Is Security Really a Nightmare in Mexico?

Pearl Harbor, the French ‘Maginot Line’ of early World War II, or fighting the war on terror exclusively with Predator Drones are all examples of how using tactics from the “last war” are bound to fail in the present.  The feared American dreadnoughts of World War I were quickly sent to the bottom by the relatively new concept of carrier-based air power; the German Army simply went around the massive concrete bunkers in France and attacked from behind, and at last report the Islamic State in Syria [ISIL] has captured and held a chunk of Syria and Iraq the size of Italy.  Not to mention strongholds in Libya, the Sinai Peninsula, and Afghanistan.   Fighting the current war using strategies from the last one just doesn’t work.

Which brings us to Mexico… 

A recent article entitled,  “Mexican Energy Reform:  A Security Nightmare for Multi-Nationals Operating in Mexico” [Gary J. Hale, Small Wars Journal, 18 August 2015] provides a glimpse into what could be a silver lining in the otherwise dark cloud of the country’s chronic security challenge from the criminal cartels.  Hale’s article is a tour de force through the evolving threat landscape; as anyone who has studied the Mexican cartels knows, keeping up with the fractious splits and rivalries between warring criminal groups is more complex than a “telenovela.”  There is the temptation to classify them all into one thuggish mob.  That would be a mistake.  Each criminal clan has unique characteristics that pose equally unique dangers to business and governance in Mexico.  Hale’s article draws these distinctions well.  Multi-national firms looking to increase their participation and presence in Mexico’s newly-opened energy sector need to understand these groups and the ongoing challenge they pose to Mexican security forces.

Mr. Hale postulates protection figures of $1B US Dollars per location to provide adequate protection.  While we disagree with this figure and the basis from which it is formed, the truth is that the problem is large and effective solutions will not come easily or inexpensively.  Secretaría de Marina (SEMAR) is identified in the article.  While SEMAR has proven it truly understands the use and importance of intelligence on an asymmetrical battlefield, its mission is to protect PEMEX’s infrastructure in the water and 14 kilometers inland.  Beyond that point, the rest of the pipeline and refineries fall under Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (SEDENA’s) responsibilities.  SEDENA has been challenged in its efforts to protect pipelines as far back as 2010 because it was forced to move forces from the pipelines to fight the cartels.  This correlates, either directly or coincidentally, with the skyrocketing frequency of pipeline thefts.

The aforementioned “silver lining” are the creative ways to address security issues in Mexico that are beginning to emerge out of trial, error and necessity.   These include business-sector initiatives such as “Grupo 13”, the Fuerza Civil in Nuevo Leon, or more recent entities such as hybrid public safety units and autodefensas emerging in Tamaulipas or “Grupo Hercules” in Matamoros.  Fuerza Civil in particular shows promise, but is challenged by its small size and recruiting capabilities.  Grupo 13 and Hercules are also challenged by size, and their effectiveness is more in the realm of “security theatre” rather than proactive intervention.  None of these groups have an effective intelligence capability, and were they to get one they lack the understanding of how to parlay that into operational execution.  Despite these challenges, the rise of these groups is a start.  The level of effective training, tools, and commitment for support within the Federal security infrastructure has yet to be proven and are fundamental to program effectiveness.  Given how unlikely it is that the Mexican Government will be able to field the required number of forces needed to protect foreign oil and gas operators in the country, security arrangements such as those outlined above – with cooperation and engagement from corporations and state governments – may have to be part of the solution.

These emerging hybrid security solutions can be substantially strengthened and made much more effective through carefully crafted community engagement programs developed by corporations to directly combat pipeline sabotage.  Programs such as this have been quite effective in Myanmar, Colombia, Nigeria, and North Africa.  Unlike corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs that are designed to burnish a company’s brand, community engagement programs require companies to work directly with local communities in and around pipeline routes.  It requires sensitive, clear-eyed negotiations and consultation with the host government, business partners and community leaders to identify local concerns, grievances and needs.  Tangible incentives such as schools, hospitals, reservoirs, or employment (also termed “livelihood security”) are provided by the company in return for either active protection of adjacent pipelines or prompt notification of authorities when pipelines are being tapped or attacked.  Another critical aspect involves workforce training and recruiting from local communities.  Where locals associate their livelihood with oil and gas activities and see direct return, the buy-in and commitment to success increases dramatically.  This approach potentially addresses and resolves a number of problems including poor law enforcement presence, lack of employment [hence, susceptibility to cartel inducements to cooperate], and community suspicion or resistance to outsiders.  It is an effective antidote to government corruption at national and state levels that prevent opportunities and basic services from reaching small communities.  Union corruption influence is also mitigated in a well-executed community development program.  Collectively, these provide early detection capability is developed that allows for Quick Reaction Force (QRF) response, alternative tangible incentives to cooperate with authorities, and mitigation of community resistance.   It makes the community a strong set of stakeholders in the success of the corporation, and ultimately the state.

Three things are certain:

  • Absence of effective security solutions will do more than create liabilities for Mexican and U.S. energy companies.  The potential for increased investment in Mexico will wither, in direct proportion to the absence in real security against the threats posed by increasingly greedy and violent criminal cartels.
  • Reliance on traditional military intervention will not work.  Fighting “the last war” with the same tactics will only alienate communities, drive cartel cells further to ground and make the problem worse through the ultimate “tit-for-tat” that ensues between warring factions and the military.
  • Reliance only on “gates, guards and guns” to protect workers and operations will not work for pipeline security.  It is limited to securing a compound at best, without providing any physical security at all for the “linear vulnerability” posed by long pipelines constructed through isolated territory.  Without a community engagement plan, corporations are inadequately secured by an inward-facing security strategy that could actually exacerbate, rather than mitigate, infrastructure security since the community itself is kept at arms-length.

There is real potential for lasting investment returns in Mexico.  Wise corporations will ensure smart security solutions are a key part of their entry strategy, and within Mexico potential partners (including the government) must also recognize that without foreign investment and operators incentivized to engage in the market, the government and related businesses will lose capital.  But if they get serious about well-designed security programs, both stand to gain and will avoid falling into the trap of fighting “the last war”.