When Drug Cartels Steal From the State

As Mexico rejoices over the spectacular headlines in media outlets from all over the world announcing the capture of "El Gafe", top leader of the Cartel del Golfo (CDG), we should be applauding less and worrying more. The capture of Jose Hernandez corroborates one of our worst fears: The Mexican State is perhaps the biggest breeder of top cartel leaders today.

In a violent confrontation in the border city of Reynosa, elements of the Mexican armed forces captured Jose Tiburcio Hernandez a.k.a. "El Gafe", and killed three other members of the CDG last Friday. This is considered one of the most successful operations in the state of Tamaulipas in the last year. But what the capture of "El Gafe" really means is far from a success story.

Hernandez' alias tells a dark story behind Mexican drug cartels, one which the Mexican government and policy makers on both sides of the borders have failed -- or perhaps chosen not -- to address. The alias "El Gafe" means that Hernandez was once a member of the Mexican Army's Veteran Elite Airborne Special Forces Group (GAFE for its acronym in Spanish). And Hernandez is just one of the many defectors from a military institution who have joined drug cartels. Today, a percentage of former military officers, members of the National Defense Bureau (SEDENA), and personnel of the Federal Police of Mexico work for the Cartel del Golfo and Los Zetas, the two largest and most violent drug trafficking organizations in Mexico. It is no surprise that the plane that crashed in Venezuela with one ton of cocaine just a couple of weeks ago was part of a "lord of the skies" type operation executed by two former defectors of the General Direction of Air Services (DGSA) and of the Office of the Attorney General of Mexico (PGR).

The CDG, one of the oldest cartels in Mexico, introduced a groundbreaking innovation in cartel operations in the late '90s by creating an armed wing operated by members of Mexico's top military, security, and intelligence institutions. Through corruption, threats, and a bit of persuasion, Osiel Cardenas, then leader of the CDG, created a team of hundreds of experts with high-class training, military education, access to weapons and networks, and, intelligence, all courtesy of the Mexican State. The introduction of "Gafes" to the drug war equation soon revolutionized the nature and dynamics of cartels, increasing the demand for more human capital of this kind. Today, former military officers and police personnel run the show of drugs, violence, and mass destabilization in Mexico and Latin America and have ironically become public enemy number one of the Mexican State.

Mexican drug cartels have outdone the State. Not only have these organizations become the greatest threat to the country's security and stability but they have also managed to steal its weapons, its intelligence, and its human capital. Even more preoccupying is the fact that the current strategies and policies that make up "the war on drugs" do not address the proliferation of military personnel within drug cartels. Initiatives such as the "single command" and the creation of "clean" elite security forces have not contemplated the necessary steps to ensure the loyalty and integrity of its members. Furthermore, the removal of hundreds of corrupt officers from their positions in an anti-corruption effort in the last years did not contemplate the aftermath; the laid-off, well-trained former police and military members have found attractive job opportunities in the drug cartels. To make things worse, these criminal organizations are even benefiting from some of policies and efforts such as the Merida Initiative, which is now training and arming both corrupt officers and potential future cartel members.

The incursion of thousands former military officers in drug cartels is a game-changer and only the tip of the iceberg of the insecurity-corruption nexus in Mexico today. And as in any problem that has bottomed out, the first step towards recovery is acceptance. Accepting that its institutions are fragile, its system is corrupted, and that its own resources are being used against it, sure isn't easy, but without this acknowledgment, adequate policies cannot be created. Without this acknowledgment not only will the strategies continue to fail in Mexico, they will continue to breed top cartel leaders.