Fighting Drug Cartels Exposes Mexican Military to Corruption

Gen. Manuel Moreno Avina, charged with drug trafficking.

Gen. Manuel Moreno Avina, charged with drug trafficking.

As has been discussed numerous times, on this blog and elsewhere, a chief consequence of the Mexican military’s involvement in fighting drugs has been a dramatic surge in violence and death throughout the country. Since President Felipe Calderon took power and reoriented the military towards combatting the problems of domestic security, anywhere between 45,000 and 67,000 people have died and claims of human rights abuses have increased, while the “failed state” label has been repeatedly slapped on the country by pundits, politicians, and even some otherwise sober-minded analysts.

Defenders of the Mexican government’s policy point to the fact that because the military hasn’t been actively involved in fighting the drug wars, its foot soldiers and brass have been buffered from the corrupting influence of the cartel’s bottomless pockets. Traffickers have successfully hollowed out local and state security institutions by preying on the poor pay and even poorer training police officers receive in Mexico. The military, slightly better cared for and immensely more well-regarded in society, is seen by many as incorruptibly above the fray due to its limited exposure to trafficking networks.

Logically, then, the more exposure the military has to the drug war, the greater the risk that it will succumb to corruption. Evidence of this problem has been apparent since the start. Shortly after Calderon ordered the armed forces to roll back the power of drug trafficking networks, the cartels began openly advertising a better life for soldiers and their families. As USA Today reported in 2008, “One of Mexico’s biggest drug cartels has launched a brazen recruiting campaign, putting up fliers and banners promising good pay, free cars and better food to army soldiers who join the cartel’s elite band of hit men.” Their tactics were direct and to the point:

“The Zetas operations group wants you, soldier or ex-soldier…We offer you a good salary, food and attention for your family. Don’t suffer hunger and abuse anymore.” A competing cartel also put soldiers on notice. “Join the ranks of the Gulf Cartel. We offer benefits, life insurance, a house for your family and children. Stop living in the slums and riding the bus. A new car or truck, your choice.”

At the time, authorities pooh-poohed the offers as PR antics even as the threat of corruption seemed increasingly real.

So it shouldn’t be all too surprising to learn that the government has taken action against two high-ranking military officers with alleged links to drug-running cartels:

Soldiers detained retired Gen. Tomas Angeles Dauahare and Gen. Roberto Dawe Gonzalez, the Attorney General’s Office said in a brief statement released late Tuesday. The office gave no other details. An official at the Attorney General’s Office said the officers are being investigated for alleged links to a Mexican drug cartel, but he would not say which cartel. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to discuss the case.

Angeles Dauahare’s detainment is especially disturbing given the fact that he was President Calderon’s personal pick as number two man in Mexico’s department of defense. Even more troubling, while this week’s arrests were the most high-profile moves against corrupt military personnel, they are not the first.

A few senior military officers have been arrested for alleged links to drug traffickers during Mexico’s long struggle to control the cartels. Retired Gen. Juan Manuel Barragan Espinosa was detained in February for alleged links to organized crime and Gen. Manuel Moreno Avina and 29 soldiers who were under his command in the border town of Ojinaga, across the border from Presidio, Texas, are being tried on charges of torture, homicide, drug trafficking and other crimes.

The most immediate effect of this scandal is likely to be political. Polling suggests diminishing public opinion returns for Calderon and his conservative party’s reliance on the cartel crackdown—numbers that, at least for the moment, point to a return to power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party which ruled the country for decades during Mexico’s authoritarian period. But while the upcoming elections offer a momentary distraction from the brutal slaughter playing out across the country’s borderlands, the fact remains that competing cartels have evidently made inroads into the heart of the state national (and international) defense. A change of the political guard won’t suffice to fix that. So the question remains—what will?