The fighting and ambushes that have occurred in recent days in the Tierra Caliente region against federal forces are not the typical clashes we are familiar with between drug traffickers and the Government. Usually the government is on the offensive seeking out drug traffickers (cartels) and engaging them in battle.
The strategies used by the "armed groups"--the term used by the EPN Government on a principle that cartels should not be recognized - who attacked the Federal Police in the South of Michoacan, were warlike operations, with elements and tactics that make one think about trained paramilitary groups. EPN has also dropped the use of the word "war" - as in "war on drugs" or "cartel wars"- from the vocabulary of the government.
The ambushes this past week on Federal Police that resulted in an 18 hour moving battle were an onslaught much more sophisticated than any the drug cartel has used so far to confront the Government.
Those attacks and especially after the ambush and assassination of one of the highest ranking military officers in Mexico, Vice Admiral Salazar Ramonet, Commander of the eighth Naval zone based in Puerto Vallarta, leave little doubt that one of the cartels operating in the area (in all likelihood Knights Templar) have declared war against the Mexican State.
The Suburban the Vice Admiral was riding in.
In tactical terms that could mean two things: one is that it is a desperate response by this group to the slam that snatched their territory of operations with the"Operation Michoacan" launched by the Mexican military. Or it could be an offensive by a group that believes it is superior in power to the federal Government in its area of operations.
The administration of Enrique Peña Nieto is perhaps paying the cost of their initial strategy in the fight against crime.
During Enrique Pena Nieto's campaign for the presidency, he promised that he would adopt a different security strategy than his predecessor Filipe Calderon. His goal would be to make the streets safe again for the average Mexican.
After his election and his assumption of power, he was still vague on specifics of his strategy, but said he would abandon Calderon's strategy of going after the cartel top leaders and just treat the cartels as part of his fight against crime.
He strategy was to fight crime through improved intelligence operations by the Mexican government and better coordination of resources of the government at the local, state, and federal levels. There is no question that cooperation and coordination needed to be improved. The cooperation between various federal security forces, and between them and those of local and state governments, was very much like herding cats under Calderon.
Now, more than 6 months into his term, his strategy does not seem to be much different than Calderons. Troops are still on the streets in hot spots across the country. He is following Calderon's strategy of decapitating the cartels by taking out their leaders, EPN did accomplish capturing the top Zeta leader. And it was the result of an intelligence operation rather than brute force.
Yet evidence is surfacing that that operation may not have been strictly a Mexican intelligence operation, but was successful because of intelligence supplied by the US govt. - exactly like most, if not all, successful captures of top cartel leaders during Calderon's administration.
The much vaunted coordination between agencies and levels of government that is the linchpin of EPN's security strategy. However, the ambushes presumably launched by the Knights Templar against the Federal Police this week raises serious questions about how well that coordination is working.
The ambushes were set up at six different points in the area of Michoacán Tierra Caliente, an action that suggests that they knew where Federal convoys would move and that showed that the Templars had access to intelligence information. Seemingly their intelligence info was better than the governments.
They also blocked roads to prevent support from arriving, and that gave the Templars time to attack them sequentially and, above all, to retract, recover their dead and help the wounded.
The attacks on the Federal Police lasted for more than 18 hours. The quick action and the mobility of the Federal Police is the only thing that prevented greater losses than the 2 police officers killed, but does not hide the severity of the deployment of a drug cartel that acted with a strategy of guerrilla warfare.
They were "planned attacks in advance, involving individuals with long weapons hidden in the hills, in addition to blocking roads with buses and other units", said a statement by the National Security Council. A reading between the lines of the newsletter reveals the magnitude of the operation of the narco-guerrillas.
Government officials claim there was coordination between the army and the Federal police in the Tierra Caliente operation. However, outside of seeing the images of the army on Michoacan highways, the question is "What did the troops do on the battlefield."
Since May, the army supposedly took control in Michoacan, and sent intervention forces which included special forces and the Navy's special operations group, which are the elite corps of the armed forces, supported by gunship aircraft to support operations on the ground, mainly in Tierra Caliente.
On Tuesday, however, they did not act. They left the Federal Police to fight without support, even though the army has a military garrison in Lazaro Cardenas, 25 kilometers - in line straight-in the area where one of the ambushes occurred.
The absence of registration of military activity in the newsletter of the National Security Council released Tuesday, raises questions about the security protocols that followed the Federal Police (those protocols established in Mexico City)
Convoys of Federal Police, according to the available information, did not have tactical air support, nor the "Rino", the Army's famous vehicle, shielded and with a strike capability to fire simultaneously, from 16 special hatches, .
Nor were they sent, according to the little available public information, Army convoys with large number of units, as they say the Federal Police have protocols to inhibit ambushes and have sufficient firepower to repel an attack. However they didn't have sufficient firepower to catch anyone, only repel. This should have been an opportunity to capture a large number of Knights Templar, but this turned into a purely defensive action, not an offensive action .
The lack of military support, according to police sources, generated tension and discomfort. However, it is not new. For several years there is rivalry between the two bodies, and one of the reasons why stringent protocols were put in practice , is the principle of mistrust that the 'blue' - as they are derogatorily called by the military-have not receive the backing of the armed forces.
While that may have been a cause of lack of coordination between the Federal Police and the military in the past, another factor in today's world has to be considered. The present organizational structure of government resources being coordinated out of the Ministry of the Interior reminds me of how the US fought the war in Vietnam. The decisions, both tactical and strategic, were made in Washington - not on the ground by commanders where the war was being fought.
The decisions as to where and when to deploy forces (coordination) and other command decisions are being made in Mexico City at the Dept. of the Interior, not on the ground where battles are being fought.
Presumably those decisions are made with some political considerations involved. A large deployment of military support (even though it was only 20 miles away) for the besieged Military Police might have sent a message that Mexico was fighting a war against the cartels. You would have thought Mexico might have learned something from the way the US fought the war in Vietnam from Washington.
On May 22 of this year, several media (remember the media reports to a large extent wha the govt. tells it to report) reflected that the army had entered municipalities such as Buenavista Tomatlan and Tecalpatepec, and had regained control "without firing a single shot".
The decision to deploy troops to support the Federal Police might have given the impression that Mexico was actually fighting a war.
The ambush of the Federal Police was a declaration of war by the Knights Templar.
The ambush of and assassination of the Vice Admiral today was a statement "We are not afraid of you".
EPN has called an urgent meeting of the Security Council. It will be interesting to see if his security strategy has changed.
There is a tendency among Mexico's current ruler to gloss over the problems they face, and to package old policy in a prettier bottle and call it better wine.
But propaganda is a poor substitute for proper policy.
Really insightful reporting DD. Thank you for giving us some background and more detail on the battles.
Kind of scary that the military did not back up the federales. Also, one has to wonder if the ambushes were planned with inside info from corrupt federales. How would CT know so well where to stage the ambushes?
I don't think that the mexican government has a clear idea on how to fight a full out war.... it has been a learn on the job process for the mexican army and the police.... i' ve met a couple of people that were soldier in mexico... one of them told me that the military did not gave the soldiers much warfare training because if you didnt waste the training on people that do not last much on the job.... either they quit and go to work for the bad guys or they do something else as soon as their contract is over...
SEGOB spokesman says they are working with the real self defense groups, the video is in Spanish, he talks about his experience when visiting the area and talking to locals, about the understandable lack of trust that is slowly being overcome and about how the federal forces and the self defense groups are working together in a cooperation that is necessary since it´s the locals who have better knowledge about the area, who and where are the criminals and all that.