Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: Outsourcing the Drug War

Preventing the ‘Escobar Scenario' in Mexico

According to a recent New York Times story, the U.S. government is stepping up its assistance to Mexico's security forces in the battle against drug cartels. The article described a growing presence of private security contractors from the United States, along with a few CIA operatives, at some Mexican federal police and army bases. Many of the contractors are retired members of U.S. military special operations forces and the Drug Enforcement Administration. According to the article, the contractors are providing specialized training to a few selected units in the federal police and other security forces. Even more important, the contractors and CIA officers are establishing intelligence analysis centers alongside Mexican command posts.

Policymakers responsible for the U.S. assistance effort in Mexico seem to be applying some lessons learned during America's decade of war. The intelligence analysis centers the U.S. contractors are now setting up in Mexico are innovations developed by U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, and elsewhere. As described by General Stanley McChrystal in an essay he wrote for Foreign Policy, the centers are deliberately located down at the tactical level and gather collectors and analysts across intelligence agencies together in one room. The goal is to improve collaboration and more rapidly respond to incoming information and adversary activity. A decade of practical experience across the globe has refined this concept, which the United States is now exporting to Mexico.

The use of unobtrusive civilian contractors is another consequence from the last decade of experience with irregular conflict. I have recently discussed the increasing "civilianization" of warfare. Irregular adversaries have long taken on civilian guise in order to avoid the superior firepower usually wielded by nation-states. U.S. policymakers today find it politically untenable to use conventional military force, especially ground forces, against irregular adversaries. Increasingly more convenient are civilian substitutes such as CIA paramilitaries, contractors, and hired proxies. Mexico has long had severe cultural and legal prohibitions on a foreign military presence, especially from the United States. This will increasingly be the rule elsewhere in the world. But as we can see in Mexico and elsewhere, the U.S. government now has a well-established workaround.

U.S. assistance to Mexico may improve the tactical skills of elite Mexican security forces and a sophisticated intelligence operation may find targets for these shooters. But are Mexican policymakers directing their troops against the right targets? The rate of violence is as high as ever and there is no obvious decline in the flow of drugs into the United States. What is Mexico's counter-cartel campaign achieving?

At this relatively early stage in the conflict, the Mexican government's first goal is to prevent the creation of an alternative criminal center of power that could threaten the authority of the state. In the early 1990s, Pablo Escobar, the leader of the Medellin cartel, arguably became such a threat to the Colombian government, forcing it to resort to extrajudicial means to kill him and destroy his organization.  Escobar used his drug income to become one of the wealthiest men in the world and used his money and private army to suborn large portions of Colombia's government, its parliament, its judicial system, and its security forces. According to Killing Pablo, Mark Bowden's account of Escobar's demise, Escobar's remaining opponents inside the government had to form a deal with right-wing paramilitaries to crush Escobar. Mexico's policymakers don't want a replay of that episode.

The Mexican government cannot stop the drug trade or its associated violence. But it can focus its police and military efforts against the top leadership of the largest cartels, a strategy it now seems to be executing. The goal is to prevent the "Escobar Scenario" from occurring in Mexico. Deliberately fragmenting cartels as they become menacingly large will invariably lead to more violence as surviving subordinate gang members fight over new feudal boundaries. This ugly process may now be occurring in Acapulco after the recent arrest of Moisés Montero Alvarez, the leader of Acapulco's Independent Cartel.

Acceptance of more violence and drug traffic may seem little different than surrendering to the problem. But at this point, simply preventing a rival to state authority should be counted as success enough. The U.S. government's intelligence contractors in Mexico will very likely make a critical contribution to that goal.

There is a win-win solution for the South China Sea -- if China will take it

This week, China's first aircraft carrier, a retrofitted 1980s Soviet model spared from the wrecking yard, left its dock in Dalian for its first sea trials. China is years away from having a combat-ready carrier strike group. As its crew and engineers work out the bugs, analysts are left to wonder what missions the Chinese government intends for its growing naval power. After the Taiwan Strait, China's leaders may have their attention on the South China Sea, where tensions with Vietnam, the Philippines, and the United States have flared up over the past few years. Just one year ago, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared in Hanoi at the ASEAN Regional Forum and dramatically stood up against China's encroachment into the area, declaring, "[t]he United States, like every nation, has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea. We share these interests not only with ASEAN members or ASEAN Regional Forum participants, but with other maritime nations and the broader international community."

In spite of Clinton's diplomatic intervention in support of the smaller countries around the South China Sea, disputes over the sea remain unresolved. In an essay in the latest edition of Naval War College Review, Peter Dutton, director of the Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute, asserts that the international quarrel over the region is actually three distinct disputes. Dutton argues that reframing the dispute into its three components could lead to a "win-win" resolution rather than a "win-lose" clash. Reframing the dispute into its three components could also force China to reveal its real motives and intentions, which have thus far been murky.

According to Dutton, the South China Sea problem is first a territorial sovereignty dispute over the sea's numerous small islands, rocks, and reefs. Using the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Dutton, formerly a Navy judge advocate, finds little legal support for China's claim of sovereignty over virtually the entire sea, a claim that seems to originate with a line the old Nationalist government drew on one of its maps in 1935. In addition, an island-by-island, rock-by-rock tally of continuous administration and control does nothing to further China's maximal claim.  In her appearance at the ASEAN conference in Hanoi, Clinton maneuvered around the embarrassing non-ratification of UNCLOS by the United States by also referring to its ancient alternative, customary international law. She also assured her audience that even though the United States has yet to ratify the pact, "[i]t has strong bipartisan support in the United States."

The potential for hydrocarbons, minerals, and fishing, Dutton's second component, may be the more important source of friction over the sea. Dutton sees several precedents for resolving this dispute. Dutton points to the Treaty of Spitsbergen which settled a sovereignty claim over an island between Norway and Greenland, the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization a multinational agreement that regulates Atlantic fishing, and China's own agreement with Vietnam over fishing in the Gulf of Tonkin as examples of agreements that have resolved disputes over island sovereignty and maritime resource management.

Dutton's third component concerns China's attempts to rewrite long-accepted norms concerning the freedom of navigation for military purposes. In March 2009, Chinese vessels confronted USNS Impeccable while it was surveying in international waters. China claimed that it had the legal right to deny the freedom of navigation for military purposes within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone, a claim unsupported by UNCLOS or customary law. Needless to say, China's sovereignty claim over the South China Sea, if accepted, would give it control over the Asia-Pacific region's most important and heavily trafficked sea line of communication, a non-starter for the United States and its ASEAN partners.

What is Dutton's win-win solution? Regarding the South China Sea's resources, Dutton foresees a straightforward negotiation that would set aside the sovereignty issue, equitably allocate economic claims, and lead to mutually-beneficial exploration, an outcome China should have no good reason to resist.

However, if China now believes that it must obtain territorial sovereignty and military control of the sea as the only way of protecting its security, the region will be headed for "win-lose" and conflict. China's attempts to chip away at freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in 2009 and 2010 stirred a regional backlash that climaxed with Clinton's appearance in Hanoi. China will not enhance its security if its weak claim of sovereignty hardens a regional alliance against it. On sovereignty, the win-win for all sides is to drop the issue. What remains to be seen is whether China is interested in the sea's resources or much more. Dutton's plan to divide the problem by three could help reveal China's intentions.