Preventing the ‘Escobar Scenario' in Mexico
According to a recent New York Times story, the U.S. government is stepping up its assistance to Mexico's security forces in the battle against drug cartels. The article described a growing presence of private security contractors from the United States, along with a few CIA operatives, at some Mexican federal police and army bases. Many of the contractors are retired members of U.S. military special operations forces and the Drug Enforcement Administration. According to the article, the contractors are providing specialized training to a few selected units in the federal police and other security forces. Even more important, the contractors and CIA officers are establishing intelligence analysis centers alongside Mexican command posts.
Policymakers responsible for the U.S. assistance effort in Mexico seem to be applying some lessons learned during America's decade of war. The intelligence analysis centers the U.S. contractors are now setting up in Mexico are innovations developed by U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, and elsewhere. As described by General Stanley McChrystal in an essay he wrote for Foreign Policy, the centers are deliberately located down at the tactical level and gather collectors and analysts across intelligence agencies together in one room. The goal is to improve collaboration and more rapidly respond to incoming information and adversary activity. A decade of practical experience across the globe has refined this concept, which the United States is now exporting to Mexico.
The use of unobtrusive civilian contractors is another consequence from the last decade of experience with irregular conflict. I have recently discussed the increasing "civilianization" of warfare. Irregular adversaries have long taken on civilian guise in order to avoid the superior firepower usually wielded by nation-states. U.S. policymakers today find it politically untenable to use conventional military force, especially ground forces, against irregular adversaries. Increasingly more convenient are civilian substitutes such as CIA paramilitaries, contractors, and hired proxies. Mexico has long had severe cultural and legal prohibitions on a foreign military presence, especially from the United States. This will increasingly be the rule elsewhere in the world. But as we can see in Mexico and elsewhere, the U.S. government now has a well-established workaround.
U.S. assistance to Mexico may improve the tactical skills of elite Mexican security forces and a sophisticated intelligence operation may find targets for these shooters. But are Mexican policymakers directing their troops against the right targets? The rate of violence is as high as ever and there is no obvious decline in the flow of drugs into the United States. What is Mexico's counter-cartel campaign achieving?
At this relatively early stage in the conflict, the Mexican government's first goal is to prevent the creation of an alternative criminal center of power that could threaten the authority of the state. In the early 1990s, Pablo Escobar, the leader of the Medellin cartel, arguably became such a threat to the Colombian government, forcing it to resort to extrajudicial means to kill him and destroy his organization. Escobar used his drug income to become one of the wealthiest men in the world and used his money and private army to suborn large portions of Colombia's government, its parliament, its judicial system, and its security forces. According to Killing Pablo, Mark Bowden's account of Escobar's demise, Escobar's remaining opponents inside the government had to form a deal with right-wing paramilitaries to crush Escobar. Mexico's policymakers don't want a replay of that episode.
The Mexican government cannot stop the drug trade or its associated violence. But it can focus its police and military efforts against the top leadership of the largest cartels, a strategy it now seems to be executing. The goal is to prevent the "Escobar Scenario" from occurring in Mexico. Deliberately fragmenting cartels as they become menacingly large will invariably lead to more violence as surviving subordinate gang members fight over new feudal boundaries. This ugly process may now be occurring in Acapulco after the recent arrest of Moisés Montero Alvarez, the leader of Acapulco's Independent Cartel.
Acceptance of more violence and drug traffic may seem little different than surrendering to the problem. But at this point, simply preventing a rival to state authority should be counted as success enough. The U.S. government's intelligence contractors in Mexico will very likely make a critical contribution to that goal.