The Mexican Drug War and the Thirty Years’ War
Everyone loves analogies. Saddam is Hitler; Afghanistan is Vietnam; 9/11 is Pearl Harbor; negotiating with Iran is Munich all over again. Well, now we have another one for you: the Mexican Drug War is the Thirty Years’ War.
Admittedly, it’s a bit arcane, but the analogy illustrates a key feature of the conflict that the comparison to, say, Colombia does not. Whereas illicit drugs served as the means for political factions in Colombia to arm and pay themselves in a perpetual internal war, in Mexico the money appears to be an end in and of itself.
During the Thirty Years’ War, generals like Albrecht von Wallenstein and Ernst von Mansfeld raised armies in the thousands of men. Only a fraction of Gustavus Adolphus’ army was actually Swedish; the remainder were mercenaries from Scotland, Germany, France, and elsewhere. Sometimes these armies switched sides wholesale as their generals were lured away by greater pay. They sustained themselves by seizing towns and villages, collecting “contributions” from the residents.
Today, the cartels down in Mexico operate in a similar manner. Los Zetas, for instance, spun out from the Mexican special forces and originally worked for the Gulf Cartel, before striking out on its own. The group also has close ties to the Kaibiles, the Guatemalan special forces. Meanwhile, Los Negros are linked to MS-13, which recruits from El Salvador. The end of the Central American wars of the 1980s and 1990s left unemployed tens of thousands of men whose only profession is war. These armed bands seize territory, tax the population through protection rackets and extortion, create no-go zones for the police, and wage war against each other.
Mexico’s political tradition is rich with both bandit generals — Pancho Villa, for example — and extreme regionalism, including the wave of states that declared independence during the Texas Revolution, the Caste War of Yucatan, and so on.
Needless to say, the analogy only goes so far. The Mexican government is not the degenerate Holy Roman Empire of the 17th-century. But the model fits better than seeing the Mexican conflict as a criminal enterprise. What appears to be happening is competition between armies of mercenaries that operate the way any army would operate.