Here Come the Marines!: Mexico's Plan to Smash Its Drug Cartels

July 17, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: MarinesCartelsMilitaryWarDrugsMexico

Here Come the Marines!: Mexico's Plan to Smash Its Drug Cartels

(No, not American Marines.)

Key Point: Despite its small size, Mexico's Navy is widely trusted and seen as more reliable than the Army.

Compared to their counterparts in the United States, the United States Navy and Marine Corps, the Mexican Navy is small— around sixty-six thousand. The Mexican Naval Infantry, their Marine Corps, is even smaller— numbering only about eighteen thousand.  

In contrast to the United States Marine Corps and the United States Navy, the Mexican Navy’s main missions have typically been coastal protection, which in the United States would fall to the U.S. Coast Guard. Assisting the civilian populace following earthquakes or other natural disasters, defending oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, intercepting boat-born migrants, and drug interdiction through boarding and seizing boats and semi-submersible narco submarines. 

Despite their small size, they are the go-to force when combating the Mexican criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking—widely trusted and seen as more reliable than the Army. They’ve also racked up a string of successes, despite being many times smaller than the Mexican Army. 

An Ossified Army:

For historical reasons, United States troops in Mexico are a taboo topic. An intensely nationalistic streak runs through the Mexican Army. Lingering resentment against the United States runs deep. For this reason, the Mexican Army conducts little training with the United States. 

The Mexican Navy was spared most of the humiliation experienced by the Army during the 1916–1917 American expedition into Mexico to capture Pancho Villa, or during the 1914 American occupation of Mexican port city Veracruz. Being sea-based, the Mexican Navy also did not suffer nearly as many losses as the Army during the Mexican-American war, which was predominantly a land conflict. As a result, Mexico is one of the least connected of the Latin American countries to the United States, militarily speaking. 

Therein lies the reason for the Navy’s reputation as an efficient and professional fighting force, unhampered by deep-rooted corruption endemic in the Mexican government and military. “In the last 10 years, UIN [Mexican Naval Intelligence] has become the most trusted Mexican intelligence service for the DEA and DIA,” explained Dr. Raúl Benitez-Manaut, a professor at the National University of Mexico, and an expert on Mexican security and defense issues. “[The Navy’s] construction was based on a lot of training in the United States, UK, France, and Spain. It has civilian and military intelligence teams unlike the Army, which are only military.” 

Part of their success lies simply in being based at sea, rather than land. Unlike the Mexican Army, Mexican Naval Infantry does not have extensive inland bases, giving them a measure of insulation from cartels—and corruption opportunities. 

Since it is a significantly smaller branch than the Army, the Navy is much more tight-knit. Naval officers have a closer relationship with each other, as most are graduates of Mexico’s naval academy. Closer personal ties help to prevent secrets deals and backdoor cash—subjecting officers to random polygraph tests also helps. 

American Intel, Mexican Manpower:

Despite disagreements over tariffs and trade, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Defense Intelligence Agency have managed to cultivate close ties with Mexico. 

Beginning with the signing of the 2008 Mérida Initiative, a cross-border training and capacity-building cooperation agreement between the United States and Mexico, U.S.-Mexican cooperation increased, with a particular focus on the Mexican Navy and Naval Infantry. In a surprise 2009 statement, the Navy moved to keep all intelligence communications with the United States secret, in an effort to preserve secrecy and prevent potentially dangerous information leaks, further cementing ties, albeit quietly. 

Ties between U.S. intelligence and the Navy splashed across the news in 2012, when a U.S. diplomatic vehicle transporting two CIA officers and a Mexican Navy captain was shot at. The two CIA officers were wounded. Mexican Naval officials downplayed the incident, aware of the fact that cooperation with the United States could harm them at home, where they have much less domestic clout in government than their Army, with whom they compete for funding and resources. 

Fit to Fight:

Since the late 2000s, the Naval Infantry’s mandate has steadily expanded, from exclusively littoral or deep-water operations, to include land missions deep within Mexico, far removed from the blue. 

The Navy enjoys a high degree of trust from the Mexican people. According to a recent poll conducted by the Mexican newspaper El Financiero, the Navy, at 69 percent, is the most trusted organization in Mexico. This trust stems in large part from the steadily rising number of successful land operations they’ve conducted since their expanded responsibilities. 

“One of the Naval Infantry’s most important achievements was the dismantling of the criminal structure of the Los Zetas group, in the state of Veracruz, from 2008 to 2012,” said Dr. Benitez-Manaut. Unlike the Army, the Navy has sought out help from the United States and American Special Forces in honing their capabilities in order to improve the chances of mission success against various cartels and criminal groups. 

In addition to significantly damaging Los Zetas, Naval Infantry was responsible for killing the drug kingpin Arturo Beltrán Leyva in December 2009 in Cuernavaca, less than 50 miles from the capital. While 50 miles is not far removed from Mexico’s largest city, a large Army regional headquarters was even closer—mere blocks away. 

Two hundred Naval Infantry rappelled from helicopters to a luxury mansion where “El Muerte” had been having a party. There, they laid siege to the compound. In the ensuing firefight, six cartel members, along with Beltrán Leyva himself were killed. One Naval Infantry member also died. 

In Los Mochis, a city near the Pacific coast in Sinaloa, the Navy scored their biggest victory to date. The Navy and Naval Infantry’s most notable achievement has been Operation Black Swan in 2016, the operation that resulted in “El Chapo” Guzman’s third and final capture. Black Swan was reportedly conducted in tandem with American Special Forces, which would be evidence of a very high level of cooperation between the United States and Mexican Navy. 

The National Guard— A National Disaster?:

President López Obrador has made the creation of the National Guard, or Guardia Nacional, as it is known in Spanish, the centerpiece of his new security strategy, where pacification in some form, other than military force, is to be used to end the war on drugs. 

“The president decreed the end of the war on drugs on January 31, 2019,” emphasized Dr. Benitez-Manaut. “The Navy was excluded from the main efforts of the President in his new security strategy. Its most important members come from the Army.” Dr. Benitez-Manaut estimates that roughly 80 percent of the members of the National Guard came from the Army, most in leadership positions. Only 8 percent have a naval background. 

This raises serious questions about the future efficacy of the National Guard, especially considering the pervasive corruption question. When based on land, will the Mexican Navy, and Naval Infantry be able to preserve their reputation as a disciplined, effective quick-reaction force? Only time will tell. 

Caleb Larson holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics, and culture. This article first appeared in 2019 and is reprinted here due to reader interest.

Image: Reuters