Alonzo Pena, who also served as a Department of Homeland Security attach at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, said President Felipe Calderon never intended for his country's armed forces to become the chief enforcers of civilian law. But the lack of an aggressive and capable federal police force, Pena said, has resulted in the need for a military presence domestically.
On Sunday in the border state of Coahuila, the military killed Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, a former military commando and the leader of the Zetas cartel, which he helped found after defecting from the military. The Zetas were originally recruited to serve as the enforcement arm of the Gulf cartel, but split from their bosses in 2010 to begin an unyielding campaign of terror in an effort to claim lucrative drug routes for themselves.
Pena said the killing indicates that Calderon's strategy is working, despite initial plans to use the military only as a stopgap measure and not as a "knockout" punch.
"The military is supposed to be your left, your jab, to keep organized crime at bay," he said. "And you build your knockout, and that's your federal police. But it's been very hard" to build a legitimate police force.
Webb County Chief Deputy Federico Garza, who regularly meets with Mexican officials, put it more bluntly: "There is no police force there. No police at all."
The use of military forces has drawn widespread criticism across the country, with soldiers facing allegations of human rights abuses -- and even homicides. In November 2011, Human Rights Watch released a study showing that since Caldern took office in 2006, there is strong evidence to suggest the "participation of security forces in more than 170 cases of torture, 39 'disappearances,' and 24 extrajudicial killings."
Concerns were raised last summer that President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto, who will take office in December, would shift to a policy that is less reliant on the military.
But Pena, the former ICE official, said he believes the military strategy is likely to continue.
"There is good collaboration between the transition teams who are working with the current administration [asking], 'How can we take what you've done and how can we use it and build upon?'" Pena said, citing sources on the U.S. and Mexican sides of the river.
The goal of both administrations is to build a capable federal police force, a process Pena said has been aided by the U.S. in the form of the Merida Initiative, an aid package that includes equipment, training and technology for the Mexican and Central American governments. The Mexican government has provided the majority of the money to build up its civilian police force, however, but until it reaches its desired levels, the military should continue to be a factor, Pena said.
"When the commander in chief says, 'We want you to do this,' well, they're going to do it, and they've done an excellent job. They've brought down the major traffickers," he said. "When you have to address your immediate problem, and that's the force that you have, you're at the mercy of what agency has the capacity and the ability to combat such a threat. Right now it's the military."
Eric Olson, a senior associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., said Pena Nieto has acknowledged that there is no "magic wand" solution, but that the president-elect continues to search for alternatives.
"He has said all along that, in the short run, the military will continue to play a role but they seemed to be engaged in an search for an alternative," he said. "One of the alternatives that they have floated is the creation of this militarized civilian force, this police militia force that would combine military [personnel] into a civilian police force."
But even that idea, he said, has not been considered a final solution.
"I know the military is somewhat skeptical that that can actually happen but that seemed to be one thing that he was proposing," he said.
An heir apparent
U.S. law enforcement officials hope Lazcano's downfall signals the demise of the Zetas, whose territory includes a huge swath of Mexico that extends from the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz northward to the border states of Coahuila, Tamaulipas and Nuevo Len. But even before Sunday, a new heir -- Miguel Trevino Morales, known by his call sign, "40," and wanted in the U.S. on drug trafficking and murder charges -- was waiting to assume his role as the cartel's leader.
Trevino gained notoriety in the U.S. after reports that he ordered several murders in Laredo and used American teenagers to carry out his deeds in 2005 and 2006.
Lazcano's death was met with a flurry of eyebrow-raising events, including the theft of his corpse by masked gunmen after the shootout. As embarrassing as that was for law enforcement in Mexico, Garza, like Pea, said the Mexican military should be commended for its actions. Officials did their due diligence, he said, and obtained fingerprints to identify the mastermind before his body was stolen.
Lazcano was also the most recent in a string of high-profile victories for law enforcement, which include the capture in San Luis Potos of Zeta member Ivan Velazquez Caballero, who went by the monikner "El Taliban," and last weekend's arrest of Salvador Alfonso Martinez Escobedo, or "La Ardilla," after an hours-long shootout in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. Martinez Escobedo is believed to be behind the slaying of 72 migrants in the border state and the 2010 killing of David Hartley, an American citizen who was gunned down on Falcon Lake during a sightseeing trip with his wife.
Garza said he was optimistic the dominoes would continue to fall, and that intelligence gleaned after the recent arrests would lead to Trevino.
"Officials [there] are working in conjunction with U.S. sources, some special operations in search of 'El Cuarenta,'" he said. "That is happening as we speak."
Garza said he doubts that Trevino is far away, noting that Lazcano was killed fewer than 100 miles away from the Texas border in Progreso.
"They have to be in a close vicinity to operate," he said, "and officials are working to disrupt and finally dismantle this organization."
Officials aren't sure if there is another rival faction of the group ready to take on Trevnio on his own turf. But they caution that anything can happen.
At least one group, however, has promised to go after Trevino. The Caballeros Templarios, a cartel that specializes in methamphetamine production and distribution, has announced its intent to put an end to Trevino.
On Tuesday, banners, known as nacromantas, were displayed in the states of Guanajuato and Guerrero calling for an alliance against Trevino,