Operation Jalisco: The Rise of The Jalisco New Generation Cartel and Peña Nieto’s Militarised Security Strategy

Operation Jalisco: The Rise of The Jalisco New Generation Cartel and Peña Nieto’s Militarised Security Strategy

Hannah Croft  

On 1 May 2015 the Mexican military announced ‘Operation Jalisco’, a full-spectrum security engagement to tackle violence and drug trafficking in Jalisco, a state in Western Mexico. Although there was no indication that the operation is targeted at any specific organised crime group, it has been made clear that resources will be concentrated on one particular drug trafficking organisation (DTO), the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, or CJNG). As their name suggests, the CJNG operates primarily in Jalisco and its neighbouring states of Michoacán, Veracruz, Nayarit, and Colima. Since the start of Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidency in December 2012, the CJNG has experienced extraordinary growth in its size and financial power, and it is now regarded as the most powerful cartel in Mexico. After instigating relatively successful operations against other cartels in the region, particularly in the states of Michoacán and Sinaloa, President Peña Nieto has turned his attention to Jalisco in response to the CJNG’s recent acts of brutality against police and civilians. Although Operation Jalisco is still in its infancy, the time is ripe for strategic reassessment and a reflection on past policies as the government formulates its tactics to tackle narco-violence. This article will explore the growth of the CJNG and its tactical and strategic objectives before and after the announcement of Operation Jalisco, as well as the current challenges that the government faces, and what recommendations should be in place if it wants to successfully re-establish control in Jalisco.

The first section of this paper presents a brief overview of the strategic benefits that Jalisco offers to the government and to drug trafficking organisations, with particular emphasis on its commercial and geographical assets and how these have buttressed the growth of CJNG’s activities in the region. The second section will then present a deeper examination of CJNG’s activities, its narrative, and its relationship with the government and local police forces. It will then address the sudden shift in its strategy from 2015, when it began to directly confront local police forces in Jalisco, and consider how it will adapt to the recent military crackdown. The last section will examine the failings of Peña Nieto’s policy, in particular its preoccupation with the kingpin strategy, and instead recommend that a more systematic approach should be adopted if the government wants to see long-term improvements. This includes a renegotiation of the roles of police and military, anti-corruption efforts, assiduous intelligence collection, and a focus on mid-level gang member convictions.

Jalisco: A Fragile Success

The spread of a conflict or the movement of a DTO to a certain area is usually influenced by the geo-strategic value of the territory (see Osoro, 2011: 12). Hence, it will be useful to briefly point out Jalisco’s valuable commercial and geographic attributes to provide some context to the current competition between the state and the CJNG in the area.

It is particularly noteworthy that, because it has not demonstrated the same susceptibility to violence than other states have, Jalisco has, until recently, remained relatively stable throughout the drug wars and has become a thriving industrial and cultural hub in Mexico’s Terra Caliente region. This is particularly apparent in its capital city of Guadalajara, one of Mexico’s ‘success stories’, due to its diverse labour market and attractiveness to investment (Flannery, 2015). Guadalajara’s famous tequila export market flourishes alongside its manufacturing economy and, more recently, there has been investment into its high tech services. Critics have lauded its attractive technology market, noting that Guadalajara is ‘training a new generation of IT specialists, graphic designers, digital animators, and engineers to export high-value added services to clients around Mexico and across the globe’ (Flannery, 2014).

Jalisco also attracts a steady number of tourists visiting its beaches and tequila distilleries, and it is now home to the largest resident population of Americans outside the US, most of whom reside in Jalisco’s gated communities in the resort town of Puerto Vallarta. Crucially for President Nieto, stresses Jorge Chabat, a security analyst at the CIDE think tank in Mexico City, ‘Guadalajara is not a little town in the middle nowhere’, it is a dynamic, globalised and commercially important state (see De Cordoba, 2015). This largely explains why the government has recently taken such a special interest in its stability.

In parallel Jalisco’s market economy and geographical position has been valuable to the CJNG, and in particular to the production and trafficking of narcotics. Western Jalisco and its neighbouring states of Nayarit and Colima are major marijuana cultivation areas, and the high elevation zones in Nayarit are ripe to grow poppies for heroin production. The Jalisco New Generation Cartel’s unique proximity to primary drug cultivation keeps the cost of transportation low, helped in part by the relative decline of other organised criminal groups in the region which has narrowed the market in their favour.

Jalisco’s geographical attributes have also been crucial to the CJNG’s mass production and trafficking of methamphetamines, now the most lucrative drug for DTO’s in Mexico. The production of meth is dependent on the import of various chemical precursors; therefore access to seaports is vital for criminal organisations to manufacture large quantities of the drug. Manzanillo, the largest commercial port in Mexico, is situated in Colima, Jalisco’s neighbouring state, and is easily accessible from Guadalajara via a major highway. Jalisco is therefore strategically placed to accrue the necessary ingredients for meth production, which is the CJNG’s chief commodity (US State Department, 2014). Figure One shows the location of Jalisco and the CJNG in relation other cartels area of operation in Mexico.

CJNG and Jalisco in Relation to Cartel Areas of Operation in Mexico

Source: Stratfor. Used with Permission.

The long stretches of isolated rural land that surround Guadalajara have also proven valuable for building meth labs with relative impunity. Finding these labs has become a prominent part of investigatory work by the police in recent years, but with only a handful of high profile seizures.  Notably in 2012, $4 billion worth of meth was found in a lab at a ranch in Tlajomulco, the largest seizure in Mexico’s history. Although the investigation was good news for the government, this case indicated the extent to which Guadalajara is becoming ‘Mexico’s drug chemical capital’, and this will require a ‘sustained long-term effort’ to tackle the growth of meth labs in the area (see US Consulate Guadalajara, 2008).

Guadalajara’s tech-economy has also provided the CJNG with a convenient labour force that is distinct to the rest of Mexico (US Consulate Guadalajara, 2008). As a 2008 leaked report from the US Consulate in Guadalajara explained, ‘the usual cartel enforcers with gold chains and Kalashnikovs are not up to the task [of producing methamphetamines], but Guadalajara has a wealth of young chemists and engineers that can be recruited by drug syndicates to staff methamphetamine labs’ (2008). By offering salaries that are far higher than what the legal economy can offer, the CJNG have been able to recruit young professionals with the expertise required to produce meth. This is particularly useful as meth production is notoriously hazardous.

As well as producing illegal narcotics, the CJNG have been ‘cleaning’ their money via the banks and real estate in the Guadalajara. The organisation is now ‘using the same philosophy [as large corporations] to cut costs, better control distribution, and develop new sources of revenue’ (Morris, 2013: 6). Thus, Guadalajara has become a haven for both licit and illicit business, a problem that the government must tackle in parallel as it formulates its strategy against the cartel.

The gradual criminalisation of Jalisco is quite unique, given that the process stemmed from a position of relative stability and commercial success.  Ironically, the exceptional lack of violence in recent years has meant that Jalisco has not received the same level of federal attention that other embattled states like Michoacán or Sinaloa have. Hence, the CJNG have had the space and time to evolve into a puissant drug trafficking organisation by capitalising on the benefits that economic stability and geographic suitability has offered.

The Strategy of the CJNG

The CJNG presents a particularly exceptional case for the government because it has taken only five years for the group to establish itself as the foremost cartel in Mexico. Notwithstanding the fortunate geographical and economic characteristics of its strategic base, the CJNG’s evolution from a localised paramilitary faction into a transnational drug trafficking organisation is the result of a hybrid strategic formula. This includes a mediated expansion strategy, adaptability to government policy and local security shifts, and a temperamental narrative, as well as opportune domestic factors.

Usually an assessment of a cartel’s geographical expanse is a good indicator of its power. In its infancy, the CJNG’s decision to adopt a strict regional strategy was a particularly effective means of staying out of the government’s limelight. Only after it established solid control over trade routes in the Terra Caliente region did the CJNG footprint spread further north to Baja California and San Luis Potosi. What is particularly concerning for analysts and policymakers alike is that the spread of the CJNG is potentially an indication of an attempt to seize control of trafficking routes into the US, consequently displacing the long-standing position of the Sinaloan drug trafficking group in that region (see Stratfor, 2015). More worryingly is that this will likely engender more violence as the DTO’s that operate in the region will resist such a takeover. The CJNG has also reportedly entered into the Asia Pacific and European illicit markets which, according to Rodrigo Alpizar Vallejo at the Mexican National Chamber of Industry, have increased their profits 35-fold.

The growth of the CJNG has been helped by fortunate external factors. It is particularly noteworthy that their expansion has occurred in parallel to the gradual decomposition of the organised crime structures that exist in the Sinaloa and Tamaulipas states over the past three years (Stratfor, 2015). This has been the result of long-term security operations in the region and an increase in military spending during President Peña Nieto’s tenure. That being said, the CJNG have been remarkably capable at adapting to and evolving with the protean security landscape since President Peña Nieto’s election, especially through capitalising on the demise of other major DTO’s.

Underlying the CJNG’s strategy to displace enemy cartels has been their adoption of a vigilante narrative via the use of social media and public banners (narcomantas) when it suits their objectives (Caballero, 2014). The public dissemination of this narrative began in 2011, following the massacre of 35 members of rival Los Zetas in Veracruz, and has continued to the present. In an online video, five men in ski masks promised to restore peace to the area and sent out a warning to the government not to collude with criminals. Despite rumblings from the media, President Calderon’s administration dismissed the existence of any legitimate paramilitary group and declared that this was ‘just another organised crime gang that opposes the Zetas’ (see BBC, 2011). Nevertheless, the CJNG did not feel the full force of the government’s crackdown, unlike the other groups in the region. A year later, they released another video asking the government to let them ‘clean up the streets’ of Guerrero and Michoacán, both of which under the grip of the Knights Templar, adding that they were ‘against kidnapping, extortion, rape of women and killing innocent people’ (Borderland Beat, 2012).  Local and federal governments have been quick to repudiate their claims of innocence.

Nevertheless, as highlighted by Corcoran, ‘it is not always clear what is motivating this tendency for gangs to paint themselves as the good guys and their enemies as villains’ (2012). ‘Most citizens’, he adds, ‘to say nothing of the government, will put little stock in any group’s proclamations that they are the noblest of gangsters’ (2012). Having said that, it is likely that the construction of a vigilante identity may form part of a wider and more considered strategic objective. Consider that it is in the interest of an organised crime group to distance themselves from particularly brutal acts of violence. This is an effective way to deflect the attention of the government. To a large extent, this has worked. As aforementioned, the Nieto administration has, until this year, focused the resources of security and intelligence institutions on alternative cartels. This has been crucial in allowing CJNG the impunity to begin its takeover of Jalisco.

The CJNG’s attempts to legitimise their activities may also reflect a deeper desire to cultivate the same sort of persona or prestige that other notorious social bandits, such as Pablo Escobar or El Chapo Guzman, have in the past. Both of these leaders and their cartels promulgated an eleemosynary narrative whilst propagandizing the failures of the state to protect its citizens which resonated with people in the neighbourhoods where they operated (see Carlyle, 2012; Bowley, 2013). In the context of a criminal insurgency, as with the Medellin Cartel or El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel, the adoption of a social bandit narrative can, over time, breed social acceptance and even legitimisation. When this happens, the group is able to embed itself further into the state apparatus and can thus ‘advance a project of parallel governance sui generis’ via the administration of public security (De Cordoba, 2015). This particular scenario, a manifestation of what Pecaut describes as ‘the banality of violence’ (1999), obscures or normalises systems of terror and, when this situation occurs, ‘violence has begun to achieve its objectives’ (Munck, 2008: 11). Nevertheless, the CJNG is nowhere near this kind of stature, and this looks increasingly unlikely due to the fact that they perform particularly odious public crimes such as extortion and kidnapping.

Even so, this vigilante narrative has turned out to be a convenient pretext to enable the CJNG to infiltrate the more vulnerable civilian autodefensas in neighbouring Michoacán. A mutual desire to dismantle the Knights Templar has allowed the CJNG to offer support to local militias in the form of arms and funding in 2013, capitalising on the government’s then intransigent policy towards the operations of the autodefensas. In 2013, Marian Benitez of the federal Attorney General’s Office warned that there were ‘clear connections’ between local vigilantes and CJNG in Michoacán after some groups were found with AK-47s and so-called ‘cop-killer’ pistols (so named for their ability to puncture bulletproof vests); the origins of which are suspicious (Cawley, 2013). On a tactical and strategic level, the CJNG’s alignment with some of the local militias was both an effectual way of reducing the influence of the Knights Templar, as well as a valuable means of undermining the role of the government and establishing their presence as a parallel source of security.

Their position has been further reinforced through the corruption and co-option of local officials and police forces in Jalisco and Michoacán. Intimidating and corrupting officials is often far a more effective tactic than the use of violence, and whilst the CJNG have participated in particularly ruthless acts of violence they have, until recently, implemented what Lessing describes as more of a ‘hiding’ approach, where cartels ‘seek to corrupt state officials while minimizing confrontation and remaining out of public view’ (2012: 9). Of course they have largely been helped by the systemic institutional weaknesses that have often betrayed the government’s efforts to tackle narco-violence. However, by obtaining endorsements from local officials in the region the CJNG were offered a fecund environment for drug trafficking, principally characterised by stability and impunity.

A Strategic Shift: The Cartel Makes Some Noise

Since early this year, the CJNG have reoriented their strategy into direct and dramatic confrontation with the state, demonstrated by a series of heinous terror attacks against the army and police. This transformation started in March when members of the cartel attacked a convoy of the National Gendarmerie in Ocotlán, resulting in the death of four civilians and five policemen. Less than two weeks later, the group attacked the Jalisco Security Commissioner in Guadalajara; by April, the CJNG had gained true notoriety after they ambushed and killed fifteen police officers - the largest attack on security forces since 2012.

Whether these actions were part of a deliberate casus belli is not yet clear but, regardless, analysts are calling this a serious and perplexing miscalculation of strategy. Border security and drug war analyst Sylvia Longmire has highlighted that whilst the CJNG’s progress until now has been impressive, they have made ‘way too much noise’ and ‘need to learn that cartels stay in business by influencing cops to bend to their will, not killing all of them’ (see Ortiz, 2015). David Gagne has also highlighted how the CJNG have ignored past governmental policy;  ‘security forces have reacted swiftly to sensational acts of violence committed by drug trafficking groups such as the Zetas, resulting in the capture or killing of many of the cartel's top leaders’ (2015).

These predictions materialised on 1 May when the Mexican army announced Operation Jalisco, the multifaceted security exercise that will involve the army, federal police and Mexico’s central intelligence agency. Yet just hours after the announcement, the CJNG staged a dramatic siege on Guadalajara. With a penchant for pageantry, gang members shot down a Cougar EC725 helicopter, set up thirty narco-bloackades, set fire to eleven banks, five petrol stations and dozens of vehicles, as well as killed seven people. Four shoot outs later, the city was put on red alert and citizens were told to stay in their homes as federal forces tried to reinstate calm.

Such a spectacular retaliation is not surprising, considering Mexico’s earlier experiences with government crackdowns. That being said, the CJNG’s strategic transition is dubious given the heightened instability and military surveillance in Jalisco since the siege. It is unknown why the CJNG has decided to confront the state in such an explicit way, but there are two likely reasons behind it. Some theorists have argued that ‘the main objective of contestation is to undermine the authorities’ willingness and capability to fight DTOs in an effort to consolidate the state’s monopoly of violence’ (Osoro, 2011: 10). On the other hand, the CJNG’s activities may have been determined more by emotion than strategic rationale; in other words, this may have been an unprecedented revenge attack.

At this stage, it is also too early to predict how the cartel will adapt to the full force of military presence in Jalisco.  It is possible that they may accelerate the conflict further via orchestrated insurgent or terror tactics, or indeed they may consider reverting back to more medial tactics until the ‘heat’ dies down; surely the better option for their survival. That being said, it is now vital that the government obtain intelligence that can accurately assess the evolving intentions of CJNG in order to prepare a successful strategy against them.

Conflict Transformation Strategy: The Way Forward for Peña Nieto

Following the attack on 1 May, Jalisco’s Attorney General accused the government of complicity and argued that Jalisco had ‘not been a priority’ for security forces (see Mexico News Daily, 2015). As mentioned in the early sections of this paper, Peña has prioritised a cartel-decapitation strategy directed towards other DTOs, which has indirectly enabled the growth of the CJNG in Jalisco. Some of the results of this policy have indeed been positive. The high-profile arrests of El Chapo Guzman (albeit short-lived), Los Zetas bosses Omar and Miguel Trevino, and Knights Templar leader Servando ‘La Tuta’ Gomez amongst others have been conducive in the disruption of these cartels, and President Peña has reaped praise for making such significant inroads in the drug war. However, as it is often highlighted in criminal insurgency literature, there are obvious disadvantages to this strategy. Dr David Shirk, Director of the Justice in Mexico Project, has admitted that since Peña Nieto’s presidency ‘the number of drug cartels with the capacity to corrupt or kill high-level government officials is arguably significantly reduced… [And] the revenue generating capacity of organized crime groups in Mexico has diminished considerably’. ‘However’, he adds, ‘the trade-off is we've broken up these groups up into smaller regional organizations that are much more violent, much less predictable and arguably a greater threat to citizen security’ (see Robins-Early, 2015). The siege on Guadalajara was a clear manifestation of the unpredictability and aggressiveness that this new generation of DTOs often exhibit.

Bearing this in mind, Peña Nieto  must not become preoccupied by the short-term benefits of a decapitation strategy in Jalisco, which could potentially fractionalise the CJNG and lead to further violence. More importantly, though, high-profile convictions of cartel leaders are all too often overshadowed and undermined by the systemic domestic problems that Mexico faces: judicial and police corruption, militarisation, and weak public security – all of which have not only enabled but have contributed to the rise of the CJNG. Therefore, as this section will argue, Operation Jalisco should look to facilitate ‘conflict transformation’, as theorised by Munck (2008), rather than ‘conflict resolution’. In other words, the operation should not be solely focused on dismantling the CJNG to ‘solve’ the conflict; rather, it should prioritise the improvement of Jalisco’s institutions and its public security to ‘transform’ the environment in which the cartel operates. This will have more long-lasting benefits for the citizens of Jalisco and provide a more stable platform from which to target the power structures of the CJNG, as well as redress the lack of public confidence in local and state institutions.

Reinforcement and Renegotiation: Jalisco’s Police Forces and Creeping Militarisation

Central to Operation Jalisco’s ‘conflict transformation’ or ‘systems’ strategy (see McGee, Joel, and Edson, 2011) should be the reduction of corrupt practices at the local and state levels and a dramatic and inclusive improvement in public security. To achieve these objectives, President Peña must reinforce and reform Jalisco’s security forces and renegotiate the roles of, and relationship between, the army and police, as well as the relationship between federal, state and local police forces. Because Mexico’s security network is heavily decentralised, where federal, state and municipal police operate independently of each other with different systems of funding and training, it has meant that public security and counter-narcotics operations are often plagued with inconsistency, mutual suspicion and, crucially, susceptibility to corruption. Mexico’s security sector crisis is directly linked to the success of organised crime groups like the CJNG, and it has contributed to the growing sense of insecurity in states like Jalisco.

Police reform has been an ongoing institutional, political, and cultural process in Mexico, but it has proved to be a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Both President Calderón and President Peña Nieto made some progress in this area of security sector reform, particularly through the consolidation and professionalization of Mexico’s federal and, to a certain extent, state police forces. This was achieved through the setting up of hefty state subsidies, professional training academies, and vetting services. However, the weak link in this chain is the municipal police, who have consistently lagged behind the progress of the other forces over the past decade, which is largely due to a lack of significant funding and training.

Currently, Jalisco’s municipal security forces are poorly paid, poorly equipped, and understaffed, which has left them vulnerable to violent attacks and corruption. According to data from Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), Jalisco has the highest number of low-paid municipal police (along with Guerrero and Oaxaca) and is among ten states with the highest number of police who fail to pass vetting tests (see Gurney, 2014). A demoralised police force coupled with extreme corruption perpetuates systems of impunity which is an ideal environment for a cartel to operate in. Morris (2012) has described this problem as a ‘revolving door’, where officials simply leave office to join the cartels and cartel members infiltrate and begin working for office. This is a cycle that has continued for decades, and it is yet to be effectively confronted by the current and previous administrations which have mostly prioritised the state and federal security structural reform.

As such, the quality of policing is inconsistent in Mexico which not only puts more pressure on federal and state units but also makes the function of a local police force redundant. As the reputation of Mexico’s municipal security system has been further besmirched by accusations of endemic corruption, the state has responded mostly through public condemnation, purges and centralisation, rather than prioritising salary increases, academy training, and education. This tendency has continued under President Peña, who in 2014 announced his plan to dissolve the state’s 1800 municipal police forces deemed most vulnerable to corruption – starting in Jalisco, Guerrero, Tamaulipas and Michoacán - and replace them with federal officers instead.

The centralisation process has since accelerated with the start of Operation Jalisco. Two weeks after its announcement, the Attorney General implemented an ‘intervention operation’ where 150 state police officers disarmed and arrested 30 municipal police officers who were allegedly involved in organised crime (Mexico Daily News, 2015). State police now currently control four of Jalisco’s 125 municipalities, and this is expected to rise. Federal police forces have also refused to share intelligence with state units due to concerns of security leaks. The toxic relationship between these levels of public security therefore produces a situation where the state merely ‘finds itself fighting parts of itself when fighting criminals’ (Kenny and Serrano, 2012). President Peña Nieto is therefore faced with the dual challenge of rooting out corruption in Jalisco’s security forces as well as finding a way to effectively involve the three levels of government in the administration and protection of public security.  

Inadequate law enforcement in Jalisco, and in its embattled neighbouring states, has forced President Peña to rely on the military to confront organised crime. Although when elected he promised to avoid using the army in a domestic remit, Peña Nieto has increasingly distanced himself from this policy. The creeping militarisation of Peña Nieto’s drug war has been an ongoing process since 2013. Since then, Mexico’s procurement of weaponry from the US has increased 100-fold; over two years, Mexico has purchased $1.5 billion in equipment via the US government military sales program, as well as $2 billion from US companies, states Inigo Guevara Moyano, a defence consultant in Washington (Partlow, 2015).  The fortification of Jalisco began that same year with the erection of military checkpoints on the border in order to contain ongoing violence in Michoacán. Simply referred to as a ‘preventive measure’ by officials (see Mexico Gulf Reporter, 2013), the empowerment of the military to participate in the domestic security realm was an early warning sign of Jalisco’s increasing vulnerability and clearly did little to stop the spill over effects of criminality.

Operation Jalisco is the inevitable conclusion to Peña Nieto’s policy of militarisation. When it was announced, National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido made the ominous promise that ‘the full force of the Mexican state will be felt in the state of Jalisco… Satisfactory results will start to be seen very soon’ (see Tuckman, 2015). Since then, observers have called it the ‘strongest show of military might ever seen in Mexico’; French-made Panhard armoured vehicles roam the highways, soldiers carry bazookas and rocket-powered grenade launchers on their shoulders (see Mexico News Daily, 2015).  Sergio Aguayo, Visiting Professor at Harvard University, has warned that ‘a major offensive is about to happen. The military will spare nothing’ (see Estevez, 2015).

These displays of military strength are of increasing concern to the citizens of Jalisco, who are aware of the military’s dismal record in these kinds of low-intensity urban conflict environments. Urban militarisation, as outlined by Stephen Graham, can ‘colonise the city landscape and spaces of everyday life’ (2011: xiv). When this process begins to accelerate, the normal rules of civic life are in danger of being suspended under the rhetoric of ‘the drug war’. In the case of Mexico, the empowerment of the military to take control of fragile states or cities to reinforce public security has often resulted in their activities straying outside of the law; these include public acts of brutality, wrongful arrests, and human rights violations. During Calderon’s administration, as a result of the deployment of the military in counter-drug operations, ‘Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH) saw a five-fold increase in complaints of human rights violations by members of the Mexican army, rising to 1,503 in 2012’ (Meyer, 2013). The general impression seemed to be that ‘protection, impunity, and distance from any accountability or civilian control allow them to act as they please (see Latin America Working Group, 2013).

This trend has continued into Peña Nieto’s presidency. In 2014, the army was involved in the execution of 22 suspected gang members in Tlatlaya, a few hours away from Jalisco. According to the official story, soldiers had been patrolling the area when they came under attack. However, forensic analysis shows that between 12 and 15 people were extra-judically killed, and soldiers had altered the crime scene to make it look like a confrontation. Since the start of the operation against CJNG, there has already been an incident of this kind. On 22 May in the municipality of Ecuandureo, on the Michoacán-Jalisco border, federal forces shot and killed 43 suspected criminals at a ranch, leaving just one officer dead. However, ‘there are many, many still obscure pieces of information’, says analyst Alejandro Hope (see Castillo and Corcoran, 2015). Relatives of the dead had reported that bodies looked beaten, raising suspicions of torture, whilst photographs from the scene suggest that some bodies had been moved. Whatever the results of the investigation by human rights groups, the doubt surrounding the case is symptomatic of the ‘serious credibility deficit’ that the government is currently suffering with its people (Castillo and Corcoran, 2015). Soon after the ambush, the CJNG typically announced its intention to seek revenge.

The government is therefore faced with a strategic paradox: whilst it is the only institution that has the capacity to destroy the cartels, its very nature means that the military is unfortunately inadequate to do so. As explained by Leiken ‘military personnel are trained to employ all necessary force to attack an enemy. But to combat TCOs [transnational criminal organisations] the rules of engagement are different’ (2012). On a tactical level, the military must be trained to ‘discriminate between friendly forces and adversaries’, which is made notoriously difficult when cartel members are able to blend into the public space (Sullivan, 2009). Moreover, soldiers must be adaptable to different intensities of combat, well as embracing the responsibilities of the police via investigatory work, intelligence collection, enforcement, and cooperation with local citizens. Crucially, the military must be allowed to share information and cooperate with local police and intelligence units. Over time, this will help to bridge the tactical and strategic gap between them, leading the way for a hand over process from military to law enforcement.

Recommendations: Public Security Reform and Inter-Institutional Collaboration

The stabilisation of Jalisco and a profound change in its public security will require President Peña Nieto to carefully navigate the interests and agendas of the police and the military in Jalisco, as well as the citizens and national political parties. This should involve more collaborative decision-making and security exercises between and within these groups. These changes must be underpinned by a cross-party consensus that agrees to suspend political interests for the good of the strategic objectives in the southwest region of Mexico. No easy feat, but it should remain a priority for President Peña Nieto and the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) as he attempts to grapple with the new phase in the drug war.

The cornerstone of Operation Jalisco’s public security strategy should be the improvement of local security and local police forces. This involves ‘establishing effective local police forces and fighting more locally focused forms of crime such as car theft, extortion, and kidnapping’ (Flannery, 2015). To do this, President Peña Nieto must redress the imbalance between the different policing levels which should be approached through enforced academy training and increased salaries. The legitimate concern with corruption can be offset through better and increased vetting processes, with proper consequences for those who fail tests, and the encouragement of external and civic monitoring over operations. It would also be beneficial to hold joint investigatory exercises between municipal and state police in Jalisco, as well as between Jalisco and Michoacán. This would serve as a means of training for local forces and foster greater trust between the different levels of security, as well as improve the success rate of investigatory operations. Crucially, however, local police forces commit to the unified security strategy. ‘The lesson here is very simple’, state Guzmán-Sánchez and Espriu-Guerra: ‘any initiative that seeks to alter formal or informal practices of the police should acquire their support and participation’ (2014).

Whilst this may not topple the organisational structure of the CJNG, the tackling of petty local crime is the foundation through which the relationship between the police and citizens can improve. ‘Governments that effectively reduce violence’, argue Felbab-Brown and Olsen, ‘often do not rid the country of organised crime but lessen its grip on society, thereby giving citizens greater confidence in government, encouraging citizen cooperation with law enforcement, and aiding the transformation of a national security threat into a public safety problem’ (2012). The real challenge for the state governing bodies will be to ‘articulate and realise this contractual relationship… between police and civil society, in particular between the police and local authorities, through consultation and cooperation in facing everyday problems’ (2014). Therefore, civic participation in this process will also be imperative in fostering a security consensus.

In addition to capacity building, President Peña Nieto must move away from the kingpin strategy and instead confront the low and mid-level gang members that work for CJNG. Weakening the middle layer of the cartel will make it harder for the group to regenerate, and it has the added benefit of allowing judicial prosecutors to use plea bargain entitlements to produce the evidence necessary for successful convictions of cartel leaders (Felbab-Brown, 2014: 34). In this early stage of Operation Jalisco, the police and military should therefore focus on building a comprehensive intelligence collection system which can be used to develop a data set on the recruitment networks in Jalisco. This variety of approach will require lengthy intelligence operations, so federal police will need to establish collaborative communication systems with the military as well as state security.  An emphasis on careful intelligence collection and conviction of low and mid-level cartel members would then improve the image of Mexico’s judicial system, as well as inject some confidence into the public that the systems of governance are healing.

Finally, the government must begin to address Guadalajara’s vulnerability against money laundering. Now dubbed the ‘money laundering capital of Mexico’ (see Tucker, 2015), Guadalajara’s businesses are facilitating CJNG’s access to funds, which in turn allows them to produce and purchase high-end weaponry. Jalisco, along with Sinaloa and Baja California, accounts for 163 of the businesses blacklisted from 2002 to 2014 by the US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (see Tucker, 2015). Trawling through the most recent OFAC July 2015 report (see Office of Foreign Assets Control), there are innumerable businesses in the city that have been blacklisted. When the businesses are entered into a search engine, most are now closed or ‘discontinued’, an indication of how easy it is for cartels to escape formal investigation. Money laundering provides the foundation through which a cartel can operate, and therefore the government must investigate and work with local businesses and banks if it wants to regain control over the state. This policy can be bolstered through public assurance that whistle-blowers will receive protection.

There is no one panacea to counter the violence and instability in Jalisco, and it will take time for the Operation to make an impact. But President Peña Nieto is in a unique and fortunate position in that he has already dramatically reduced violent crimes in Mexico since 2012. Building on this success, he has the time and the resources to reinvigorate and reinforce Jalisco’s public security systems whilst federal units begin collecting intelligence and bringing people to conviction for their crimes. In the meantime, the government and the military must champion transparency, encourage civic participation, and, overall, not be provoked into an all-out war with the CJNG.


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