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The dirty (couple of) dozen

24 May 2007


One thing I always liked about Mexico is that the country has very few military heroes who were professional soldiers. Ignacio Zaragosa and Felipe Angeles about exhaust the list. Most were accidental or self-taught (like Obregón – a farmer and inventor; Morelos – a cowboy and country priest; Pancho Villa – a “ahem” cattle dealer). If you’re looking for villains, look to the pros: Santa Ana, Cortés, Victoriano Huerta, los Zetas.


The latter, gangsters recruited from special forces trained soldiers, probably aren’t as numerous as the news reports would have us believe. Mexico never trained a lot of special forces troopers, and the actual number of Zetas is estimated at a few dozen.


Still, the “romantic” idea of Rambo-type gangsters is a powerful myth. Whether or not they are the real force behind the gangland violence in the narcotics trade, or whether it’s people using their name, I don’t know. Either way, sending in the Army to fight soldiers (or mercenary ex-soldiers) doesn’t sound as radical as sending in soldiers to act as policemen.


But, using soldiers as cops is dramatic. I’ve questioned whether Calderón’s “War on Drug Dealers” was really so much about the narcotics trade as it was about shoring up his dubious legitimacy.

Using COPS as COPS is problematic, especially fighting the narcos, who have a lot more money and guns than the local police:


Reuters (which needs a geography lesson – Torreon is aabout 750 Km by road from the nearest U.S. border) reports on a recent police strike:


MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) – Hundreds of police in a Mexican city near the U.S. border refused to work for a second day on Tuesday, demanding more pay and protection from increased attacks by drug hitmen.

Municipal police in Torreon, a city of about 500,000 people in Coahuila state, blocked patrol cars from going on duty and left the city largely unprotected in an attempt to win more money and better weapons.

“Police have been murdered, with limbs cut off and bodies burned. What we want is more forces with the right equipment, working bulletproof vests and a decent salary and pension,” said patrolman Oscar Ramirez, speaking from Torreon’s deserted police headquarters.


That would suggest the police need more equipment and training (and pay), as has been done in Mexico City and a few other areas


It’s a given that the local police are “corrupted” by drug money. But, what makes anyone think underpaid Mexican soliders (even with their latest raise) are any less corruptible? Besides, despite the fact that Mexicans generally give respect to their soldiers, they don’t pay them very well, and the regulars don’t see the military as a permanent career .


And, it’s not that the police can’t solve drug crimes. They can and do:

But, that depends on old-fashioned police work, which doesn’t give you the dramatic scenes that an army raid is going to have.


And, while the locals are well-known for a less-than-stellar human rights record, defining criminals as “the enemy” and using the Army creates serious problems. Whether it’s the U.S. in Iraq (or Guantanamo) or the British in Northern Ireland, or the Mexicans in the narco fields, you have the same problem… everyone is no longer just a “suspect,” but a potential “enemy combatant”. It’s no wonder that the Mexicans themselves do not really support the the military solution.



So who does?



Alex Sanchez, in a report prepared for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (described in the press as a “liberal think tank”), has written an excellent, well-worth reading analysis of the Mexican military, and the effects of the drug “war” on military morale, the command and control structure, human rights and it’s eventual uselessness:



… on average, 46 soldiers deserted every day from the Mexican army. This intolerably high desertion rate has been attributed to hazing, low payments (a soldier earns less than a policeman) and a lack of unity, integration and communication between the regular troops and career officers. It is also important to note that the military salaries for troops as well as non-commissioned officers is low, while the annual budget for the entire armed forces is estimated to be a modest $3.1 billion.

The question remains as to how a military with no direct external enemies manages to spend even this relatively modest budget. In a 2000 article in U.S. News & World Report, Sergio Aguayo, a political analyst at El Colegio de Mexico, described the Mexican military as “the last bunker,” still waiting to be taken in the country’s democratization process.



… issues have come up regarding Calderon’s utilization of the country’s military as a police force. The first one is that greater use of the military in domestic affairs actually might have the negative effect of affording the armed forces more power and control in the nation than traditionally has been the case. The Mexican military has traditionally been known for being relatively apolitical, only rarely showing much partisan interest in domestic politics. This condition—which normally would keep the military out of politics—may be undermined if the military high command begins to believe that, as protectors of the nation both from external and internal security threats, they should have a greater say in the government’s decision-making process, perhaps also demanding an increase in the defense budget, or a fixed percentage of it.

Another potential effect of the military’s expanding functions is strained relations between the military and the police. Calderon’s decision to turn to the military may be meant to impart an indirect message to the police that he does not trust this institution due to its endemic corruption and ineptitude.



Finally, soldiers are trained for search and destroy missions, often relying on large scale mobilizations, which could lead to widespread destruction and wide scale human rights abuses. During the Central American wars of the 1980s, militaries across the region were used to fight leftist rebels, leading to civilian massacres and brutal techniques like Guatemala’s ‘scorched earth policy’ or El Salvador’s death squads. Professor Child explains that “even among the more professional of the Latin American militaries, there is a process of “desgaste” (grinding down) as they act as a domestic police force. The military tends to have an end and means problem when faced with violent situation, reacting sharply and violently when faced with a violent adversary.”

A similar scenario may eventually begin to take place in Mexico. The country’s daily Mural reported on May 9 that soldiers went to Carácuaro and Nocupétaro to look for those who attacked a military convoy encouraging massive looting and abuses against the civilian population. Numerous witnesses state that the soldiers, looking to revenge their fallen comrades, stole money and jewelry from ordinary Mexicans; in some cases women were sexually assaulted, while men were verbally harassed, threatened, and pushed around.



Luis Astorga, a specialist in drug trafficking from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM), stated to the Mexican daily La Opinión that organized crime is now using guerilla-style strategies that are managing to “enloquecer” (“drive crazy”) the militiary. Astorga explained to La Opinión that the cartels are carrying out isolated attacks to distract the government forces, while drug trafficking goes on as usual. These strategies seem to be working – after the attack on the military convoy that killed the five soldiers, the military deployed over 1,300 troops throughout the area to root out the culprits. While attention was centered on these search missions, one can only speculate as to how many shipments of drugs were moved throughout the state during this period.


Astorga added that drug-trafficking organizations are very good at adapting to new situations, and, right now, there is a transition taking place as drug kingpins switch from hiring common hitmen to recruiting premium forces such as the paramilitary Zetas, with their specialized military training. In response to the growing violence perpetrated by former members of this force, the Mexican government and its armed forces are rumored to be discussing plans to impose much longer prison sentences of 30 to 60 years on deserters who later become involved in criminal activities.


In order to be effective and make an impression on the nation, Calderón’s aggressive drug policy will have to go hand in hand with a number of other reforms. There is an ever-growing need to reconstitute, modernize, and professionalize the Mexican armed forces, which will have to include greater accountability for its personnel, better pay and treatment for the troops, and also more ideological courses to insure that military members’ respect for the nation is institutionalized, even after they leave active duty. Another practical option is that the government should create high quality jobs specifically designed for former military, to give them less reason to consider joining drug cartels for the easy cash to be made; for example, authorities could give job-hiring preference to former soldiers that for a position in the law enforcement agencies. Lastly, the military’s high command should establish a monitoring committee to keep track of the troops once they retire or desert in order to make sure that they do not join criminal organizations.


Except for Calderón’s short-term political gain, and to assure the U.S. that Mexico is “doing something” about what’s really just a few dirty dozens.





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