Mexico’s cartels continue turn to military, guerrilla tactics and training

by Bernd Debusmann Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organisations (DTOs) are continuing their trend of adopting military and terrorist training and tactics, allegedly with ties to (former) members of Colombia’s FARC guerrillas, experts warn.

In May 2015, the Mexican Federal police and dozens of suspected gang members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel fought intensely for three hours at a ranch in southwestern Mexico leaving 42 cartel members and one federal police officer dead. The authorities confiscated 36 semi-automatic weapons, two smaller arms, a grenade launcher that had been fired and a .50-caliber rifle.

In May 2015, the Mexican Federal police and dozens of suspected gang members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel fought intensely for three hours at a ranch in southwestern Mexico leaving 42 cartel members and one federal police officer dead. The authorities confiscated 36 semi-automatic weapons, two smaller arms, a grenade launcher that had been fired and a .50-caliber rifle.

In July, Mexico’s Centre for Research and National Security (CISEN) released a 17-page report that noted that the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) — which according to many is now Mexico’s fastest growing criminal organisation — has begun producing IEDs modelled after ones previously produced by FARC.

The IEDs, called “potatoes” because of their shape, are reportedly comprised of nuts and nails wrapped in aluminium foil. While CISEN noted that the bombs are notoriously unstable and dangerous to those who handle them, it said it “cannot rule out that these events [(IED attacks)] will increase in the future”.

The report also noted that members of the FARC – which laid down its arms in earlier this year – may “seek opportunities” working for Mexican organised crime groups.

Although the CJNG is a relatively new criminal organisation — having emerged in 2010 — Mexican authorities have warned that the group is among the most well armed and militarily most sophisticated in Mexico today.

A Mexican federal police stand next to a bullet riddled and burned car after member of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel ambushed a police convoy near the town of Soyatan, Monday, April 6, 2015.

A Mexican federal police stand next to a bullet riddled and burned car after member of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel ambushed a police convoy near the town of Soyatan, Monday, April 6, 2015.

In April 2015, for example, members of the group responded to the killing of a local cell leader, Heriberto Acevedo, aka “El Gringo”, in the state of Jalisco by ambushing a police convoy, killing 15 officers in what was the bloodiest blow to Mexican security forces since Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in 2012. During the well-executed and planned ambush, CJNG members allegedly used grenade launchers and automatic weapons to strike the convoy, whose path was blocked by burning vehicles on a highway. The CJNG group that carried out the ambush sustained no casualties, according to local authorities.

The following month, CJNG members even shot down a Mexican Air Force Eurocopter EC 725 Super Cougar in the same state, killing at least five soldiers. The incident marked the first time that a Mexican military aircraft had been shot down by cartel members. According to an account published in Rolling Stone magazine, the CJNG gunmen that met the helicopter were transported by armoured trucks, and wore matching camouflage uniforms with insignia which read “CJNG Special Forces High Command”. In an interview following the incident, then-National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido Garcia said that CJNG used an RPG in the attack on the helicopter. “This is a group that has very significant capabilities and firepower”, he said. “The fact that [they] attacked the Cougar helicopter with rocket-propelled grenades demonstrates the firepower of this group, which undoubtedly gives it a very special connotation”.

At the same time, CJNG gunmen used hijacked buses and trucks to block highways in the state capital of Guadalajara and several other cities, and launched simultaneous firebombing attacks on at least 11 banks and five gas stations throughout the state. According to a former DEA agent quoted in the Rolling Stone report, the CJNG offensive was designed to allow the CJNG’s leader, Ruben Oseguera Cervantes — alias “El Mencho” — escape the 10,000 troops that the Mexican government had sent in to pacify Jalisco. The tactic, he added, may have been learned from former members of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). “I’ve heard about Israelis meeting with them — snipers and stuff”, he said. “It’s a technical use of force you’ve never seen with Mexican cartels”.

Another federal investigator quoted in the report called the May 2015 fighting “a pretty amazing rapid deployment of forces. In hardly any time at all, Mencho got his organization to create chaos in the second largest city in Mexico. ‘Oh, you’re coming after me? I’ll show you who’s really in charge.'” This aggression, the investigator says, was almost unprecedented: “(CJNG) weren’t just reacting to raids. They were actively going out and seeking confrontation with authorities. You could argue that you hadn’t seen that type of initiative since Pablo Escobar“.

Although reports that the CJNG has received training or advice from former members of the IDF may seem far-fetched, it wouldn’t be without precedent. In the 1980s, Colombian right-wing paramilitaries and members of the Medellín Cartel received training from Yair Klein, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the IDF who ran a private military company called Spearhead Ltd. Nor would it be the first time in Mexico that cartels have reached out to foreign military personnel. In 2013, Michael Apodaca, a former private first-class who had served with the US Army in Afghanistan, was sentenced to life in prison for murdering a US government informant in El Paso, Texas. For the murder, Apodaca was allegedly paid $5,000 by members of the Juárez Cartel. Apodaca’s case came a year after a discharged US Army lieutenant and an active duty sergeant assigned to the 4th Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division pleaded guilty to commit murder-for-hire after they accepted a “contract” from what they believed to be members of the notorious Zetas cartel — who were actually federal agents. In addition to accepting a $50,000 offer to raid a ranch and recover 20 kilograms of stolen cocaine, the men also allegedly offered to provide training as well as assault rifles, grenades and body armour.

The Zetas cartel which the two soldiers believed they were working for, it should be noted, was itself founded by deserters from Mexico’s special forces, some of whom allegedly received training by the US military, and also includes former members of the Kaibiles, Guatemala’s elite counter-insurgency special forces units.

Given the vast resources of Mexican criminal organisations such as the CJNG — which has expanded rapidly in size and geographic scope over the last two years — it seems certain that they will continue to reach out to military expertise wherever they can find it, whether it be from former FARC guerrillas or members of foreign militaries.

As the CISEN report on the CJNG IED’s noted, the cartel’s military sophistication means that the Mexico’s military and police forces will have to “redesign strategies” to protect personnel and combat the criminals. Notably, the military training and tactics of the cartels will make it extremely difficult for the Mexican military to disengage from the fight against organised crime and leave it to civilian authorities — a strategy which high-level commanders have publicly advocated. “We’re not going to resolve the problem”, General Alejandro Ramos Flores, head of the defense ministry’s legal department, told Reuters in May of this year. “It’s a problem with more social and economic aspects. Everything has to converge to resolve the problem and return it to the authorities responsible for taking charge of this situation”. In December 2016, Mexican Defence Minister Division General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda, for his part, said that the war against drug cartels has distracted the military from its core functions. “We don’t want them to give us more responsibilities, or for them to give us the police’s responsibilities”, Ramos said.

But, given the fact that many state and local police authorities are under-equipped and notoriously corrupt, and that federal police are stretched thin, it seems impossible that Mexico’s military will be able to stop its repeated deployments to Mexico’s many troubled regions.

This entry was posted in Bernd Debusmann Jr, English, Mexico, Organised Crime, Security Policy.

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