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Is the drug war in Mexico mutating into a different animal?

President Enrique Pena Nieto
President Enrique Pena Nieto
Photo by Handout/Getty Images

Chicago, IL—The Drug war in Mexico is mutating into a very different animal. Perhaps not expected 8 years ago when Felipe Calderon (PAN) decided to launch an all out war against all the drug cartels in Mexico.

In 2006, Felipe Calderon launched a poorly planned war. The idea had no real support from the states, since many of the police forces at the municipal and state levels in most of Mexico, were actually soldiers for the different drug cartels.

Additionally, corruption was present in the legislative, judicial and executive branches of many of the states in Mexico (for example in Michoacan and Tamaulipas).

Therefore, the drug war of Calderon not only claimed over 100,000 lives but also did little to fix the corruption problems. In summary, two PAN administrations failed to get the drug war under control (2000-2012).

This article will now highlight a few changes in the drug war that may be of interest to the reader. The NEW drug war is more dangerous and more complex than ever before.

What changed since the PRI returned to power?

Many things have changed with the coming of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), and Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI). First came the consolidation of power under one person and one cabinet secretary—that is the “Secretaria de Gobernacion (SEGOB).”

In English SEGOB means the Department of Interior, under the leadership of Miguel Angel Osorio Chong (PRI), a former Mayor for Pachuca, and from April 2005 to March 31 of 2011 was the governor of the state of Hidalgo.

In order to put things into proper context, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong is the second most powerful person after the president of Mexico. In Mexico, there is no position for vice president, so the head of the SEGOB takes a similar form but also controls and commands everything else, except the military.

As soon as Osorio Chong came to power the massive security reforms followed (other reforms also followed in 2013 with the introduction of the Pacto por Mexico). One of the security changes or reforms was to remove or minimize the US law enforcement and intelligence activities inside Mexico. They succeeded by the summer of 2013.

On January 3, 2013, the Peña Nieto’s administration eliminated the Secretaria de Seguridad Publica (SSP) and brought its activities under the SEGOB, which gave not only this cabinet the power to run the CISEN (which is the state security agency), but also complete control over the federal police and the Procuraduria General de la Republica (PGR), which is the attorney general in Mexico.

Then came the idea that anything the US needed in the sovereign nation of Mexico had to be channeled via SEGOB, an action that raised a few eyebrows in the US. The US has spent billions of dollars in the drug war but this new government wanted less US influence, which has lately resulted in tremendous actions by their own governments and high-level arrests, which includes the arrest of Joaquin Guzman Loera aka “El Chapo Guzman,” a target that Calderon had failed to re-apprehend.

Therefore, in this area, Mexico has been able to implement and utilize the CISEN into a much more effective weapon where they should have been 12 years ago. Fox and Calderon from PAN did not appear to have much interest in making the CISEN effective. Corruption in these two administrations was evident and having CISEN increase their involvement in the drug war was not a high priority.

It is possible that CISEN would also find the relationships of politicians with the drug cartel kingpins or other reasons not very clear but they wanted CISEN out of the drug war.

In contrast, CISEN today is showing that it is effective and eclipsing any previous ideas that it only served to fight off leftists in Mexico or the dark times in Mexico during the Dirty Wars, where the CIA and the DFS (now called CISEN) had a close working relationship.

What else has changed?

In the state of Michoacan, right after Peña Nieto took office in December 2012, the state became a very dangerous place. A war between government and the Caballeros Templarios drug cartel had began to escalate into a Low Intensity Conflict (LIC). It immediately became evident and the level of control by the Caballeros Templarios was in many counties complete control i.e. every public sector employee worked for cartel or had to "align with them."

On February 2013, Doctor Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde and a group of leaders in the community of Tapalcatepec formed the first Self -Defense group (Grupo de Autodefensa) and declared war against the Caballeros Templarios.

Dr. Mireles made public the abuses such as extortion cases that extended to even local governments, killings, kidnappings, and rapes of their teen daughters, as young as 12 years old. And he went even further to denounce the political and police forces that were tied up with the Caballeros Templarios.

One figure that was denounced by Dr. Mireles was the Secretary of the Government of Michoacan Jesus Reyna, who was arrested on April 4, 2014 for having ties with the Caballeros Templarios.

The Self-Defense groups in Michoacan began to take control over many of the counties and began to battle the drug cartel with the assistance of the Mexican Military and Federal Police.

They assistance of these civilian armed groups has been valuable in the last year and should continue until the law and order is restored.

Today, the hunt continues for Servando Gomez Martinez aka “La Tuta” who is going to be arrested or killed shortly, since most of his partners have suffered one of these two options.

Today, about 15 states in Mexico have groups called Self-Defense Groups and Community Police Forces, because the state has failed to provide security. Therefore, this has changed the dynamics from a purely law enforcement drug war into an intelligence war, where intelligence operations today dominate, something criminals were not used to.

Most high-level arrests are now conducted without firing one shot. The Mexican government officials make sure that they mention during their press conferences that the US had nothing to do with the arrest or how little the US had to do with the arrest.

What has NOT changed?

There are many things that have not changed. Corruption in the US border is rampant. Public officials and police members are in close quarters with the Mexican Drug Cartels. The discoveries of the sophisticated tunnels that connect Mexico with the US are serious National Security concerns.

The recent scandal of Sheriff Lupe Trevino from Hidalgo County, Texas, a border county, and his son in jail for working for the drug cartel is one of many issues of corruption on the US side of the border that must be addressed.

On the other hand, a drug war cannot be fought without guns. The drug cartels, all of them, enjoy our relaxed gun purchase options and they even accompany “straw buyers” to make purchases.

These straw buyers and entrepreneurs (who want to make money selling guns to the cartels) are not buying 30-06 weapons for hunting purposes. They are purchasing AR-15 and AK-47 rifles and a lot of ammo. They are also purchasing communication equipment and tactical gear, such as bullet proof vests. The stores are just happy to sell.

Legislation attempts have failed in congress to enact better laws to punish these straw buyers of guns that have one goal and one goal only—to end up in the hands of a drug cartel member. Something must change on the US side.

The arsenals that are found in Mexico with even receipts of purchases in the boxes are disturbing to say the least. The Fast and Furious scandal pales in comparison to what really happens inside gun stores all over the US border.

However, for politicians is more "sexy" to keep bringing back Attorney General Eric Holder into the spotlight of the Fast and Furious scandal without addressing the other problems of guns sold to cartels.

In another front, that does not relate to border problems, the drug use in the streets of most large cities remains high and uninterrupted by police efforts. There is little or no training for local police forces to interdict the drug cartel operations in these cities and towns.

It appears that the idea in the US is that the DEA should handle these operations means that when a local police agency arrests someone they do not need to ask questions and try to find their drug cartel ties.

This is frustrating and it is costing billions of dollars when you add the costs to prosecute drug arrests where illicit drugs are involved.

Is the drug war now becoming a different animal?

In Mexico, the drug war is becoming a different animal there is no question. Combining the intervention by their armed civilians, coupled with the police and military forces inability to combat the cartels and their violence, are situations that cannot be ignored by the US.

This drug war is not something that is taking place in Colombia… it is taking place feet away from the US Border checkpoints. It is fascinating to see the US Customs and Border Protection officers take cover when the shootings begin just on the other side of the Rio Bravo.

“Bullets travel and we need to take cover for our own safety,” one of the officers in the McAllen border checkpoint told me back in September 2012.

Here are some key factors that have fueled and transformed the drug war into a different animal:

1. The creation of irregular groups in Mexico (Grupos de Autodefensa and Policias Comunitarias led by civilians). They have zero Human Rights training or even police training. A few of them have now incorporated into the Policia Rural.Lately, many of these civilians have been arrested as well.

2. The inability for the US to effectively reduce or stop the flow of drugs into the streets.

3. The inability for US to effectively train police forces all over the US to learn to detect drug cartel activities.

4. The inability for the US to arrest these involved in legal businesses structures in the US that continue to tailor their activities like banking activities to assist these criminal organizations launder billions of dollars.

5. And lastly, there is a current lack of federal legislation to punish people buying guns and ammo for the drug cartels. Keep in mind, I am a Second Amendment advocate, but it makes me sick to see guns just continue to be sold to straw buyers for the cartels.

For now, the situation in Mexico will not change much, as the matter fact, things in Mexico could get worse for a while (even for the next decade).

What is NEXT in the Mexican drug war?

Watch the upcoming attempts by the Mexican federal government to disarm the self-defense groups. It could ignite an internal conflict.

In the US side, the US could do a lot of things, if the desire was there. Enact federal laws to punish these straw buyers and the entrepreneurs who want to make money selling guns to the cartels. The relationships between drug cartels and public officials on the US side of the border must be investigated. It is time to root out corruption in the US border.

Additionally, the US government could launch an all out war against the drug cartels everywhere in the US. And actually jail some of the bankers working for the drug cartels.

Drug cartels are not a problem for the law enforcement agencies on the border only… they are deep into the US and inside small and large cities. They are a plague that must be dealt with!

Perhaps waiting for the drug war in Mexico to deteriorate even more will cause the US to actually take a much different approach.