Strategic Posture Review: Mexico

Strategic Posture Review: Mexico

As President Barack Obama learned during his whirlwind trip to Mexico in early May 2013, President Enrique Pena Nieto, like his predecessors, is eager to lessen his nation’s security, economic and trade dependence on the United States. During the visit, the U.S. chief executive discussed economic cooperation, education, border infrastructure, migration and the drug war. “We’ve done a lot of work with the previous Mexican administration on security issues and on economic issues. But sometimes the relationship gets characterized just as being about borders or just about drug cartels,” Obama told the Spanish-language network Telemundo.

Proximity, joint assembly ventures, and the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada have ensured that the lion’s share of Mexican imports (78 percent) and exports (89 percent) are with its northern neighbors, largely the U.S. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Mexico have drawn closer together through a web of investment, military cooperation, economic assistance, tourism, media, cultural exchanges and migration. The U.S. State Department reports that each day sees $1.25 billion in two-way trade and roughly 1 million legal border crossings.

Nevertheless, Mexico has set its sights on expanding its global reach, both in the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America. Soon after winning election, Pena Nieto met with leaders in Guatemala, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Peru and Chile. Trade dominated the agenda with most countries with the exceptions of Colombia, the major source for drugs entering Mexico, and Guatemala, a prime target of Los Zetas, a Mexican paramilitary drug cartel that specializes in grotesque violence. After taking office, Pena Nieto made a priority of visiting China and Japan, where he also pursued a trade agenda and investment.

This essay will, first, focus on Mexico’s evolving defense strategy; second, examine the country’s ever more complicated ties with its northern neighbor; and, third, analyze Pena Nieto’s strategic priorities as he projects a more robust role in regional and world affairs.

Security Strategy

In the late-1990s, after U.S. authorities began seizing large quantities of cocaine flowing into Florida and America’s southeast, Colombian exporters were forced to seek a new transit corridor to reach America’s drug market. That route proved to be through Central America and Mexico. At first, Mexican syndicates acted as “mules” or carriers; however, in early 1996, the Gulf Cartel, followed by its rivals, began purchasing the narcotics from the Colombians and assuming control of wholesale distribution north of the Rio Grande. What had been a multimillion-dollar business for the Mexican mafiosi became a billion-dollar enterprise. They paid enormous bribes to the military, police and politicians in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled in Tammany Hall style from 1929 to 2000. Along with graft and trafficking, the drug-related death rate soared from 1,080 victims in 2001 to 9,158 fatalities in 2012—with 3,234 killed this year through May 10. The PRI’s Pena Nieto has pledged to halve the carnage during his six-year term.

Part of the problem is that Mexico has never in its history boasted honest, well-trained law-enforcement professionals. During its 71 years in power, the PRI, which Pena Nieto now leads, created hundreds of police agencies. These authorities were designed not to protect the citizenry, however, but to advance the party’s political agenda, lower the boom on dissenters, muzzle the press and help rig elections.

Pena Nieto’s predecessor Felipe Calderon, in office 2006-2012, had no experience in law enforcement and could not rely on federal, state and local police to combat the Sinaloa Cartel, Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel and other vicious, well-armed narco-syndicates. In the face of surging cartel bloodshed, Calderon dispatched thousands of military personnel and Federal Police (Policia Federal) to spearhead Mexico’s version of the war on drugs. In doing so, he pursued a “kingpin policy” aimed at killing or capturing cartel chiefs. With U.S. assistance, Calderon succeeded in eliminating or apprehending 24 of the 37 most-wanted capos. Once a leader fell, however, lieutenants often fought bitterly for dominance of organizations; rival syndicates invaded the territory of deposed big shots; and gangs of young thugs aligned with the criminal groups endeavored to expand their roles. As a result, violence surged, even as Cabinet members openly feuded over budgets, equipment, personalities, intelligence sharing and credit for successful blows against the narcotics dealers.

Pena Nieto has named a confidant, ex-Hidalgo Gov. Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, to head the Gobernacion Secretariat, a “superministry” with control over the Center for Investigation and National Security (the local version of the CIA), the 40,000-member Federal Police, the National Migration Institute, relations with Congress, the country’s eight federal prisons and other federal entities.

On Dec. 17, 2012, Pena Nieto announced his intention to create a Gendarmeria Nacional (GN), modeled on France’s Gendarmerie National, as the centerpiece of his security strategy. He emphasized that the corps “would form ‘a territorial control body’ that allows the exercise of the sovereignty of the Mexican state in all corners of the country, regardless of their distance, isolation or weak condition.” At least 400 of the nation’s 2,457 municipalities lack a single policeman. In addition, congressional approval of such a militarized civilian-led force would eliminate legal questions about today’s involvement of the army and navy in law enforcement, inasmuch as Article 21 of the constitution specifies that public security lies in the domain of civil authority.

In mid-October 2012, Pena Nieto met with French President Francois Hollande to discuss cooperation on Mexico’s gendarmerie plans, and subsequent bilateral talks have taken place. The Mexicans are also likely to draw on the experience of Spain’s Guardia Nacional and Chile’s Carabineros. Although the Mexican armed forces will provide the initial cadres—8,500 soldiers and 1,500 sailors and marines—plans are afoot to gradually replace uniformed personnel with highly trained civilians. The goal is for the military to return to its bases by 2018, when the GN is scheduled to have quadrupled to 40,000 physically fit, carefully trained and technologically adept men and women. Current cops will be barred from the gendarmerie’s ranks because of the persistent corruption of the police.

The Sisyphean obstacle facing Pena Nieto is recruiting college graduates in whom authorities can inculcate the practices, ideals, values and esprit de corps of professional law-enforcers. This force, with a $46 million start-up budget, will collaborate with local law enforcement agencies, public officials, military leaders and civilian groups. The objective is to respond rapidly and efficiently to prevent and combat high-impact crimes, such as robbery, murder, extortion, rape and kidnapping. While not oblivious to cartel racketeering, Pena Nieto is mindful that Mexicans’ broader goal is safety in their homes, schools, streets and workplaces. The gendarmerie will also assume some functions of the scandal-ridden Federal Ministerial Police, including investigating criminal cases, guarding and transferring prisoners and making arrests as directed by the attorney general’s office, which is in the midst of a reorganization.

Congress poses another possible impediment to launching the GN. Early in his tenure, the new president shrewdly persuaded the major political parties to enter into a “Pact for Mexico,” which would provide a forum to discuss 95 issues, including taxation, trust-busting and security. But fallout from a recently revealed PRI vote-buying scandal led opposition parties to temporarily block progress on the pact, highlighting the fragility of the political peace.

Even assuming he can successfully establish the new national force, Pena Nieto faces ubiquitous mayhem in impoverished states such as Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas and the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacan. Citizens are outraged by the authorities’ inability or unwillingness to quell the violence of the cartels, which use the west coast as a major corridor for moving Colombian and Peruvian cocaine through Central America to the United States. Residents of these remote areas also suffer continual abuses at the hands of the police and armed forces. The shadowy reputation of the governors of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas and Michoacan has exacerbated the turmoil. In addition, the imprisonment for embezzlement and other felonies of Elba Esther “La Maestra” Gordillo, the venal president-for-life of the national teachers union, has incited violent protests and confrontations between her friends and foes.

This uproar has contributed to the proliferation of vigilantes, self-defense groups and so-called community police that have taken the law into their own hands. The agitation in the south could become a national problem if disgruntled union members, radical students, debtors’ groups and leftist rabble-rousers from other areas join the malcontents.

Responsibility for handling such a risk lies with National Security Commissioner Javier Manuel Mondragon y Kalb. He has responsibility for both the planned Gendarmeria Nacional and the existing Federal Police and is the most important figure in the Gobernacion Ministry after Osorio Chong and Undersecretary Luis Miranda Nava. In addition to the GN and the Federal Police, the octogenarian commissioner’s mandate includes public and national security, criminal policy and serving as president of the National Conference of Public Security Secretaries. His office will also assist state and municipal authorities, the attorney general’s office and the judiciary with respect to penal institutions, crime prevention, intelligence and other tasks previously performed by the now-defunct Ministry of Public Security over its dozen years of existence.

Gobernacion and Pena Nieto also support the creation of “Unified Police Commands” (Mando Unico Policial). A majority of the 32-member National Governors’ Conference has endorsed this concept of single state law-enforcement agencies in their jurisdictions. Such commands can be formed either by the state legislature or by various municipalities banding together on their own. If successful, it is hoped that the Unified Police Command gambit will improve collaboration, diminish impunity and eliminate more than 2,000 local police forces, most of which have only a handful of officers. To promote federal-state cooperation, Osorio Chong has designated each of a dozen Cabinet members to serve as liaisons with one or more states.

Even as he reorganizes his security apparatus, the president has also promised to revamp the army by increasing compensation, improving medical services, enhancing professionalization and modernizing infrastructure. Under Calderon, Mexico’s army did not establish the rapport with its U.S. counterparts enjoyed by the navy, which includes the marines. High-profile raids by Mexican marines against Arturo Beltran Leyva, the ghoulish head of the Beltran Leyva Organization, and Ezequiel “Tony Tormenta” Cardenas Guillen, co-leader of the extremely dangerous Gulf Cartel, underscored the marines’ operational effectiveness compared to the corruption-compromised army.

What accounts for the navy’s success in these and other operations? To begin with, the navy doesn’t exhibit the toxic nationalism of the army, which still commemorates battles in the Mexican-American War more than 150 years later. The top army brass resent advice from their American counterparts no matter how tactfully and diplomatically it is proffered; by contrast, the navy hierarchy welcomes cooperation with U.S. military and law enforcement agencies. Defense Secretary Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda is a product of the old school and has absorbed its misgivings about U.S. intentions. Meanwhile, Navy Secretary Vidal Francisco Soberon Sanz epitomizes the new generation within the armed forces.

Naval officers also tend to be more cosmopolitan than their parochial army counterparts, since naval officers are more likely to travel to distant ports where they mingle with foreign seamen. They are also more likely to come from the middle class, pursue higher education, learn a foreign language and even marry Americans.

Finally, the ground force’s continual encounters with drug smugglers have exacerbated the corruption that has long plagued the army. As a result, navy personnel, generally more carefully vetted and better trained, took on an increasingly significant role in combating the drug cartels in the past several years of National Action Party administrations led by Calderon and his immediate predecessor, Vicente Fox. The Defense Ministry rotates the army’s regional and zonal commanders on a fixed schedule; in contrast, navy commanders are reassigned without previous notice. These unannounced changes mitigate against commanders’ forging illicit relations with the underworld in their areas of control.

Mexico’s armed forces consist of a 211,000-person army and 50,000-person navy, which includes the 18,000 navy infantry, or marines. The military, which is top-heavy with 541 generals, is headquartered at the National Ministry of Defense in Mexico City and has 36 zones under the purview of 12 regions distributed throughout the country. A four-star general, rather than a civilian, heads the services, which have a hodge-podge of weaponry, including new acquisitions under the U.S.-backed Merida Initiative. Unable to defend itself against a U.S. invasion and too powerful to fret about an attack from Guatemala, the Mexican army has not become a modern fighting force. Its traditional roles have involved disaster relief and the eradication of poppy fields. Although never participating in U.N. peacekeeping missions, military units have aided flood and earthquake victims in Central America, while sending 196 troops, 14 truckloads of water, a surgical team and other supplies to assist Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans in August 2005.

As noted, Calderon, who could not rely on police to battle the cartels, turned to the army, which had no experience in urban settings and also fell prey to widespread corruption, human rights abuses and desertions. The more nationalistic army chiefs look askance at the large number of American security personnel who interacted with Mexican counterparts under Calderon. In contrast, the navy, which has a better intelligence operation, has worked closely with U.S. security agencies.

The Mexicans have become enamored of drones, but want them under domestic control, not directed from the United States. To its credit, the “machista” military has made concerted efforts to recruit women, who now comprise 5.6 percent of the army—up from 3.2 percent in 2006. All noncombat positions are now open to females.

Relations With the United States

With the rise of Mexican cartels over the past decade, the focus of bilateral ties has become increasingly dominated by security and counternarcotics efforts, culminating in the launch of the Merida Initiative in 2008. The $1.6 billion security initiative included, inter alia, the U.S. provision of aircraft, including Blackhawk helicopters, to the Mexican judicial police and the army, with the navy receiving four CASA 235 surveillance planes. In addition, the U.S. provided extensive training, state-of-the-art electronic detection devices, two “fusion” centers for sharing information and $6 million in forensic lab equipment.

During Calderon’s tenure, Mexican military, intelligence and law-enforcement personnel toured the U.S. Special Operations Command base at Fort Bragg, N.C., to observe how U.S. officers coordinate special air and naval missions. On Dec. 31, 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta signed a memorandum to expand the training of Mexican military, intelligence and law enforcement personnel in the special operations techniques used against al-Qaida and other terrorists. This project has already assisted Mexican officials in establishing their own intelligence center in Mexico City to hone in on criminal networks, according to the Military Times. A CIA-sponsored fusion center in Mexico City and a similar DEA-funded facility in Monterrey furnished a venue to coordinate information between and among security agencies on both sides of the border.

As former Center for Investigation and National Security Director Guillermo Valdes Castellano told a reporter, “[U.S. security agencies] gave us intelligence, they helped teach us the 24-hour intelligence cycle, helped build up our intelligence centers and taught us the importance of connecting intelligence to operations.” He added, “Both [the] DEA and the [CIA] helped, and we had a high level of support from Washington.”

Yet, Mexican sensitivities about U.S. interference posed a challenge to security cooperation even under Calderon. Pena Nieto’s more nationalist PRI, which considered Calderon to be far too close to Washington, is already changing several Calderon-era policies. Previously, U.S. diplomatic and security officials forged personal contacts with their Mexican counterparts and often arranged informal meetings and meals together. Now, as part of a “single door” policy, such interaction must be preceded by a memorandum to the Gobernacion Ministry explaining the purpose of the meetings. Some sessions gain approval; others are denied. Further, Americans will no longer be permitted to work in fusion centers, including the one in Monterrey, although the Mexicans plan to create five of these facilities for their own use.

It is also doubtful if U.S. pilots will continue to remotely control the unmanned drones that have been flying ever-deeper into Mexican territory and were instrumental in the December 2010 death of Nazario “El Mas Loco” Moreno Gonzalez, the bible-pounding chief of the La Familia Michoacana organization, the dominant force in importing, processing and exporting methamphetamines through Tijuana. The Mexicans remain eager to acquire more drones, but will insist on taking over their deployment.

Concerns over the weakness of Central American nations, the surging strength of Mexican cartels, and the increasing spillover of Mexican criminality into Texas, Arizona and other U.S. states will ensure that military-to-military contacts between the U.S. and Mexico will continue. Pena Nieto has emphasized “Pillar Four” of the Merida program, which concentrates on building “strong and resilient communities” by opening drug-abuse clinics, encouraging youth community service projects, establishing neighborhood watches and funding educational exchanges. Nevertheless, he avoids referencing Merida, out of a desire to turn the page on Calderon’s drug war.

Instead, both sides are eager to reframe the bilateral agenda and shift the emphasis to trade and energy. During Obama’s recent visit to Mexico City, both presidents pledged to concentrate more on commerce and business, which have been eclipsed by the drug war. In an April 2013 meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Mexican Foreign Secretary Jose Antonio Meade sounded a similar note, also stressing the need to transcend drug issues and concentrate more on trade and investment. Meade pointed out that “Mexico is the most important export market for 22 of the 50 [U.S.] states,” and added that the “U.S. exports more to Mexico than it does to China and Japan combined.”

Strategic Priorities

Nonetheless, Mexico is also seeking to diversify its economic portfolio by intensifying relations with Far East nations in hopes of one day becoming an “Aztec Tiger.” Until recently, Mexico’s commercial and political links with Asia were miniscule. A major exception was Japanese investment in automobiles, auto parts, electronics and high-technology manufacturing. From 2005 to early 2013, Japanese companies invested $9.5 billion. In recent years, Sino-Mexican commerce has shot up from $3 billion in 2000 to $50 billion in 2010. Still, the Mexicans criticize the Beijing regime for evading import duties and turning a blind eye to the smuggling of contraband products by Chinese exporters. Mexico has initiated 29 anti-dumping cases against China in the past 10 years.

Four months into his term, Pena Nieto jetted to China, offering, in effect, a “mea culpa” for opposing Beijing’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). “They started out as rivals because there was a bull rush to China and Mexico lost out,” Barry Lawrence of Texas A&M University told the Washington Post. “But Mexico is now the more competitive of the two.” Mexico has run up a 9-to-1 ratio in its trade deficit with China, worse than America’s 4-to-1 shortfall. Yet, if Pena Nieto’s trip can impel an opening with China, it can be “a land of enormous opportunity if handled right,” said Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “China is a market that is untapped for Mexican business.”

A concrete outcome of the talks was an agreement that Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), Mexico’s national oil monopoly, would begin shipping 30,000 barrels of oil per day to China complemented by the swapping of know-how, equipment and technology in the energy field. Chinese President Xi Jinping also indicated a willingness to finance Mexican infrastructure projects, particularly in public transport, railroads, and hydrocarbons.

After leaving China, Mexico’s president met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who averred, “We’d like to further deepen and expand the bilateral relationship.” The Japan Times reported that Pena Nieto backed Japanese participation in the dynamic 11-member Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade talks. He also invited Emperor Akihito and his wife to come to Mexico in January 2014, a month that will mark 400 years of contacts between Mexico and Japan. Apart from ceremonial events, the Mexicans are eager to sell more goods and services to Japan.

Mexican diplomats also contemplate more contacts with Asian nations in multilateral forums. One of these is the Group of 20 (G-20), established in the late-1990s in the aftermath of the Asian economic crisis. Finance ministers and central bank governors meet with a view to stabilizing financial markets, coordinating economic policy and spurring collaboration. Advanced and emerging economies from all regions of the globe are members. The G-20’s annual summit that took place in Los Cabos, Mexico, in mid-2012 constituted the most important multilateral conclave that Mexico had ever hosted, apart from the 1968 Olympic Games. Among other achievements, the participants increased the International Monetary Fund’s resources to more than $450 billion—the largest capitalization in the organization’s history. For the first time at the G-20, the environment surfaced as an issue, as Mexico emphasized topics such as green growth, the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies and greater fuel efficiency.

Mexico has been a member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum (APEC) since late-1993. The 21 participating countries account for 40 percent of the world’s population, 44 percent of international trade and 53 percent of real global GDP. The loosely structured, consensus-based organization rests on three main pillars: trade and investment liberalization; business facilitation; and economic and technical cooperation. APEC has helped drive economic growth and improve employment opportunities and standards. Since its formation in 1989, average trade barriers in the region have fallen from 16.9 percent to 5.8 percent in 2010. The Asia-Pacific accord has given Mexico greater access to East Asia’s emerging economies, which are among the fastest-growing in the world. Also, membership in APEC is a prerequisite for joining the dynamic TPP, which may evolve into an FTA with rigorous rules and regulations.

In addition, Pena Nieto’s desire to play a greater international role has manifested itself in his quest for a prominent Mexican to head the languishing 159-member WTO. He threw his considerable weight behind chief NAFTA negotiator Herminio Blanco Mendoza, who ultimately lost to veteran Brazilian diplomat Roberto de Carvalho Azevedo. This showdown reflected the increasing competition between Mexico and Brazil for leadership of the hemisphere. A former Mexican foreign secretary, Jose Angel Gurria Trevino, already heads the Paris-based research center the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

In late-April, Pena Nieto publicized the formation of a “strategic association” with Peru. He and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala Tasso agreed to stand shoulder to shoulder against drug traffickers, amplify the sharing of intelligence and promote tourism. The leaders expressed hope that they could strengthen the so-called Pacific Alliance, which also includes Chile and Colombia; Panama and Costa Rica are also seeking promotion from observer to full membership. The Lima Declaration, signed on April 28, 2011, proposed “to deepen the integration of the member states . . . through closer commercial interests with Asian and Pacific nations . . . and advance competition and free trade.”

Mexico already has a dozen free trade agreements with 44 countries; 28 Promotion and Reciprocal Promotion of Investment accords, and nine pacts as part of the Latin American Integration Association. Until recently, Brazil was the Latin American Cinderella for emerging market investors, as it continually surpassed Mexico’s growth rate. In 2012, however, Mexico outperformed its Southern Cone competitor. Nevertheless, the two countries’ rivalry does not preclude enhanced cooperation. “We’ll have to see . . . whether there could be a free trade deal or sectoral deals, but our view is that we need to look at how our economies can complement each other,” said Emilio Lozaya Austin, the head of Pemex. And former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva flew to Mexico in April to help launch Pena Nieto’s ambitious “Crusade Against Hunger” focused on the 7.5 million Mexicans who go to bed hungry.

The challenges Mexico faces in achieving its newfound aspirations remain substantial, though. Although NAFTA has been a godsend, Mexico’s economy must increase 6.5-7 percent annually to create enough jobs for the new entrants into the workforce. Among the major impediments to growth are an abominable public education system and inefficient state monopolies in petroleum (Pemex), electricity (the Federal Energy Commission) and health care (the Mexican Social Security Institute). Mega-firms also account for high charges for cement (Cemex), telecommunications (Telmex) and the mass media (Televisa and TV Azteca). The as-yet undefeated drug cartels, in addition to the violence they wreak, also have an impact on Mexico’s bottom line: Sen. Ernesto Cordero Arroyo, a former finance secretary, estimated that organized crime shaved 1.2 percent annually from the country’s GDP, which grew at around 3.5 percent in 2012—with inflation reaching 3 percent. Finally, Mexico has yet to tackle its ubiquitous corruption, as illustrated by the recent vote-buying scandal, in which the PRI used resources from the hunger program to win votes in Veracruz.


Every new Mexican administration seeks to curb its political and economic dependence on Uncle Sam, and Pena Nieto may succeed. He has advanced a bold agenda that focuses on trade, investment and social progress rather than killing drug kingpins. He has been especially active in advancing economic ties with Latin American states, giving impetus to the TPP and cultivating exports and investment with Japan and China. Meanwhile, under the Pact for Mexico, he has initiated a series of reforms in education, nutrition, energy, trust-busting, the criminal justice system and the police.

To accomplish this broad agenda, however, he will need the votes of opposition parties to move his many projects through Congress. His most formidable challenges with legislators will be opening Pemex to private capital, breaking up monopolies and preventing PRI operatives from exchanging government resources for votes in the 13 state elections scheduled this year—a practice that already occurred in Veracruz with monies from the anti-hunger initiative. It also remains to be seen whether a Gendarmeria Nacional materializes and is able to stanch the continuing bloodshed from the drug war.

If past is prologue to the future, a medley of factors—security, geography, trade, investment, tourism, the media, education and migration—will compel continued closeness with Washington, even as Pena Nieto seeks to expand ties in Asia and Latin America.

George W. Grayson is Class of 1938 Professor of Government Emeritus at the College of William & Mary. He has written “Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?” (Transaction Press, 2010); co-authored with Samuel Logan “The Executioner’s Men: Los Zetas, Rogue Soldiers, Criminal Entrepreneurs, and the Shadow State They Created” (Transaction Press, 2012); and “The Cartels: The Story of Mexico’s Most Dangerous Cartels and Their Impact on U.S. Security” (Praeger, forthcoming). He can be reached by email at gwgray AT