UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!

Homeland Security

A "New" Dynamic in the Western Hemisphere Security Environment: The Mexican Zetas and Other Private Armies

A 'New' Dynamic in the Western Hemisphere Security Environment: The Mexican Zetas and Other Private Armies - Cover

Authored by Dr. Max G. Manwaring.

September 2009

51 Pages

Brief Synopsis

This monograph is intended to help political, military, policy, opinion, and academic leaders think strategically about explanations, consequences, and responses that might apply to the volatile and dangerous new dynamic that has inserted itself into the already crowded Mexican and hemispheric security arena, that is, the privatized Zeta military organization. In Mexico, this new dynamic involves the migration of traditional hard-power national security and sovereignty threats from traditional state and nonstate adversaries to hard and soft power threats from professional private nonstate military organizations. This dynamic also involves a more powerful and ambiguous mix of terrorism, crime, and conventional war tactics, operations, and strategies than experienced in the past. Moreover, this violence and its perpetrators tend to create and consolidate semi-autonomous enclaves (criminal free-states) that develop in to quasi-states—and what the Mexican government calls “Zones of Impunity.” All together, these dynamics not only challenge Mexican security, stability, and sovereignty, but, if left improperly understood and improperly countered, also challenge the security and stability of the United States and Mexico’s other neighbors.


A new and dangerous dynamic has been introduced into the Mexican internal security environment. That new dynamic involves the migration of power from traditional state and nonstate adversaries to nontraditional nonstate private military organizations such as the Zetas, enforcer gangs like the Aztecas, Negros, and Polones, and paramilitary triggermen. Moreover, the actions of these irregular nonstate actors tend to be more political-psychological than military, and further move the threat from hard power to soft power solutions.

In this connection, we examine the macro “what, why, who, how, and so what?” questions concerning the resultant type of conflict that has been and is being fought in Mexico. A useful way to organize these questions is to adopt a matrix approach. The matrix may be viewed as having four sets of elements: (1) The Contextual Setting, (the “what?” and beginning “why” questions); (2) The Protagonist’s Background, Organization, Operations, Motives, and Linkages (the fundamental “who? why?” and “how” questions); (3) The Strategic-Level Outcomes and Consequences (the basic “so what?” question; and (4) Recommendations that address the salient implications. These various elements are mutually influencing and constitute the political-strategic level cause and effect dynamics of a given case.

The Contextual Setting explains that the irregular conflict phenomenon in Mexico is a response to historical socio-political factors, as well as new politicalmilitary dynamics being introduced into the internal security arena. New and fundamental change began to emerge in the 1980s. Mexico began to devolve from a strong, centralized, de facto unitary state that had the procedural features of democracy, but in which the ruling elites faced no scrutiny or accountability. At the same time, Mexico started to become a market state that responded to markets and profits rather than traditional government regulation. In that connection, we see the evolution of new private, nonstate, nontraditional warmaking entities (the Zetas, and others) capable of challenging the stability, security, and effective sovereignty of the nation-state. Thus, we see the erosion of democracy and the erosion of the state. In these terms, the internal security situation in Mexico is well beyond a simple law enforcement problem. It is also a socio-political problem, and a national security issue with implications beyond Mexico’s borders.

The Protagonist’s Background focuses on orientation and motivation. In this context, the Zeta is credited with the capability to sooner or later take control of the Gulf Cartel and expand operations into the territories of other cartels—and further challenge the sovereignty of the Mexican state. This cautionary tale of significant criminal-military challenge to effective sovereignty and traditional Mexican values takes us to the problem of response. The power to deal effectively with these kinds of threats is not hard military fire power or even more benign police power. Rather, an adequate response requires a “whole-ofgovernment” approach that can apply the full human and physical resources of a nation and its international partners to achieve the individual and collective security and well-being that leads to societal peace and justice. This kind of conflict uses not only coercive military force, but also co-optive and coercive political and psychological persuasion. Combatants tend to be interspersed among ordinary people and have no permanent locations and no identity to differentiate them clearly from the rest of a given population. There is no secluded battlefield far away from population centers upon which armies can engage—armed engagements may take place anywhere. This type of conflict is not intended to destroy an enemy military force, but to capture the imaginations of people and the will of their leaders. Ultimately, the intent is to neutralize or control government and its traditional security forces so as to attain the level of freedom of movement and action that allows the achievement of desired enrichment.

Outcomes and Consequences illustrate where, in physical and value terms, contemporary criminalmilitary violence leads—and clearly answers the “so what?” question. In these terms, we take a close look at socio-political life in the State of Sinaloa. We center our attention on the reality of effective Mexican state sovereignty and the governing values being imposed in that “Zone of Impunity.” The drug cartel, the enforcer gangs, and the Zetas operating in Sinaloa have marginalized Mexican state authority and replaced it with a criminal anarchy. That anarchy is defined by bribes, patronage, cronyism, violence, and personal whim. One is reminded of Thomas Hobbes description of life in a “State of Nature.” That is, life is “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Finally, trends and challenges and threats are identified that will have an impact on Mexico and its neighbors over the next several years. And, organizational and cognitive Recommendations are offered as a point of departure for possible responses.

Access Full Report [PDF]: A "New" Dynamic in the Western Hemisphere Security Environment: The Mexican Zetas and Other Private Armies

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list