manwaringA “New” Dynamic in the Western Hemisphere Security Environment: The Mexican Zetas and Other Private Armies

Strategic Studies Institute United States Army War College

A new and dangerous dynamic has been introduced into the Mexican internal security environment. That new dynamic involves the migration of power from traditional state and nonstate adversaries to nontraditional nonstate private military organizations such as the Zetas, enforcer gangs like the Aztecas, Negros, and Polones, and paramilitary triggermen. Moreover, the actions of these irregular nonstate actors tend to be more political-psychological than military, and further move the threat from hard power to soft power solutions.

In this connection, we examine the macro “what, why, who, how, and so what?” questions concerning the resultant type of conflict that has been and is being fought in Mexico. A useful way to organize these questions is to adopt a matrix approach. The matrix may be viewed as having four sets of elements:

(1) The Contextual Setting, (the “what?” and beginning “why” questions);

(2) The Protagonist’s Background, Organization, Operations, Motives, and Linkages (the fundamental “who? why?” and “how” questions);

(3) The Strategic-Level Outcomes and Consequences (the basic “so what?” question; and

(4) Recommendations that address the salient implications. These various elements are mutually influencing and constitute the political-strategic level cause and effect dynamics of a given case.

The Contextual Setting explains that the irregular conflict phenomenon in Mexico is a response to historical socio-political factors, as well as new political-military dynamics being introduced into the internal security arena. New and fundamental change began to emerge in the 1980s. Mexico began to devolve from a strong, centralized, de facto unitary state that had the procedural features of democracy, but in which the ruling elites faced no scrutiny or accountability. At the same time, Mexico started to become a market state that responded to markets and profits rather than traditional government regulation.

In that connection, we see the evolution of new private, nonstate, nontraditional warmaking entities (the Zetas, and others) capable of challenging the stability, security, and effective sovereignty of the nation-state. Thus, we see the erosion of democracy and the erosion of the state. In these terms, the internal security situation in Mexico is well beyond a simple law enforcement problem. It is also a socio-political problem, and a national security issue with implications beyond Mexico’s borders.

The Protagonist’s Background focuses on orientation and motivation. In this context, the Zeta is credited with the capability to sooner or later take control of the Gulf Cartel and expand operations into the territories of other cartels–and further challenge the sovereignty of the Mexican state. This cautionary tale of significant criminal-military challenge to effective sovereignty and traditional Mexican values takes us to the problem of response.

The power to deal effectively with these kinds of threats is not hard military fire power or even more benign police power. Rather, an adequate response requires a “whole-of­government” approach that can apply the full human and physical resources of a nation and its international partners to achieve the individual and collective security and well-being that leads to societal peace and justice. This kind of conflict uses not only coercive military force, but also co-optive and coercive political and psychological persuasion. Combatants tend to be interspersed among ordinary people and have no permanent locations and no identity to differentiate them clearly from the rest of a given population.

There is no secluded battlefield far away from population centers upon which armies can engage–armed engagements may take place anywhere. This type of conflict is not intended to destroy an enemy military force, but to capture the imaginations of people and the will of their leaders. Ultimately, the intent is to neutralize or control government and its traditional security forces so as to attain the level of freedom of movement and action that allows the achievement of desired enrichment.

Outcomes and Consequences illustrate where, in physical and value terms, contemporary criminal-military violence leads–and clearly answers the “so what?” question. In these terms, we take a close look at socio-political life in the State of Sinaloa. We center our attention on the reality of effective Mexican state sovereignty and the governing values being imposed in that “Zone of Impunity.”

The drug cartel, the enforcer gangs, and the Zetas operating in Sinaloa have marginalized Mexican state authority and replaced it with a criminal anarchy. That anarchy is defined by bribes, patronage, cronyism, violence, and personal whim. One is reminded of Thomas Hobbes description of life in a “State of Nature.” That is, life is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Finally, trends and challenges and threats are identified that will have an impact on Mexico and its neighbors over the next several years. And, organizational and cognitive Recommendations are offered as a point of departure for possible responses.


The power to deal effectively with the kinds of threats posed by the gang-TCO phenomenon is not hard combat firepower or even the more benign police power. Power is multilevel and multilateral and combines political, psychological, moral, informational, economic, and social efforts– as well as police, military, and civil-bureaucratic activities–that can be brought to bear holistically on the causes and consequences, as well as the perpetrators, of violence.

Ultimately, then, success in contemporary irregular conflict comes as a result of a unified effort to apply the full human and physical resources of a nation-state and its international partners to achieve the individual and collective well-being that leads to sustained societal peace with justice.

The actions, investments, and reforms needed to generate the kind of power that can address the macro-level strategic socioeconomic and police-military problems exacerbated by the gang-TCO phenomenon must come from the Mexican government and society. In the meantime, there is still much to be done. The United States, under the Merida Initiative, is providing a 3-year $1.4 billion aid package aimed at helping Mexico fight the drug cartels with increased law enforcement training, military equipment, and improved bilateral intelligence cooperation.59 Even though more micro tactical-operational level aid will help, the fundamental question is whether the Mexican, U.S., and other interested governments will focus on the problem long enough to change the drug war paradigm from a micro to a macro approach.

A macro strategic and practical approach to the gang-TCO phenomenon must begin with a mindset change and the promulgation of a cognitive basis for effective change. That is, while a combination of law enforcement and military power is necessary to deal with the problem, it is insufficient. The key to greater success in this kind of irregular conflict is “a shift in emphasis toward thinking better and fighting smarter.”60 Accordingly, the author of this statement from a RAND Occasional Paper argues that there are two requirements to fighting smarter.

They are to (1) create institutional conditions conducive to using brains more than bullets; and (2) implement measures designed to develop brain power and put it to good use.61

The first recommendation, then, requires the following:

  • A flat (rather than traditional hierarchical) organizational structure, with leadership cognitively prepared to coordinate and implement macro whole-of-government efforts to address the multifaceted and dynamic threat in a timely manner.
  • That, in turn, requires professionalization and modernization of civilian-police-military leadership capable of identifying and meeting critical analytical, planning, operational, and strategic decisionmaking needs (for example, institutional reform and personnel investment) for a prioritized and balanced approach to the larger issues of Mexican and hemispheric security.

The second recommendation involves a serious investment in people and brain power. That would entail:

  • Revising current personnel policies to recruit and promote individuals who demonstrate great intellectual aptitude for solving unfamiliar and ambiguous problems;
  • Providing continuing professional education and training and bilateral personnel exchanges at all levels;
  • Exploiting networks and networked information quickly and fully; and,
  • Decentralizing authority to make decisions.62

These recommendations call for some organizational reform and serious investment in improving civil­police-military cognitive capacity. It is time to take the wisdom of Sun Tzu seriously. He left for posterity this exhortation from the opening of his famous Art of War: “War is a matter of vital importance to the State. The province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.



  • Added September 25, 2009
  • Type: Monograph
  • 51 Pages
  • Cost: Free
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    Dr. Max G. Manwaring is a Professor of Military Strategy in the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) of the U.S. Army War College (USAWC). He has held the General Douglas MacArthur Chair of Research at the USAWC, and is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He has served in various civilian and military positions, including the U.S. Southern Command, the Defense Intelligence Agency, Dickinson College, and Memphis University. Dr. Manwaring is the author and coauthor of several articles, chapters, and books dealing with Latin American security affairs, political-military affairs, and insurgency and counterinsurgency.