The Scorpion and the Frog: A New Phase in Mexico’s Drug War

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The Mexican government has become more effective at hitting high level cartel targets, even while the U.S. has dragged its feet on handing over aid money from the Merida Initiative.

On October 12, Mexico saw its second high-level drug-lord arrest in eight days. And both arrests, on different sides of Mexico, came wrapped in the same snappy, tantalizing language. Official communiques called them “precision operations … without a shot fired.”

twoarrests6The wording seemed to boast that as of mid-2011 something in the Mexican drug war had changed.

 These were not old-style mega-busts–as when capo Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel bled out in his mansion on July 29, 2010, and the apartment of Antonio Cardenas Guillen, alias “Tony Tormenta,” was gutted November 5, 2010, with aerial fire hitting parked cars a block away.

The new-style arrestee on October 12 is “La Rana,” the Frog (Carlos Oliva Castillo), who is said to be the third-highest leader of the Zetas cartel. His “precision” capture, in the northeast Mexican city of Saltillo, came as part of something called Operation Scorpion, whose sting hides a long history. Tracing the shadowy pedigree of Operation Scorpion illumines the drug war as a whole.

For nearly half a decade now, unseen operatives both in Mexico and the United States have slogged down a long, dark road–since December 1, 2006, when a new Mexican President, Felipe Calderon, took office and made the fight against organized crime cartels the centerpiece of his administration.

President Calderon quickly declared a series of regional operativos, or Joint Task Force Deployments, in late 2006 and early 2007, with addenda in early 2008. A look at these concentrations (mostly of army troops, but also Mexican Marines, Federal Police and others) is like a Lonely Planet guide to the war theater. The task force boundaries trace out main regions of Mexico where cartel violence had overwhelmed local order, drawing in the big federal task forces.

taskforcestates2The map is a picture of dubious battle, but it would form the seedbed for later Operation Scorpion.

The task-force structures became long-standing parts of the landscape–fixed bureaucratic blankets for federal strikes and troop siting, accounting for more than 45,000 troops and federal officers in the drug war overall, or more than a fifth of the Mexican Army’s total strength (nearly 200,000 active-duty soldiers).

Mexico found itself tapped to fight a battle no one had figured out–the global brushfire war against mass-market substance abuse. Some vintage military tactics were going into a withering crucible, which alarmed a key ally.

The U.S. government, in 2007-2008, approved a $1.6 billion aid package for President Calderon’s anti-cartel war. But the Merida Initiative (or Plan Mexico in Spanish) also struggled in the crucible. As late as January 2010, only 9 percent of the promised aid had actually reached Mexico (as if gangster enemies might politely wait for triplicate copies). And even this 9 percent was in part an accounting trick, representing ballpark values put on things like training and materiel (one Black Hawk UH-60M helicopter was valued at $20 million by the Merida list; but three others, sent to a different Mexican agency, were written up as being worth $37 million each).

taskforcelistComments on Merida in those days suggest the darkness out of which Operation Scorpion would have to emerge: “It is ridiculous to keep calling the State Department and, each time, getting a different person to find out what is really going on with Merida,” sighed Congressman Eliot Engel, a supporter of the aid package. At a hearing in May 2010, a State Department shepherd of the Merida pipeline apologized bleakly: “I think, you know, the last year or so really took us a long time to get started.”

Merida was inching forward through prickly adjustments with Mexico, a proud nation hyper-sensitized against U.S. influence. A scathing audit of Merida by the General Accountability Office was softened by words from auditor Jess Ford, who had been in a prior drug war, in Colombia. Ford reminded that Plan Colombia had taken a long decade of work. It also required more money than Merida’s promised $1.6 billion, which one critic called “anemic.” The State Department pleaded for “strategic patience” in judging the Merida delays.

By 2011 Mexico’s meltdown was ballooning into large massacres by cartel gunmen, on a scale scarcely envisioned at the Merida conferences of 2007. But Merida aid had finally gotten moving. The buzz-phrase, “Evolved Merida,” crept into announcements. Many pressures were sandbagging the drug warriors, but there was also growing U.S. input as the Merida connection smoothed out. The war effort tightened up.

Troop patrols in some areas were replaced by more welcomed Federal Police. A strictly military approach to social violence was supplemented by discussion of social reforms. In the background were U.S. personnel, and a push to use “precision” counter-insurgency techniques from places like Afghanistan.

On August 25 of this year, the Zetas cartel upped the ante by killing 52 civilians in a casino attack. On August 28 that same area, northeastern Mexico, gave rise to a lean new operativo. This was Operation Scorpion, not one of the old-style regional task force umbrellas, but a tightly phased tactical strike.

It was an overlay on the old task-force framework. Northeastern Mexico had long been covered by Operation Northeast, a renamed and expanded version of the early Joint Task Force Nuevo Leon-Tamaulipas, going back to 2007.

opnortheast2After August 28, 2011, Operation Northeast still continued as the bureaucratic umbrella for various battles. But Operation Scorpion was off to the side, running in a cryptic new track.

By October 12 of this year, in six weeks of functioning, Operation Scorpion had reported 724 arrests, 36 liberated cartel hostages and large confiscations: 1,629 weapons, 870 vehicles, more than a million dollars in cash, tons of drugs. And there was La Rana. His arrest was said to be a lightning strike, catching by surprise the alleged architect of the August 25 casino massacre. The Zetas reportedly responded with ambushes and diversionary firefights in hopes of staging a rescue, but with no result.

Could this mean the Mexican cartel war is changing in a substantive way? Or is today’s Operation Scorpion really just another old-style sweep, re-named? In the drug war’s long tunnel, only hindsight will be able to say whether light was really waiting at the end.

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Below is a partial recap of publicly acknowledged U.S. advisory personnel behind the scenes in Mexico:

*More than 50 U.S. State Department personnel are reportedly facilitating the Merida Initiative inside Mexico. This is said to be more than double the old number of liaisons when U.S. assistance to Mexico’s anti-trafficking effort was down around the $40-million-a-year level.

*Since July 20, 2009, hundreds of U.S. law enforcement officers have cycled through Mexico, teaching Mexican police in three-week shifts at a training center 450 miles south of the border.

*U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) personnel are in Mexico to help vet new military and federal police candidates and instruct Mexican Army special forces.

*NORTHCOM has reported steady sending of counter-insurgency training teams into Mexico, an average of 20 teams a year with 4 to 5 soldiers each, on short missions involving no field operations.

*U.S. military commanders are said to meet twice yearly with Mexican Army area commanders.

*In three Mexican states, elite anti-kidnap squads are trained by U.S. officers—and also by police specialists from Colombia.

*A stream of bi-national working groups moves through both countries.

*Allegations in the Mexican press that the U.S. had placed a special permanent intelligence official in Ciudad Juarez actually referred to an envisioned proposal, not an established fact.

*The U.S. has 12 consulates in Mexico, plus its massive main embassy in Mexico City, a block-wide fortress that is the largest U.S. embassy in Latin America. Three people connected to the U.S. Consulate in Juarez were murdered March 13, 2010, and a 500-person investigation effort then convened on the U.S. side of the border. When two ICE agents were attacked in northeast Mexico on February 15, 2011 (agent Jaime Zapata was killed; agent Victor Avila badly wounded), they were reportedly bringing security equipment to a consulate. U.S. reprisal for this attack came in the form of Operation Bombardier, working on U.S. soil against operatives of the attacking cartel, the Zetas, and bringing 676 arrests.

*An inanimate U.S. presence is also notable. In March 2011 it was acknowledged that for two years, at the request of the Mexican government, unmanned U.S. spy drones had been flying over Mexico, helping to track cartel gunmen.

See Gary Moore’s blog here.

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