The Mexican army’s increasing role in the war against drug cartels has prompted concerns about a potential overstretching of its deployed troops and the impact this could have on morale as well as the army’s capabilities for traditional responses, including natural disaster relief and stationary deployments for guarding strategic facilities and infrastructure such as oil pipelines.
During the Calderon era, the number of soldiers assigned to antinarcotics operations has almost doubled from 23,000 to 45,000. At the same time, the number of soldiers deserting the army has increased to unprecedented levels, without the Federal Government taking meaningful steps toward reversing this trend or making the army more efficient.
The army’s reputation as a professional, well-disciplined force is being eroded as respected watchdog groups, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, document escalating allegations of human rights abuses by the Mexican military.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Defense (SEDENA), between January 2002 and December 2006, more than 140,000 soldiers deserted the Mexican army. Although to a lesser degree, this trend has continued into the Calderon era with at least 48,000 soldiers deserting between in 2007-2009, despite improvements in salaries and fringe benefits during this era. While the majority of desertion has taken place among low-ranking troops, the number of army specialists deserting is on the rise—a previously unseen phenomenon.
The first part of this report looks into the causes of desertion and the impact this might have on the army’s capabilities for traditional responses as well as in the war against drug cartels. The second part of this report takes a broad view of the army’s structural problems and other emerging factors, which will be obstacles for the army’s performance in the long run.
Causes of desertion, low morale, and corruption
Sources interviewed for this report concur this is rooted in the army’s low salaries and poor working conditions, which are particularly acute for low-ranking troops with a poor educational background. Another related factor is distance from family; it is not being far away from family per se that discourages the troops, but the fact that travel expenses paid by the army are minimal (often less than 15% of total). Thus, the farther a soldier is stationed away, the more expensive it is for him to visit his family.
Sources cite the principal reasons for low morale are the many sacrifices imposed by the army’s involvement in the war against drug cartels. During the Calderon era, the number of soldiers assigned to antinarcotics operations has almost doubled from 23,000 to 45,000; plus 5,000 navy and 5,000 transferred from the army to the federal police.
Army rotation as a cause of desertion and low morale
The rotation of deployed troops is yet another disincentive to be in the service. Deployed soldiers could spend from three to eight months in particular areas, depending on the risk of becoming corrupted. However, sources agree that rotation itself is not the core problem, but rather the places where soldiers are deployed, as well as the conditions in which soldiers are forced to live.
Relocations to zones under stress (i.e. trafficking routes with a presence of violent groups, hostile or isolated communities) expose soldiers to extra dangers and burdens. Sources note these relocations often necessitate living in makeshift facilities that further alienate new recruits, who are often employed to do manual labor such as destroying drug crops and patrolling strategic points in remote territories, such as woodlands and deserts.
This type of rotation* has always been a common practice for troops assigned to particular missions such as destroying crops of marijuana or poppy seed. However, as the war against cartels has taken a greater dimension, so has the number of troops which are being deployed and rotated. Although these military deployments are often relaxed by retraining, vacations, and less stressful or administrative activities, the deployments of troops nowadays are more frequent, more exhausting, and not necessarily followed by any of the relaxing activities mentioned above.
[* Not to be confused with the “policy of rotation,” which only applies to higher posts of the army. This policy was designed to prevent the higher ranks from being corrupted by the cartels, local politicians, or powerful landlords, and/or from acquiring extraordinary powers in the zones where they operate. The principle is the same, however rotation of higher ranks usually happens every three to six years, depending on the nature of the appointment.]
Now with increased frequency, deployments to conflict zones expose the military (mostly lower- and middle-ranks) to threats against their lives or their families, a previously unknown phenomenon.
Finally, soldiers in the war against cartels are increasingly used for short-term, highly dangerous missions (i.e. capturing drug lords or large confiscations) where the probability of clashing with heavily armed groups is imminent, a risk for which there is little reward.
Other related factors of desertion and low morale
There have also been some legal issues about the transfers from the army to reinforce the federal police, which have divested soldiers from some of the benefits they had in the army. The latter was a key factor in soldiers deserting the army during the Fox administration, but the problem still persists (“Desertan del Ejército uno de cada cinco militares,” El Financiero, March 12, 2009).
Desertion, Deployment Rotations: Implications on the Mexican Army’s Capability
Despite the high rates of desertion, both military and academic sources indicate the army does not have a shortage of human resources that could jeopardize its performance in case of an emergency, nor does the frequency of rotations constitute a serious threat to military responsiveness or mobility. These sources confirm the army has given a high priority to preparing for multiple complex scenarios involving natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods. For this purpose, the army maintains a specific number of soldiers stationed in each one of the country’s 12 military zones, which vary according to probability of disaster. This plan is known as DN3 (Defensa National 3) and it involves constant planning and re-training of soldiers. These soldiers are independent from those troops involved in anti-narcotic operations. Thus, according to sources, a challenge posed by natural disasters can easily be managed by the army.
However, two different sources believe that the size of the Mexican army (which consists of 200,000 ground troops ready for deployment, but no reserves) is small when geographic and demographic factors are considered. One source states that if the lawlessness and high levels of violence in certain regions or cities—such as Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua State—are considered as a potential source of instability, then the number of soldiers currently being deployed to these hotspots is extremely small. This source notes that, according to a number of military doctrines, there should be one soldier per every 50 inhabitants in a conflict zone. However, in Ciudad Juarez, which has two million people, the army has only deployed 7,000 soldiers (plus 3,000 police) to reinforce security—the latter being the largest contingent in a Mexican city. Yet, according to that previous assessment, there should be at least 40,000 soldiers in this area.
Of course, even doubling the number of troops currently deployed to the most serious hotspots would entail a great deal of problems. It would effectively overstretch the army, but more importantly this would be politically impossible for a number of reasons that relate to the army’s performance and unethical conduct.
Nevertheless, increasing the size of the army does not seem to be a priority. Despite the high levels of desertion, it was not until this year that the Mexican army increased its recruiting posts from 380 to 450—still a small number (“Refuerza el Ejército plan de reclutamiento,” El Mañana, February 7, 2009). The army has not undertaken a more aggressive recruiting campaign (i.e. using mass media) simply because it has no shortage of elements.
Joining the Enemy’s Ranks
According to experts, a more acute problem faced by the army today is not overstretching or desertion per se, but the scores of soldiers that leave their ranks to join the cartels—a trend that has been on the rise since the early 1990s, when Mexico’s largest cartels began experiencing an unprecedented expansion. Even with a low-level of training, deserting soldiers bring with them a great deal of knowledge from the army, including secret codes.
At the very least, military recruits have shooting and tactical skills, and they possess more discipline and technique than the average civilian working within a given cartel.
The biggest risk comes from a small percentage of deserters who are experts in a particular field. Although there is no accurate estimate of how many deserters have joined with the enemy, recent detentions of members from the Zetas indicate a presence of former military specialists of which many have come from an elite group known as the GAFEs (Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales). The GAFEs unit was created to address the insurgency in Chiapas back in the mid-1990s. These elite soldiers also have training in skills which are often used to corrupt soldiers in the service.
One source recalls a large number of pilots who have deserted from the Mexican navy, in which case the navy has no information on their whereabouts. Because of the shortage of resources in the army and particularly in the navy, chasing after deserters to bring them into martial court is rare.
Despite mounting evidence of corrupt army elements, this has not prompted any structural changes or incremental reforms to reverse this trend. As one source notes with irony: “Mexico is perhaps the only country in the world where the state knowingly recruits and trains personnel for its own enemy.”
Training, Ethics, and Human Rights Violations
Deploying the army against the cartels has also exposed a series of problems that relate to the historical low-level of education and poor training of recruits. National and international journalists as well as the media and several human rights watchdogs have documented a large number of cases involving rapes, arbitrary detentions, extortion, torture, kidnappings, and murders of civilians by the army.
One of the sources states the Mexican Army is increasingly acting unlawfully: for example, executing cartel members that could and should have instead been arrested. In such incidents, the army is acting methodically like the cartels—“picking up” cartel members to torture them and tossing their bodies to have a scene appear like the work of a rival cartel. The source argues that these unethical methods explain particular attacks against soldiers, notably the discovery of the decapitated bodies of 12 soldiers in December 2008 in the state of Guerrero, as a vendetta by those cartels whose members have been executed.
Deficient Recruiting System
Most of the security experts interviewed for this report concur this problem of desertion and low morale is rooted in a deficient recruiting system that, because of its budgetary constraints, only becomes attractive to young people who want to escape unemployment but do not necessarily have a real interest in a military career. These recruits soon become overwhelmed by the burdens and sacrifices that the service demands. Other recruits only join the army until they save enough money to migrate to the United States. These sources agree it is urgent for the military to increase the benefits of being a soldier via better salaries and improved opportunities for young entrants.
Yet, at this time, the requirements for entering the army are extremely low. A soldier in Mexico is only required to have finished secondary education (a sixth grade equivalent). Because most recruits come from rural areas with poor education systems, this does not guarantee a minimal level of education. A large percentage of troops lack the most basic math skills, not to mention they rarely know how to spell.
Implications on the War Against the Cartels
The shortcomings in the army described above, which are de facto structural problems, are seen by security experts as a danger that will delay progress in the war against the cartels. These sources stress that despite some celebrated arrests and confiscations, the army has rarely met its own established timetables and broader objectives in this conflict, such as the eradication of criminal groups and the pacification of key zones.
The case of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua is particularly important given the heavy presence of the army and the federal police in the state compared to other regions. After experiencing a mild decline in violence between March and May this year, drug-related executions in the state have subsequently increased into unprecedented levels.
Drug-related Executions in the state of Chihuahua*
Source: EMPRA, based on statistics from Milenio.
* The bulk of executions have taken place in Ciudad Juarez, where the army is most heavily deployed.
Corruption also at the Higher Levels
Corruption in the middle- and higher-ranks of the army is another problem with long-term implications. In 2008 there were several cases of high-ranking generals suddenly arrested or forced to retire, given their role in protecting or passing sensitive information to a given cartel. These cases were not given the same coverage by the media as in the past due to a series of political reasons, but mainly because it was detected internally as opposed to the U.S. intelligence pointing it out.
Interestingly, during the mission which resulted in the arrest of 29 public officials (including 12 mayors) allegedly protecting the operations of the Michoacan based cartel, La Familia, the army did not notify the local battalion in the state and instead used an external contingent to carry out the operation—no less because it feared corruption within the local battalion could foil the mission.
Journalists also mention administrative anomalies wherever the army is deployed (i.e. manipulative spending, funneling of resources, etc.), which have become commonplace during the war against the cartels.
Lack of Transparency and Accountability
Although the army is still a highly respected institution, perceived as less corrupt and more professional than federal security agencies, the increased number of human rights violations have already begun to have a negative effect on the image of the military, particularly in the cities and communities where the army has a strong interaction with the people. At the same time, there is little accountability in front of the federal government regarding the army’s operational and legal procedures.
Because President Calderon has made the war against the cartels his political flagship, the federal government has avoided any bickering with the army. In fact, maintaining a cordial relationship with the army has been a priority for the Executive. Nevertheless, the above concerns have been noticed in the U.S. government; hence a series of conditions to increase monitoring of the Mexican army imposed by the U.S. Congress to grant the resources for the Merida initiative.
Finally, the Mexican army is being increasingly criticized by experts for exhibiting the same flaws as any other governmental institution (excessive bureaucracy, wasteful and discretionary spending, poor training), yet with even less transparency.
The Army’s View
From the army’s point of view, for decades the troops have suffered due to low levels of investment, which is to blame for many of its current problems. Historically, the army has been reluctant to participate in the war against drug cartels simply because it is not considered to be their duty, but also because it believes that its increasing involvement (1) responds to the high levels of corruption and inefficiency in both the Attorney General’s Office and the Ministry of Public Security; and (2) it believes the more involved it becomes in this conflict, the harder it will be to extract itself down the road.
Similarly, there is a growing perception that while the army has done its share in the war against the cartels (i.e. dismantling operations, large confiscations, dangerous arrests), the federal government has done little to reach the higher echelons of corruption, no less because the government is protecting certain untouchables which includes bankers, entrepreneurs, football team owners, and politicians. The latter are allegedly assisting the cartels with money laundering. The federal government is afraid that pursing money laundering will turn into a cascade of political scandals with potential destabilizing effects for the country’s political and business environment.
Outlook: Increased Discontent and Political Pressure
The current dynamics in the army described in this report (i.e. low salaries, deficient recruiting, desertion, and corruption of troops, middle- and higher-ranks) are unlikely to change any time soon. On the contrary, some academic and journalistic sources expect the army increasing involvement in war against the cartels will exacerbate the problems outlined above (i.e. increased exhaustion, low morale, desertion, corruption, and human rights violations). Consequently, a number of sources believe this offensive could strain relations between the army and the Executive, if the government is unable to deliver as the military demands more resources to modernize its forces and a stronger commitment from the federal government to seize the cartels’ financial assets.
For these experts, it is also urgent to undertake reforms that reduce the bureaucratic departments of the army and reduce sub-employment; improve training; and improve flexibility and transparency. According to military experts, these kinds of reforms would allow the army to be better prepared for internal as well as external threats.
In the past, several countries—notably Spain—have undertaken important reforms to restructure their armies while improving its effectiveness and responsiveness to threats. Yet, like any other reform that threatens to alter the status quo in Mexico, this will be met with a daunting opposition.
At least two sources mentioned that a meaningful reform that results in the restructuring of the Mexican army could only be motivated by increased pressure from the U.S. government in view of the lack of progress in the war against the cartels