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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkEditorials | Opinions | June 2008 

Is Mexico's Drug War a Civil War?
email this pageprint this pageemail usAllan Wall - PVNN

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, and has 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 to qualify as a civil war. Since over 4,000 Mexicans have been killed since December of 2006 (and that's not counting the injured), then Mexico's Drug War would qualify by casualty count as a civil war.

The classic definition of a civil war 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. 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 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."

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 official political entities. They aren't interested in governing in the same sense as a mayor or governor. They don't care about political ideology. A cartel fight to control its smuggling routes, sources, markets and alliances, and sometimes to muscle in on another cartel's turf.

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. But 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 constant operations against the government forces and other cartels.

So looking at the "Five Criteria" is interesting, but raises more questions than it solves.

The Mexican situation has plenty of other complications. Widespread corruption among Mexican officials facilitates the cartels' power. Drug money has made its way way into the coffers of legitimate businesses, politicians and even the Catholic Church.

And in the U.S., the high demand for drugs keeps the Mexican cartels in business.

So is Mexico in the midst of a civil car, or does it depend upon one's definition of "civil war"? Or is it something even more complicated and difficult to resolve?
Allan Wall is an American citizen who has been teaching English in Mexico since 1991, and writing articles about various aspects of Mexico and Mexican society for the past decade. Some of these articles are about Mexico's political scene, history and culture, tourism, and Mexican emigration as viewed from south of the border, which you can read on his website at

Click HERE for more articles by Allan Wall.

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