MEXICO CITY — When a naval unit recently gunned down the leader of the feared Los Zetas crime group, the clash took place in the dusty town of Progreso, 70 miles from the Texas border and hundreds of miles from any ocean, indeed, far from any area where one would expect a modern navy to operate.
But these days, Mexico’s navy is active deep inside the country’s interior, eclipsing the army as the go-to security force in the country’s war on organized crime. It is a transformation that not only highlights Mexico’s peculiar defense organization – which provides the navy its own ministry – but also highlights how the United States has worked to find dependable allies in its campaign to stop drug trafficking.
The navy’s rise is not without political risk, however. As the navy outshines the 200,000-member army, politicians supportive of the army could well move against it, even though several senior retired generals were arrested earlier this year for alleged links to organized crime.
“There is an inter-service rivalry, and I think it’s accentuated by the success of these navy elite units,” said Roderic Camp, a Mexico scholar at Claremont McKenna College in California and author of a book on the Mexican military. “There’s no question that it’s creating tension between the army and the navy.”
For decades, the navy was relegated to protecting Mexico’s offshore oil platforms and patrolling its two ocean coastlines. Its unit of marines was a token amphibious force, and in a strange overlap, it vied with five army amphibious groups.
Then, in 2007, as Mexico’s drug war raged, Mexico’s congress enacted legislation that, in the words of Mexican security analyst Inigo Guevara Moyano, allowed the navy “to operate throughout the country, even in landlocked areas.”
“Some landlocked states, such as Aguascalientes and Zacatecas, have asked specifically for the presence of the marines during times of crisis,” Guevara said.
Actions in recent weeks underscore how the navy has taken the lead in Mexico’s war on crime, beginning with the arrest Sept. 12 in Tamaulipas state of Eduardo “El Coss” Costilla, one of the top leaders of the Gulf Cartel. Two weeks later, naval units captured Ivan Velazquez Caballero, a commander of the Los Zetas crime organization so brutal that he was known as “El Taliban.”
Then on Oct. 4, marines captured Salvador Alfonso Martinez, a Zetas commander known as “The Squirrel.” Three days later, on Oct. 7, a naval unit struck the heaviest blow against drug traffickers since President Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006, killing Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, the founder and head of Los Zetas, apparently as he watched a baseball game at Progreso.
Curiously, despite its successes, the navy shies from foreign media. Its spokesman has declined since 2010 to speak to a McClatchy reporter, saying through an aide that he is too busy to answer questions.
“The navy is very sensitive to the fact that they are small and not as politically powerful as the army,” said Laurence L. McCabe, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
The navy’s close ties with U.S. agencies came to light Aug. 24, when Mexican federal police fired on a U.S. Embassy vehicle on a remote mountain highway. Two CIA agents and a Mexican navy captain were inside the armored vehicle, bound for a mountainside navy base.
What the three men were doing when they were ambushed has remained secret. The embassy later described the incident as an “ambush,” and authorities detained 14 federal police for suspected links to organized crime.
Somewhat uniquely, Mexico’s armed forces are divided into two separate Cabinet-level entities, with a naval secretariat overseeing the navy and a national defense secretariat in charge of the army and air force. The two secretariats rarely coordinate except on orders from the presidential office. They sometimes saw each other as foes.
“There were instances of shootouts,” said Richard Downie, director of the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University in Washington.
The navy has one advantage in keeping its force free of organized crime: Unlike the army, naval infantry units have no fixed inland bases. That mean navy officers are not exposed as much as commanders of army bases to the plata o plomo (money or death) demands of crime bosses.
“They go in and out on specific missions. They are not subject to the corruption that comes when you are somewhere for quite some time,” Downie said.
Naval infantry units now number about 15,400 out of total navy force of 56,000, Guevara said. Of those, special forces units make up a brigade, perhaps up to 1,800 men.
“Given these numbers, the budget they have, the personnel they can deploy, they’ve been doing quite well,” said Guillermo Vazquez del Mercado, an independent security analyst who once worked for Mexico’s National Security Council.
Attitudes within the navy and army differ dramatically. Naval officers routinely seek graduate degrees and interact with civilians, while army officers remain deeply hierarchical and insular, experts say.
Camp, the Claremont McKenna professor who has lectured at both the navy and army academies, said naval officers pepper him with questions while army officers stay silent. Camp said naval officers are four times more likely to study abroad than army officers.
Mexico’s navy sent a permanent rotating liaison to the U.S. Northern Command, the Colorado-based unified military command that overseas activities from Alaska to Mexico, in 2006, years before the Mexican army followed suit. The navy also has liaisons in Key West, Fla., and Norfolk, Va.
Neither Mexico nor the United States has explained what kind of assistance the CIA may be providing to the navy, or indeed the level of intelligence that is offered.
“It’s no secret that we operate (unmanned aerial vehicles) on the border. We do electronic intercepts. That’s in the public domain. What is secret is what we obtain and who we share it with,” said McCabe, of the U.S. Naval War College.
“There’s a lot of folks that just don’t trust the army with intelligence,” he added.
Painted as “risk averse” in leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, Mexico’s army has battled corruption allegations for years. In May, prosecutors rounded up three retired army generals and a lieutenant colonel, later charging them with protecting the Beltran Leyva drug cartel.
One of the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks last year excoriated the army for not acting on U.S. intelligence on the whereabouts of Arturo Beltran Leyva, who was holed up in a mansion in Cuernavaca close to an army base. A naval unit later went in and killed the drug lord.
Mexican experts said the naval intelligence unit is honing its own skills in analyzing and gathering information.
“It’s on its way to (being) recognized as the most successful intelligence agency in Mexico, although I would not discard the Federal Police intelligence capabilities,” Guevara said.