security apparatus in fighting the drug cartels in Mexico.
It is Professor Bunker’s belief that the violence and much of the growing sophistication Mexican drug cartels have demonstrated in recent years show that the cartels are slowly evolving from organized crime to something more sinister and harder to deal with, than simple bands of thugs selling drugs to Americans.
His belief is bolstered by his contention that cartels are increasingly using warmaking means, such as telecommunications and the use of weapons heavier than small arms.
In an interview published in the Mexican leftist weekly, Dr. Bunker reiterated his contention that cartels are a growing insurgency problem within Mexico which directly threatens the US southern border.
This writer wanted to get Dr. Bunker’s views on those very issues through an email correspondence.
What would you say to critics who say you are trying to conflate normal Mexican organized crime operations to an actual insurgency, that you are trying to make one set of circumstances fit another without any logical nexus?
To be candid, I think we have two levels of critics. One is comprised of those at the basic knowledge level— internet trolls full of malice and readers with just enough knowledge to get themselves in trouble. I basically ignore that group— I don’t want to hear what a Maoist insurgency is and how the cartels do not fit its traditional patterns.
The second level of critics is composed of the informed public (with deeper knowledge of the topic), some military/law enforcement readers, and those from the policy and academic communities. The toughest critics come from the last group— and in fact the debates have already started in the academic/policy circles. Dr. Paul Rexton Kan in the Summer 2011 issue of Parameters put Barry McCaffrey, Hal Brands, Hillary Clinton, Max Manwaring, and yours truly in his theoretical gun sights.
His basic argument is that ‘high intensity crime’ rather than narco-insurgency or narco-terrorism is taking place in Mexico.
I've already responded— in a sense— with another edited volume of Small Wars & Insurgencies/Routledge book coming out on ‘Criminal Insurgencies in Mexico and the Americas’. John Sullivan and I have an important theoretical writeup on new forms of insurgency— criminal and spiritual as they pertain to the gangs and cartels— in that work.
However, I have recently decided, due to Kan’s Parameters essay, that I’m going to have to do a comparative analysis of ‘high intensity crime’ vs ‘criminal insurgencies’ now as one response to the critics. To be fair to Dr. Kan, he is part of the El Centro program standing at Small Wars Journal in a few weeks— we want his differing viewpoint included as we foster open scholarly debate on what is going on in Mexico.
This all might sound like splitting hairs but part of the solution— or in this case mitigation of the threat— is to accurately define it so that we can properly respond to it. We are back into that “is it crime or war” debate that has been going on for over a decade now.
The US Army underwent a similar debate with the emergence of OOTW (Operations Other Than War) back in the mid-1990s. Not to show my age, but I was actively involved in that debate too. Back then, the US Army thinkers just couldn’t accept non-state groups were waging war— only states were allowed to do that.
In one of your articles at Small Wars Journal, you write “The cartels then sought in the various towns and cities to suppress and co-opt information produced and distributed by journalists/reporters and their employers.” That passage would lead the reader to think that that cartel information offensive was planned from the start. How do you convince a reader that is the case? And how significant is it that cartels have planned information operations from the start.
If the readers looked at background analytical documents, such as Lisa Campbell’s operational assessment of Los Zetas— specifically the operations and intelligence composition figures [See Narcos Over the Border, pp. 58-59] when they were allied to the Gulf Cartel— they will see counterintelligence and deception (psychological warfare) organizational components identified.
The other cartels may have taken a more haphazard approach, though, as the La Familia and splinter Los Caballeros Templarios groups have proven adept at winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of indigenous populations in Michoacan via their own propaganda efforts.
The free press in Mexico has long been suppressed when reporting on the drug trade due to past PRI (and elite) complicity, profit taking, and collaboration with the initial cartels. Los Zetas, and later the Guatemalan Kaibiles, coming into this has made it even worse. They initially ushered in special operations planning into the decision making process for the Gulf Cartel— info ops thus became a planning component. This required the other cartels to acquire their own capabilities just as we have seen with the ‘arms race’ that has been taking place with the deployment of cartel enforcers increasingly found to have military grade weaponry.
I think cartel info ops have evolved over time along with the Mexican cartels, which are about two-and-a-half decades old, they definitely did not have them day one with some sort of grand plan. Information operations is also a broad concept— what is possibly even more significant is that different levels of these operations exist and the various Mexican cartels seem adept at different levels.
It could be argued that the Sinaloa cartel focuses on strategic level info ops issues while some of the other cartels do not. This was evident as early as the 1990s— but very little has been written on it— when car bombs were being directed against the Sinaloa cartel by the Arellano Félix (Tijuana) cartel and the Sinaloa cartel did not retaliate in kind.
Blog del Narco has had technical problems with Google in the past that wound up being attributed to sloppiness by Google. If Blog del Narco's problems are not under that category, does their current travails suggest Los Zetas have some influence with unidentified individuals in Google?
I’m going to have to go with the sloppiness/too much network traffic explanation unless Google does not want Blog del Narco associated with it and therefore the technical service provided might not be considered a priority. Google is a business and the controversy generated by hosting Blog del Narco might represent a minor headache via the bad press it provides.
Blog del Narco also gets the service it pays for and has been doing things on the cheap. This is all only speculation however— but Blog del Narco has since migrated to another web site now and mirrored sites are causing some confusion. I don’t see Los Zetas having any influence on unidentified individuals or embedding ‘agent provocateurs’ at Google. Google has its own unique corporate culture that is pretty alien to outside groups— especially Los Zetas.
Would it surprise you to learn that Blog del Narco has in the past been frequented by Mexican narcotraffickers? And that the identity of the bloggers are an open secret in one of the cities in Nuevo Leon?
Not your first statement. The site is open and anonymous media content (pictures/video links/text) is sent in all the time. No doubt the Mexican narcotraffickers are providing some of the content directly to the site to settle old scores, set up competitors and others who stand in their way, further their own agendas, and facilitate components of their info ops plans.
I’m sure many of the traffickers are also viewing the site to see how so and so was killed and to hear ‘shop talk’ about current incidents of interest.
The second statement did surprise me. If accurate, it would mean those bloggers are either protected or allied to one of the competing cartels. I have trouble with the cartels viewing the bloggers as benign and just leaving them alone in a city like that once they have been identified— that would appear to be an anomaly.
You mentioned in your SWJ Strategic Assessment #5 about the current violence visited on Mexican bloggers in Nuevo Lardo, which is completely under the control of Los Zetas’ Z40, Michael Trevino. Why would this organization go to such lengths to kill free press in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, when the press in Juarez is actually vigorous and critical in that environment?
If we can agree that Nuevo Laredo is a Los Zetas controlled (criminal) city, it would make sense for them to ensure that the press is not free but instead becomes an attribute of cartel political authority. The press would print the stories they wanted printed and leave out the stories that should not be printed— if an event or incident is not reported on as far as the outside world and then as far as most of the city itself is concerned it effectively never took place.
Similarly, events and incidents that never took place can be made to take place if reported on. Having the ability to manipulate the free press represents another attribute of power like having lots of money, gunmen, and corrupt officials in your back pocket.
Juarez is a contested city— between warring cartel and gang factions and democratic governance— the federal government is actively trying to turn it around. Thus the press in Juarez has not been turned or co-opted and coerced by the authority of any one cartel. The implications of course are horrid things could be taking place in a fully cartel controlled city— like femicide for sport and pleasure— and the rest of the world would have no idea such atrocities are taking place.
How likely in your estimation is it that the vigilante organization Matazetas is in fact supported and funded by the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels, as are a number of smaller subgroups currently operating in Jalisco and Zacatecas states?
I put it at a high certainty that the ‘Zeta killers’ paramilitary death squads are tied into the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels. They could be led by their operatives, composed of apolitical mercenary groups (contract killers), and/or also could include the involvement of big business and other elite interests. It reminds me, on one level, of the old death squads in Colombia targeting Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel— they were called Los Pepes (an acronym in English for ‘people persecuted by Pablo Escobar’).
The question that keeps getting kicked around, without resolution, is does any Mexican government linkages to these groups exist. Currently, to my knowledge none have been shown conclusively to exist. Many have said the cartel wars in Mexico are coming down to two major blocs— Los Zetas vs Sinaloa— so the emergence of the Matazetas is probably not that surprising.
We should wonder at what point some sort of ‘Matasinaloa’ group might arise in Culiacán— but then, when the Zetas stood up for the Gulf Cartel they were initially pretty much deployed as paramilitary death squads. So maybe, in this case, what goes around comes around in the conflicts taking place between the warring cartels.
I have read Mexican news reports that that Sinaloa cartel has moved the bulk of its growing and processing facilities to South America; that much of their drug growing and processing operations in the western half of Mexico, what is left, are being farmed out to smaller independent groups.
I have not seen these reports. Also without fully researching this question I’m not sure what to think of them. We are getting into specific drug commodities— marijuana, heroin (black tar), and cocaine— being grown, processed, transported, and distributed (whole sale and retail) by a specific cartel with this line of inquiry.
Shooting from the hip I can’t see marijuana farming being relocated to South America for starter so maybe that is the smaller independent group involvement mentioned.
The cocaine is already coming from South America and is being processed down there, and in some instances, in Central America.
The heroin would also be problematic though I don’t know the growing potential of heroin poppies in regions of South America.
We do know that the Mexican cartels are distributing high profit drugs— like cocaine— into Europe via West Africa. So, a Sinaloa cartel presence already exists down in that region to logistically support European market sales.
Methamphetamine, manufactured rather than grown, also has to be considered now that the Sinaloa cartel has moved into the market once dominated by La Familia. It’s far better to manufacture in Sinaloan areas of control in Mexico, but since doses in bulk don’t take up huge space, establishing manufacturing capabilities in safe havens in Central and South America is at least plausible.
In your interview with Proceso, you said that shifting strategic priorities will eventually lead the US to consider direct military action in Mexico against the cartels. Do you see the cartels as having an actual political end game such as control of Mexico as a narco state? Would a fractured state with weak control and lack of political authority provide preferable operating conditions for the cartels?
Nowhere in the Proceso interview did I state that “shifting strategic priorities will eventually lead the US to consider direct military action in Mexico against the cartels.” Possibility this interpretation was due to problems in the English to Spanish translation of the interview printed at Proceso but the actual English response found at Small Wars Journal (http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/mexican-cartel-strategic-note-no-7) was far more nuanced. We can make the Mexican cartels a ‘strategic priority’ without direct military action— this is not an all or nothing deal regarding US boots on the ground and targeted killing of insurgents like in Afghanistan.
Rather, we should support the Mexican governmental effort indirectly and via operational support (intelligence, targeting, campaign planning, et al.) and other aid.
Quite frankly, given increasing US debt and declining military budgets, we need to do things on the cheap (relatively) and smarter than we have done so in the past. As far as a cartel political end game, a lot of what has happened has been de facto political control taking place— the criminal insurgencies evolved over time down this path. The cartels would, and do flourish when governmental political control is weak and the locals are co-opted and coerced (that old silver and lead deal) into accepting cartel authority. For a cartel to basically control a city or town would provide them with total ‘impunity’ and allow them to do what they wanted.
In some areas in the northern Mexican sierras, cartels have virtual control and where they do have control they act like feudal lords. Would that be a template for cartel governance nationally? Would that not be a return to the days before the 1910 revolution?
Acting like a feudal lord, is, well vulgar and blatant. Now you can get away with such activities in smaller villages and towns— everyone is cowered into submission and those who are left probably work for the cartel anyway or profit indirectly via a relative or family member. Also no press exists and the police force have either quit en masse or are really cartel enforcers just wearing local police uniforms.
Larger cities are trickier, although doable, but the cartel leadership (plaza boss) would be more of a shadowy figure. On the other hand, if they can wear the dual hats of governmental authority (like a local Army commander) and local cartel leader, it probably does not get better than that.
Seems like this was more of the old PRI model, prior to the rise of the PAN political victories, and back in the days when the Federal government and the cartels collaborated with each other to allow for mutual profiting and the suppression of drug related violence.
The old rules and alliances are long gone and thus quite a few different futures may now come about in Mexico. Cartel political authority looks differently— like a patchwork quilt— wherever it takes root. Conceivably, some of these ‘areas of impunity’ will be a return back to the pre-1910 era— we could even see (and have seen to a limited extent already) instances of slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, and human sacrifice taking place.
You would agree that direct US military action against cartels would be a game changer. One of the possible reactions of cartel would be direct violent actions against minor officials in the US, do you agree? How about civil war or even revolution?
That would be a game changer and would not take place except in a situation where Mexico literally imploded. Mexico is nowhere near state-failure and actually does quite well on the various state indexes. Instead, what is happening is that it is losing control over parts of its sovereign territories—towns, cities, and regions— which are de facto under criminal (cartel/gang) political authority.
The city might have Mexican flags everywhere, post offices and other elements of state power, but it is a façade—the criminals are calling the shots in those areas. This is like cancerous tumors with their roots embedded into a healthy host— at some point the two blend together. We are seeing this with the blurring of what is legitimate and what is illegitimate in the ‘areas of impunity’ in Mexico.
By definition, the usage of the term ‘criminal insurgency’ implies that civil war and revolution-- of a politicized criminal kind— is taking place. If US military assets directly targeted cartel assets— to destroy and kill them— the inhibition of the cartels to strike back against the US (including minor officials) would likely be removed. Thus, the US does not want to engage in direct military action against the cartels— nor do the cartels want such engagement or, for that matter, does the Mexican state.
In your opinion, what would be the one thing the US government could do that could bring the violence down in Mexico, especially in northern Mexico?
Legalize drugs— but that is not going to happen for a whole host of reasons (nor did I say I advocated it!)— and, in the case of Los Zetas and some of the other cartel and gang groups, that act still would not take care of the overall threat.
Many of the drug cartels have morphed into polyglot criminal organizations involved in human trafficking and slavery, kidnapping, extortion, street taxation, bulk commodities theft (including petroleum), counterfeiting, and pornography and prostitution.
The basic issue now goes way beyond ‘the war on drugs’ and gets us into a situation where Mexico is fighting armed organizations with multiple illicit revenue streams. These revenue streams are growing in proportion to the initial drug revenue streams, mind you.
Street taxation is a critical concern because, in many cases, the cartels not the state get this revenue source and taxation itself is a state function. In that case, one extra peso to the cartels is one less peso to the Mexican government— that is a very bad (zero sum) situation. I’m not sure also if our sole objective is to get the violence down in Mexico.
Would we rather have a cartel controlled criminal (narco) city with a low death rate or a contested city (part Mexican government controlled and part narco controlled) with a high death rate? The common man or women in the street might go with the low death rate but the tradeoff is the loss of sovereign Mexican lands to these armed criminal groups.
Getting back to your question, I don’t think the US government can do any one thing to bring the violence down in Mexico nor should it. A war is taking place in Mexico between the state and violent armed organizations, although very few people want to admit it, and, historically, lots of people die in wars. The US role should be to support the Mexican government, and its people, against these violent armed organizations who represent competitors that threaten the very integrity of the state.
Chris Covert writes on the Mexican drug war and Mexican national politics for Rantburg.com