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Tuesday, September 28

Does Mexico's drug violence parallel Colombia's narco-insurgency?

Yes, says Thomas E. McNamara, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia from 1989 to 1991. Writing for the September 20 edition of the Los Angeles Times (Why Hillary Clinton was right about Colombia and Mexico) McNamara argued that recognizing the parallels between the conflicts in Mexico and Colombia, the U.S. and Mexico "could learn valuable lessons from Colombia's battle with narco-insurgents."

No, says Los Angeles Times reporter Ken Ellingwood. Writing in the September 25 edition of the Los Angeles Times (Why Mexico is not the new Colombia when it comes to drug cartels), Ellingwood argues that "a careful look at tactics, targets and the nature of the foe shows they're apples and oranges."

Ellingwood's argument is more closely reasoned than McNamara's because he identifies and compares five factors:

1. Operational goals of the Colombia insurgency and Mexico's drug cartels,

2. amount of territory each controls,

3. targets

4. tactics, and

5. the level of control wielded by the Colombia and Mexican federal governments and their militaries.

From his side McNamara is a veteran Career Diplomat who retains high-level contacts in Colombia and Washington. So he is speaking with an insider's knowledge and with tremendous experience behind him in matters of state. And McNamara is in agreement with one of Ellingwood's key points:
... In one respect, Colombia is different [than Mexico]. Besides mafias, there are narco-insurgents with full political agendas — the guerrillas. These are the usual, easily recognized types who proclaim their agenda in revolutionary political statements, military structures and, above all, in their insistence on sovereign control of all territory, not just territory needed for criminal activity.
Yet McNamara sharply diverges with Ellingwood when he argues that the activities of Mexico's drug cartels, as with those of Colombia's narco-insurgents, represent a genuine insurgency:
In both countries cartels demanded that they, not the government, determine the rules, settle disputes and control police power. This is clearly insurgency: usurpation of sovereign power, control of territory and the use of force to maintain control. What is unusual — and what causes confusion — is that [Mexico's] drug lords have a very limited political agenda.

Thus, in matters they don't care about, they don't interfere. The government can run the hospitals and schools, set taxes, pay benefits, have elections, collect the garbage, put out fires and so on. When the cartels' interests are involved, however, they insist that government must be subservient to them on their territory — or deadly violence will result. ...
Ken Ellingwood acknowledges the impact of the drug cartels on Mexico's government but contends that this is not a true insurgency:
... In many places, traffickers manipulate governors and mayors — and the police they control. Their ability to bully and extort has given them a form of power that resembles parallel rule.

But the goal is cash, not sovereignty. Drug lords don't want to collect trash, run schools or pave the streets. And very often, the violence the gangs unleash is directed against each other, not the government.

Mexico also is a much bigger country [than Colombia]. While [Mexico's] social inequities are glaring, there is no sign of a broad-based rebel movement with which traffickers could join hands.

"We've got a criminal problem, not a guerrilla problem," said Bruce Bagley, who chairs the international studies department at the University of Miami in Coral Gables. "The drug lords don't want to take over. They want to be left alone. They want a state that's pliable and porous." ...
Bagley's comments comport with Nils Gilman's remarks in 2008 about the present era of 'deviant' globalization and its players:
... What's new in this situation is that in many cases these "political actors" have no interest in actually becoming a state or taking over an existing state. They’re happy to wield state-like authority and power, while enriching themselves via dubious business operations. I’m thinking here of groups as various as the Mahdi Army in Iraq, the PCC in Brazil, the 'Ndrangheta in Italy, or Laurent Nkunda's crew in Congo. None of these organizations plan to declare sovereign independence and file for membership in the United Nations. What they want, simply, is to carve out a space where they can do their business and not have the state mess with them. ...
Yet I don't think I'm putting words in Thomas McNamara's mouth by asking Bagley and Ellingwood what they think an insurgency is. If the cartels, in total, can demand to be left alone by the state and enforce the demand, it's splitting hairs to say they don't want to run the country. They already run it to their satisfaction -- a point I alluded to in an earlier post after I studied Stratfor's recently published map of the areas of cartel control in Mexico:



The map shows that the cartels have influence in virtually every region in Mexico. The map also shows that the only significant holdout is Mexico's capital city. But the map shows that's because the city is disputed territory; i.e., cartels are vying for control there, which gives the federal government some leverage.

If the map is correct then one could argue it's President Felipe Calderón and the troops loyal to him that are the real insurgency.

In any case, after making his argument that Mexico's government is facing an insurgency, McNamara adds a head-spinning remark:
As Colombia learned, so Mexico and Central America will also: Retaking lost sovereign control is violent. Americans must understand that these battles are to regain government control. Reducing trafficking comes later. Mexico's mafias will not disappear, but they can be forced to abandon insurgency.
Oh, snap! Is there anything else Calderón's government can do while forcing the cartels to abandon an insurgency? Build a ladder to the moon, perhaps?

Ellingwood scores a point for his side when he observes that despite the large region that FARC commanded at the height of its insurgency, its area of control was and still is clearly delimited, whereas Mexico's drug cartels and the gangs they employ are no longer centralized in specific locations, which the Stratfor map clearly shows. Ellingwood also notes the power of the cartels is highly diffused:
There is no force that appears anywhere near capable of toppling the government and, so far, no zone the Mexican army cannot reach when it wants. Instead, cartel control is more fluid. It is measured in the extent to which residents stay indoors at night to avoid roving gunmen; the degree to which Mexican news media steer away from covering crime so they don't anger the trafficking groups.
He also makes the haunting observation that, "The sense of siege hopscotches across Mexico like windblown fire across a landscape."

However, Ellingwood's sources could be wrong about the reach of the Mexican army, and I worry that McNamara's urgency could be informed by that very consideration.

The coordinated April Fool's Day attacks on two Mexican garrisons, which were accompanied by five other attacks on Mexican soldiers, was a sophisticated operation. Mexican troops were able to defeat the attackers -- killing 18, wounding two and detaining seven more suspects, according the AP report on the day of the attacks. However, the attacks, which the Mexican government spun as a fight between the Gulf cartel and its former allies, the Zetas, evinced several troubling features for anyone who follows asymmetrical warfare issues as they relate to foreign policy.

There was considerable speculation among defense analysts in this country about the goal of the attacks. If the speculation has been resolved, this has not showed up in any news reports I've seen. Yet what was immediately clear was that the attackers matched the soldiers in firepower and armor, and that their tactics were sophisticated enough to take the garrisons by surprise.

What the attackers lacked was the training of the soldiers. But in theory at least, such training is available to cartel enforcers because many ex-military are involved with the cartels. So there was speculation as to whether the cartel's planners simply threw away low-level foot soldiers as part of a probe -- to test the Mexican military's defenses, at least at those particular garrisons.

Another speculation was that the cartel planners sacrificed the gang members in order to send a strong warning to the Mexican and U.S. governments that U.S. forces should stay out of Mexico. This speculation has considerable weight:

Hillary Clinton's mention of Plan Colombia in her recent speech about Mexico, which touched off the comments by McNamara and Ellingwood, was not the first time this year that U.S. officials had signified escalating U.S. military interest in Mexico's situation.

Indeed, the April 1 attack on the garrisons came only eight days after SecDef Bob Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, and then-DNI Dennis Blair accompanied Hillary Clinton and Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano to a one-day summit in Mexico. The meeting was about the U.S.-backed Mérida Initiative, which was mounted to help Mexico's government combat drug trafficking and cartel-related violence.

The large size of the delegation was a typical Obama tactic of making a diplomatic show of force. But if the attacks on the garrisons were the answer, his administration got an earful in reply. And it would suggest that the planners of the attacks were not interested in doing anything more than temporarily blocking troops from leaving the garrisons. In other words, they didn't want to push the envelope more than necessary if they just wanted to send a message. And it would have been the same if they were only probing the garrison defenses.

In either case, the planners played enough cards on April Fool's Day to warn that Mexico's government shouldn't assume their military could win in every head-to-head encounter.

Signs over the last couple years have also raised concerns that the cartels are beginning to mimic a wide range of fourth generation warfare (4GW) tactics. As I mentioned in an earlier post Indian analyst Shlok Vaidya spied the Maoist 'fish swimming in water' tactic favored by India's Naxalites when he studied one mass demonstration in Mexico that could have been backed by a cartel.

Other analysts have expressed concern that Hezbollah's involvement in Mexico's drug trade means they're teaching fighting tactics to the cartels -- tactics that have been successful in flummoxing even Israel's military.

So my view is that Ellingwood is thinking too much in terms of first generation warfare when he assesses the military threat from the cartels. Sure, in a pitched battle against tanks and air power, the cartels can't beat the Mexican army. But one just needs to follow the ISAF war against the Taliban to know that gangs don't have to fight a pitched battle against a standing army in order to force it into a drawn-out draw. It depends on the extent to which the gangs have mastered 4GW tactics, not on the size and firepower of the military.

And for his part, I believe McNamara is overconfident if he thinks Calderón can afford to put the drug trafficking issue on the back burner while dismantling what McNamara views as an insurgency.

Hello, when it gets to the point where the good guys have wear the masks when they pose for newspaper pictures, that's a sign.(1) It's a sign the bad guys are running the show. When they see that sign, officials should know they're involved in a low-grade conflict that could drag on for many years.

So who won the debate? I'll tackle that question in the next post.

In the meantime I hope youll read the op-ed by Thomas McNamara and Ellingwood's report; both make important observations that I didn't address in this post.

I'll close with thanks to Ken Ellingwood and those who contributed to his report -- Los Angeles Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Mexico City and special correspondent Chris Kraul in Bogota, Colombia. If more news reports that deal with complex issues were presented in such logical fashion it would certainly make life easier for news/ intelligence analysts and help the general public better understand many important situations around the globe.

1) The AP photo, taken by Guillermo Arias, shows a police officer and soldier with a statue of the folk saint Santa Muerte, or Death Saint. "The statue was on display during a presentation of suspects and seized items to the press in Tijuana, Mexico on March 31, 2010," according to the text that accompanied the photo. (See AP report I linked to about attacks on the garrisons that I linked to above.)

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Comments:
Hats off on another excellent post Pundita.
 
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