Mexico exemplifies a state struggling with the rise and challenge of private armies – the mercenary phenomenon is back and growing around the world.

Writer: Charles Mahoney | Photographer: Spencer Platt


After a two century hiatus, private mercenary armies are reappearing as influential actors in domestic security settings, challenging Max Weber’s widely accepted definition of the state as an entity possessing a “monopoly on violence” within its territory. These mercenary organizations, often funded by drugs and control of valuable natural resources, are testing the capability of governments to enforce laws within their borders. The strongest private armies now rival traditional armed forces and have no loyalty or display of patriotism to the state or to any credo other than to increase their power and wealth. Like corporations, they seek financial gain and the benefits that accompany wealth. Like terrorist and insurgent groups, private armies strive to increase their power and influence within a country; yet in contrast to such ideologically motivated movements, mercenaries have no political objectives.

Over the past two decades, countries as diverse as Colombia, Afghanistan, Mexico, the United States, and Sierra Leone have grappled with the emergence of mercenary armies and the ensuing implications for government policies. The return of these forces should not come as a surprise. Prior to the 19th century, many conflicts were characterized by the use of hired soldiers to defend the interests on non-state entities running the gamut from tribes to empires. Today, the increasing influence of processes associated with globalization is eroding the power of the modern nation-state and thus opening the window for private armies to operate successfully once again. Official state undertakings such as international aid, finance, and general governance, have incited opposition from non-state groups that have led to the creation of private mercenary armies to challenge the power of the state.

Everything Old is New Again

Mercenaries – well trained and well paid soldiers – are as old as civilization. In the 13th century BC, Ramses II hired soldiers for successful wars of conquest that would eventually result in posterity referring to him as the great “Ozymandias,” Egypt’s most celebrated pharaoh. In the 3rd century BC, the Greek kings of Syracuse employed the “Sons of Mars” to fight in the Sicilian Wars against mighty Carthage. During the American Revolutionary War, King George III hired German soldiers, known as “Hessians,” to help quell the rebellious North American colonies. Over two-hundred years later, the United States army, the most powerful fighting force on the planet, hired Blackwater USA, a private military company, to provide security services to government officials and CIA agents in the Iraq War. Following numerous incidents of reckless violence in Iraq, it was later discovered that Blackwater had taken extensive part in special operations throughout the country. The outrage caused by Blackwater led the organization to change its name to Xe Services in an effort to resurrect its tarnished image. Xe Services remains the largest private security contractor in the USA.

Today, Blackwater is just one of many private armies around the globe. When based in the developed world, these armies are typically legal entities contracted by governments or multinational corporations to provide security services. Other large mercenary contractors based in the US include DynCorp, Triple Canopy, and Military Professional Resources Inc. Outside the USA, companies such as Aegis Defense Services (UK), Unity Resources Group (Australia), and the Omega Group (Norway), are contracted in danger zones to provide security to aid workers and government officials. When private armies originate in less developed states, they are typically illegal or lie in a gray area and resemble “Robin Hood”-style militias or paramilitary self-defense forces. Many illegal private armies are funded by the drug trade or by access to valuable natural resources, such as diamonds or oil.

Buying Professional Soldiers

The fundamental advantage enjoyed by modern private armies over governments is their ability to lure talented soldiers into their ranks through the promise of higher wages. For example, a Blackwater soldier in Iraq could expect to earn 10 times as much as his counterpart of equivalent rank in the US Army. In less developed countries, the difference between the earnings of the private corporation soldiers and those in national armies is even greater. For instance, in Mexico an average soldier makes just $200-$300 a month. Conversely, Mexican private armies, funded by the narcotics trade, are able to recruit some of the best Special Forces soldiers into their ranks with paychecks that can earn them well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

In addition to causing top military talent to jump to the private sector, the low wages paid to army personnel in developing states make defections more likely and generally result in lower troop morale and performance. For example, over the past six years more than 150,000 Mexican troops have deserted the army. The likely cause of these desertions is low pay coupled with the menace of fighting against drug cartels; the risk is simply not worth the “reward” for many Mexican soldiers. In contrast, the exorbitant amounts paid to mercenaries by drug cartels often translate into highly motivated and loyal cadres. The risk for mercenaries is surely higher than it is for members of national armies; however, the potential payouts are so great that the members of private armies are willing to risk their lives and carry out precarious operations.

Why can’t states compete with the wages offered by private organizations? First, the rise of private military corporations comes at a time when many countries and international peace-keeping organizations are cutting back on military spending in an attempt to reduce budget deficits within their own borders. Companies such as Blackwater formed in response to business opportunities created by the downsizing of the U.S. Armed Forces. Second, private armies are often smaller and more streamlined organizations than national armies. The leaders of private armies have realized that traditional “pitched battles” between armed forces are increasingly rare. Thus, they can construct their relatively small armies to respond to services that the market demands. These “services” generally involve security, special operations, and assassination.

By focusing on demand and discounting the possibility that large armies will once again be utilized by states (as in the 19th and 20th centuries), private military companies can keep the overall number of soldiers low and thus can afford to pay each individual soldier a higher wage. This intersection of these two trends has generally enabled the influence and wealth of mercenary forces to increase, while the capability of states and international bodies appears to be decreasing. This convergence has resulted in two alarming trends: 1) developed states have seen the rise of private, for-profit military corporations that fulfill roles previously carried out by the armed forces of governments; 2) developing countries have experienced the growth of private military organizations, often as powerful as the state’s armed forces, that threaten governments much the same way as insurgencies and terrorist organizations.

Mexican Private Armies

While Blackwater and other security contractors based in the developed world present problems to both the United States and the citizens of the countries in which they operate, they are presently not the most dangerous type of private army. Since developed states typically have sufficient military and police strength to reign in mercenary organizations within their borders, the ability to control and, if necessary, disband private military companies exists. In contrast, countries with less powerful and professional militaries face greater challenges from emerging private militias within their borders. The rise of mercenary forces is especially likely in weak states that possess natural resources or are involved in the illegal narcotics trade. Profits from this commerce are regularly used to finance private militias. A prototypical example of this has occurred in Mexico, where a lengthy and brutal drug war fought over the past decade has resulted in the creation of one of the most powerful mercenary forces in the world: Los Zetas.

For many years, the narcotics trade in Mexico was governed by a quid pro quo relationship between the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) and long standing drug cartels.  During the 1970s and 1980s, conflict between the state and cartels primarily consisted of skirmishes between police forces and lower level thugs. “Collateral damage” would also occur as a result of “turf” battles between the cartels. For over two decades, the drug trade did not lead to large-scale nationwide conflict. However, in the 1990s, the Mexican drug industry would take an ominous new turn for two major reasons:

First, the demise of the Cali and Medellín cartels in Colombia allowed the Mexican cartels to fill the market vacuum left by the demise of their Colombian counterparts. Cocaine trade routes that had once run out of Colombia and through the Caribbean shifted and began to run through Mexico, resulting in huge profits. Second, for decades the PRI and the drug cartels had a mutual understanding known colloquially as “Plata o Plomo?” (Silver or Lead?). Under this system, the cartels would bribe PRI members and the party would respond by turning a blind eye to cartel activity and also avoid the unpleasantness of cartel intimidation. This relationship kept levels of drug violence in Mexico at a minimum. But in 2000 the PRI lost national elections to the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) and with the incumbent President Vicente Fox the tacit understanding that had existed between the PRI and the cartels was shaken up. Then, under pressure from the United States, Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderón, opened all-out war on the cartels in 2006, and drug related violence increased to new and unprecedented levels in Mexico.

Beginning in the 1990s, the new profits flooding into the Mexican drug industry were especially lucrative for the Gulf cartel, which by 2000 controlled the majority of cocaine and methamphetamine trafficked into the United States as the result of its domination of key transit cities, such as Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey, Reynosa, and Matamoros. In 2000, the Gulf cartel’s leadership decided to solidify its dominance of north-eastern Mexico by increasing the capability of its security arm: the mercenary army known as Los Zetas was born.

Los Zetas are currently one of the Mexican government’s primary foes in the decade-long drug war. Although today the group essentially functions as a drug cartel, it has unconventional origins. Los Zetas did not begin as a criminal gang, nor did they have experience in organized crime or the narcotics trade. Rather, the original members of Los Zetas were from the Mexican Armed Forces’ elite Airborne Special Forces Group (GAFES) – trained in security, special operations, and assassination. In the late 1990s, select members of GAFES were secretly recruited by the Gulf cartel, which then transformed these troops into Los Zetas, its own private army. The goal of this strategy was to enable the cartel to consolidate power in its home state of Tamaulipas and eventually become the dominant player in the Mexican drug trade. The cartel’s leadership paid Los Zetas for protection as well as to carry out strategic operations that would weaken its rivals. In subsequent years, numerous members of Mexico’s armed forces as well as federal and local police would be lured to join Los Zetas and other similar groups for the promise of higher wages and benefits.

Initially, the creation of Los Zetas appeared to be a move of strategic genius by the Gulf cartel. The highly-trained paramilitary force enabled the cartel to consolidate its position as the dominant organization in the cities of Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros in the state of Tamaulipas. In addition, Los Zetas permitted the Gulf cartel to expand into other regions of Mexico where the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels had previously been the dominant organizations. The brutal precision with which Los Zetas carried out their operations resulted in the Gulf cartel expanding the scope of the mercenaries’ activities. Instead of a force dedicated solely to security and assassination, Los Zetas became one that also collected debts, identified and created new drug trafficking routes, engaged in arms trading, money laundering, and managing potions of the cartel’s finances. The creation of Los Zetas caused an imbalance of power between competing drug organizations. The group was so professional and well-trained that they represented an existential threat to the other organizations.

In response to the challenge posed by Los Zetas, the Sinaloa cartel, a major rival of the Gulf cartel, created two private paramilitary forces called Los Negros and Los Pelones. Then, in 2003, the Sinaloa cartel perceived an opportunity to take the fight to the Gulf cartel’s home state of Tamaulipas and use its newly-created mercenary armies in an all-out war. The Sinaloa cartel’s “opportunity” involved the capture of Osiel Cárdenas, the Gulf cartel’s kingpin, who was imprisoned by the Mexican government. With this watershed event, the Sinaloa cartel sensed that the time was right for expansion and sent its two new mercenary forces to Nuevo Laredo in an effort to destroy the Gulf cartel and Los Zetas and take-over the drug corridor responsible for 70 percent of all the cocaine and methamphetamine trafficked into the United States. A bloody turf war erupted, conducted by hired ex-soldiers, for the city of Nuevo Laredo.

Between 2003 and 2007, Los Zetas and Los Negros engaged in brutal combat for control over a major gateway to the drug trade in the United States. During this time, over 600 residents in Nuevo Laredo were killed. The turf war claimed the life of the city’s police chief and, for over a year, no one was willing to assume the post for fear they would face a similar fate. Los Zetas and Los Negros also killed journalists who wrote disparaging pieces about them in the press. In one such incident, the editor of the city’s largest newspaper, La Mañana, was murdered for his newspapers’ “unflattering” coverage of the cartels.

To fight the war against Los Negros and the Sinaloa cartel, Los Zetas had been granted access to the Gulf cartel’s vast financial resources. With this money, the group recruited several hundred new members and armed itself with AK-47s, bazookas, sub-machine guns, and other advanced weaponry. They also bought wiretapping technology and other high-tech intelligence gathering equipment. With their new weaponry and troops, Los Zetas were able to prevent the Sinaloa cartel from wresting control of Nuevo Laredo. After four years of war, persistent conflict and death took its toll on both the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, and significantly reduced the profits of both organizations.

When the fighting ended in 2007, the cartels declared a truce. Under the terms of the new deal, the Sinaloa cartel was permitted access through the Nuevo Laredo trade route, but had to pay a tax on all goods shipped through Gulf cartel territory. Although it appeared that the Nuevo Laredo turf war had ended in a stalemate, Los Zetas emerged more powerful than it had been prior to the conflict. In many aspects, Los Zetas had taken-over the functions previously carried out by the Gulf cartel. Then, when Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cárdenas was extradited to the United States, and no longer able to run the organization, Heriberto Lazcano, the leader of Los Zetas, separated the organization from the Gulf cartel, which in effect made Los Zetas a competitor of its creator.

Having been granted great responsibility by the Gulf cartel, Los Zetas had learned how to manage a narcotics organization. Following their separation from the cartel, they began to expand their own drug smuggling organization into dozens of other Mexican states by using the same brutal tactics they had used to wear down the Sinaloa cartel. Los Zetas also began to earn large sums of money through kidnappings, extortion, and even stealing oil from state refineries. Over the next two years, Los Zetas would grow to become one of Mexico’s most profitable cartels. By 2009, the U.S. government branded Los Zetas the most dangerous criminal organization operating in Mexico.

The growing power of Los Zetas threatened not only the citizens of Mexico, but the dominance of both the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels as the major drug trafficking organizations in Mexico. Following its truce with the Gulf cartel, the Sinaloa cartel, desperate to control a corridor to the U.S. market, transferred Los Negros to Ciudad Juárez in an effort to take control of the city from the Juárez cartel. The Juárez turf war, conducted between the armed wings of both cartels, has made the city one of the most dangerous in the world for the past three years. The constant fighting for the better part of a decade, however, had the effect of weakening the Gulf, Sinaloa, and Juárez cartels while enabling Los Zetas to expand their organization throughout the country.

Presently, Mexico is poised to experience what may be the most brutal period of drug related violence in its history. Formerly adversaries, the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, fearful that Los Zetas could grow to dominate the Mexican drug business, have aligned themselves with the upstart Familia Michoacan cartel and declared war on Los Zetas. The three cartels call themselves the “New Federation” and have made it their mission to destroy Los Zetas, who they claim are “too brutal.” In whatever manner this war comes to an end, the transformation of a former mercenary army into one of the most powerful criminal organizations on the planet should serve as a warning to both states and organizations about the danger of private armies.

Managing Mercenary Warfare

While Blackwater and Los Zetas are different in many ways, they represent a growing trend in global security, the outsourcing of warfare to market-driven, for-profit organizations. What both groups clearly demonstrate is an example of the classic principle-agent problem: the interests of a superior and its contractor are never in complete alignment, and contractors are often likely to act in their own self-interest rather than in the best interest of their employers. In the case of Los Zetas, the group usurped the business of their former employer, the Gulf cartel. In the case of Blackwater, the organization’s employees did not adhere to the laws, regulations, and general standard of conduct expected of U.S. government security contractors.

While it would be pleasant to imagine a world where the role of private armies decreased or remained stable over the coming decades, the opposite is likely to be the case. Simply put, the market demand for private security is high and likely to increase. The employers of mercenaries: states, legal corporations, and criminal organizations, are likely to increase their use of private security force in order to advance their interests. Because of widespread budget and debt crises, states are likely to outsource operations to “leaner” more efficient private military organizations. This will allow governments to save money by only employing forces when needed rather than training and paying for excessive numbers of troops, most of whom are not on active duty. Legal corporations that operate in developing states, including oil, mining, and technology companies, are likely to hire private security firms to protect their interests in countries where safety cannot be guaranteed by local police forces. Finally, criminal organizations involved in the drug trade are likely to use their ever expanding profits to cement their positions of power within countries and to secure their trade routes and intimidate competitors.

While the problem of private armies is not going to disappear, there are several steps that states can take to prevent them from becoming major threats to global security. In the developed world, to ensure that private military forces do not begin to fill the void created by the diminishing capability of state and international peace-keeping forces, governments may want to consider the following policy recommendations:


  • Create a government body dedicated to monitoring private military corporations. Make sure that firms are strictly supervised, regulated, and subject to immediate termination upon the orders of elected leaders.
  • Prevent private firms from developing or using state of the art weaponry.
  • Limit the size of private armies.
  • Prevent mercenaries from working for clients other than governments.

In the developing world, preventing the expansion of mercenary forces will prove more difficult due to the lack of strong, professional armed forces and police departments. Nonetheless, the international community must aid states in an effort to prevent private armies from potentially turning countries into failed states. In essence, groups like Los Zetas should be viewed as threats equal to Al-Qaeda and equivalent resources should be spent on combating them. Thus, both developed and developing states should:

  • Identify mercenary armies early in their existence and begin implementing strategies to weaken these groups.
  • Identify any ties between terrorist organizations and private armies.
  • Aid developing states in building-up their policing capabilities. Supply these states with intelligence gathering technology.
  • Adopt diplomatic measures to put pressure on developing states to reign in cartels and terrorist groups that are funded by access to drugs and natural resources.

Mercenaries are hired soldiers who fight for money rather than for their countries. Although a major feature of warfare throughout human history, mercenaries largely disappeared from public consciousness in the 19th century. As states industrialized and professionalized their national armies, the need for mercenary forces diminished. The emergence of the modern nation-state with its capacity to conscript soldiers and create a powerful national identity among citizens, thus constructing fighting forces that could fulfill national defense needs, made often untrustworthy mercenaries obsolete. Private armies were believed to be nothing more than an anachronism that military historians would study as an oddity of bygone times. Now the opposite appears to be the case: major warfare between states has all but vanished, while asymmetric war – carried out largely by mercenary forces – has reemerged as a fundamental characteristic of contemporary conflict. The mercenary phenomenon is back and private army autonomy could very well continue to grow around the world.

Charles Mahoney is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a dissertation fellow at the Institute of Global Conflict and Cooperation. He can be reached at Spencer Platt is award-winning photographer for Getty Images. Both were in the “murder city” of Juárez, Mexico, in 2010.



  1. pedro March 10, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    Very interesting. things we can not expect the media to tell us. i just wonder about chapo s mercenary army could u comment on that thnx.

    • Charles Mahoney May 16, 2011 at 5:08 pm

      Most of the drug cartels are now creating their own mercenary armies to protect their interests. These forces are used to defend turf against other cartels and to threaten Mexican military and police forces.


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