By David J. Danelo
As 2010 ends, U.S. diplomats have spent less energy on holiday festivities and instead are working overtime to prevent trust with foreign governments from evaporating after thousands of leaked documents became public. Despite the outcry over the consequences of secret U.S. government activities being made public, the released diplomatic cables offer surprisingly little new information about events occurring in much of the world. Interested observers already know Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is a hedonistic cad and Vladimir Putin is the power behind Russia’s kleptocracy. Instead of stunning secrets, most of the messages show the limitations of U.S. policy as leaders confront messy and all too real twenty-first century geopolitical dilemmas.
This includes Mexico, where the WikiLeaks revelations illustrate and clarify circumstances widely assumed to be true. Since October 2009, Mexican officials have expressed fears of losing control of Mexico’s north to U.S. authorities. The United States has responded with increased intelligence sharing and tactical cooperation, including direct partnership with Drug Enforcement Administration agents, as well as the Mexican Navy and Marine Corps. Despite these efforts, U.S. officials express frustration with the lack of cooperation between Mexico’s various military and law enforcement agencies, which has resulted in a fragmented capacity to establish long-term and credible partnerships.
Last month, my E-Note focused on the geopolitics of northern Mexico – a region that U.S. officials must understand if they intend to develop an enduring security partnership with Mexico City. Just because a strategy has been effective in one particular region does not mean it will work in another. Although Baja California remains plagued by sporadic violence, this area has gone from being one of the most dangerous in Mexico to among the safest. As we know from recent headlines, the strategies in the Sierra Madres and Rio Grande Basin have failed to restore security. Since regional success does not always translate, U.S. and Mexican authorities must look to develop regional guiding principles they can use when planning for ongoing and future challenges.
Although Baja California is not fully stable – 13 drug addicts were murdered at a Tijuana clinic in October 2010 – a decisive shift towards peace began to occur over the past year. In January, authorities captured Teodoro García Simental, a drug lord with a fondness for boiling his enemies in lye. Additionally, although the Mexican military maintained both a regular and visible presence, commanders made a strategic decision not to conduct operations in Baja California’s major cities of Tijuana, Ensenada, and Mexicali. These events contributed to a sense that Baja California was ready for major business investment, which has fueled a perception that security forces have the upper hand.
Two things are noteworthy about Baja California’s modest degree of success. First, Mexico’s federal and state police were the lead agencies in attacking García Simental’s cartel, and their effectiveness is admirable and worthy of commendation. Second, it is important to acknowledge what did not happen. Neither the United States nor Mexico significantly changed any gun or drug laws. Mexico’s police and military, at least in Baja California, appear to have sufficiently increased their security capacity. Although Mexico has taken down other cartel kingpins, Baja’s subsequent turnaround and stabilization represents the only strategic success story in northern Mexico.
Why has this small victory been difficult to replicate in other areas? Baja California’s small population is primarily located in urban centers near the U.S.-Mexico border. Additionally, the rural areas in Baja have poorly developed roads and scant vegetation, making it difficult for drug traffickers to develop and conceal hideouts. Consequently, authorities require fewer resources to build counter-narcotics operations in Baja California than are necessary in the Sierra Madres and Rio Grande Basin. The actual and perceived legitimacy of federal and state police in Baja California, and the willingness of the military to play a supporting rather than supported role – especially in urban areas – also made the strategy effective. Instead of taking a lead operational role in developing actionable intelligence, Mexican soldiers stationed in the region operated primarily as screeners at fixed checkpoints and as a quick reaction force for federal police.  This reinforced the perception of Mexico’s reformed Federal Police as the “face” of the operation, which likely increased institutional cooperation and (somewhat) reduced the perception of widespread police corruption.
While maintaining a discreet presence in the background was important in Baja, the Mexican military should not necessarily keep the same low profile in the Sierra Madres. As the Caucasus and the Scottish Highlands have illustrated, the mountains have often been difficult for governments to tame. The Mexican military and federal police do not have enough personnel to secure the rugged terrain in Sonora and Chihuahua, which is no easier for vehicles to traverse than it once was for horses. Absent the authorities, most of the area is under the Sinaloa Cartel’s de facto control. Headed by Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, #937 on the 2009 Forbes roster of the world’s 1,000 wealthiest billionaires, the Sinaloa Cartel is widely seen as Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficking organization.
Because the Mexican military does not possess the resources to win a protracted fight with the Sinaloa Cartel, the “hands off” strategy in rural Sonora and Chihuahua is more problematic. Mexico’s defense secretariat has organized the Mexican Army divisions differently than the geopolitical regions identified in this article. Under Mexican Army structure, Baja California and Sonora have been placed under the same division command.  But unlike the case of Baja California, the terrain in Sonora, strength of the enemy, and nature of the threat requires more troops for rural patrolling than Mexican forces have available. This lack of resources means the Sinaloa Cartel and their rival drug traffickers can support operations indefinitely from rural bases. The security void in the surrounding highlands is one of the many reasons why Ciudad Juarez has become the murder capital of the world.
Issues north of the border also contribute to the local security vacuum. The six Mexican states bordering California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas have developed varying degrees of security partnerships with mirroring U.S. states. Many are ad hoc, and some have been formalized with political compacts. In 2006, Arizona and Sonora formed an official police partnership, which enabled authorities to share information, coordinate investigations, listen in on common radio frequencies, and develop joint operations at a direct state-to-state level.
But the Mexican state of Sonora now maintains a caustic and temperamental attitude towards Arizona, which has reduced security cooperation between state officials. Although intelligence sharing and operational partnership were once robust, cooperation became less effective when Sonora’s government protested Arizona’s controversial illegal immigration law. This development is a setback for everyone except drug cartels, who continue to fight over control of Ciudad Juarez and the surrounding regions.
During the past year, the Rio Grande Basin has witnessed the sharpest shift in conditions on the ground. Violence has spiked significantly since February, when the Sinaloa Cartel declared an alliance between the Gulf Cartel and La Familia Michoacán against the regional power Los Zetas. The Zetas responded by establishing roadblocks on a major intercontinental highway and ambushing two downtown Monterrey hotels. Prior to 2010, Monterrey, the wealthiest city in Mexico, had not been impacted by the drug wars. Home to many of Latin America’s most prestigious colleges, Monterrey had enjoyed an informal “cease fire” for decades; both cartel leaders and government officials sent their children to universities like Monterrey Tech, a school often considered as Mexico’s equivalent to MIT. This status as safe zone no longer exists.
The conditions that led to deteriorating security in the Rio Grande Basin are similar to those in Sonora and Chihuahua: federal and state authorities cannot control rural areas, which gives cartel leaders the bases they need to conduct operations in cities. The biggest difference is that instability in and around Monterrey is more politically significant than chaos in Ciudad Juarez. Both literally and figuratively, the Sierra Madres are remote. Although President Felipe Calderon certainly would like to defeat the Sinaloa Cartel, he can tolerate their dominance of the mountains. But Mexico City cannot tolerate terror in Monterrey.
This is a vulnerability that Los Zetas have exploited. By attacking Monterrey this year, Los Zetas have forced the Mexican government into overreacting in urban areas throughout the Rio Grande Basin and exposed their lack of authority in the rural regions. This has enabled the weakened Los Zetas to fight back against the cartel alliance. It has also fueled an academic debate over whether or not Mexico is facing an insurgency, which has only intensified sniping between Washington, D.C. and Mexico City, rather than their working together to develop a better strategy for defeating their common enemies.
Since 2006, when the United States reached an agreement with Mexico on what is now called the Merida Initiative, critics have referred derisively to the cooperative effort as “Plan Mexico,” comparing the effort to the U.S. assistance given to Colombia during the previous three decades. Ironically, many policy experts are now offering Plan Colombia as a success story and suggesting the U.S. military partnership could be replicated in Mexico. Although building the Mexican military’s capacity and offering technical assistance will continue to be valuable, these proposals offer little substance in addressing the regional issues that form the heart of the problem.
While U.S. military cooperation with Colombia has certainly reduced the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s operational capabilities and diminished their influence throughout the country, the Colombian example is not a useful model for structuring solutions in Mexico. Although institution building within Mexico’s judiciary and federal police has paid dividends, most recently in Baja California, Mexico’s government does not seek a robust partnership with the U.S. military. Most funding through the Merida Initiative has been designated for technical hardware, such as helicopters and unmanned surveillance aircraft. In contrast, Plan Colombia focused on training and “mentorship” through U.S. Special Forces, which granted wide ranging covert latitude for American troops to operate by, with, and through Colombian soldiers. If Mexico is working closely with the U.S. military – and recent reports suggest this is the case – they certainly do not want their citizens to know. 
Although the violence in Mexico has certain similarities with the troubles Colombia has confronted, the structural and geopolitical differences suggest that an identical approach to Plan Colombia is neither possible nor wise. Unlike the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Mexico’s drug cartels have no desire to reshape their country in accordance with Marxist ideology. In their behavior and strategy, Mexico’s narcotics groups seem to have more in common with Somali pirates than Colombian rebels: both groups seek to create anarchy so they can exploit the defenseless and dominate local markets.
Like Somali pirates in East Africa’s coastal villages, Los Zetas and their ilk have thrived in power voids, stealing money from merchants and becoming minor celebrities within their respective regions. While Colombia faced a political insurgency, Mexico confronts something like land piracy. The drug kingpins are bandits, shameless and powerful, sailing untouched through the mountains, marauding wantonly in their fleets of pickup trucks and SUVs. But the absence of politics does not make Mexico’s problems any less virulent. Analysts should pause before dismissing the drug violence as “only a criminal problem” simply because the Sinaloa Cartel lacks a political ideology.
As we have seen from the leaked diplomatic cables, it hardly seems conspiratorial to state that covert cooperation is active within elements of the U.S. and Mexican defense departments. But secret operations and public support of police reform are not adequate strategies. Indeed, covertly approaching the problem prevents both the U.S. and Mexican governments from taking the necessary step of developing an overt legal and diplomatic framework for security cooperation along the U.S.-Mexico border. The U.S.-Mexico Water Treaty in 1944, the La Paz Agreement in 1983 and the NAFTA Free Trade Zone in 1994 created cross-border corridors, established bi-national authorities, and provided geographic structure to partnerships. These treaties have been imperfect, but they have succeeded in unifying policy efforts at local, state and federal levels. The last security agreement publicly ratified by both the United States and Mexican Congress was the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which ended the Mexican-American War.
Since national security interests today are shaped by variables different from those in the mid-nineteenth century, it seems reasonable to update the doctrine that restricts tactical cooperation along the U.S.-Mexico border. For example, the boundary line between the United States and Mexico currently runs down the center of the Rio Grande, which was designated an international waterway in 1848 to facilitate cotton exports to Brownsville and Matamoros. This law prevents both the United States and Mexico from using their navies to patrol the river. Given the violence on both sides, as well as their history of nautical cooperation, U.S. and Mexican authorities could update the treaty to account for the current threat.
The goal of U.S. policy should be a partnership with Mexico that seeks not only to build institutions and enhance capacity, but also to restore security to the Sierra Madres and Rio Grande Basin. Achieving this objective will require sustained investment of trust and resources from both countries, something often easier said than done. “The people of the United States like to believe that political will and good intentions can solve most human dilemmas,” wrote historian T. R. Fehrenbach. “They often find it hard to understand Mexicans, who know better. Yet both heritages are vital parts of the American whole, and together they will forge its future.”  The implications of northern Mexico’s geopolitics offer this resounding lesson for confronting border instability: if the United States and Mexico do not hang together, then forces far more powerful than fretful diplomatic cables will eventually hang them separately.
David Danelo graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served seven years as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. His first book, Blood Stripes: The Grunt’s View of the War in Iraq (Stackpole Books, 2006), was awarded the 2006 Silver Medal (Military History) by the Military Writers Society of America. His most recent book is The Border: Exploring the U.S.-Mexican Divide (Stackpole Books, 2008). He is a Senior Fellow in FPRI’s Program on National Security. This article first appeared at FPRI (http://www.fpri.org) and is reprinted with permission.
1. I reached this conclusion from published reports, interviews with off duty Mexican soldiers stationed in Baja California, and personal observations. A Mexican soldier stationed in Baja California said in two years of being deployed, his unit encountered only one combat engagement. In 2009, at a rural location, Mexican federal police requested military vehicles, weaponry, and personnel as covering fire for an immediate takedown of a cartel safe house. The soldier said he provided suppressive fire from a mounted .50 caliber machine gun for the federal police, who completed the entry and takedown of the safe house. In other cities (Ciudad Juarez; Nuevo Laredo), soldiers, not police, remain the operational lead.
2. Mexico is organized into twelve military commands, and the zones are identified by roman numerals. Baja California and Sonora are in Zone II. Chihuahua and Coahuila: Zone XI. Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas: Zone IV. See Mexico’s government web site: www.sedena.gob.mx.
3. King, Tim. “Mexico Denies U.S. Special Forces Presence South of the Border,” Salem News.com, October 5, 2010.
4. T.R. Fehrenbach, Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico (New York: Da Capo Press, 1973, 1995), quoted from the forward, September 1994