Trained like the US rangers or the Guatemalan kaibiles, individuals from the Navy Special Forces were employed during the past six-year term for undercover and even clandestine operations against narco-trafficking. Experts affirm that they should not be transferred to the National Guard; instead, they should remain independent.
Small elite groups of the Secretary of the Mexican Armed Navy that officially do not belong to any division or body were responsible for carrying out undercover, secret and clandestine operations during Enrique Peña Nieto’s government. Such missions, commanded by either Mexico or the US, aimed to kill or stop those drug traffickers most wanted within the nation.
They are quick response militaries, trained like the rangers from the Army School of the Americas or the kaibiles from Guatemala. They are sent to no-go areas also identified as red focus by the federal government.
Within the institution, they are known as Special Forces Units, employed in strategic areas on a discretionary basis. Those groups participated in the capture of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, aka Chapo, with the help of the US Anti-Drug Agency. They also took part in the extrajudicial execution of drug-trafficker Arturo Beltrán Leyva.
Between 2009 and 2016, Special Forces were the most employed in the operations against the leaders of narco-trafficking. Indeed, of the 31 most wanted drug traffickers, imprisoned or died as a result of the military forces’ intervention, the Navy was involved in 12.
During the whole period of the ‘war’ against drug trafficking, such elite groups participated in those tasks dealing with public security, with a significant impact starting from their formal creation through the 2014 secretarial agreement. Two years later, in 2016, the government deployed 17,484 individuals to fight against organized crime. However, in 2018 this number sharply decreased to 3,789 marines.
In his master’s dissertation in Naval Administration, Captain (naval) José Efraín Fernández Talamantes points out the importance of the Navy Special Forces’ as a strategic element to deal with the activities of the organized crime.’ Moreover, he adds that it is fundamental ‘to rely on young commanders who can cope with the mission assigned by the Authority, showing high efficiency and efficacy.’
The Captain affirms that these Special Unities have been insufficient to cover all the operations organized within the country. Furthermore, he adds that its individuals need a leadership program which fosters their combat skills.
With ten years of experience in high-impact operations, Fernández Talamantes is a Special Forces Marine. In his dissertation, supported by his personal experience, he points out that the fight against narco-trafficking has affected society since 2006, so creating a problem of internal security. Such a situation of social violence has required a direct intervention of the Armed Forces.
The Captain also sustains that there is not enough time to train the required Special Forces Commanders to acquire knowledge, skills, and experience to direct public security support operations.
He also maintains that due to the increasing need for staff with such a profile, it is necessary to create an Expert Leadership Course. It should support the growth and development of those young officials showing the potential to become the solution to the problems of violence and public insecurity.
‘The operations against organized crime were the watershed to give value to Special Forces, that is made up of strategic personnel. The latter conduct operations which, by their nature, require a greater risk and complexity, as well as fewer elements for their execution’, highlights Fernández Talamantes in his work.
He affirms that in Mexico, there are changes in strategic scenarios. In such circumstances, he believes that Special Forces may be employed as a response against the new asymmetric threats to internal security caused by the activities of criminal groups.
Captain Talamantes points out that cocaine trafficking and consumption in the US consolidated the economic power of the Mexican Cartels. It also created a new role within these groups: the hitman. Furthermore, the dispute over the control of territories and routes brought about fights between cartels. These could not be faced without the support of armed groups subordinated to their interests, as it happened with Los Zetas.
He relates that not only could Los Zetas rely on the support of Special Forces to achieve the most different and complex missions. Instead, they also were able to carry out tasks, either in war or in strategic missions, with a dexterity that no conventional forces had.
‘Special Forces do not act conventionally but as it is necessary, in principle with the support of the organization, doctrine, and technology allowing them to assume risks and carry out the tasks required by the mission,’ he says.
During an interview, Martín Barrón Cruz, professor at the National Institute of Penal Sciences (Inacipe), affirms that it is unsure whether the Navy Special Forces will become the police of the National Guard. However, he says, were it the case, ‘it would be a waste.’ According to him, these groups could keep on conducting operations against criminal groups.
Barrón Cruz, an expert in national security, highlights that the Special Forces of the Mexican Navy have been more discrete than those belonging to the National Defense in the operations against organized crime. ‘They date back to 1990, and their existence has never been recognized. The most emblematic case was their participation in the death of Arturo Beltrán Leyva.’
The professor highlights that ‘the Navy believes that Special Forces are a matter of national security. They are similar to US Special Forces since many Mexican elite militaries were trained at the Army School of the Americas as well.’
He maintains that the participation of the Navy Special Forces in operations or wars in different navies in the world has been cautious. ‘Officially, its members carry out navigation trips, intelligence, or counterintelligence tasks. [While] they work on their own, secretly as it happens in the US where no one knows how many they are and only the Secretary is aware of it.’
Since 1995 the Navy Police has begun to train specialized elite corps, educated abroad. ‘While in the Army, the militaries of the Special Forces attend intelligence and counterintelligence courses without wearing any identifying and official uniform,’ he adds.
Ph.D. in Criminal Sciences and Policy at the Inacipe, Barrón Cruz emphasizes that unfortunately, in some regions of the country criminal organizations exactly know who the members of the Navy special corpses are. They are also aware of how and where they are working. ‘Authorities get corrupted. ‘Armed Forces have been useful to limit the damages and to allow the commanders of some region to control and approach criminals.’
In the so-called golden triangle – the expert carries on – ‘militaries and criminals coexist during patronal feasts. ‘There is respect.’ Criminals let them do their work as far as they do not break any unwritten rule. That is how it works. There are codes and forms of relationships between criminal organizations and authorities.’
The problem is that neither the National Defense nor the Mexican Navy let the Ministry of Security and Civilian Protection, Alfonso Durazo, control the information of the State intelligence bodies. It seems that such a control is necessary to fight the organized crime, laments the academic.
According to him ‘the Cisen [currently the National Intelligence Centre], the National Centre for Planning, Analysis and Information to Combat Crime [Cenapi] and the intelligence bodies of the Defense and the Navy will keep on working independently without sharing information with the National Guard.’
Navy Captain José Efraín Fernández Talamantes has attended courses in Operations of Ranger Command at the Army School of the Americas in Fuerte Benning, Georgia, as well as courses in Strategic Intelligence at the Universidad Bernardo O’Higgins in Chile. In his master’s thesis, he explains that the qualities characterizing Special Forces are a strategic element to cope with the organized crime. A military of Special Forces can operate in a dangerous and threatening environment. They are familiar with several typologies of arms and expert in different combat techniques. They can live under a fictitious identity and manage undercover aspects of their secret life.
His analysis adds that Special Forces need to employ unique methods, techniques, tactics, equipment, and training in hostile environments. Their practices are politically sensible or illegal, stealthy, with low-visibility and high-risk.
A military of Special Forces’ needs to have the psychological strength to cope with other people’s mistakes, tension, loneliness, and lack of support. They have to be ingenious, flexible, and show high mental, political, and military acuity. They must be able to sell, persuade, intimidate, and convince those people who try to fool them.’
The dissertation indicates that the commanders of the Navy Special Forces require different knowledge and abilities than the others because the outcome of the mission depends on them.
‘Currently, there is no availability of a strategic training setting general criteria and protocols to employ in decision making. Hence, commanders need to have unique qualities and knowledge to be leaders of such operations,’ highlights the document. It also emphasizes that a member of Special Forces needs to have such mental and psychological skills to be a creative and flexible ‘elite warrior.’
They need to rely on a variety of abilities and independency – different from those used by conventional military forces – to finalize missions similar to those conducted by their peers of the United States Operations Command. ‘Special Forces have to be organized, equipped, and specifically trained to carry out direct action missions, operations to fight terrorism, to defend their nation against external attacks. They must be able to face a non-conventional kind of war, perform special duties, as well as carry out psychological operations, and missions concerning civil affairs, information matters, and against the proliferation of mass destruction weapons.’
The singularity and the quality of the Special Forces as ‘elite warriors’ are universally recognized since they are specially hired, evaluated, selected, trained, and equipped, adds Fernández Talamantes. They have access to cutting-edge technology, classified information to finalize their missions. However, they have to show audacity, intelligence, and perseverance as well as integrity to be sure that, in the most sensible operations, they will act in the name of national values. Moreover, they must be gifted with inflexible physical and moral strength under any circumstance and keep high levels of technical and tactical competence.
Special Forces must rely on ‘intellectual agility (creativity) to provide useful solutions to ambiguous problems and coherent solution options. They do not have to take additional risks. Instead, they need extra courage to achieve the best outcome. That is possible only if they are creative with a superior attitude.’
Furthermore, Special Forces have to create a trustable communication network, carry out operations with no support in austere and challenging environments, work closely with military authorities and civil population, keep a low profile and be the least intrusive possible compared to the conventional forces.
They must be familiar with a wide variety of arms and must acquire knowledge of the area where they operate: native language, political situation, culture, and local habits. Moreover, they must be able to live under a fictitious identity and manage undercover aspects of their secret life.
A military of Special Forces’ needs to have such a psychological strength to cope with other people’s mistakes, tension, loneliness, and lack of support. They have to be ingenious, flexible, and show high mental, political, and military acuity. They must be able to sell, persuade, intimidate, and convince people whom they do not know nor trust, even those who try to fool them.’
What a mistake to involve Special Forces in police activities
Guillermo Garduño Valero is a Ph.D. in Sociology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and Tinker scholar on Latin American studies at the University of Pittsburgh, United States. He points out that Special Forces need to be employed for targeted missions. That is why ‘I do not think that they can be of any help in police activities against criminal groups, characterized by a flexible structure, and able to penetrate the Armed Forces.’
‘We must remember that Los Zetas were once Gafes, specialized forces who have a function scheduled for a period of 5 years. For this reason, they joined the Gulf Cartel, and then they broke away and formed again Los Zetas, always keeping a military structure.’
Garduño Valero specifies that López Obrador’s government cleared out the structure of the Army but committing some mistakes. Two instances are the disappearance of the National Information System and the changes in its military structure, where over 40 thousand men have been transferred to the National Guard. Moreover, currently, only General Audomaduro Martínez Zapata, director of the CNI, and its President are aware of the usage of the state intelligence information; it is handled in a discretional manner.
Expert in national security and armed forces, the academic considers that the function of Special Forces should not shift to public safety but stick to military matters. He, therefore, criticizes the disappearance of the Presidential Guard (Estado Mayor Presidential) without exploiting its potential.
He relates that all this transition is occurring during a redefinition of alliances between organized crime groups, which is far from the presidential proposal of repentance and being good boys. ‘Cartels were thinking of an alliance, but the government is not keeping their promise. That is bad because these people are not joking.’
The Special Forces must not merge into the National Guard
According to Admiral Wilfrido Robledo Madrid, founder of the Preventive Federal Police involved in the repression in San Salvador Atenco in 2006, Navy Special Forces must not merge into the National Guard to fight against organized crime.
‘Special Forces are not operating permanently, but when necessary. Therefore, they must not get involved in combat against organized crime. They have to address high-impact matters of the Mexican Navy, not police issues’, he says.
The admiral considers that the Navy has already provided personnel for the National Guard, not including Special Forces that, he estimates, should be employed for the protection of the 200 nautical miles of the Mexican coast.
‘Currently, they have incorporated Armed Forces into the combat against organized crime, in spite of the numerous groups of police officers already involved in the matter. Armed Forces should not be employed for such issues. They should have strengthened state and municipal policies instead of creating huge national police,’ he points out.
Robledo Madrid emphasizes that Special Forces must be trained for special operations, ‘not for the combat against the current and common crime.’ ‘I created the Federal Police; I have doubts. There are competent people in Special Forces, but they must not work in the National Guard.’
The Expert Leadership Course
In his dissertation, Navy Captain Fernández Talamantes sustains that the Navy Special Forces lack of a selection and development process of key people. That is to say, ‘those people whose leadership allows to finalize the mission efficiently.’
He points out that there are young commanders who do not have the experience to achieve it nor have the time to acquire it. That is why it is necessary to train them through an institutional process of human talent management. ‘Each commander needs to have competencies and abilities which are not innate but could be achieved through an Expert Leadership Course. The latter would be useful to provide them with a set of knowledge, techniques, and tools that are fundamental in the combat against organized crime.
‘The course is designed to acquire some knowledge, creativity, ethic, and respect for human rights; to perform some exercises in controlled scenarios through the reproduction of a real situation during clashes, detentions, confiscations or detentions on remand.’
The Captain suggests academics and commanders share their knowledge and experiences so that experts can evaluate their acquired abilities and competencies to be considered as commanders of units that perform high impact operations.
(Translated by: Federica Antoniani)