Small Wars Journal

Capo-Militaries: An Illicit Modus Operandi of Armed Forces and Intelligence Services in Peru, Mexico, and Venezuela

Mon, 02/18/2013 - 3:30am


It is an enormous paradox that the most dangerous and versatile criminal organizations originate from institutions in charge of the security components of the state such as the armed forces and intelligence services. Capo-militaries, by their diverse portfolio of activities, such as the use of sophisticated weapons, logistics, and tactics, have become threats to national and international security. The origins of their modus operandi are from both the inside and outside of governmental structures. On one hand, military personnel desert the armed forces to organize their own illicit networks collaborating in concert with other criminal groups. On the other hand, military criminals operate inside governmental structures as well as in the underworld through illicit networks. The military deserters begin by joining a criminal organization to provide their services; later, they separate from it to start up their own criminal organization. That is how the criminal career of the Zetas founders began. They were contracted by Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, a leader of the Gulf Cartel (Cartel del Golfo), and later defected from his group to start up their own criminal organization.

The modus operandi of capo-militaries can also be found in two other dimensions at the same time, a legal as well as a criminal one, which results in military personnel bonding with criminal groups inside of military institutions. In the case of the operations of the Venezuelan Cartel of the Suns (El Cartel de los Soles) Venezuelan generals remained in their military posts while making deals with criminal elements. In Peru of the 1990s, the Vladimiro Montesinos intelligence service operated in the same way throughout its term in power. In effect, Montesinos’ intelligence service converted the Peruvian government into a mafia, resulting from the extremely high level of corruption that went down into all of its structures.

Different Types of Capo-Militaries

The following criminal organizations that originate inside of the armed forces and intelligence services can be identified:

Mafia: A criminal group that emerges when a government is weak, corrupt or inefficient and unable to manage and control violence through its institutions. This represents a failure of the armed forces and the police who are legally trained to apply force in necessary cases. The mafia fulfills a vacuum of governmental power and takes over many of its functions. Its activities focus on gaining political power and control over territory and/or government for economic benefits. Montesinos’ intelligence service mafia represents an example.

Transnational organized crime: These criminal groups engage in illicit activity that focuses on economic gain and control of territory. The structure of transnational organized crime displays the following features:

• Financial power: variety of products, e.g., drugs, weapons, oil, human traffic, hijacking, etc.

• Social force: illicit business. Illegal economy that generates the social structure.

• Control of territory and strategic places.

• Armed power: serves to ensure power and the capacity for self-defense.

• Global interconnection. These groups are the big “enterprises” internationally interconnected that can move goods across the globe, e.g. from Mexico to Europe. In fact, their high profitability originates in the transnational character of their modus operandi.

•  Emergence of criminal culture through relations between society and criminals: laws, objects and symbols referring to criminal power[1].

Modern organized crime is defined as an expression of paramilitarism or the third generation of organized crime due to the paramilitary terrorism and guerilla tactics of their criminal operations. Transnational organized crime activity does not have political, ideological or religious goals in its agenda. Despite the fact that such criminal groups penetrate into governmental structures through intimidation and corruption, filling the vacuum of power is not in their agenda; conversely, what they are looking for is to gain as much ‘freedom of action’ as possible for their illegal business.

Robert Hislope and Anthony Mughan in their work Introduction to Comparative Politics: The State and its Challenges (2012) analyze the political-criminal nexus (PCN) which encompasses the lasting relations that develop between organized crime and the state towards illegal goals[2]. The following political conditions are required to exist for the development of a PCN:

1. Strong state and fragile society (lasting power of one party with centralized bureaucratic mechanisms focused on stopping the development of civic organizations, e.g., Mexico under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI).

2. Fragile state and strong society (a state has not developed a monopoly of violence, nor has it extended control over its territory and never achieved legitimacy in the eyes of society, e.g., Italy and a majority of countries under development).

3. States in transition (anarchy: the old constitutional order is dead and a new one has not yet crystallized, e.g., Russia)[3].

Trafficking organization: A group of partners that practice illegal business; they act alone or with other organized groups and are not looking to fill the power vacuum within a government. Gaining economic advantage is a major objective of their activity as in the case of the Cartel of the Suns, a group that takes advantage of its power (military posts) within governmental institutions, but does not try to take over governmental functions. They do not possess the financial power that organized crime does.

This essay provides insights into these different capo-military organizations and their modus operandi in three Latin American countries— Peru, Mexico and Venezuela— as well as on the “roots cause” of their emergence. Finally, this essay will present the author’s conclusions.

Vladimiro Montesinos’ Intelligence Service: A Peruvian Mafia

“I was trained to be a soldier”,[4] this is how the Mexican narco-corrido’s[5] lyrics begin. Despite the fact that the song is about the roots of the Zetas, a particular Latin American criminal group with military background and prowess, it also tells the story of other criminal organizations that originated from the elite armed forces trained to combat organized violence. Before discussing and analyzing the particular capo-military’s organizations and their internal modus operandi, as well as external governmental structures, the following question should be addressed: what are the causes of the engagement of anti-subversive military institutions in organized violence?

In the 1960s and the 1970s, anti-insurgency special operations within the armed forces were created as a response to subversive activities of groups with a Marxist-Leninist background. At that time, Latin American liberation movements were inspired and sponsored by the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, in the 1980s, after the initial weakening of the Soviet imperium, guerrilla groups had to look for a new source of funding in order to be able to continue their fight. Illicit businesses presented an opportunity. The illicit economy[6] attracted not only the old liberation groups, but also caused the emergence of new criminal organizations that began to engage in commercial, later criminal, insurgencies. The US Army War College scholar Steve Metz theorized the commercial insurgency form in the early 1990s. These groups, according to the security scholar John P. Sullivan, who later coined the criminal insurgency construct, are said to be “different from classic insurgency and terrorism because the criminal insurgents’ overarching political motive is to gain autonomous economic control over territory...”[7]

The appearance of new criminal organizations and their involvement in such insurgencies involving the illicit economy made the tissue of criminal cells stronger as they extended the size and scope of the underworld. As a result the spider web of interlinked criminal organizations became basically indestructible. To respond to this dangerous situation, Latin American democracies had to resort to the armed forces to destroy the criminal tissue. They did so by utilizing special operations forces against these networks. However, instead of damaging or destroying these networks these state forces were absorbed by the criminal tissue to both strengthen it and extend it with the addition of even more new cells. This happened because the world of an illicit economy offered a wide spectrum of opportunities unattainable within the military institutions. Thus, through their contact with criminal organizations, the military familiarized themselves with the modus operandi of the criminal groups and men with military backgrounds began to build their own illicit networks. Power, force, and access to   sophisticated weapons and military prowess in combatting insurgencies were the factors that strengthened their capacities to lead their own criminal organizations. Indeed, this was relevant for officers who remained inside the armed forces as they benefited from the legitimate power they possessed within the military institution to manage their own illicit business and operate simultaneously between two worlds: governmental structures and criminal spaces.

In 2010, Vladimiro Montesinos Torres, former director of the Peruvian Secret Service and Presidential adviser between 1990 and 2000, in concert with other military and ex-military staff from the Colina Group (death squadron), were sentenced to twenty-five years for abuse of human rights.[8] Three years earlier, the Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori was punished with similar charges for twenty-five years. This is how the structures of imaginative totalitarianism were dismantled. According to Manuel Dammert Ego Aguirre, “imaginative totalitarianism is the power composed of images and control of the society’s life in order to hide the mafia’s corrupted power that maintained sterilize, empties institutions in the representative democracy”.[9] It was the first time that the Intelligence Service became a machine that held all the threads of the governmental institutions, including the presidency.

It should be mentioned that the Peruvian Intelligence Service is an institution created in 1960 within the armed forces focusing on anti-subversive activities. This institution enjoys autonomy, but it is inspired by doctrines and ideologies that define the functions of the armed forces. At the beginning, the Intelligence Service was the structure that provided information to the armed forces. Nevertheless, when Vladimiro Montesinos, the former artillery captain and lawyer for drug traffickers, became the leader of the Intelligence Service in 1989, this institution went to the top of the pyramid of power and control in Peru. The Secret Service was a cornerstone of the future mafia. This institution was a tool in control of the armed forces, the judicial power, the treasury, the media, a part of Congress and the Secretary of the Cabinet. The pyramid of illicit power was consolidated in April 5, 1992, after the coup d’état, motivated by a need to rebuild domestic order after the violent activities of subversive groups such as the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) and the revolutionary movement Tupac Amaru. Under these circumstances, Fujimori allowed the Intelligence Service’s mafia to maintain its power and operate without obstacles. The image of a civil and democratic government which Fujimori and Montesinos were selling to the world became a perfect mask for the corrupt state where the power belonged to the chief of the Intelligence Service and the generals.

Under Montesinos, the Intelligence Service became not only a mechanism of power and control, but also a politicized institution in charge of organizing the presidential companies and spying on the country’s enemies. In effect, Montesinos was holding together all the threads of the institution of the state. In the social constructivism theory, an interest is an egoistic wish of power, security and wealth.[10] That definition can explain Montesinos’ and Fujimori’s behavior as they were motivated by their personal interests and focused on the accumulation of both power and wealth. To achieve their goals, they were corrupting public agents, judges, and the military. All the structures of power created by Montesinos were directed towards his illicit economic gains, such as drug or arms trafficking. In 1993, an anti-drug agency created within the structure of the Intelligence Service allowed Montesinos to control the criminal world and then to form his own cartel as a result of his agreement with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The objective of the Montesinos collaboration with the CIA was to remove Peruvian flights with Colombian drug shipments to the United States. In exchange, the CIA allowed the Montesinos’ cartel to act freely.[11] Thus, the Intelligence Service’s tentacles embraced a major part of the region and beyond.

The Zetas (and the Kaibiles): Mexican Transnational Organized Crime

The Zetas are a group that is similar to the Peruvian secret service’s mafia. They know how to take advantage of everything that globalization and the technological revolution have offered to strengthen and expand their activity within the Western Hemisphere. This transnational criminal group developed in Nuevo Laredo in the State of Tamaulipas, Mexico. In 1999, the Zetas began their activity when a lieutenant, Arturo Guzmán Decena, deserted the Mexican Special Forces (Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales - GAFES),[12] to provide services such as protecting the Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillén (also known as “The Crazy”, “The Patron”, “The Godfather”, and “Memo”). Currently, Cárdenas Guillén is serving a sentence of twenty-five years in prison in the United States. After years of providing services to Osiel Cárdenas, Guzmán Decena separated from the Gulf Cartel to form his own illegal network. The name of the Zetas originates from the military code - Z1 which was Decena’s call sign during his military career. Although Z1 was murdered in 2002, the group became increasingly stronger.

Over the last two decades this heavily armed and highly violent organization has been portrayed as the cruelest criminal organization in the Western Hemisphere. At the beginning of its criminal activity, the Zetas were formed by three former military men: Heriberto Lazcano (“Z3” or “El Lazca”) was one of them and was later killed by the Mexican Navy. Other members of Zetas include Ivan Velázquez Caballero (“the Taliban”), who is currently in prison and Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales[13] (“Z 40”, “the Commander 40” or “La Mona”), who probably is the only high level leader of the Zetas who now remains at large. According to sources, Guzmán Decena, as well as Heriberto Lazcano were not only trained by the GAFES but also by the “School of the Americas” in the United States.

The Zetas is a form of paramilitarism. Their founders and members were trained by the armed forces, and they were intimately connected with a cartel, from which they separated to establish their own group. Because of their military origin, this organization maintains its hierarchical structure in which officers trained by armed forces are on the top of the criminal pyramid. In the Zetas hierarchy, the Falcons (“Los Halcones”) or so called the city’s eyes in charge of gathering information are its base. After the Falcons, the Cobras (“Las Cobras”) are responsible for drug safety. The next level is made up of the New Zetas (“Los Zetas Nuevos”) who protect the group from attacks. Then come the Old Cobras (“Las Cobras Viejas”), who are in charge of coordinating trafficking. Finally, on the top of the cartel are the Old Zetas (“Los Zetas Viejos”), who are highly respected and trained by military institutions. They lead the organization and control the town squares (plazas) and the money laundering operations. The Zetas follow a military-like doctrine and a strict regime in which every crime committed by a member against the group is punished according to their internal code of ethics. 

The Zetas terrorist and guerrilla modus operandi concerning the use of logistics, strategy, tactics, and modern equipment make them one of the most brutal, versatile and sophisticated paramilitary groups in the region. Drug trafficking, human smuggling, extortion, kidnapping, piracy, money laundering, and gas and oil robbery are included in the activities of their criminal agenda. To maintain their military structure and prestige, the Zetas conscript prospective members from special operations. For example, to extend their activities and gain control over the town squares, the Zetas employ the Kaibiles,[14] elite special forces similar to the Mexican GAFES, created in Guatemala in the 1960s with an anti-subversive mandate. The Kaibiles, apart from providing armament, support the Zetas in their business in Guatemala, as they never established their own organization. In El Salvador, the Zetas gained its force by collaborating with La Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), a violent street and prison gang who is arguably the most feared Mara in the Western Hemisphere. Additionally, the Salvadoran Armed Forces are also connected to the powerful organization of the Zetas. All of the foreign former military individuals and groups that support the Zetas act as mercenaries paid for their military service. This is how a modern criminal organization with military background and structure was formed. Currently, the Zetas capo-military operate in regions of the Mexican Gulf coast, Guatemala, Salvador, and a major part of South America and the United States.

The Cartel of the Suns: a Trafficking Organization of the Bolivarian Armed Forces 

Active military senior officers from the National Guard and other branches of the Bolivarian Armed Forces formed the Cartel of the Suns (also named the Ones from the Top or the Bolivarian Cartel). In this trafficking organization, you may find Hugo Chávez’s favorite generals with Cliver Alcalá Cordones as the central figure. On February 4th, 1992, the General and his brother Carlos, along with an officer known as Commander Chávez, attempted to overthrow the Carlos Andrés Pérez government. Nevertheless, the coup d’état failed and Chávez was imprisoned. After Chávez was released from prison he increasingly gained in power and later assumed the presidency. Now his closest generals enjoy his favor and protection in their illicit endeavors.   

In effect, the term Cartel of the Suns does not seem to be definitive of organized crime—that is a group of people who control illicit products, their production, and investments. The Suns do not fit the organized crime either due to the fact they are not responsible for coca production and prices. Furthermore, this criminal group does not display characteristics of transnational organized crime as mentioned above in the text. A better-fitting definition for the Suns would be a trafficking organization tied into other criminal and drug-funded insurgent groups. This criminal-military organization was strengthened under the Álvaro Uribe administration, where he implemented the anti-drug policy in Colombia allowing a substantive reduction of coca cultivation. Therefore, drug traffickers were forced to move their operations to Panama, Ecuador, and Venezuela. At that time, the General’s Cartel (another name of the Suns) obtained great economic advantages. The Cartel’s responsibility was to turn a blind eye to cargo flights from Colombia to the United States and Europe.

According to the investigations concerning Walid Makled García (“The Turk”), a drug trafficker businessman, the Suns’ capo-military group was working for his Cartel from Beirut (“el Cartel de Beirut”, originating from Makled’s Lebanese roots). However, at that time, the general’s relationship with “The Turk” weakened when the military started to demand more money for their services and he refused. As “The Turk” explained in an interview, General Alcalá was the one who planted the drug in his property of Rosario in Tocuyito. Alcalá probably wanted not only to eliminate “The Turk”, but also his brothers because of one them was possibly going to be elected as governor of the State of Valencia. In 2008, General Alcalá was the Commander of the 41st Shielded Brigade and the Chief of Valencia’s garrison.

Colombian authorities arrested Makled in 2010. Since then, a “castle of cards” began to fall apart when the capo revealed the general’s secret operations. During their activities, the military criminals penetrated, through corruption, the School of War and the Venezuelan Air Forces.[15] According to Makled’s revelation, General Alcalá involvement in illicit trafficking was linked to other members of the military such as General Orlando Rodríquez and Carlos Aniasi Turchio, the Army’s Commander at that time.[16] His power and influence were so strong that he managed to manipulate President Chávez, who at the price of his generals’ loyalty and support, had to accept the criminal activity of the Bolivarian Revolution Guardians.

Nevertheless, the Generals’ Cartel is not a unique thread in the spider web that spreads among the Bolivarian Republic’s governmental institutions. The dwarf’s gang (banda de los enanos) is yet another thread established by a group of magistrates, judges, district attorneys, and security members who provide their services as the “facilitators” (facilitadores) of illicit business. The dwarfs modulate Venezuelan justice according to favors and economic benefits; therefore, the dwarfs, the capos-military, supported by President Chávez himself are the cornerstones of the structures of illicit power. These criminal groups act under the revolutionary movement’s umbrella that welcomes all subversive forces with any type of anti-United States imperialism and anti-neoliberalism agenda.

Hugo Chávez’s revolutionary government provides land for training for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) and, thereby, facilitates an exchange of weapons for drugs. Political and ideological elements, such as non-interventionism in the Venezuelan national affairs by a foreign country, caused a breakdown of collaboration with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) agency as transit flights with drug shipments ceased to be interdicted by the DEA. Indeed, the Chavismo’s support for revolutionary movements can be seen with the change in the law in order to protect insurgent groups that were trained on Venezuelan land through the naturalization of their members to avoid their deportation. In fact, Chávez’s government possesses a revolutionary feature that implies and explains its support for organizations considered as terrorists by international law. According to Luis Velasquez Alvaray, Marco Tulio Dugarte Padrón, a Magistrate of the Supreme Court, the Chávez government provides legal services to FARC’s members.[17]  Furthermore, that administration has supplied weapons to the FARC financed by Venezuelan oil resources.

The Bolivarian Armed Forces possess absolute power over the Venezuelan civil government because they are responsible for the revolutionary process of national development. President Chávez’s power and the Chavismo process is dependent on a back room agreement with the armed forces which awards them with autonomy and many privileges. For example, General Henry Rangel Silva[18] was promoted to the post of Chief of the Bolivarian Armed Forces, despite the DEA’s accusation of collaboration with the FARC and illicit trafficking. This promotion proves the Venezuelan President’s strengthened ties with his military staff.


Possession of weaponry does not always lead to war; as a matter of fact, it may bring about security and peace. Therefore, such policies can be applied by a government, as a last judge of its own cause[19]. Expanding upon Kenneth Waltz’s thoughts, Latin American democracies acted appropriately by applying their anti-insurgency policy in order to destroy criminal organizations. According to Carl von Clausewitz, war is a “true instrument of policies”[20] and “intercourse between government and people, with addition of other means”[21]. From a theoretical point of view the use of violence and war as an instrument of policy should have brought forth the destruction of criminal networks. Instead, the effect was the opposite: the strengthening and expansion of criminal networks with new nodes with military capabilities.

Indeed, in this theatre of war, the Clausewitz’s military term coup d’oeil (inward eye) meaning a “quick recognition of a truth that the mind would ordinarily miss or would perceive only after long study and reflection”[22] was applied by the capo-military organizations that attempt to intimidate the structures of power and society itself. Not surprisingly, coup d’oeil was among the methods applied by al-Qaeda to the terrorist attack on 9/11. By decoding the Prussian military strategist’s theory of war as a continuation of policy by other means it can be observed that his reference to a chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the environment is appropriate. A chameleon’s nature remains the same no matter what color it adopts, unlike war that can adjust its nature to its surroundings. The illegal global economy and the development of a culture of violence have created an environment in which war is driven to constant change. Even the military, from their elite anti-insurgency forces and intelligence services, have become the capos of the most brutal and sophisticated criminal networks. This process of state corruption and co-option, centered on its military institutions, is much like an auto-immunological disorder, where protector cells under certain circumstances transform themselves into hostile cells that begin to attack the body of their host.

[1] Villalobos, Joaquín, “De los Zetas al cartel de la Habana”, Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica (New York City, Council of Foreign Relations, Volumen 11, Number 2, Abril -June 2011), pp. 2-3.

[2] Hislope, Robert and Anthony Mughan, Introduction to Comparative Politics. The State and Its Challenges, (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 276. 

[3] Ibidem, p. 278.

[4] Los “Zetas”’ narco-corrido. Available at:

[5] Popular folk songs about historical events. Very popular during the Mexican Revolution. 

[6] Lies in the transnational system of economic activities that are criminalized by importing and exporting states, H. Ricahrd Frieman and Peter Andreas, “Introduction: International Relations and the Illicit Global Economy” in The Illicit Global Economy and State Power, (US, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1999), p.1.

[7] Sullivan, John, P., “Criminal Insurgency in the Americas”, Small War Journal (February 13, 2010), p.1. Available at:

[8] BBC Mundo, 2010.

[9] Aguirre Dammert, Manuel Fujimori-Montesinos. El estado mafioso. El podes imagogrático en las sociedades globalizadas, (el Virrey, Lima, 2001),15-16.

[10] Wendt, Alexander, Social Theory of International Politics, (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 92. Available at:

[11] Ibidem, p. 341. 

[12] An anti-insurgency group trained by Israeli (Mossad) and French Intelligence.

[13] El “Z 40” was called by the group Judas (traitor). Convertly, El “Lazca”, who was the most respectful among the members.

[14] The Kaibiles’s participation in the various peacekeeping missions confirms their military prowess in combatting asymmetric threats.

[15]  Olivares, Francisco, “Tráfico de Drogas y Ethos Militar”, Observatorio Iberoamericano de la Democracia, (el 31 de julio de 2012), p. 1.

[16]  “Makled: Mi enemigo es el general Clível Alacalá Cordones”, (Impacto CNA, el 12 de marzo de 2011), p. 1.

[17] The Venezuelan ex-Magistrate of Supreme Court, exiled in Costa Rica. 

[18]In the last Venezuelan regional elections General Rangel Silva was elected as the new governor of the State of Miranda.

[19] Kennth N., Waltz, Man, State and War: theoretical analysis, Colombia University Press, New York City, 1959), p.160.

[20] Carl von Clausevitz, On War, (New Jersey, University Princeston, 1984), p. 75.

[21] Ibidem, p. 579.

[22] Kenneth, op.cit., p. 102.


About the Author(s)

Dr. Magdalena Defort served as an Intern Analyst at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies and as a Research Fellow at the Center for a Free and Secure Society. She recently completed a master’s degree in  National Security at the David Morgan Graduate School of National Security. She previously served as a Scholar in Latin American security issues at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL. She holds a Ph.D. from Universidad National Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM) and master’s degree from Universytet Wroclawski (Poland). She concluded her post–doctoral study in Instituto de Ciencias Sociales (UNAM). Magdalena is the author of five books and various articles published in scholarly journals. She was previously the director of aninterdisciplinary research group and coordinator of international workshop at the University of Miami.   Defort’s research interests include terrorism, drug trafficking, insurgencies, civil-military relations in Latin America and military collaborations in countering the new threats in the Americas.