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Mexican Cartels: A Strategic Approach

Mexican Cartels: A Strategic Approach Mexican Cartels: A Strategic Approach
To cite this article: Elkus, Adam, “Mexican Cartels: A Strategic Approach”, Infinity Journal, IJ Exclusive, 28 June 2011.

Mexico’s drug conflict is best understood by a strategic approach drawing from Clausewitz’s General Theory, classical understanding of strategy, and political realists who focus on the timeless struggle for both external and internal political power. Cartels are war-making entities whose origin and dynamics are well understood in strategic history, but have since been forgotten in an era of strong centralized states. Their power and lethality makes them worthy of the strategist’s study, especially in an era in which scholars increasingly — and erroneously — argue that classical strategic approaches do not apply to non-state warfare.

Elements of a Strategic Approach

A strategic approach begins from several assumptions. First, as A.E. Stahl argued in an article regarding non-state actors and armed rebellion, politics is best understood within Harold Laswell’s formula of “who gets what, when, and how.”[i] Second, as Richard K. Betts observes, the preparations and requirements for war always sit at the foreground of an actor’s calculus — even if the prospects for conflict end up being remote.[ii] Most crucially, actors — no matter their origin and composition — use strategy as an instrumental device to further a defined policy in war.

M.L.R. Smith argues that we use a morally neutral mode of analysis to evaluate policy and strategy.[iii] We cannot call an adversary “insane” or “irrational,” since states, communities, and civilizations are not patients on Freud’s couch. We must assume that their actions further defined political goals — even if such goals or actions aren’t optimal or always coherent. This is what separates war from small-scale crime and senseless murder, although both are certainly present in many wars.

Sub-state groups and criminal groups are often thought to defy these basic rules. But as Carl von Clausewitz observed, war obviously existed long before the rise of organized nation-states — and whole groups and communities have waged war according to their own understanding of policy.[iv] Moreover, the classic realist idea of an anarchic international system is a world lacking a powerful single authority to police it — an extrapolation of the basic condition of sub-state armed conflict that predates powerful central governments.[v]

This is exactly the type of environment that cartels compete in today. Criminal organizations operate beyond the law and cannot expect to receive legal resolution of their disputes. Moreover, due to the decay of Mexican government authority, for example, and the fact that government public goods are precisely the objects of competition, cartels are struggling over de facto political power.

A strategic analysis is not only appropriate but it will yield more analytical benefit than a purely criminological, area studies, or “new wars” perspective. Internal conflict in Mexico is the bleeding edge of the 2,300 year-old triptych of “fear, honor, and interest,” but a reluctance to utilize the tools provided to us by Clausewitz, Machiavelli, and others as well as unfamiliarity with a time in which war was not waged by powerful centralized states hinders our understanding of the struggle occurring south of the border.

Dynamics of “Warlordism”

The root of the present struggle lies in far more than drugs. The delicate balance of patronage has been eroded by political change and the dynamics of the drug trade — with deadly results.

Mexican internal politics has long been dominated by the powerful central state built by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).[vi] As Luz Nagle notes, systemic institutional corruption characterized the one-party state, leading to the familiar process (often seen in authoritarian systems) of extensive competition for “public goods” by various internal factions.[vii] Corruption, in this view, is not something aberrant but a political lubricant that maintains equilibrium within interlocking systems of patronage. The PRI’s decline unhinged this balance.[viii]

Powerful drug cartels built around the domination of singular personalities are not new in Mexico. However, the state decapitation of Colombian drug cartels — who controlled the drug trafficking routes to the profitable American market — opened up those plazas to new ownership. Extensive American surveillance of sea routes makes the overland route the only way to make money. Conflict escalated as the Mexican government attempted (futilely) to re-assert its authority, and old relationships tolerated by the PRI frayed.

What started as a straightforward underworld drug competition became a struggle for the state’s public goods, with cartels and their enforcers targeting everything from control of local governments to state-run energy monopoly PEMEX. Guatemala and other surrounding Central American states were drawn into the battle as cartels increasingly utilized border regions as sources of manpower and crucial logistical routes.

Is it war? Yes. If we understand politics as power over people, and war itself as political intercourse — a combination of policy and politics — with the added element of violence, the Mexican cartel war is a sub-state conflict between various criminal elites over the state’s licit and illicit resources. Between 34,000-40,000 Mexicans have died so far — making the cartel conflict far more than simply crime and low-level gangland murder.[ix]

The implicit arrangements that allowed political resources to be distributed without violence have broken down. Now the cartels are out to get theirs. The cartels can boast military-grade arsenals, private armies that can fight effectively on the small-unit level, and political power arising from their ability to extract resources from drugs and other “franchises.” Such power accounts for the lethality of their battles and their overall political impact on the distribution of Mexican politics and material resources.

The dynamics of warlordism on display in Mexico were second nature to Machiavelli and should not be foreign to us.

Policy and Strategy

Cartel policy can be understood as maximization of control of public and private resources. Although cartels have “diversified,” the most important object of the conflict is control over the plazas — hence most battles are concentrated around those routes. To achieve these ends, the ways are armed violence and the means powerful enforcer groups, co-opted police, military defectors, and other elements of the state captured by various cartel organizations. The “combats” that advance strategy are a mixture of small-unit operations, assassinations, and armed assaults against police and cartel headquarters and safehouses. Cartels must not only destroy adversaries but also survive governmental pressure in order to survive.

Often times, as befitting the nature of these organizations, the policy of the cartels is in fact the policy of one man or a group of men concerned with personal survival, power, and prestige — or Al Pacino’s own “trinity” of money, power, and beautiful women in Scarface. We are accustomed to a marked difference between the policy of the state and the personal imperatives of its leadership, which makes it difficult for many to see cartels as capable of making policy. But as Justin Kelly and Michael Brennan reminds us that for much of human history the policy, strategy, and tactics were concentrated in the body of one man — be it the king, tribal leader, or emperor leading his men on the battlefield.[x]

In such a dangerous strategic environment, cartels face the “security dilemma”— which is applicable in full to internal conflict.[xi] Cartels are part of an anarchical system of relations in which they are ultimately responsible for their own organizational — and personal — survival. New alliances and relative shifts in power, patronage, and access can have far-reaching effects. Fear of betrayal and the zero-sum nature of gains ensure that alliances remain purely tactical in nature. Slipping up means imprisonment and more frequently a grisly death. They must conquer or die.

Internal struggles for leadership are a constant, and smaller groups are forever splitting off. Los Zetas, the group of former Mexican commandos-turned-Gulf Cartel contractors has split off to form their own organization — turning on their former employers and targeting them ruthlessly. There is also the ever-present danger of the state — which although weakened — still commands significant resources and can utilize the Mexican Navy’s commandos for high-value targeting. Since cartels are in armed rebellion against government control, they are fair game for military resources often reserved for international and external enemies of the state.

Although cartels are certainly decentralized in many respects, the targeting of leadership can lead to a cycle of inescapable decay. Leadership vacuums lead to intensified internal conflict and a “feeding frenzy” process in which rivals keen on finishing it off relentlessly attack the now-weakened cartel and thus gaining control of its resources. In this respect, the cartels are similar to medieval barons who engaged in constant struggles for power and alliance politics. Often times, inter-cartel battles are an outgrowth of internal cartel political intercourse, much as external wars are expressions of internal state politics.[xii] External shocks often have a destabilizing influence on internal group politics and dynamics.

A recent example illustrates the cycle: La Familia, one of the newest and most brutal cartels, looks set to collapse under the pressure of losing six of its top leaders. The remainder split off to form a new organization, the Knights Templar. The foot soldiers left in the lurch are likely to be absorbed by the Sinaloa Cartel, which opposes La Familia’s hated adversary Los Zetas.[xiii]

The strategy of cartel combat is cumulative rather than sequential in nature. The relentless killing of enemy operatives and leaders, sophisticated raids on enemy territory by cartel battlegroups, destruction of resources and infrastructure, and use of force to coerce low-to-middle ranking government officials to choose sides adds up to wear down organizations until they either are reduced to shadows of their former selves or implode. Rival organizations then feed like vultures on the fallen cartel’s remaining men, territory, and logistics routes. Operations here are not so much about maneuvers on the battlefield as a cruel, brutal, and often blunt process to kill or intimidate an adversary and take his land. Killing is carried out both with advanced military weaponry and the bowie knife and machete.

For all of the ink spilled on information operations in the West, the cartels seem to have mastered the basics at a fraction of the cost. Brutal cartel killings intimidate, advancing strategic effectiveness by advertising the brutality with a variety of media methods. Cartel propaganda uses pamphlets, narcocorrido ballads, and most infamously YouTube postings of police officers being decapitated. These displays of power — coupled with the age-old promise of wealth — are enough to deter government and criminal rivals or convince them to defect.

This is not to say that all violence is rationally planned. Much of the violence associated with the drug war is spillover effects that manifest themselves on the lower level of petty but vicious gang warfare, mutilation and beheadings, and bizarre pseudo-religious sects known as narcocultos. Such behaviors were once common in Europe — the Thirty Years’ War being the most prominent example — and do not change the fact that deliberate policy and strategy guides the violence, not mass brutality. We would do well to pay heed to Clausewitz and note the constant tension between passion, chance, and reason.[xiv]

Managing the “marvelous trinity” is the greatest strategic challenge cartels face. They must maintain their organizations under constant warfare, tenaciously hold and exploit their territories for resources and infrastructure, and devote these resources to destroy their adversaries. Not all are up to the challenge, but the rewards for those who do are the stuff of narco legend.

Conclusion: “Silver or Lead?”

Contrary to their portrayal as irrational criminals, cartels are war-making entities that have set clear ends and use violence to achieve them. While their use of policy and action may not be identical to ours, it fits well within the rubric of classical strategic thought. The cartel conflict is about far more than crime, and cannot be understood simply by reaching back to the more familiar American experience of Prohibition. By looking at cartels strategically, which is to say the bridging of ends and means, we can see the dynamics of war at their most basic — war waged not by organized states with tanks and carriers but organizations and communities armed with guns and knives. Strategy and military history do not stop at the San Diego border crossing, as the cartel wars demonstrate “fear, honor, and interest” at their most visceral. The stakes are literally matters of life and death — those who enter the “business” either achieve power and glory beyond imagination or are brutally beheaded in front of millions of YouTube viewers.


[i] A.E. Stahl, “Getting Perspective: The 2000-2005 Palestinian Armed Rebellion,” Small Wars Journal, 1 June 2011,
[ii] Richard K. Betts, “Institutional Imperialism,” The National Interest, 19 April 2011,
[iii] M.L.R. Smith, “Strategic Theory: What It It Is…And Most Importantly, What It Is Not,” E-IR, 28 April 2011,
[iv] For more on this see Mark T. Clark, “Does Clausewitz Apply to Criminal-States and Gangs?” in Robert Bunker (ed), Criminal-States and Criminal-Soldiers, New York: Routledge, 2008, 79-100 and Carl von Clausewitz and Peter Paret (trans), On War, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 708-709.
[v] A point made by Anthony Vinci in Armed Groups and the Balance of Power: The International Relations of Terrorists, Warlords, and Insurgents, New York: Routledge, 2008.
[vi] See Enrique Krauze, Mexico: A Biography of Power, New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.
[vii] Luz E. Nagle, “Corruption of politicians, law enforcement, and the judiciary in Mexico and complicity across the border,” in Robert Bunker (ed), Narcos Over the Border: Gangs, Cartels, and Mercenaries, New York: Routledge, 2010, 95-123.
[viii] June S. Beittel, “Mexico’s Drug Trafficking Organizations: Source and Scope of the Rising Violence,” Congressional Research Service, 7 January 2011, 5.
[ix] Daniel Hernandez, “How Many Have Died in Mexico’s Drug War,” La Plaza Blog, Los Angeles Times, 7 June 2011,
[x] Kelly and Brennan, Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy, Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute, 2009, vii.
[xi] See Barry R. Posen, “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict,” Survival, vol. 35. No. 1, Spring 1993, 27-47.
[xii] Beittel, 12 and Phil Williams, “El Crimen Organizada Y la Violencia: Una Perspectiva Comparativa,” ISTOR: Revista de Historia International, 11th year, No. 42, Fall 2010.
[xiii] Mariano Castillo, “Drug lord's capture means demise of La Familia cartel, experts say,” CNN, 22 June 2011,
[xiv] Christopher Bassford and Edward J. Villacres, “Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity,” Parameters, Summer 1995. Available online at