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How Mexico's Cartels Have Learned Military Tactics

EL MENCHO / 2 SEP 2021 BY CHRIS DALBY EN

As violence has continued to rise in Mexico year after year, criminal groups have adopted an increasingly militarized approach to their tactics, weaponry and training.

InSight Crime sat down with Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, founders of Small Wars Journal-El Centro and editors of a new book, Illicit Tactical Progress: Mexican Cartel Tactical Notes 2013-2020, which dives deep into how this evolution has taken place.

*InSight Crime co-director Steven Dudley is a Fellow with Small Wars Journal-El Centro.

InSight Crime (IC): Your latest book focuses on the tactical evolutions of Mexico’s principal criminal groups over time. How would you summarize that evolution? What are the most frequent “evolutions” seen across different criminal groups?

Robert J. Bunker (RJB): Cartel tactical evolution has been increasingly militarized over time with sporadic retrograde movements taking place, such as when the more centralized Zetas fragmented and their tactical sophistication was greatly diminished. Military standoff munitions—rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and 40mm type-launched rifle grenades—have been well integrated into the cartel arsenals. Enforcers or foot soldiers are increasingly wearing body armor, combat harnesses, and carrying assault rifles. 50-caliber rifles are fairly common and are typically utilized as the main armament of improvised armored fighting vehicles (IAFVs). Cartel videos, taken on camera phones and posted online, are appearing, which portray primitive narcotanque (narco-tank) battles taking place in some of the contested regions and plazas within Mexico. The cartels have also used improvised explosive devices (IEDs)—typically as threat messaging—along with the cyclical use of anti-personnel type car bombs, rather than those carrying larger payloads for infrastructure targeting purposes in Colombia in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

IC: What are the principal motors of these tactical evolutions? New weaponry, new methods of smuggling drugs, new pressures from the Army, National Guard or other criminal rivals?

John P. Sullivan (JPS): Mexican cartel tactical adaptation and innovation result from multiple drivers. First, it can be technological (e.g., new weapons) or non-technological—as seen in organizational factors such as forging new alliances, new organizational practices, non-traditional tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), new marketing practices and even organizational splintering and fragmentation. Tactical evolution allows criminal armed groups to gain an edge over competitors, accrue power and territorial control, and enhance profits and survivability. All of the factors mentioned are tactical drivers, but the interaction with criminal rivals or allies is key to promulgating new tactics and practices.

IC: Has the Mexican government and military been able to adapt their tactics in response?

JPS: The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that it varies over time and place. It also differs by levels of government, and again that is variable. Municipal and state police may adapt quicker due to the proximity of a threat and may have less organizational capacity. In contrast, federal forces, such as the National Guard, the Army and the Navy, have a greater organizational capacity to adapt to evolving TTPs. Indeed, at a strategic level, it could be argued that the deployment of the National Guard, a gendarmerie-type force, is itself an adaptation to tactical circumstances. Overall, tactical adaptation on both sides is key to tactical success. Negative adaptation, such as corruption and co-option of state forces to ensure personal safety, is also evident. Municipal and state forces have traditionally been more susceptible to these factors, which has tactical and operational and strategic ramifications.

IC: You report on how Mexican groups have increasingly had access to military-grade weaponry. What are the main ways they obtain such arsenals?

RJB: Sources for illicit weapons going to the cartels vary, but three primary sources for military-grade weaponry exist. The first source is 50 cal. Barrett semi-automatic ‘sporting’ rifles and semi-automatic rifles, such as AR-15s and AK-47s, were purchased by straw buyers in the US and then smuggled into Mexico. The ‘civilian’ model rifles can then be switched over to burst and full-auto capability. The second source is from looted Central American military armories, which have pretty much been cleaned out, and international arms shipments coming in from across the world, with China in the past being one of the major source countries. This hardware, such as the RPGs and other anti-tank weapons, launched and thrown grenades, and medium and heavy machine guns, represents true military-grade infantry arms. The third source comes from within Mexico itself and is obtained from corrupted political and military officials. This concerns military weaponry smuggled off Army and National Guard bases and arsenals in conflict zones and seized cartel weaponry that somehow finds its way back into the hands of the cartels rather than being destroyed.

IC: Mexico has seen areas where fighting between criminal groups, or such groups and authorities, has become bogged down, with front lines and even defensive trenches being drawn across different municipalities. I am thinking of areas such as Aguililla in Michoacán or around Irapuato in Guanajuato. Would you agree with that characterization?

JPS: I agree in part, but the situation is fluid and varies depending upon the phase of operations, terrain and actors involved. In addition, these are often tactical rather than operational choices. These TTPs are used to interrupt lines of communication (access and mobility by police, National Guard, and military and naval forces), canalize response (facilitating ambushes) or facilitate escape. The trenches are usually transient and are similar to narcobloqueos (barricades formed from debris and burning vehicles typically used in urban settings).

IC: There have been sporadic reports of the use of IAFVs, or “narco-tanks,” since 2015, including mention of a narco-tank factory run by the Gulf Cartel. But is there evidence these have ever been useful to achieve criminal goals, or are they simply a way for groups with the resources to build them to show off?

JPS: That depends upon what you mean by ‘criminal goals.’ The short answer is they use them because they have utility. That utility is both symbolic (projecting prowess) and instrumental (providing a means of protection and mobility to fighters). They are primarily used in cartel vs. cartel operations in areas where the cartels are battling for territorial control. They have been used in Monterrey by the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas. They have also been used by the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG), with a workshop for assembling these IAFVs discovered in Tuxpan in late 2019. And, of course, they have been used in Michoacán. The Sinaloa Cartel used lighter improvised armored fighting vehicles (IAFVs) in Culiacán to engage government forces in 2019 during the thwarted capture of Ovidio Guzmán López.

SEE ALSO: Why the Jalisco Cartel Does Not Dominate Mexico's Criminal Landscape

IC: Michoacan seems to see the most frequent use of IAFVs by autodefensas and the CJNG alike. What has their use achieved there?

JPS: In Michoacán, IAFVs have been used by the CJNG and Cárteles Unidos to project their presence and in armed inter-group commando battles. They have also contributed to the employment of anti-IAFV trenches by the Viagras, Cárteles Unidos and/or local community autodefensas (self-defense groups) to thwart CJNG IAFVs, monstruos (monster trucks), narco-tanks and soft-skinned vehicles and gun trucks with mounted infantry elements. Their use has been limited to the duration of CJNG offensives. The use of both IAFVs and anti-IAFV trenches is usually short-term, offering tactical advantage during sustained operations but little sustained operational or strategic benefit.

IC: The splintering of the Gulf Cartel leads to some interesting observations in terms of military strategy, with markings on vehicles and the potential use of more advanced strategies such as overwatch positions and kill zones. Your book references the start of the splintering in 2015 but have you seen any tactical evolutions there in the latest round of violence in 2021?

JPS: First, it is important to recognize that group fragmentation and splintering are both strong drivers of violence and tactical innovation. Second, the classic case of fragmentation driving such innovation is found in the Gulf Cartel-Zetas split in 2010. The 2015 splintering of the Gulf Cartel and battles for primacy among the Rojos, Metros and Cyclones, among others, involved the use of IAFVs, high-intensity firefights, and beheadings. Later indications include the possession of anti-personnel mines by the Gulf Cartel in Tamaulipas in 2018. More recently, we documented the use of underground bunkers by the Gulf Cartel, most likely by the Scorpions, in 2020 near Reynosa, Tamaulipas.

IC: The CJNG seems to be engaging in more and more “PR stunts,” from the show of force video in Jalisco to the unveiling of members without masks in Michoacán. But has the CJNG’s national spread and dominance been accompanied by an evolution in their force projection and use of superior numbers?

RJB: I’ll focus on the first part of the question as I address the latter one in a follow-on response. The cartels, including CJNG, utilize narratives (such as the social-bandit and Robin Hood themes) and propaganda all the time. Sometimes it’s clumsy and cringy—such as when a terrified townsperson is being given aid during the COVID-19 pandemic by heavily armed cartel fighters and tries to give a weak smile in appreciation. At other times, it appears much more sophisticated. As the CJNG gains in dominance, it is coming into increasing conflict with the government, which is forcing the cartel to engage in these types of strategic communication. The PR stunt of the cartel members not wearing face coverings readily signifies that CJNG is not afraid of governmental prosecution or targeting of its personnel. This portrays the implied impunity the cartel now enjoys.

The videos of the heavily armed CJNG commando units—with all their armored vehicles and firepower—impresses on the Mexican public, other competing cartels, and governmental agents the sophisticated military-like capability that it can now field. I see the PR stunts as a softer form of communication as opposed to the torture videos and narcoterrorism incident scenes (body dumps and narcomantas with messages written on them), which are meant to terrify the opponents of the CJNG.

IC: How challenging is it for groups with a large membership but horizontal hierarchy, such as Sinaloa Cartel or CJNG, to control tactical decision-making and training nationwide?

JPS: It is always a challenge for all organizations—government or criminal enterprises—to maintain organizational integrity. The networked nature of the Sinaloa Cartel of CJNG both aids and complicates that strategic decision-making authority. First, networked criminal groups are not unitary entities. They are often comprised of individual gangs and cells that have a loose affiliation with the larger ‘cartel’ enterprise. The control is often mutual benefit, personal influence, and violent enforcement when subordinate members or affiliates act contrary to cartel dictates. But, there is often a large measure of latitude as long as the strategic vision and financial tribute (cuota) is paid. Control is often devolved to subordinate elements.

This tactical flexibility is a double-edged sword. It can, and does, allow flexibility and tactical innovation but can also lead to competition for control and fragmentation. Information operations, instrumental violence, enforcing ‘group identity’ through narcocultura (narco-culture), and of course, income generation and profit-sharing opportunities reinforce discipline.

IC: Do all new recruits of CJNG, for example, get the same smattering of tactics, no matter where they come from?

RJB: CJNG is based more on a franchise model than the Zetas, who were more centralized and who they are commonly compared with. For this reason, their tactical sophistication varies widely between the different sub-franchises with no national or regional CJNG training academy system evident. That would be giving them too much credit. On the other hand, I’ve been viewing their kill-team and commando propaganda videos for some years now. The equipment of their personnel has greatly increased in sophistication, firepower and personal protection. The number of their improvised armored fighting vehicles and their unit sizes have also grown, akin to that of a mounted infantry company.

This makes me think that, in addition to the franchises, CJNG leader Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias "El Mencho," has developed one or more centralized cartel mobile forces that provide operational support to the franchises from time to time. These units would be far better trained than the franchise foot soldiers and would allow for superior CJNG concentration of forces against the localized defending gangs/cartels and autodefensas. Still, this capacity is not as evolved as under the Gulf Cartel (and later only the Zetas), who had very advanced command and control and intelligence units and thus could shift mobile strategic reserves throughout their territories. Still, it is cause for some concern about the growing power of CJNG. 

IC: While El Mencho usually remains quite low-profile in his Jalisco backwaters, his name has been increasingly used on videos and narcomantas in Michoacán. Considering he comes from Aguililla and seems to feel the Cártel de Tepalcatepec’s existence as a personal affront, do you think he views Michoacán as a personal vendetta?

JPS: Michoacán is his birthplace and, while it is hard to get into his head, there is often a personal and emotive attachment to your home. There are many influences on a leader’s decision-making and strategic choice. El Mencho is an aggressive and experienced transnational actor. He worked for the Milenio Cartel and transitioned that experience into making the CJNG one of the major criminal enterprises with transnational reach. He uses both instrumental and symbolic violence, as well as information operation, to reinforce his control. He has emphasized consolidating control far beyond Jalisco and Michoacán, notably to Guanajuato, but also Colima and Nayarit. His reactions against the Cárteles Unidos may have personal dimensions stemming back to the Milenio Cartel days. But in my view, this is largely strategic and intended to consolidate control, protect markets, especially the increasingly important synthetic drug market), and degrade rivals.

IC: Criminal fragmentation of Mexico’s main gangs has led to a newer wave of criminal groups. Would you agree that these smaller, localized groups tend to be more violent while chasing a smaller share of criminal economies? How/do their tactics differ from the larger groups they once belonged to?

JPS: Fragmentation and splinter groups are key drivers or beneficiaries of tactical innovation. The process of splintering is essentially a battle for power. This state of competition is often violent—with extreme violence used to demonstrate prowess and eliminate rivals. The tactical expression of that violence is often brutal, graphic, and characterized as ‘barbarization.’ The new ‘splinter’ groups often take the skills, TTPs, and tactical preferences learned in their former organization with them. This leads to a transmission of time-tested TTPs and proliferation of tradecraft to the newer groups. Our colleague Nathan Jones has described a ‘bacterial conjugation’ model where “violent tactics, techniques, and procedures such as dissolving bodies in acid, asphyxiation, and infantry tactics, through individual traffickers” are transmitted and amplified into new, at times more powerful groups. Occasionally, these new groups embrace novel or non-traditional tactics to enhance their share of illicit markets. At others, they seek new opportunities, such as microtrafficking in local Mexican markets or embracing new products such as fentanyl, or new weapons, such as weaponized consumer drones.

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