Small Wars Journal

Cartel Next: How Army Design Methodology Offers Holistic and Dissimilar Approaches to the Mexican Drug Problem

Thu, 06/30/2011 - 11:20am

Cartel Next: How Army Design Methodology Offers Holistic and Dissimilar Approaches to the Mexican Drug Problem

by Ben Zweibelson

Download the Full Article: Cartel Next

This paper is a theoretical exercise that attempts to deliver one possible Army Design solution to the narco-terrorism cycle affecting Mexico and the Western Hemisphere. If readers are unfamiliar with Army Design Methodology, they should refer to U.S. Army Field Manual 5-0, Operations, Chapter 3 or Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, Chapter 4. Design proposes different systems of logic for making sense of the world and understanding how to better influence a complex system. This article makes suggestions on how the military and the overarching web of government agencies and international actors could approach Mexico's current issues- however, this is a purely theoretical product and merely demonstrates just one approach to a complex and dangerous scenario.

Download the Full Article: Cartel Next

Major Ben Zweibelson is an active duty Infantry Officer in the US Army with over 17 years of combined service. He has a Masters in Liberal Arts from Louisiana State University, a Masters in Military Arts and Sciences in Theater Operations from the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), and a Masters in Military Operational Arts and Sciences from the United States Air Force (Air Command and Staff College Program). A veteran of OIF 1 and OIF 6, Ben is currently deployed to Afghanistan where he is serving as an Action Officer in the Commander's Action Group (CAG), NATO Training Mission Afghanistan (NTM-A).

About the Author(s)

Ben Zweibelson is the Program Director for Design and Innovation at the Joint Special Operations University and is a doctoral student at Lancaster University. A retired U.S. Army Infantry officer and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, Ben has provided design education across USSOCOM, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Government, academia and industry as well as internationally. He was named “design conference ambassador” for the second year in a row for the upcoming IMDC, and has recently lectured on design at the Polish and Danish War Colleges, the Canadian Forces College, NATO Schools at Oberammergau, the National Counterterrorism Center, the IBM capstone SPADE conference for NATO in Copenhagen, as well as numerous Special Operations and strategic level defense assets in 2018. He resides in Tampa, Florida with his wife and three children. He can be reached at




Wed, 08/31/2011 - 11:05am

Although a specific drug cartel has not as yet been implicated in the recent arson attack on a Monterrey casino that killed 52 people, many observers suspect the incident is a product of the bloody turf wars and extortion rackets involving Mexico's notorious drug cartels.

The ruthless battles among competing cartels and between the cartels and the government forces trying to take them down have claimed at least 40,000 lives since 2006, the year that Mexico's president, Felipe Calderon, launched a crackdown against the cartels that many say has only increased the violence. In 2010 alone, the bloodiest year to date, more than 15,000 people were killed in drug-related violence.

Although there are many areas of Mexico where cartels are not active, in the states and cities they do control, their reach is vast. They not only employ local gangs as enforcers but exert control over police, the military and politicians. Mayors, governors, journalists and police officers have all fallen victim to the cartels' particularly brutal brand of intimidation and violence.

What's more, the cartels have branched out from drug trafficking in recent years and are involved in numerous other criminal enterprises, including kidnapping, counterfeiting, human-smuggling and business extortion of the kind authorities suspect may have been behind the attack at the Monterrey casino, which had been hit twice before the Aug. 26 incident. <a href="">Libros Gratis</a>

With a presidential election on the horizon in 2012, the pressure is on Calderon to curb the violence and rethink the strategy he set in motion in 2006. Back then, the president set about dismantling the local police forces he felt had been corrupted by the cartels and brought in tens of thousands of his own federal troops and police to pursue the drug lords. Some say this only led to more violence, as the cartels were now fighting not only each other but federal forces as well, and more and more civilians were getting caught in the crossfire.

Calderon has also been criticized for his tactic of going after the high-profile heads of the cartels, which often provokes violent power struggles within the organizations that breeds more killing and violence.

Greg (not verified)

Thu, 07/14/2011 - 8:31am

As a long-time professional military officer that dabbles in the Mexican cross-border narco problem, I found this article to be a refreshing and very creative approach to understanding some of what is Although the author left out many related topics and did not go into much detail on some of the areas I was expecting (cartel actions, Mexican corruption, ATF and Coast Guard combined counter-drug ops with other government elements)- I walk away not minding that at all. This article paints with a very broad brush, but makes a different picture and made me look at the entire problem in a very different light. So- I guess the next question is, how do we take this different perspective and apply it in foriegn policy action? Some of the above comments advocate some things we cannot possibly do politically- we cannot roll military forces in or block off the entire border. If I get the author's big point, how do we get so many different agencies that wear different hats to work together with a real campaign strategy that spans all of the things this paper suggests?

Again, very refreshing. Highly recommending this to others!

slapout9 (not verified)

Sun, 07/10/2011 - 2:46am

All, go to the infinity journal and read Adam Elkus piece on Mexico. It is an excellant piece the situation in Mexico as it is not just a drug problem but goes all the way back to the Marxist take over in the 1950's. Probably one of the best papers I have read on the total Mexico situation.

<i>If solving the problem in Mexico was as simple as you recommend, why hasn't the US government gone and done it already? </i>

Because the problem comes from drug demand, not drug supply, and we haven't the political will to address drug demand.

I don't think we need a plateful of postmodern ontology to see that, but I guess anything pointing in the right direction is useful, no matter how circuitous the process is.

bz (not verified)

Sat, 07/09/2011 - 2:37am

Marathon Sprint-
If solving the problem in Mexico was as simple as you recommend, why hasn't the US government gone and done it already?


Marathon Sprint (not verified)

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 11:44am

Another article about Design. When will military leadership realize that KISS works. KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID. Non-linear swarms? Really? How about targeting cartels with combat troops, securing the border and not letting anyone in, and revamping the Mexican corrupt judicial system? Not saying that is easy, but we are not going to change Hollywood, American drug culture, or poor farmers in Columbia as Major Zweibelson recommends. Lock down Mexico- it is key terrain. Seal the border. Eliminate cartels, isolate those you cannot eliminate. Fix the judicial system. 3 lines of effort there, and a clear desired end-state. A 5 paragraph OPORD will make more sense to the vast, vast majority of the military than this article and the Army SAMS club fixation on design and philosophy.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 07/03/2011 - 2:37pm

Big thumbs up on this one. Awesome.

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 07/01/2011 - 3:02am

Very insightful. Ben, I will contact you over the SWA.ARMY account since I am over here too. This is really good. Graphics are top-notch- all yours?

-John C

Ol' Baggy Pant… (not verified)

Fri, 07/01/2011 - 2:20am

First off, I must confess I am a design "un-enthusiast." The Army already has a tough time just doing detailed planning correctly, and for all the promises from design folks that it is going to be the next thing since sliced bread, I have not seen a single example of going from conceptual to detailed that is understandable to the masses- until now.

I am quite impressed, even astounded, by the clarity and insights of this article. It is not only perhaps the best design article I have ever seen, it stands as one of the best articles I have read in military forums in some time. I say that because I readily admit I clicked on it with a big cold glass of skepticism and my angry cookies ready to enjoy another dismal article on design that always seen to end up confusing me utterly. I finished this one in amazement; I actually can say that I learned something and now look at Cartels and the drug cycle completely differently. Bravo, Major. Lets hope the right folks at State and elsewhere get a look at this.

Now, back to why design still does not work for the Army. This article also helps support my original position. Look at the major's bio. Nearly 20 years in, 3 advanced degrees, SAMS. The author clearly has some serious intellectual horsepower in his cranium, and it appears that he might have cracked the code on doing design and explaining it to the masses in this case. Now look out across the Army- how many other folks do we have that can do this, and how many do we need? We cannot expect our schools to crank out hundreds of folks that can do this, but we need them in every division, heck- at least one in each brigade perhaps. That is not going to happen- and if anything, big Army will take this example to the giant doctrine cookie-cutter machine and expect everyone to copy it and make it work. That is a FAIL. An epic FAIL. So I return to my original position with one adjustment. Begrudgingly, I acknowledge now that there are examples of design applying to complex problems and delivering smart, understandable explanations and recommendations for direct applications. When you are able to teach that unique skill set to more than a handful of SAMS guys, you might convince me it will work for big Army.

Ol' Baggy Pants Devil

Paul Yingling (not verified)

Fri, 07/01/2011 - 1:59am


Did you consult any Mexican authors or sources for this piece? I didn't see any in the footnotes, but I suspect their insights would be useful.



bz (not verified)

Thu, 06/30/2011 - 4:20pm

I agree. The opium is just one part; and we need to resist compartamentalizing and reducing it down- so why the heck do we slice a section to work just that issue? What I think might be useful is applying the meta-cognition processes of the 'illicit commodity cycle' to Afghanistan and attempting to holistically fuse that 'explanation' with other Design concepts that explore the insurgency, the economic problems, illiteracy, gender empowerment, corruption and nepotism cycles within Afghan society- building an ontological model that incorperates all of these dynamic and adaptive concepts to provide our organizations with deep understanding and explanation instead of massive piles of description, detail, and isolated and compartamentalized snippets of lethal and nonlethal action.

Chris- thanks! Could not have improved this from earlier drafts without your astute suggestions and assistance!


Bob's World

Thu, 06/30/2011 - 3:31pm

I can't think of an example where criminality (other than the criminality of illegal politics) was a driver of insurgency, but it is certainly often happy to jump aboard and go along for the ride.

If someone magically made the entire Afghanistan opium market go way tomorrow, the insurgency would be just as strong the day after tomorrow. The insurgency is driven by politics, opium is just a great way to fund the insurgency and a million other things in Afghanistan.

Anonymous (not verified)

Thu, 06/30/2011 - 3:08pm

BZ---suggest the expansion into the area of criminal activites--refer to the WestPoint CTC study which has an extremely strong criminal research look into the insurgency that is often overlooked.

Yes opium is important but there is a flavor in the Afghan criminal activity that has been totally overlooked as a core driver behind the insurgency.


bz (not verified)

Thu, 06/30/2011 - 2:37pm

Bob- thanks. This was a long process of bouncing many earlier versions off alot of very smart folks; many of whom are frequent contributors and bloggers here at SWJ and within the relatively small military Design community. Again, it is just an example of one way to apply Design Theory, and hopefully it will evoke other approaches to not only Mexico but other relevant problems. I am currently looking at applying the article's illicit commodity cycle 'meta-theory' to Afghanistan's opium cycle.
Thanks again-

Bob's World

Thu, 06/30/2011 - 12:50pm


Great Job! Best look at the issue of Mexico and illegal Drug related issues to run on SWJ to date. (If you are interested in Joint assignment down at SOCOM, drop me a note).