George W. Grayson is the Class of 1938 Professor of Government at the College of William & Mary, an associate scholar at FPRI and a senior associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. The New York-based Foreign Policy Association has recently published his latest book, Mexico’s Struggle with Drugs and Thugs.
The corruption of federal, state, and municipal law-enforcement agencies has forced President Felipe Calderon to place the Army and Navy in the forefront of his local rendition of the War on Drugs. Mexico’s cartels are therefore increasingly targeting active duty and retired members of the armed forces. While by no means alone, Los Zetas, whose leadership sprang from the elite Special Airborne Group (GAFEs) trained by U.S. and other foreign instructors, have spearheaded the attack on military personnel.1
In December 2008, Los Zetas captured and executed eight Army officers and enlisted men in Guerrero, a violence-torn, impoverished southern state where a “dual sovereignty” exists between the elected government and narco-criminals. Pictures of the decapitated cadavers lying side-by-side flashed around the world on television and YouTube. In February 2009, the paramilitaries killed retired Brigadier General Mauro Enrique Tello Quinones. They broke his arms and legs before driving him into the jungle and executing him; his corpse and those of two aides were discovered two days after the mayor of Cancun hired Tello Quinones to form a swat team to fight such criminals.2
Tabasco’s Governor Andres Granier has had trouble keeping military security chiefs because of threats from the underworld. Retired Major Sergio Lopez Uribe is the fourth ex-member of the armed forces to function as the state’s secretary of public security.
Ciudad Juarez’s police chief, retired Major Roberto Orduna Cruz, stepped down on February 20 after several officers were slain during the week and the killers posted handwritten signs. Their message: “We will execute a policeman every 48 hours until Orduna Cruz resigns.” He promptly did so and moved his family to the United States. More than 1,350 people died in Ciudad Juarez last year in unspeakable brutality that has included beheadings and the murder of more than 60 police officers.
Even bodyguards of the governor of Chihuahua, the state where Ciudad Juarez is located, suffered an attack on February 22 in which one escort died and two were seriously wounded. The state’s death toll reached 348 during the first eight weeks of 2009.
In early March, Colonel Pedro Mario Roman Perez of the 89th Infantry Battalion barely escaped death in downtown Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, birthplace of many drug lords. Although Colonel Roman Perez was only wounded, eight executions took place in Sinaloa within of the twenty-four hours of this assault.
The Army-led crusade against the half-dozen major cartels has generated impressive figures. Almost 60,000 people have been thrown in jail during the last two years. And the Army has confiscated record amounts of weapons, ammunition, and police and military uniforms. They have collected 32,000 weapons and upwards of 4 million bullets. Meanwhile, authorities have seized more than $320 million in cash, seventy tons of cocaine, and 4,000 tons of marijuana—doubling or tripling the quantities impounded in past years. Optimists point to these confiscations as evidence that the cartels are losing strength and thus striking out against their major adversary. Yet there may be a less encouraging explanation for targeting active-duty and retired members of the armed forces.
First, Los Zetas and other cartels seek to demonstrate that no one is beyond their reach; that is, that they possess the capacity to kidnap, torture, and execute individuals with decades of experience in fighting guerrillas and other malefactors.
Second, savage attacks on military professionals serve to intimidate the civilian population and enhance the success of extorting funds from poor street vendors, affluent surgeons, vulnerable school teachers, members of the business community, and mayors. Even mentioning the word “Zeta” conjures images of castrations, decapitations, and immersion in vats of lye.
Third, related to the last point, the extraordinary danger posed by the cartels militates against average citizens’ stepping forward to provide information needed by the Army and police to pursue and capture criminals.
Fourth, the violence inflicted on the military has impelled the contagion of desertions, which numbered 100,000 soldiers between 2000 and 2006, and consequently provided some recruits for the cartels.3 Not only average soldiers, but elites have also gone AWOL. Between 1994 and 2004, 1,383 members of GAFES and other Special Forces deserted; this figure fell to 177 between 2005 and 2008. To stem this exodus, the military’s budget has grown in recent years, from 22 billion pesos in 2001 to 35,300 billion pesos in 2008 to 42,500 billion pesos for 2009.4
Issues of promotion complicate matters. A graduate of the Heroic Military College, Mexico’s version of West Point, will reach the rank of captain in approximately eight years. At that point, he applies for admission to the Superior War College (CSG), analogous to the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. Only 25 percent of the applicants gain admission to the three-year CSG course, whose graduates receive the General Staff Diploma (Diploma del Estado Mayor—or DEM) that places the holder on the fast-track to advancement and prestigious assignments. The other 75 percent may remain in the Army in hopes of attaining the rank of colonel; others may resign their commissions to take security jobs in the private or public sectors; some will try to enter the United States illegally; and a handful may wind up working for drug cartels, as did the original Zetas.
Several factors explain why the Navy suffers relatively few desertions. It attracts many more middle-class applicants for the Heroic Naval Academy, carefully investigates the backgrounds of these men and women, conducts follow-up tests once there are on active duty, enjoys more prestige as a service, and produces cosmopolitan officers who have visited many countries. In addition, there are fewer obstacles to reaching the upper echelons of the service.5
Fifth, the underworld barons hope that the military will “over-react” to heinous killings by violating suspects’ human rights, leading to criticism of the armed forces from Mexican and foreign nongovernmental organizations. Secretary of Defense Guillermo Galvan Galvan has emphasized the protection of civil liberties. He removed General Arturo Olguín Hernandez after sixteen soldiers, who were apprehended, killed two women and three children in the zone he commanded in Sinaloa.6 Such action aside, charges of abuses abound.
When the Defense Ministry deployed an additional 5,000 soldiers to stanch the violence in Juarez, a Mexican civil-rights firebrand excoriated the military for unlawful detentions, torture, and other abuses while failing to stop the killings. “For me, the de facto suspension of individual rights is a situation much graver than the war among cartels,” said Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, a labor lawyer, a former candidate of the nationalist-left Revolutionary Democratic Party, and a member of the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission. The army has detained 3,000 people in Juarez, holding some from 12 hours to 15 days without arrest orders, and has tortured detainees with beatings and electric shocks and by placing them in freezers, de la Rosa Hickerson alleged at a forum at the University of Texas-El Paso.
Mexican military officials have repeatedly denied abuse allegations and have said criminals have been known to wear phony uniforms. For their part, city officials and several members of the audience warmly applauded the dispatch of additional troops, raising the total to 7,500. De la Rosa Hickerson countered that Mexican President Felipe Calderon's crackdown on the drug cartels and military operations was a “terrible failure,” pointing out that killings in Juarez increased since “the first deployment of soldiers a year ago.”
In Nuevo Leon, Los Zetas, assisted by venal local cops, have tried to take advantage of alleged violations by recruiting poor people, often children, with gifts of cell phones, school supplies, and toys. In return for these and other items, the masked “grassroots” demonstrators hoist banners, shout slogans, and mobilize opposition to the presence of the military and federal police in their state. “Soldiers Go Home!” “We Want Peace; Out with the Army,” “The Soldiers Scare Us!”—are among the chants intoned by the ersatz protestors.7
Finally, the mafiosi endeavor to spark friction between the military brass and elected politicians. For instance, General Sergio Aponte Polito was hastily relieved of his command of the Second Military Region, which embraces crime-ridden Tijuana along with the rest of Baja California, Baja California Sur, and Sonora. Not only did the brash Aponte publicly expose corrupt officials, but he led an effective, unrestricted battle that produced the capture of crime figures and the seizure of record arms and drug caches.
In a transparent move to camouflage Aponte’s dismissal as routine, Defense Secretary Galvan Galvan made an unexpected visit to Mexicali and personally promoted Aponte as head of the Army’s Supreme Military Tribunal in Mexico City. In fact, the change arose because of the heat that Aponte had inflicted on local politicians.8 Among other things, he accused the Baja California Attorney General's Office of “falsehood, incompetence and deceit.”9
Aponte’s transfer has not prevented governors and mayors from recruiting military personnel to serve in top security posts in their jurisdiction. Ciudad Juarez, a veritable killing field, is working with the National Defense Ministry to recruit military policemen as law-enforcement officers. It is endeavoring to attract 500 to 1,000 soldiers, offering a salary of 9,800 pesos per month ($726) compared with their current pay of 3,600 pesos.10 Private companies are also making offers to members of the armed forces who could provide security to individuals and businesses.
Calderon’s pledge to replace the Army and Navy with civilian law-enforcement agents as the major anti-cartel force by the end of his term in 2012 appears to be a pipedream. There simply are not the resources available to recruit, vet, train, arm, organize, and retain cadres for a lean, mean, civilian police machine. Even though they lack skills in negotiation, compromise, and nonviolent dispute resolution, military personnel will continue to man the frontline of the fight against Los Zetas and other lethal bands even as they exchange khaki for mufti in states and cities. In view of the venality of civilian police, Calderon has no alternative but to rely more and more on the armed forces. Nevertheless, the increased military presence will spark more human rights abuses—accompanied by mounting denunciations by NGOs. Regrettably, this is the price the chief executive must pay for presiding over an increasingly weak state suffused with irresponsible, unreliable, and corrupt civilian institutions.
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On November 15th at the FPRI annual dinner Fouad Ajami was presented with the Seventh Annual Benjamin Franklin Public Service Award. The event was attended by over 360 people.
Dr. John M. Templeton, Jr. was dinner chairman.
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