In 2007 the drug cartels started encouraging desertion in the Mexican Army. The army had proved to be the government's most formidable weapon against them, so the cartelistas began offering money to soldiers to desert. Undermining the military isn't the only reason. Soldiers have tactical skills the cartels can use, like knowing how to shoot weapons and at least the basics of small unit operations. There is no evidence that the cartel's promised bribes are succeeding, other than boasts from Los Zetas (the Gulf cartel enforcers who increasingly act as a special paramilitary gang with connections throughout Mexico). The Zetas were formed by deserters from the elite Grupo Aeromovil de Fuerzas Especiales (GAFES), an airborne and airmobile outfit with special forces capabilities.
Desertion, however, is an old problem in Mexico and when you consider the statistics, it is a chronic problem. In the five year period before the Cartel War kicked off (January 2002 through December 2006), the Ministry of Defense said that 140,000 troops deserted the military. That is around 2000 a month. The figure from January 2007 to mid-2009 is 48,000, or roughly 1500 a month. The armed forces has about 600,000 troops, have on active duty and the rest organized reserves.
Why desert? Terrible living conditions and low pay are the major gripes. Counter-drug duty itself and frequent re-deployment from one drug conflict zone to another also crop up in the Mexican press as complaints from soldiers. Units are frequently moved from one area to another, to lower the possibility of corruption by a particular cartel. Soldiers also complain about corruption in the government. This ought to be a worry for the government-- an instructive worry. The Mexican Army is highly respected by most of the citizens, in part because it is considered to be far less corrupt that other governmental institutions. Soldiers and many citizens come to believe the military's efforts against the drug cartels will be wasted because the government does not go after the drug kingpins themselves (ie, they are protected by corrupt political leaders). The government recognizes this, which is one reason it keeps insisting that it is fighting a systemic war, which includes judicial, financial, and political reform.
But as the Cartel War continues, Mexicans are arguing that the military is overextended and they fear a troop shortage. The string of EPR (Popular Revolutionary Army) attacks on oil facilities in 2007, led to calls for the government to pay more attention to protecting strategic sites (like pipelines and oil fields). In Mexico the military plays a key role in natural disaster response and recovery, and critics of the drug war centric focus fear that the military will not be able to respond quickly and adequately to a major earthquake (say, in Mexico City) or a super hurricane. The Mexican Army disputes that criticism. Army leaders says that they have plenty of trained natural disaster response personnel and these personnel are available throughout the nation. Mexico, however, is a large country. 200,000 military personnel may look like a lot but with around 45,000 soldiers deployed to fight the cartels, a multiple hotspot scenario would severely test the defense forces. A multiple hotspot scenario looks something like this: a Category 5 hurricane hits the east coast, devastating a major city; labor strife erupts in Oaxaca City and strikers occupy and barricade portions of the town; the EPR attacks several PEMEX pipelines and cuts off energy supplies to major cities and manufacturing areas; the cartels agree to a temporary truce among themselves and detail hit teams to launch coordinated attacks in Mexico City, Acapulco, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, and Tijuana; finally, an assassination squad murders a highly respected government official. Fantasy? Not quite. Cartel drug lords can't create a hurricane but they have the money to pay corrupt labor leaders to lead transportation-stopping strikes and pay gunmen to coordinate attacks.
October 3, 2009: Police have conducted two major raids on methamphetamine smugglers. A raid in Manzanillo (Colima state, on the Pacific Ocean) resulted in the seizure of 20 tons of methamphetamine chemical precursors. A raid in Nuevo Laredo (Tamaulipas state, across from Laredo, Texas) seized 17 tons.
October, 2, 2009: U.S. police have noticed an increase in Mexican drug cartel beyond the border drug operations. State police in Oklahoma and Texas recently reported the discovery of large-scale marijuana farming in the states. The marijuana farms (which had several thousand plants) had connections to Mexican cartelistas. The cartels bring their own workers north to run the farms. One of the Oklahoma farms was found in the Kiamichi Mountains. In late 2008 a farming operation connected to the cartels was would in Ellis County, Texas. Another was discovered in Navarro County, Texas. Police investigators say the cartels are making these investments in drug farms in the US so the cartels do not have to smuggle the narcotics across the border. In other words, the Cartel War has taken a heavy toll on the narcotrafficantes.
September 29, 2009: The Foreign Minister, speaking at a UN conference in the United States, said government forces have badly damaged the cartels. The cartels have suffered very high casualties when facing government forces and in inter-cartel turf wars (where cartel gunmen kill one another). The Foreign Minister argued that drug pushers, gangsters, and (cartel) foot soldiers are the bulk of the death toll. When asked for evidence, the Foreign Minister said that a very low percentage of the bodies of the dead are claimed by families (which is an indication that the dead were involved in criminal activities). The Foreign Minister conceded that reciprocal violence (including retribution by cartel gunmen against civilians) remains a huge problem and this means that the war has (so far) not been a complete success.
September 22, 2009: American authorities arrested 70 people in Phoenix, Arizona, who the police allege are connected to Mexican cartels. In several raids police seized bullet-proof vests and ski masks. Several of the people arrested were suspected of involvement in home invasions and kidnappings possibly of illegal migrants in the Phoenix area. The bust may be connected to a larger trend. U.S. and Mexican police reported that they are seeing an increase in cartel use of illegal migrants as mules to carry drugs across the border. The cartels are also increasingly involved in human trafficking (smuggling people). The cartel gunmen also engage in kidnapping migrants and holding them for ransom. The gangs contact the migrants families. If the families can't pay the ransom, the gangs kill the people they kidnapped. Mexican authorities reported that they have raided several places in Mexico where drug gangsters were holding Central American migrants who were trying to slip through Mexico to the US. The cartels intended to use the kidnapped migrants to move drugs to the US.
US border agents at the San Ysidro crossing between Tijuana and San Diego fired shots at three vehicles. The vehicles tried to cross the border. Police discovered the vehicles were carrying 70 illegal migrants. The police report said the vehicles tried to run through the port and avoid inspection. Agents were quoted as being extremely surprised by the attempt (the crossing is heavily guarded).
September 20, 2009: Violence in Cuidad Juarez (Chihuahua state) continues. Juarez remains President Felipe Calderon's biggest challenge. Right across the border from El Paso, Texas, the violence in Juarez cannot be ignored by US media. The government is relying on the military to provide security for the people and to battle the drug cartels. When the military reinforced its presence in Spring 2009, initially violence dropped. Now the cartels have figured out that Juarez is a key information warfare battleground. The government currently has 7,000 troops and 3,000 federal police in and around Juarez. That may seem like a lot of troops but Juarez has a population of around two million. In a counter-insurgency operation, one soldier for every 50 people is a good planning figure. That would mean the government should put 40,000 troops and police in the area. What has happened is the cartels have reinforced Juarez and at the moment they have the power to raise the level of violence in the city to a near insurgency level. The cartels can't do this everywhere, but since the government decided to make Juarez a major effort, the cartels appear to have made the city their maximum effort.