Written by Stratfor
The year 2008 ended up being a record year in Mexico's fight against drug cartels. Unfortunately for the government, most of these records are related to the country's deteriorating security situation, not to government gains against criminal organizations. Most notably, 2008 set a new record for organized crime-related homicides with some 5,700 killings, more than double the previous record of 2,700 reached in 2007. The fact that 2008 deaths alone account for nearly half the total number killed over the last four years is a testament to just how much violence in Mexico has increased over the past 12 months.
Shifting geographic patterns of violence over the past year also highlight some of the Mexican government's challenges. In 2007, for example, much of the violence occurred in the states of Michoacan, Guerrero and Sinaloa, southwestern states with sparse populations, vast rural areas and mountains that proved ideal territory to store and traffic drug shipments received in coastal ports. During 2008, however, much of the violence shifted to the north: Some 48 percent of all killings during the last 12 months took place in Chihuahua and Baja California states. In addition, much of this northern violence was concentrated in large urban cities like Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana, which present uniquely different operating environments for the Mexican military.
While part of the Mexican army's failure to control violence in these cities is related to being stretched thin, it is also related to a relative lack of experience operating in urban environments, which require skills such as civil affairs and cooperating more closely with local law enforcement. Increasing tensions between the army and the civilian governments have shown that the military still has improvements to make - improvements that are difficult even for the more professional and better-funded U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to pull off.
The prospect of these trends continuing into 2009 does not bode well for the Mexican government. While there is no indication that the violence will soon taper off, it is also clear that the violence cannot continue to increase indefinitely. Indeed, the spike in violence in November that left nearly 1,000 dead did not repeat itself in December, which registered 650 killings related to organized crime, a more normal level compared to previous months. Nevertheless, due to the continuing volatility of the situation, it is all but inevitable that the crime problem will continue to represent a top national security concern for the government throughout the coming year, especially as the government faces pressures from citizens and businesses that are being affected.
Few additional details have emerged in the last two weeks regarding the Dec. 26 revelation of a cartel penetration of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's security team. The revelation came as authorities announced the arrest of an army major assigned to the Presidential Guard Corps, one of several military units responsible for presidential security. Given Mexico's rampant corruption and the large number of personnel who contribute to presidential security, it is no surprise that at least one of them might be tainted. A Mexican government source told Stratfor that the major did not have access to the highest-level information regarding Calderon, though the president's travel schedule has been modified as a precaution.
The major's arrest is a reminder of the many security roles the Mexican military performs today. Stratfor frequently has observed the Mexican armed forces' limitations, which were highlighted by the army's response to the December beheading of eight soldiers in Chilpancingo, Guerrero state. While the incident has sparked outrage among many soldiers, there is relatively little the army is capable of doing or willing to do.
Immediately after the incident, soldiers in Guerrero state sealed highways and inspected vehicles as they searched for those responsible. Troops in Michoacan and Morelos states conducted similar operations. Despite the high profile of the incident, the military's response so far has been limited to deploying troops from local garrisons, as opposed to any large-scale redeployment of forces from elsewhere in the country. A Stratfor source advised that the Mexican Defense Secretariat is on the lookout for unauthorized reprisals by disgruntled soldiers. While it makes strategic sense not to redeploy large numbers of soldiers to Guerrero simply because of eight dead soldiers, a response perceived as weak by the army's rank and file risks lowering morale even further. It also demonstrates some of the many challenges associated with relying on the military over the long term. (Click Map to View Interactively)