Insurgency as a Relevant Lens for Cartel Violence in Mexico

By Robert Chesney
Wednesday, November 10, 2010, 2:30 PM

I’d like to draw attention to a handful of Mexico-related items this afternoon.  First, Tracy Wilkinson at the L.A. Times has a terrific piece discussing the degree of cartel control in Reynosa (across the border from McAllen, TX), describing the surrounding state of Tamaulipas as “all but lost to federal government rule.”  Wilkinson writes with narrative flair, using a series of vignettes involving ordinary, suffering citizens to depict the horror of the situation.  Mark Stevenson (AP) also has an interesting article about the extent to which cartels “interfere with everyday government activities in pockets of the country, keeping workers off their turf and interrupting some of the most basic services”—a perspective that reinforces my point that cartel displacement of legitimate government authority should not be measured solely with reference to levels of violence.

Then we have Mike O’Connor, who does important work reporting on the plight of journalists in Mexico, with a fascinating story describing the extent to which cartels in Ciudad Victoria (capital of Tamaulipas) have taken control of the local media, and used this control not just to silence criticism but also to direct criticism at government institutions.  O’Connor explains:

There are two editorial lines in the press releases. According to Lopez, the Zetas write their “stories” to make the Mexican army look bad. The army is deployed in the state to help fight the Zetas. So the Zetas send stories about army human rights abuses. “Some of those stories are accurate in a small way, but they are exaggerated. Sometimes they are not true,” Lopez said.

And, then, Lopez said, the Zetas want to make the local police look good. “They protect the police because the police are their allies,” she said. “We get stories about how the police or the chief are so wonderful, especially the chief.”

The centerpiece of the U.S. effort to assist Mexico in response to the violence is, of course, the Merida Initiative.  But note the story in today’s WaPo by Mary Beth Sheridan describing separate, Pentagon-based initiatives to provide additional funding and training—including human rights-oriented training--to the Mexican military.  The most important part of Sheridan’s story, I think, is the notion that U.S.-Mexican military-to-military relations have vastly improved of late.  Nearly as interesting, though, is the notion that the Pentagon is sharing “many of the lessons we’ve learned in chasing terrorist organizations in Iraq and Afghanistan,” according to Gen. Victor Renuart (formerly NORTHCOM’s commander).  That comparison seems quite apt.