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Feature 042312 Peele

Monday, April 23, 2012

Add Mexican 'Drug Trafficking Organizations' to Terrorist List

By Justin Peele


There is a war in Mexico that will not abate unless we take specific action. Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) are ruthless and unafraid to utilize all the tools of terror and violence at their disposal. They enjoy extreme wealth, power, and an impressive arsenal unmatched by local police and military forces.  Until we categorize DTOs as terrorists, we are unable to fight this problem with our own full range of resources. This paper argues that the first step to combating this threat is to properly identify the enemy and update our list of foreign terrorist organizations. Adding these DTOs to this list will open up the full range of tools and resources at the disposal of the Federal Government. The U.S. has succeeded in the past in responding to terrorism in the Americas, as seen in our work with Colombia in the 1980's and 90's against a variety of sub-state groups. These sub-state groups demonstrated identical motivation and tactics to those in Mexico today and were placed on America's terrorist list in order to level the playing field.  This identification alone was the impetus for a joint U.S. and Colombian response which led to successful management of the problem. This change is a must if we wish to see improvement across our border.

The Case of Mexico: A Hard Pill to Swallow

Today, literature abounds on the current narco-war in Mexico.  While many are dedicated to the study of this phenomenon, few are willing to put forth new ideas, answers, or offer a possible response on the part of governments.  A well-known adage comes to mind, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."  Unfortunately, the moment to prevent the atrocities being committed in Mexico has passed. However, we can still prevent the situation from worsening and from spreading to other countries, including the United States.  As violence and the death toll continue to mount, it is time to make hard decisions, take action, and swallow the bitter medicine.  To date, we have been reluctant to add more groups to the U.S. terrorist list. In making this decision, we would put the full force of the U.S. military, public opinion, and government behind a policy of change. If we do not take action now at this point in the illness, which has not been taken as seriously as it should, the alternative is very bleak indeed.

Introduction: Why Focus on Narco-Trafficking in Mexico?

The purpose of this paper is to not only examine Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs), their methods and its effect on the Mexican people, but to offer a very real solution.  A comparison will be made to Colombia and their period of intense conflict with a variety of sub-national groups.  Colombia has seen a great deal of improvement over the years in its fight against DTOs, both in an increase in security and a decrease in death-toll.  The question is this: What lessons, if any, can Mexico learn from past experiences and efforts on part of the Colombian government?  Can these lessons be effectively applied to Mexico given the circumstances of its current drug war and governmental structure?

As of January 2012 the drug war in Mexico has officially claimed almost 50,000 lives.  Other independent organizations such as the Mexico Census Agency have found this to be a gross under reporting of the facts, finding that 67,050 homicides occurred between the years of 2007 and 2010 alone, nearly double the government's count of drug-related deaths in the same period. Who has the most accurate numbers is largely irrelevant; the important point being that many, many people have lost their lives and this has placed an extreme burden on families, communities, businesses, and Mexican society as a whole.  Simply put, the Mexican state is under attack.

We must realize that apart from being a contemporary security concern within Mexico's borders, Mexican DTO members have an octopus-like reach, maintaining a strong presence in many countries and also a stake in a diverse array of highly profitable illicit markets.  Beyond the production and distribution of illegal drugs, Mexican drug trafficking organizations  have branched into kidnapping, assassination for hire, auto theft, prostitution, extortion, money-laundering, and human smuggling. While most victims are from rival drug cartels, many are innocents, and more than a few have been U.S. citizens.  Based on the strategy, brutal tactics, and common usage of military-grade weaponry utilized by the cartels, law enforcement strategists have begun to make comparisons to some of the world's most prolific conflicts in recent years, including the raging insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When dealing with the issue of narco-trafficking it is important to understand it for what it is.  The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration works hard to enforce the controlled substance laws and regulations of the United States, just like other agencies work to combat fraud, murder, rape or even bank robberies.  It's just another form of crime.  A pragmatic approach must be maintained at all times, understanding that the focus shouldn't be on eradicating drug use completely, but instead on keeping it under control so that daily life for the average citizen can continue unimpeded, maintaining intact the governmental structure. 

Properly Identifying the Enemy to Better Resolve the Conflict

The first step is to identify the enemy and what type of armed conflict is occurring.   Many scholars, think-tanks and high ranking officials disagree profoundly on how to properly classify the conflict in Mexico and the organizations involved.   Is it terrorism?  Is it an insurgency? Is it a new type of war?  This was expressed quite openly in a Foreign Policy article entitled: "This Week at War: A Conflict without a Name."  There does however, exist a strong argument to re-label the drug trafficking organizations as terrorists, a view point that I share.  It is important to capture the essence of the relationship between these criminal organizations and the state in which they exist.  There is a widely accepted theory regarding the evolution of criminal organizations and their relationship with the state.  The first stage of evolution is the ‘predatory' stage, where the state and the criminal organization exist as completely different entities.  In this stage the state has the upper hand and will utilize its law enforcement apparatus to combat illegal activity.  This is often a violent stage as the organization must battle for its survival.

Following this is the ‘parasitic' stage, where criminal organizations and activities take root and begin to prosper within the state.  Relationships are established with the political and economic system and services such as taxation and protection can begin to be offered and carried out by criminal organizations.  Money can be laundered through legitimate businesses and kept safe in legitimate bank accounts.  There is a very real ‘feeding' off the state and its structure, hence the name.

In the third and final stage, the line between the state and criminal organizations becomes blurred completely.  There exists a mutual dependency between the two, making it ever harder to combat the illegal activity which now has political influence and social status.  One simply cannot distinguish between the two. This unfortunately describes the current situation in Mexico.  Due to profound levels of corruption, the cartels have obtained great wealth and power, and have become adept at influencing the politics of the country. It is extremely difficult to know who should be trusted and what, if any intelligence should be shared.  In many parts of the country citizens answer first to the cartels and second to the legitimate state officials.

With this established, we return to the principle argument that the Mexican DTOs behave and exist precisely like other well-established organizations that enjoy a spot on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations.    The U.S. State Department defines terrorism as "Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience" (p. 13).

With this definition in mind, some argue that Mexican DTOs are simply motivated by profits rather than political aspirations, even if their tactics do resemble those of terrorists.  This viewpoint was represented in a Council on Foreign Relations report from last year. However, we must recognize that political motivation behind the actions of these groups does exist, as there is a degree of submissiveness within the state that allows their illicit activities to take place.  There is ample evidence to suggest that DTOs are attempting to influence major government elections by kidnapping and threatening the lives of political candidates.  The Mexican Attorney General in 2008 said:  "We have evidence, complaints from candidates who were kidnapped or intimidated, or who received threats intended to influence the results of an election and the behavior of candidates." On top of efforts to influence state elections, the organizations have established a strong presence at the municipal level. The Attorney General commented that:  "There are municipal police forces that have collapsed, that function more as an aid to organized crime than as protection for the public."

One such incident occurred in Ciudad Juarez, one of the most violent cities in Mexico located across from the U.S. border.  A DTO decided that the appointed Chief of Police should step down from his post.  To make their desire clear they vowed to kill a police officer every 48 hours until the Chief resigned.  They first killed the Chief's deputy, then three of his men, then another police officer and finally a prison guard.  As the body count rose, the Mayor succumbed to the demands of the DTO.  Shortly thereafter he resigned from his post and fled the city.  In places such as Juarez it is not the duly elected Mayor that fires and hires people and makes the tough decisions.  This high ranking public servant is merely at the mercy of the real political agents in power- the drug trafficking organizations.

When pressed, President Calderon and his aides have admitted that the cartels have been attempting, and sometimes succeeding in setting up a state within a state.  These are called "zones of impunity" and the Mexican government has identified hundreds in existence.  Within these zones it is the cartels, not the government that levees taxes, creates roadblocks and checkpoints, and enforces their own codes of behavior within Mexican society.  It is the cartels that wield true political power, able to both invest in the social welfare of the population and chastise severely those who get out of line.

Even the Mexican Federal government has come under scrutiny in recent times, and there is significant evidence to suggest foul play.  Many people, from former law enforcement agents and organized crime experts to elected representatives all suggest that the Sinaloa Cartel is receiving support from the Federal government to keep their leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and other members out of jail. One federal officer stated: "I work in the police and because of this I know the government is protecting Chapo Guzman.  It's hitting all the cartels but Chapo."  In another interview, a congressman from Sinaloa state and a member of Calderon's political party commented that: "The Calderon government has been fighting organized crime in many parts of the republic, but has not touched Sinaloa.  I know this.  I'm Sinaloan.  My family lives in Sinaloa.  It's like we're trimming the branches of a tree, when we should be tearing it out by the roots." While their enemies and rivals are targeted by authorities, and to the detriment of Mexican society, the Sinaloa Cartel continues to expand its empire thanks to their political clout.

The drug trafficking organizations in Mexico act as terrorists through their assassinations, brutal executions, kidnappings, and fear mongering. DTOs are targeting government officials, law enforcement officers, journalists, and anyone else who attempts to stop them for assassination.  Despite the fact that the violent acts committed are viewed as criminal acts, "most of those acts are identical in nature to acts committed by traditional terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), and with similar intentions" (p. 46).

With respect to mass killings committed near the U.S./Mexico border, U.S. officials have become more worried that "criminal gangs are taking over sections of the vital border region not by overwhelming firepower but sheer terror."  Many of the victims are being killed by horrific means: decapitations or sledge hammer strikes to the head, often after extensive torture.  Cases abound where bodies have been devoured in vats of acid, not to destroy evidence of their deeds, but to "devastate the victim's family psychologically."

A number of members of the U.S. House of Representatives argued this case when urging Secretary of State Clinton to designate certain Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations: 

"The massacres of young people and migrants, the killing and disappearance of Mexican journalists, the use of torture, and the phenomena of car bombs have received wide media coverage and have led some analysts to question if the violence has been transformed into something new, beyond the typical violence that has characterized the trade.  For instance, some observers have raised the concern that the Mexican [Drug Trafficking Organizations] DTOs may be acting more like domestic terrorists."

On another occasion, a Congressman from Texas introduced legislation attempting to have the seven top Mexican DTOs labeled as "foreign terrorist organizations."  The groups that would be targeted are the Arellano Félix organization, Los Zetas, La Familia Michoacana, and the Beltrán Leyva, Sinaloa, Juárez and Gulf cartels.  The bill would allow the government to freeze money tied to the organizations and enhance the criminal penalties for those found aiding them.

A prominent Mexican scholar, Edgardo Buscaglia recommends that Mexico ask the United Nations General Assembly to add several of the cartels to the list of terrorist organizations for the same reasons.  He affirms that several of the cartels fall into the accepted definition of terrorism, and reiterates the notion that the goal is to achieve political change, stating that "they are trying to scare the Mexican State into putting their own people in power."  He also adds that "as soon as the cartels are defined as terrorist groups, its armed wings will fall under the magnifying glass of dozens of enormously sophisticated anti-terrorist agencies."

Labeling them as terrorists, as opposed to criminal organizations would in fact change the playing field in the region and would add a number of advantages to the fight.  It would allow governments to allocate resources differently and more effectively, and to engage targets more aggressively.  The U.S. Army could finally be used along with its vast array of weaponry and technology. Up until now this has been prevented by the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 which forbids the military from engaging in civilian law enforcement activities. Overcoming this obstacle would be a game changer for governments on either side of the border.  It's time to recognize the enemy for what it is.

The Situation in Colombia

Columbia in the 1980s and 1990s faced similar powerful drug cartels in a terrorist campaign against the elected government. Political leaders, high ranking law enforcement officials, judges and journalists were targeted and killed for their efforts to combat the drug trafficking organizations.  The DTOs manipulated political power in their efforts to dissuade the Columbian government from conducting investigations, prosecutions, and extradition of major drug lords to the U.S.   Those in the government who disobeyed and continued in their duties to investigate were simply murdered, often times resulting in even greater strain for their families and communities.

"More than 350 members of the judiciary were killed, including 50 judges.  Not only were judicial officials or police threatened, but their families were threatened as well.  Car bombs were designed to display to the population at large that the government was unable to protect them, and to suggest that it was the people who were suffering from the government attempts to challenge and destroy the drug cartels."

If this sounds familiar, it should.  Beyond the efforts to influence politics, the violence perpetrated in Mexico has been identical and it has been carried out by identical means:  Fear mongering tools such as car bombs, grenades and the systematic elimination of government officials who fight against the drug cartels have all been utilized with great success. 

In 2010 alone over 72 grenade attacks occurred in Mexico, including assaults on police convoys and public officials.  In one instance that killed 7 and injured over 100, two grenades were thrown into a family-friendly crowd of revelers during an Independence Day celebration.  In another, gunmen opened fire and threw a grenade into a packed nightclub, killing 6 and wounding dozens.  Drug traffickers famously threw a grenade at the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey, and more recently hurled an improvised explosive device over the wall at the Consulate in Nuevo Laredo.  These attacks, along with the killing of a pregnant U.S. consulate employee and her husband in broad daylight have prompted the U.S. State Department to allow employees to move their families from Mexico to safer areas across the border.

Kidnappings have also become commonplace, often exhibiting extreme cruelty, as was the case with a local farmer's son.  The cartels demanded $10,000 for his return and when the father was only able to come up with $5,000, everything he had, he was sent half the body of his son. The cartels take over nearby ranches, dispose of the owner, and convert barns and sheds into holding pens and execution chambers.  Another popular method is targeting Mexicans with relatives in the United States as these people generally have more lucrative payouts.  Before, immigrants that worked and lived in the U.S. would send money home, but now because of the threat of kidnapping they are doing everything possible to take their relatives with them.  The wealthy are not the only ones being targeted either, as was the case of a five-year-old boy whose parents worked as fruit vendors.  He was kidnapped, killed by injecting acid into his heart then subsequently buried on a hill.  An American anti-kidnapping negotiator was even kidnapped while doing consulting work in Mexico with business executives and their body guards.  Simply put, in a country with around 500 kidnappings a month, no one is safe.

In the northern state of Durango hundreds of decomposed bodies have been pulled from mass graves.  Most of these individuals were passengers that were dragged from buses traveling to the U.S. border.  Authorities believe that they were seized to extort money or to join the drug cartel ranks, and killed when they refused, a classic example of the ‘plata o plomo' strategy.  Simply put, either you take their money and do what is asked or you take a bullet, no exceptions.  In Tamaulipas, Mexico, investigators have found signs of horrific brutality.  Over 177 bodies have been pulled from these pits, having been stripped of all forms of identification, making notifying next of kin extremely difficult.  Most of the victims were killed by blunt trauma to the head instead of being gunned down, and ample evidence suggests this was undertaken with a sledge hammer.

Mexican cartels, just like their Colombian counterparts from years ago, have started building their own assault vehicles, complete with gun turrets, armor plates, firing ports and bulletproof glass.  These ‘narco-tanks' pose special challenges to the armed forces of Mexico, much like the homemade armored agricultural tractors that appeared in Colombia when the government was suffering their own decisive defeats at the hands of cartels (p. 381).

We can better understand the situation in Mexico by realizing that the present day named terrorists of the FARC in Colombia have evolved over time from their politically motivated roots.    There is evidence to suggest that the FARC today is nothing more than a drug trafficking organization, having abandoned all hopes of achieving decisive political power.  The failure of the Patriotic Union Party, formed by the FARC in the mid-1980s, to enter via legitimate channels into Colombian politics forced the group to achieve its goals by other means.

Drug trafficking offered excellent funding, and due to the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from cocaine and the inherent power that came with this, the FARC is today less motivated in running the Colombian government and more focused on their business and income.  As noted below:

"The FARC no longer appears to seek any significant role in the governance of Colombia, and it has a group of followers who will ruthlessly support all types of criminal activity from narcotics and kidnapping to outright extortion of the oil and gas industry.  These narco-insurgents who fight under the guise of political grievance will back any criminal actions by the leaders of the FARC.  They recognize that these terrorist attacks maintain the chaotic environment that creates the conditions for continued narcotics profits" (p. 329).

This criminal motivation is identical to that of the Mexican cartels and must be recognized.  The FARC continues to be present on the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations regardless of the fact that their political aspirations have declined dramatically.  Mexican drug trafficking organizations are primarily motivated by profits, yet routinely engage in politically motivated, premeditated violence to ensure that the government employs compliant, malleable officials to further their goals whenever necessary.  Within these lines of thought, and with the FARC present on the list, why should the Mexican cartels continue to remain off it?

Hard Love: Time to Take Action

Plan Colombia was a joint U.S. and Columbian initiative to turn the tide against the FARC terrorists. It was a holistic approach to the conflict, involving military resources as well as social programs for the local populace.  When people think of Plan Colombia, usually only the administering of military aid and 15 million dollar Black Hawk helicopters comes to mind, but reality paints an entirely different picture.  This plan created by then Colombian President Andrés Pastrana and co-authored by the Clinton administration, was a comprehensive package to restructure all aspects of Colombian society.  To quote a senior Pentagon official involved in the creation of Plan Colombia:  "It wasn't really first and foremost a counter-narcotics program at all, it was mostly a political stabilization program."

The elements included were an economic strategy that targeted unemployment, the ability of the State to collect taxes, and austerity and adjustment measures to boost the economic activity.  A military strategy which would restructure and modernize the armed forces and the national police force, a counter narcotics strategy, and a new framework to make the judicial system more effective were also included.  Beyond these were several social programs to promote agriculture and other profitable enterprises, health and education programs, along with a democratization and social participation strategy designed to combat corruption and violence.  Finally, a peace plan was set forth that worked towards negotiated agreements with the various violent groups (p. 380). All of the aforementioned components were viewed as vital for a three-step strategy designed to ‘clear' specific areas of illegal actors, ‘hold' military control over them, and finally, ‘consolidate' the State's presence via civilian authority and rule of law (p. 174). This was a comprehensive plan and it has shown success over the years.  Gone are the days when the State was under siege, when people lived in fear and all-powerful drug kingpins did as they pleased.  With the advent of Plan Patriota in 2003, the security situation improved as the Colombian military took the offensive, driving the FARC out of strategic locations.  With this plan "the goal of establishing a police presence in all the country's 1,099 municipalities was achieved in 2004.  Key indicators of violence (homicides, kidnappings, and massacres, in particular) dropped, as did attacks against the civilian population" (p. 175).

This brings up another vital piece of the puzzle:  The use of violence to hunt down one by one the leaders of the major cartels.  Authors have written in recent times about the ‘old' terrorist groups and their tactics versus the ‘new' ones of today.  While terrorist groups old and new both pose considerable threats and challenges to nations, there is one major difference that should be brought to our attention: 

"Under the old rules, terrorists wanted a lot of people watching, but not a lot of people dead.  They did not want large body counts; particularly, they wanted converts and a seat at the table.  Today's terrorists are less concerned about converts; and rather than wanting a seat at the table, they want to destroy the table and everyone sitting at it" (p. 455).

The Mexican drug trafficking organizations are politically motivated, although we will not see them forming a political party and running for President anytime soon.  That is not and hopefully never will be a part of their agenda.  When it comes to the destruction of a country and the terrorizing of the general populace, the distinction between the two is moot.  This point is emphasized by terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman: "While terrorist actions will always have some political aspect to them, the political action may have little to do with gaining a governing role in a state" (p. 326). Today's terrorism is not ideological, but instead "an adaptation of an ancient tactic and instrument of conflict.  The major difference between modern terrorism and its ancient roots is that the new terrorism is better financed and has a global reach that it owes to globalization and the information revolution" (p. 455).

The idea of "new terrorism" does relate perfectly to the situation with Mexico, as drug traffickers battle it out in the street with specialized military hardware and tactics and skills gained from previous cooperation with foreign militaries. An example of this is Los Zetas, primarily made up of deserters from the Mexican Special Forces who have received specialized training from the United States.  These same people have allies and their own cells set up throughout the world, not just within Central America.  For example, a recent report states that Mexican cartels are now operating and maintain contacts in over 1,000 U.S. cities, from coast to coast (p. 8).

Different terrorist organizations require different strategies to combat them.  For example, violence perpetrated against al-Qaeda can, and often does have detrimental effects.  This is the difference between a "converged terrorist group that still has legitimacy with a broad array of followers and a transformed terrorist group that no longer has broad legitimacy." Al-Qaeda has a base of support born of strong anti-Western sentiment- violence perpetrated against them and the elimination of their leadership creates martyrs, adds to their legitimacy and in the end can be counter-productive.  Mexican drug cartels, like the FARC, enjoy less and less public support; therefore attempts to attack their legitimacy would be futile.  Regarding the present case in Mexico, it is imperative that we focus our efforts on crippling the cartels financially by attacking their means of producing terror.  This includes but is certainly not limited to attacking their highly lucrative narcotics revenue sources and the foot soldiers that defend their drug production facilities.

While the fight against al-Qaeda may benefit more from psychological operations, education and economic development, thereby attacking their legitimacy, it is a far better idea to utilize surgical search and destroy missions in regard to the drug cartels.  It is more appropriate to meet them head-on with violence.  Psychological operations, education and economic development, while important, do need to take a back seat initially to military based kinetic operations.

Pablo Escobar was largely defeated by killing off his entourage one by one.  Twenty-six of his closest associates were killed, including his brother-in-law, before Escobar himself was gunned down by government forces.  As the tides changed and the drug trafficking organization became weaker, a number of truces were offered by the organization.  These were promptly rejected by the Colombian government and they pressed forward with their mission.  They had found what worked (p. 378).

We must recognize the many successes of Plan Colombia along with its setbacks.  Today, a judge getting gunned down is not a common occurrence.  Journalists are able to work and report without disappearing, and the average Colombian citizen is able to go to work, school and live their lives without terror.  In 2009, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield stated that Plan Colombia "has been the most successful nation-building exercise that the United States has associated itself with perhaps over the last 25-30 years."


As we have seen for years now, the Mexican drug cartels are not afraid to utilize all the tools at their disposal, and they have an impressive arsenal, unmatched by local police forces.  Just like the old adage "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," the time to take the bitter medicine has come, and failure to do so could result in a ghastly spread of violence and further breakdown of society within the region.  Until governments wise up and make the tough decisions, the Mexican people will continue to be terrorized, die and flee the country.

When a cartel becomes extremely wealthy and powerful, and engages in politically motivated, premeditated violence directed at civilians and non-combatants, it is time to call it what it is and deal with it appropriately.  By adding the organization to the terrorist list it can then be dealt with in the best possible manner by the Federal Government and military, utilizing the whole range of tools at their disposal.  Former-President George W. Bush said in September of 2001, "We will direct every resource at our command to win the war against terrorists: every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence. We will starve the terrorists of funding, turn them against each other, rout them out of their safe hiding places, and bring them to justice."  The first step in this fight is to properly identify the enemy and update our list of foreign terrorist organizations.


Justin Peele is a Rotary Peace Fellow and graduate student in International Relations at the Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  This commentary, "The Case of Mexico: A Hard Pill to Swallow," was first published in Small Wars Journal on Apr. 20, 2012, and reposted per a Creative Commons authorization.

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