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In Mexico, The Body Count Continues to Mount










By Allan Wall

June 22, 2008

The ongoing struggle between the Mexican government and the drug cartels – and the struggles between and within the cartels themselves - is a war.

It’s not a conventional war in the classic imagination, of two armies facing each other on a large plain. But then, most wars today aren’t like that anyway.

Most wars today involve small unit tactics, close quarter combat, ambushes, checkpoints, uncertainty, and alternating periods of quiet punctuated by surprise attacks. As in Iraq, where I served a tour of duty, the fighting in Mexico varies greatly by region and locality, with its ups and owns .

Could the Mexican drug war be classified as a civil war?

According to the Correlates of War, an academic project studying the history of warfare, a conflict must have over 1,000 casualties per year. Since over 4,000 Mexicans have been killed since December of 2006 (plus the injuries), then Mexico’s Drug War would qualify by casualty count as a civil war.

The classic definition of a civil war though is "a violent conflict within a country fought by organized groups that aim to take power at the center or in a region, or to change government policies."

In that sense, the Mexican Cartel War does not exactly fit the definition. But then, the American Civil War might not either, since the Confederacy wasn’t trying to take over the North, but to secede from the U.S.


In today’s Mexico the drug cartels are not trying to officially install themselves in Mexico City. They just want to control their drug smuggling routes and will take on anybody, including the government, who stands in their way.

The official U.S. military definition of a civil war is

“A war between factions of the same country; there are five criteria for international recognition of this status: the contestants must control territory, have a functioning government, enjoy some foreign recognition, have identifiable regular armed forces, and engage in major military operations.”

Let’s look at each of the five criteria:

1. “The contestants must control territory.” The Mexican drug war is sometimes called a “war for territory.” But they aren’t fighting for territory in the sense of owning property, or of carving out an official political entity. Cartels fight their rivals for control over smuggling routes. They aren’t interested in governing their turf in the same sense as a mayor or governor, they don’t care about political ideology. Their goal is to protect their routes, sources and alliances, and sometimes to muscle in on the other cartel’s turf, and they will kill anybody who stands in their way.

2. “The contestants must have a functioning government.” A drug cartel does have a government of sorts, an internal chain of command, which, given its goals, functions rather efficiently. Of course, a drug baron can never relax, being under constant threat from the government, rivals and would-be-rebels in his own organization.

3. “The contestants must enjoy some foreign recognition.” No foreign government officially recognizes a Mexican drug cartel. Nevertheless, cartels have plenty of international connections, having spread their tentacles into South America, and north into the U.S.

4. “The contestants must have identifiable regular armed forces.” The cartels don’t have “regular” forces in the same sense of an organized national military. But they are organized, and the cartel “soldiers” (some of whom are defectors from the regular Mexican army) do function quite efficiently to carry out the goals of their organization.

And they sometimes do dress in a recognizable manner and are thus “identifiable” to those in the know.

5. “The contestants must engage in major military operations.” The drug cartels are well-armed, and do engage in operations against the government forces and other cartels.

So even when we look at Mexico’s situation in light of the 5 criteria, it raises more questions than it solves.

The Mexican situation has plenty of other complications. Widespread corruption in Mexico facilitates the cartels’ power. And high demand for drugs in the U.S. provides most of the cartels’ funding. In Mexico, drug profits have made their way into legitimate businesses, politicians and even the coffers of the Catholic Church.

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So is Mexico in the midst of a Civil War, or does it depend upon one’s definition of a civil war? Or is it something even more complicated and difficult to resolve?

� 2008 Allan Wall - All Rights Reserved

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Allan Wall is an American who resides in Mexico. In 2005, Allan served a tour of duty in Iraq with his National Guard unit.











And high demand for drugs in the U.S. provides most of the cartels’ funding. In Mexico, drug profits have made their way into legitimate businesses, politicians and even the coffers of the Catholic Church.