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Book 070813 terrorism-cartels

Monday, July 8, 2013

'The Terrorist-Criminal Nexus: An Alliance of International Drug Cartels, Organized Crime, and Terror Groups'

By Jennifer L. Hesterman

(A chapter excerpt from a newly published book on terrorism links to cartels)

Chapter 5

Drug Trafficking Organizations Go Global

This is the most alarming situation I've seen in Mexico in 15 years. Our own interests are at stake. We must stand with these people; they're literally fighting for their lives. - Former U.S. Drug Czar, General Barry McCaffrey[1]

This statement by General McCaffrey set off a firestorm of debate inside D.C. policymaking circles. Are the Mexican cartels a U.S. national security risk, or have we overblown the threat? Is their activity in the U.S. terroristic, or merely criminal in nature? The answers to these pressing, complex questions will certainly determine our course of action as a nation. The challenges posed by Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) are escalating in Mexico, as well as in the United States and other countries.  Further, the dangerous liaisons between DTOs, international terrorist groups and transnational gangs such as MS-13 are worrisome to law enforcement not only at the border, but in our country.   

The Battle in Mexico

Just south of our border, Mexican forces are fighting an insurgency against multiple DTOs, which threaten their country's economy and security. This conflict is a perfect example of what some call 5th Generation Warfare: shadowy organizations using asymmetric tactics against the State. What many find inexplicable, the inability of large governments to easily put down rising and persistent threats such as DTOs and small terrorist groups, is perfectly explainable and quite predictable when viewed through the 5th Gen lens which will be covered in chapter nine while covering tactic sharing and replicating by dissimilar groups.

In 2009, the previous director of the CIA, General Michael Hayden, surprised many when he stated: ‘‘Escalating violence along the U.S.-Mexico border will pose the second greatest threat to U.S. security this year, second only to al Qaeda."[2] Furthermore, according to the Justice Department, Mexican DTOs represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States.[3] Our government has responded in part by placing thousands of National Guard troops on the border as part of "Operation Jump Start," assisting U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Also, hundreds of federal agents have been pulled from other duties and sent to robust DEA, ATF and FBI offices in major cities in Border States. And despite economic woes, the U.S. is aiding Mexico's fight against the DTOs under the provisions of the Merida Initiative, a multiyear one and one half billion dollar anti-narcotics package increasing law enforcement cooperation and intelligence sharing between our countries, and supplies training and equipment to the fight.  Finally, the six billion dollar "virtual fence" project, SBInet and deployment of expensive aerial drones to monitor the border, certainly indicates the government's concern regarding border issues.  

Mexican authorities are attempting to contain DTO (cartel) activity to certain geographical regions and keep it from spilling over into their major cities, lucrative vacation areas, and our shared border. Mexico's military is heavily engaged, with 45,000 soldiers augmenting more than 5,000 federal police, and this combined force is engaging in small-scale combat with the cartels. This is particularly true with the paramilitary Los Zetas, who have the exact same weapons, training and tactics as the government force, therefore are able to meet the confrontation head on.

Several leaders of the major Mexican DTOs have been indicted on charges within the U.S., and are fugitives with $5 million reward offered for capture, the same amount offered for the apprehension of "most wanted" terrorists, indicating the serious nature of the threat against our citizens and communities. The players, tactics, alliances and leaders of the DTOs morph, but the threat to our country persists...and is growing.

Ideology: Money

It is important to understand prior to U.S. engagement in the so called "drug war" beginning in the 1980s, the primary drug trafficking route into the U.S. was from Colombia, through the Caribbean and into Florida. As we closed off these avenues, and failed to lower user demand in our country, Mexico became the primary conduit for the drug pipeline. As criminal elements exacted their "fee" for moving the product through the country, we witnessed the rise of alliances, or cartels. In addition to moving Colombian drugs, cartels now oversee the cultivation of marijuana and large labs producing methamphetamines. The money at stake is exorbitant; a Justice Department report estimates Mexican and Colombian DTOs generate, remove, and launder between $18 and $39 billion in wholesale drug proceeds annually.

Consider this important fact, which serves to frame the discussion of drugs and the existing or potential nexus with other nefarious groups:  dealers and users in the U.S. do not care who supplies their drugs. It could be a cartel or al Qaeda; all that matters is the product, and getting it into the hands of the 35 million users in our country, most of whom will give their last dollar or possession to get high. Cocaine is leading drug threat in the U.S., followed by methamphetamine, marijuana, heroin, pharmaceutical drugs, and MDMA (ecstasy). The DTOs have responded to the demand and with crackdowns at the border, they have moved inside the U.S. and now oversee the planting of marijuana fields in national parks in the U.S. Although surprising, the National Park Service (NPS) reports marijuana has been grown on our public lands for over 25 years. Furthermore, in 2010 and 2011, their internal reports documented the vast amount of marijuana eradicated on NPS land during the period. Between standing plants, or plants harvested and packaged for distribution at the time of interdiction, they estimated a total street value of over $405 million. Nearly all these cases of marijuana grown in national parks were identified as transnational organized crime related operations.[4]

Tactic: Brutal Violence

Protecting this vast drug enterprise is critical for the DTOs. In Mexico, the areas of operation for the cartels are called plazas. Pipelines are the supply corridors into, through and out of Mexico, safely passing through the plazas in which the cartels have the upper hand by bribing or intimidating officials and citizens. Some of these formerly vibrant areas have turned into ghost towns due to the persistent, escalating violence unleashed by the DTOs to maintain control of the plazas.

DTO violence is like none ever.  The perpetrators have no respect for the rule of law, and employ no moral restraint, willfully (and exuberantly) killing innocent people every day. Kidnapping, rape, human trafficking, extortion, larceny, arson, and weapons offenses: nothing is off the table for DTOs in the name of making money, widening their sphere of influence and controlling plazas and pipelines. DTOs are transnational organizations; the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center reports that not only are they operating in the U.S. and nineteen Latin American countries, but are also present in unexpected regions, such as Australia. This indicates their global reach, and ability to transport their products worldwide.

Prior to December, 2006, DTO violence was sporadic and contained by the government. During the election that year, Mexican president Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa's stated his primary goals were to grow his country's economy by creating jobs and to reduce poverty. However, once in office in late 2006, President Calderon opened a strategic front against the DTOs, declaring "war" against the cartels. Interestingly, this action was not unilaterally supported by the citizens of the country, whose small towns benefit financially from the movement of drugs through the area. Also, as they feared, innocent civilians inadvertently ended up on the front lines of the battle. Mexican authorities reported 47,515 people killed in the violence between the start of President Calderon's offensive and December, 2011, or one every hour.

According to Mexico's National Human Rights Commission, these numbers do not include the 5,000 kidnapped and missing citizens, suspected to have suffered brutal deaths at the hands of the cartels, with their bodies unceremoniously dumped in the desert.  

The battle between cartels for control has led to the preponderance of these deaths, as Figure 2 below illustrates. Bombs regularly explode in front of police stations and at city halls.  Shootouts in the street happen daily, as thousands of videos taken by civilians and posted on the Internet attest. Innocent men, women and children caught in the crossfire are seen by DTOs as collateral damage, and are now the very targets of the rampant violence by groups sending "messages" to towns and each other. Many murders are premeditated and gruesome such as beheadings, death by gasoline-induced fire, dismemberment and acid baths. Politicians and policemen are often hung in effigy from bridges in major cities with signs threatening those who are battling the cartels to back off. In January 2010, 36-year-old Hugo Hernandez kidnapped in the state of Sonora by Sinaloa cartel members who carved his body into seven pieces, dropping them at separate locations. Finally, his face was sliced off and stitched to a football, which was the delivered with a warning to the Juárez cartel to Los Mochis city hall in Sinaloa.[5] Cartel violence often begets violence; a few days later, masked gunman attacked teenagers in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, children who were enjoying a combination birthday and high school soccer victory party: sixteen dead, fourteen wounded. The very same evening in Torreon, in the border state of Coahuila, gunman ambushed students in a college bar: ten dead, eleven wounded. In the case of the children and college student massacres, the shootings were simply meant to send a message to rival cartels, law enforcement and government leadership, with a byproduct of terrorizing the public.[6]

Many of these activities are carried out by the "enforcement arms" of the cartels, which are paramilitary groups possessing the training knowledge and sophisticated equipment of small armies. Street gang spinoffs of the main organization will also accomplish some of this dirty work, so if they are apprehended by authorities, the main leadership of the cartel and its business activity remain unaffected.

There is great debate about the actual scale of violence in Mexico as related to their population of 113 million, and the vast area of the country. Comparisons are regularly drawn to the U.S. murder rate, with pundits saying it is not as bad in Mexico as depicted by the press. However, this "rates per thousand" discussion is irrelevant considering the unique factors at play such as the large and powerful groups involved; the gruesome nature of the violence; the deliberate targeting of public officials; the undaunted confrontations with Mexican forces; the strong, deep leadership structure in the DTOs and their operational planning to achieve goals; and the persistence and willingness to escalate the bloodshed as required. There is no group or groups in the United States engaged in this type of activity against the State and fellow citizens. Comparisons between violence south and north of the border distract from the issue at hand and marginalize the danger to our country. If the murder statistics and the fact the Mexican Army is engaged in conflict with its own citizens isn't shocking enough, consider fifty-three percent of Mexicans believing the drug cartels are winning the ongoing battle.

Goals: Money, Power, Control

The primary goal of cartels is to gain power, territory and control so they can move drugs, money, guns and human cargo unopposed. They seek to create a void in leadership and rule of law in cities so they can step in and take control. Corruption of police, military and government leadership is a tool used to create instability, ruin the government's reputation with citizens and cause them to turn to others for protection. Instilling fear in the populace is a primary goal, compelling citizens to assist the DTOs, or at the very least, not resist their land grabs and activity in the community. Anything and anyone standing in the way of their progress is seen as a threat that must be eliminated. Conversely, anything and anyone helping attain their goals is an ally.

[1] Mark Potter, "Mexican drug war 'alarming' U.S. officials,"

[2] Armed Services Committee, Confirmation Hearing, May 12, 2009.

[3] U.S. Department of Justice, "National Drug Threat Assessment," (National Drug Intelligence Center, 2011).

[4] Robert R. Martin, "The National Park Service And Transnational Criminal Organizations- Is A Crisis Looming?" (American Military University, 2012).

[5] Olga R. Rodriguez, "Mexico cartel stitches rival's face on soccer ball,"  2010.

[6] William F. Jasper, "Escalating Chaos on Our Border," The New American 2010.


"The Terrorist-Criminal Nexus: An Alliance of International Drug Cartels, Organized Crime, and Terror Groups," published Apr. 17, 2013 by CRC Press - 351 Pages; Author:Jennifer L. Hesterman, Retired Colonel, USAF; Senior Analyst, The MASY Groupe, Arlington, Virginia, USA

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