The Mexican Lesson: The Other Militarization – by David C. Martínez-Amador (El Faro)

~ This opinion piece was originally published by El Faro of El Salvador on April 15, 2012 ~


For almost six years I have covered the development of violence stemming from the militarization of the drug war in Mexico. I have traveled the states of Sinaloa, Durango, Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, along with the border regions around Ciudad Cuauhtémoc, Mexico, Huehuetenango in Guatemala and that country’s northern region of Petén as well as Puerto Limón in Costa Rica. I know the drug trafficking routes and the new forms death takes. My interest is the study of the inner mutation of criminal organizations using tools taken from classical anthropology. But today I am trying to reply to a complex question: What are the possible effects of the militarization of the fight against drugs in Guatemala and El Salvador? I can relate this response to two facts: a) the appointment of a former army officer as El Salvador’s Justice and Security Minister; and, b) the decision of the President-elect of Guatemala (the retired General Otto Pérez Molina) to use special military forces in the fight against drugs.

By way of introduction, I want to present the following arguments. It is necessary to propose that methodologically it is not valid to translate one scenario (that of Mexico) onto Central America. With that said, it is also important to consider:

  1. Violence in Mexico began before the militarization of this conflict and the creation of the Mérida Initiative. The deaths attributed to [Beltrán Leyva Cartel Lieutenants] El Grande and to La Barbie in just six months (with the last two months under [Arturo Beltrán Leyva]’s control when he was loyal to his cousin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán) amount to more than 3,000. The same can be said about the war between the Arellano Félix and Joaquín Guzmán for control of Tijuana. More than 1,000 deaths. All this before 2006. As a result, when the State militarized the conflict the Mexican [drug trafficking] groups already had considerable military experience. That’s not the case with the Mexican military.
  2. In Mexico the Army’s deployment is permanent, without a political agreement to justify its duration.
  3. In Mexico, coming and going from every significant location in northern states has been militarized. Military personnel, hardly prepared in the matter of human rights, constantly scrutinize the civilian population.
  4. In Mexico, an X-ray of its land reveals seven clearly identifiable cartels, with particular territories and an unknown number of satellite cells operating out from under any specific authority. In Guatemala, DEA operations are atomizing the traditional cartels. The question remains as to whether or not leaders are being reconfigured.
  5. Turning, then, to Guatemala and El Salvador, it remains lamentable that their armies are considered incorruptible. Militarization’s predictable agenda of combatting drugs in the region has brought the army closer to the narco, resulting in the corruption of the troops and all those in command. It would not be strange if the military officers decided to go over to the dark side before the bloodiness of future abductions.

Bearing these elements in mind, I will try to describe what is going on in Central America. First, it has southern Mexico as a neighbor. Guatemala has seen how all the local and traditional drug trafficking groups have been affected by the onslaught of the security forces. Militarizing the approach to this problem requires understanding the response from Mexican groups operating in the country (from Sinaloa and the Zetas) will not be weak like that of the local groups. That’s especially the case since they can import members who come from Mexican locations where the bloodiest battles have occurred.

Second, the Mexican groups have responded with training a military elite so there should not be any surprise when the Mexican groups use them. The Sinaloa Cartel (with its armed wing known as Gente Nueva) and the less traditional group – The Zetas – are now atomized structures that know how to operate as cells of no greater than six members and under codes of violence never before seen in organized crime groups. What is certain is that the Mexican groups would have an initial disadvantage – from operating in Central America – because of not knowing the land, but they could still respond with some devastating acts.

I have three concerns:

  1. Whoever designs the new strategy must not forget that they are dealing with criminal groups (the Mexican cartels) who are accustomed to punishing the civilian population (remember the burning of the Casino Royale in Monterrey, with people inside.)
  2. Central America could very well be the testing ground for Mexican criminal groups – that are now copying their subversive training – to do things that they could not do in Mexico. Remember that the current Zetas received their training from the original GAFES [the Mexican military’s black operations force] who deserted from the Mexican Army. That also means that they are capable of operations with explosives and may try bomb attacks. Will Central America become the “little school” for Mexico’s narco terrorists?
  3. Mexico’s military officers – today – work under a degree of stress and paranoia. The same thing is happening with the drug traffickers. In conclusion: the abuses against the civilian population result from two armies in conflict. Mexican groups will import people with experience of war in Central America as a response to militarization. These imports will tend to injure the civilian population (for reasons of war or for pleasure).

The Central American states can militarize the attack on drugs but no state can totally protect the civilian population. Militarization is easy but cleansing the prosecutors’ offices and prosecuting the financial officers belonging to the Zetas, Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels operating in Guatemala and El Salvador is a difficult task. It is going to reveal the collusion between the financial sector and businessmen with the narco. For the state, militarization is easy. But the militarization of “rascals” will produce legions of terror that nobody will be able to stop. That’s Mexico’s great lesson.

David Martínez-Amador teaches courses about organized crime in universities throughout Central America. He has published articles with InsightCrime and writes a regular column for Guatemala’s Plaza Pública. This article was first published by El Faro on 15 April 2012 under the title, “La lección mexicana: la otra militarización,” available at:

Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons. The MxJTP has a Facebook page: like it, here.


About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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