Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Freelance General

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 20, 2020 --  

The Mexican Army's collaboration with drug cartels risks a return to the territorial wars of a century ago.

The arrest of Mexico’s former defense minister by American agents in Los Angeles highlights the utter failure of using the Mexican military to battle violent drug cartels. New York prosecutors charge that Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos assisted a splinter drug cartel in fighting its rivals during his six years leading the military.1

The modern Mexican Army in which which Cienfuegos served dates only to 1914, when rebels defeated the previous Mexican Army at the battle of Zacatecas. General Alvaro Obregón came out on top after a long and violent power struggle with Pancho Villa and other armed factions to lead a new revolutionary army. He became defense minister before assuming the presidency himself in 1920.

The new army Obregón led was completely inward-looking. It rebuffed the German Empire's offer to help it regain territory from the United States and stayed neutral in World War I. Despite Mexico's official declaration of war on the Axis powers, the Mexican Army did not substantially participate in World War II. It has instead spent the next 100 years fighting other Mexicans. Its most infamous case was the slaughter of hundreds of student protesters in the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City.

Given this context, it is surprising that it took so long for the Mexican Army to be tasked with fighting drug cartels. (What else do they have to do?) In 2008 President Felipe Calderón ordered the army into the state of Michoacán to fight the brutal La Familia cartel. Twelve years on, the Army's anti-narco activities continue, with ample charges of human rights violations and corruption from the start.

But never has such a high ranking military official been accused of collaboration with narco-traffickers. At best, this is a case of serious corruption at the highest level. Mexico's President Obrador has suggested as much since Cienfuegos's arrest, decrying the administration of his predecessor President Peña Nieto (under which Ceinfuegos served as Defense Minister) as a "narco government, and without doubt, about a government of mafiosi."2

In a trial of notorious drug lord El Chapo in New York last year, a colleague of the drug lord claimed to have paid President Peña Nieto a $100 million bribe.3 The former president denies accusations of corruption.

As serous as this is, corruption is not nearly as bad as the alternative: Mexico's military devolving into groups of high ranking officers supporting rival drug cartels.

Something similar happened in the revolutionary era in which the current Mexican Army was formed. For a decade between 1910 and 1920, Generals were effectively freelancers warring for control of the country. Their goals were malleable and loyalties were fleeting. But that was before Obregón consolidated power.

Obregón's hand-picked another general as his successor, who founded the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to rule Mexico as a one party state until Vicente Fox's center-right PAN party ousted them in 2000. Fox's successor, also from PAN, was the one who ordered the army to attack the drug lords.

The PRI returned to power for one term in 2012 with President Peña Nieto, the man accused of taking a $100 million bribe from drug barons and who unquestionably appointed the defense minister being held in the United States.

The lesson here is that it is never a good idea to maintain an unaccountable standing army for over a century with no mission other than fighting internal enemies. It is an even worse idea to employ such an Army as a means of law enforcement against opponents with stunning amounts of money to buy loyalty. If Mexico can't get its army under control, the drug war could devolve into rival Mexican generals battling for territory around the country -- just like 100 years ago.


1. Bloomberg News, Mexico’s President Defends Army After Ex-Minister Arrested in U.S., October 19, 2929

2. Reuters, 'The Godfather': Mexico's Ex-Defense Chief Helped Ship Tons of Cocaine and Heroin, October 16, 2020

3. New York Times, Former Mexican President Peña Nieto Took $100 Million Bribe, Witness at El Chapo Trial Says, January 15, 2020