How Mexican Crime Organizations Learn from Military Violence


Organized crime groups in Mexico are known for uniquely brutal tactics that set them apart from other types of criminal operations. But new research shows that they often appropriate methods of torture, terror, and violence from the military and other government units.

In an article published in Perspectives on Terrorism, Ph.D. candidate Philip Luke Johnson (of The Graduate Center, CUNY) looks deeply at the ways organized crime groups in Mexico utilized military tactics — and even recruited servicemembers — in their operations.

“We can’t let governments off the hook with this. It’s mostly government-trained, sometimes U.S.-supported guys who are getting recruited into gangs and are really changing the scene,” Johnson tells SUM.

This is “making it much more violent, much more dangerous for innocent people like migrants trying to make their way through parts of Mexico. There are plenty of bad guys very close to government.”

Johnson used the Zetas, a criminal organization in Mexico known for random violence, as a case study, highlighting its connection to what Johnson called “state terrorism.”

The Graduate Center, CUNY, Ph.D. candidate Philip Luke Johnson during research trip in Mexico

The Graduate Center, CUNY, Ph.D. candidate Philip Luke Johnson during research trip in Mexico

In the late ‘90s, the drug trafficking organization Gulf Cartel recruited Guzmán Decena to create a subgroup of armed enforcers for the cartel. Decena was a member of an elite military unit created as an anti-crime entity by the Mexican government in the ‘80s. After joining the Gulf Cartel, Decena recruited at least 30 other soldiers and used his military skillset to create the Zetas.

“Both U.S. foreign and Mexican security policy has emphasized the importance of equipping and deploying the Mexican military to fight a criminal insurgency waged by narco-terrorists,” Johnson writes in the article. 

Yet certain terrorist counter-insurgency tactics entered criminal repertoires precisely through highly trained and well-equipped counterinsurgent units.”

In the decades that followed, these tactics would permeate crime organizations in Mexico. By 2007, the Zetas would house more than 100 recruits (some even children) at training camps, where it spent thousands of dollars for each recruit to undergo military-style training.

Johnson notes that many studies on the connections between terrorism and organized crime usually focus on “non-state armed groups.” However, he argues, direct connections between organized crime and state terrorism cannot be overlooked.

Beyond SUM

Work By

Philip Luke Johnson (Ph.D. Candidate, Political Science) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

Colleges and Schools

The Graduate Center