Cartel Warfare: Analyzing Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations
The following article is a republication from the Taining and Doctrine Command’s (TRADOC) Operational Environment Enterprise (OEE) Red Diamond. It appears here at the permission of both the author and editor of the Red Diamond. As a monthly publication, readers can access The Red Diamond directly from the Army Training Network or see the contact information on the final page to be added to the distribution list. The author of this piece is a Military Police officer serving as a threats intelligence analyst within the TRADOC OEE at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Since December 2006, Mexico has been mired in a barbarous war with a quasi-omnipotent foe: Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). Characterized by extreme violence, intimidation, and unbounded profit and facilitated through widespread corruption, the Mexican War on Drugs has had a deleterious effect on the state’s image, security environment, and quality of life for Mexican citizens. Homicide rates have increased dramatically — up nearly threefold from 8.1 per 100,000 in 2007 to 23.7 per 100,000 in 2010 — ostensibly attributable to the rise in DTO activities.1 The preponderance of Mexico’s municipalities are at best influenced — if not fully infiltrated — by the diverse actors categorized under the organized crime umbrella.2 Likely conservative estimates indicate that DTOs virtually control 30% of Mexico’s territory.3
Unfortunately, there are no signs that the violence will abate anytime soon. The seemingly perpetual state of conflict engulfing Mexico serves as the impetus for this article, as it will strive to serve as a primer for analyzing DTO criminal activities, terrorist actions, functional tactics, and their potential impact on Unified Action partner training.
The Concept of a “Criminal Insurgency”
Joint Publication 3–24, Counterinsurgency, defines insurgency as “the organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region.”4 In the case of DTOs, nullification (or at least co-opting) of the state is the principle focus as they seek “to weaken the structures of governance and rule of law to secure maneuver room for their own operations and influence.”5 And although they do not seek the ends of a traditional insurgency — the overthrow of the existing state, self-rule, and/or a revolutionary transformation — DTOs have developed an ascertainable strategy.6
The criminal insurgency strategy of DTOs is a three-pronged attack: attrit or co-opt law enforcement officers through a campaign of terror; conduct information warfare (INFOWAR) to degrade public and state resolve, intimidate rivals, and martial support; and conduct high profile assassinations of state officials.7 The long-term goal of this strategy is to force the Mexican state to abandon its offensive against DTOs so they can maintain their criminal enclaves of impunity, increase power, and maximize profit.8 DTOs use a combination of several ways and means to achieve their aforementioned ends. In the context of “criminal insurgency”* the actions can be described as criminal activities, terrorist actions, functional tactics, and information warfare (INFOWAR).
*Author’s interpretation of Sullivan and Elkus’s term “criminal insurgency” is that the “criminal” modifier serves to clarify the goals and motivations of the cartels while the “insurgency” subject illustrates the more kinetic methods they use to achieve them.*
Criminal activities can be defined as the varied use of tactics and techniques in violation of state statutes to make a fiscal profit and/or achieve influence.9 While DTO criminal activity has an ancillary effect of maintaining the coerced support of noncombatants through intimidation, its primary functions are to maintain control of the plazas (drug shipment corridors that serve as cartel support zones) and generate profit. Two of the most common criminal activities that DTOs engage in are extortion and trafficking, both of which greatly contribute to the real and perceived insecurity and instability of the nation.
Protection rackets requiring Mexican citizens to pay derecho de piso (protection money) to DTOs is an innocuous means of revenue generation relative to other DTO criminal activities. DTOs require local business proprietors to make recurring payments in exchange for the DTOs’ protection from street gangs, rivals, and/or corrupt Mexican authority figures. This revenue stream is directly linked to the DTOs’ ability to maintain and acquire “turf.” The more “turf” a DTO controls, the more protection money it generates. The importance of acquiring and maintaining terrain cannot be understated. DTOs derive their power from the plazas in that they provide them the ability to generate revenue via criminal activities, primarily trafficking. The widely accepted theme is that drugs and people move north while money and guns move south.
Although the profit generated by “shakedowns” in a protection racket is substantial, no criminal activity is as lucrative as the DTOs’ main effort — drug trafficking. All instances of criminal activity coalesce around the production, distribution, and sale of illegal psychotropic drugs, mainly heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine. The US Department of Justice estimates that Colombian and Mexican DTOs generate between $18 billion and $39 billion annually solely from drug sales in the United States.10 Proceeds from narco-trafficking is the lifeblood of these organizations, enabling reinvestment into licit and illicit markets alike, ranging from real estate investment to the purchase of precursor chemicals necessary to manufacture drugs.11
According to Training Circular (TC) 7–100.3, Irregular Opposing Forces, “Terrorism can be defined as the use of violence or the threat of violence to instill fear and coerce governments or societies.”12 The key distinction between quintessential terrorist organizations (e.g. al-Qaeda and its affiliates) and DTOs is that the latter use terrorist actions as means to obtain profit and not in the furtherance of a religious or political ideology. Additionally, DTOs use terrorism to psychologically affect rivals, the state, and the citizenry with the goal of convincing or compelling them to act in a desired manner.13 Predominate motivations for DTO terror campaigns are diverse: disrupt their enemy’s ability to act, obtain active and/or passive support from the relevant population, deter continued enemy operations in a particular geographic area, dissuade enemy governmental influence over the relevant population, and develop acceptance and legitimacy of their criminal agenda.14
One of the more common terrorist actions perpetrated by DTOs is kidnapping. This action is often combined with the criminal activities of murder and maiming to enhance the message’s potency. Targets range from rival DTO sicarios (Spanish slang for hitman) and halcones (Spanish for falcons, a moniker given to cartel lookouts) to municipal police. Kidnapping victims often face macabre execution methods like decapitation by chainsaw, dismemberment, and dynamiting. The latter is a recent technique used by the Jalisco Cartel-New Generation (CJNG) in Jalisco state in which the captured victims have sticks of dynamite taped to them (typically to their torso or neck) that are detonated while still alive.15
Although less frequent than commonplace terrorist actions like kidnapping, genocide-like mass executions can have a much more paralyzing effect on intended audiences. Countless narcofosas (mass graves) have been found throughout the country, the most memorable being a result of the 2011 San Fernando Massacre. Members from Los Zetas (defected Mexican Special Forces Soldiers previously employed by the Gulf Cartel as enforcers) intercepted several buses full of Central and South American migrants traveling north toward border towns.16 Suspecting that the migrants were recruits of the rival Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas murdered all 193 captives and buried them in several mass graves. The alleged sole survivor recounted to a Mexican media outlet that women were raped, men were forced to fight one another to the death in a gladiator-style blood sport, and that infants were thrown into vats of acid.17
Alternative assessments exist, however, and some analysts believe that the mass murder was a message to the Central American “coyotes” engaged in the lucrative human smuggling enterprise. The message: everyone must pay.18
The United States Armed Forces defines tactics as “the employment and ordered arrangement of forces in relation to each other.”19 Similarly, the Hybrid Threat (HT) employs functional tactics. The HT chooses which functional tactic to use (e.g. ambush, raid, or reconnaissance attack) based upon the functions (e.g. disrupt, fix, or destroy) that need to be performed as part of an action to bring about its success.20 The following vignette illustrates the applicability of the term “criminal insurgency” to DTOs because criminals typically do not have the ability to execute functional tactics.21
In response to the killing of CJNG cell leader Heriberto Acevedo Cardenas (“El Gringo”) after a March 2015 shootout with police, the CJNG retaliated. At approximately 1450 hours, 6 April 2015, an unknown number of CJNG members armed with automatic weapons and grenade launchers ambushed a two-man convoy composed of members from the United Force of Jalisco (a specialized police unit in the western-central Mexican state of Jalisco) on a rural highway in the Sebastian del Oeste municipality of Jalisco state.22 Figure 3 illustrates the analyst’s interpretation of how CJNG could have executed the annihilation ambush.
The attackers established the annihilation ambush on favorable terrain: firing positions were established adjacent to a portion of the two-lane highway that offered the attackers good cover and concealment and fields of fire from the surrounding high ground; the terrain also provided unobservable approach and withdrawal routes. To block the police convoy, the attackers emplaced a burning vehicle on a bridge on the eastern edge of the kill zone. This complemented the already canalizing terrain and further restricted police maneuver. There were also indicators that the attackers had been waiting at the ambush site for some time. Residual debris included clothes, beer cans, empty water bottles, food containers, condoms, and tents.23 The end result was the deadliest attack on Mexican police since 2010: 15 dead and 5 injured.24
Threat doctrine defines INFOWAR “as specifically planned and integrated actions taken to achieve an information advantage at critical points and times.”25 DTOs primarily employ the INFOWAR elements of deception and perception management to achieve the tactical tasks of disrupt, deceive, and influence. The proliferation of information and communication technologies has enabled DTOs to communicate their narrative of plata o plomo (Spanish for silver or lead) to the majority of relevant actors within the operational environment. Coupled with coercion of the media, low-tech reconnaissance tools (e.g. a halcone with a mobile device) and espionage via endemic state corruption, DTO INFOWAR is robust and effective.
INFOWAR can be the impetus for combat action, particularly when the objective is to wage psychological warfare against relevant actors. Grisly recordings of beheadings, public displays of mutilated bodies, mass executions, and even name selection (e.g. Mata Zetas, Spanish for Zeta Killers) are all elements of the typical DTO INFOWAR playbook. These abhorrent acts of violence are specifically conducted to influence “the attitudes, emotions, motivations, aggressiveness, tenacity, and reasoning of enemy personnel.”26 The propagation of these acts is sometimes in conjunction with corpse-messaging and narco-banners to further shape the social and environmental conditions in their favor.
Nonlethal examples of perception management activities are manifested in media and recruitment activities. Narcocorridos (Spanish for narco-ballad) is a popular music genre that glorifies the narco lifestyle and venerates DTO leaders. In a country beset by socioeconomic inequality, disenfranchised Mexican youths gravitate to DTOs for employment and a sense of belonging. In 2007, only eight minors were charged with involvement in organized crime in Mexico; in 2010 that number skyrocketed to 214.27 By highlighting the government’s inability to tackle social and economic issues like endemic corruption, violent crime and poverty, DTOs are able to bolster their ranks with a steady stream of young recruits.
Implications for Training
DTOs are becoming increasingly militarized in the way in which they execute tactical operations, potentially a result of the integration of ex-military defectors into their ranks. Their military capabilities improve as they continue to acquire military-grade weapons like high-powered automatic weapons and sniper rifles; light, medium, and heavy machine guns; grenades and grenade launchers; light anti-tank weapons; rocket-propelled grenades; armor-piercing munitions; 60-mm mortars with high explosive rounds; and improvised explosive devices.28 In light of this threat, joint force units regionally aligned with US Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and US Army Military Police (MP) units that could potentially be tapped to provide security force assistance to Mexican security forces should place a premium on battlefield survivability tasks during training. MP units must be acutely aware of the fact that many Mexican police forces are far less capable than their military counterparts with regards to manning, equipment, training, leadership, and morale. Determining how to address these gaps would be critical to the success of the overall security force assistance mission.
On a macro level, Department of Defense (DoD) justice and security enablers like US Army Criminal Investigations Special Agents, Corrections Specialists, and Judge Advocate General officers may consider preparing to augment existing Merida Initiative programs and activities. The Merida Initiative is a security cooperation partnership between the US and Mexico to disrupt organized crime, sustain the rule of law, increase border security, and build strong and resilient communities.29 It is conceivable that DoD enablers may be integrated into the existing partnership structure to buttress the Mexican security and justice sectors. Integral to the success of the initiative, however, is maintaining a semi-permissive security environment, which continues to be an ongoing challenge.
Nickolas Zappone is a U.S. Army Military Police Officer currently assinged as an intelligence analyst studying threat tactics, crime, criminals, and the nexus within the hybrid threat. He deployed to Kandahar Afghanistan as a platoon leader and later commanded a company in a corrections battalion. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the the U.S. Government, the DoD, The U.S. Army, or the Military Police Regiment.
1 Cory Molzahn, Octavio Rodriguez and David A. Shirk. “Drug Violence in Mexico.” Trans-Border Institute at the University of Sand Diego. February 2013.
2 John P. Sullivan. “From Drug Wars to Criminal Insurgency.” The VORTEX Foundation. March 2012.
3 John P. Sullivan. “From Drug Wars to Criminal Insurgency.” The VORTEX Foundation. March 2012.
4 Joint Publication 3–24. “Counterinsurgency.” 22 November 2013.
5 John P. Sullivan and Adum Elkus. “State of Siege: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency.” The Small Wars Journal. 19 August 2008.
6 Steven Metz. “Rethinking Insurgency.” Strategic Studies Institute. June 2007.
7 John P. Sullivan and Adum Elkus. “State of Siege: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency.” The Small Wars Journal. 19 August 2008.
8 John P. Sullivan and Adum Elkus. “Plazas for Profit: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency.” The Small Wars Journal. 26 April 2009.
9 Headquarters, Department of the Army. Training Circular 7–100.3, Irregular Opposing Forces. TRADOC G-2 Analysis and Control Element (ACE) Threats Integration. January 2014. Para 4–48.
10 Patrick Radden Keefe. “Cocaine Incorporated.” The New York Times Magazine. 15 June 2015.
11 Jason Lange. “From spas to banks, Mexico economy rides on drugs.” Reuters. 22 January 2010.
12 Headquarters, Department of the Army. Training Circular 7–100.3, Irregular Opposing Forces. TRADOC G-2 Analysis and Control Element (ACE) Threats Integration. January 2014.
13 Headquarters, Department of the Army. Training Circular 7–100.3, Irregular Opposing Forces. TRADOC G-2 Analysis and Control Element (ACE) Threats Integration. January 2014. Para 6–2.
14 Headquarters, Department of the Army. Training Circular 7–100.3, Irregular Opposing Forces. TRADOC G-2 Analysis and Control Element (ACE) Threats Integration. January 2014. Para 6–7.
15 Lucio R. “CJNG: killing enemies by dynamite.” Borderland Beat. 15 June 2015.
16 Oscar Martinez. “How the Zetas Tamed Central America’s ‘Coyotes.’” InSight Crime. 1 May 2014.
17 Borderland Beat. “A Nightmare of the Massacre in San Fernando.” 18 April 2011.
18 Oscar Martinez. “How the Zetas Tamed Central America’s ‘Coyotes.’” InSight Crime. 1 May 2014.
19 Joint Staff. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Manual 5120.01A. 29 December 2014.
20 Headquarters, Department of the Army. Training Circular 7–100, Hybrid Threat. TRADOC G-2 Analysis and Control Element (ACE) Threats Integration. November 2012. Para 5–18.
21 Headquarters, Department of the Army. Training Circular 7–100.3, Irregular Opposing Forces. TRADOC G-2 Analysis and Control Element (ACE) Threats Integration. January 2014.
22 John P. Sullivan and Robert Bunker. “Mexican Cartel Tactical Note # 25: Ambush Kills 15; Injures 5 Police in Jalisco.” The Small Wars Journal. 16 July 2015.
23 Lucio R. “video: footage of the aftermath of CJNG ambush on state police.” Borderland Beat. 11 May 2015.
24 John P. Sullivan and Robert Bunker. “Mexican Cartel Tactical Note # 25: Ambush Kills 15; Injures 5 Police in Jalisco.” The Small Wars Journal. 16 July 2015.
25 Headquarters, Department of the Army. Training Circular 7–100.3, Irregular Opposing Forces. TRADOC G-2 Analysis and Control Element (ACE) Threats Integration. January 2014. Para A-1.
26 Headquarters, Department of the Army. Training Circular 7–100.3, Irregular Opposing Forces. TRADOC G-2 Analysis and Control Element (ACE) Threats Integration. January 2014. Para A-33.
27 Geoffrey Ramsey. “Poverty a Recruitment Tool for Mexico’s Criminal Gangs.” InSight Crime. 20 July 2011.
28 David Kuhn and Robert Bunker. “Mexican Cartel Tactical Note # 17.” The Small Wars Journal. 17 February 2013; David Kuhn and Robert Bunker. “Mexican Cartel Tactical Note # 15.” The Small Wars Journal. 14 January 2013.
29 United States Diplomatic Mission to Mexico. http://mexico.usembassy.gov/eng/ataglance/merida-initiative.html/. 13 October 2015.