Narco-Terrorism Rears Its Ugly Head
The recent kidnapping of four Americans in Mexico and the murder of two of those Americans has created a hue and cry in the United States. This is understandable. The nation as a whole and the US Government, in particular, have a duty to protect US citizens and to seek justice in the event something happens to those citizens. Unfortunately, the response to the recent tragedy is both emotional and political. Throughout my career in national security, I have found few good policy decisions resulting from either emotions or domestic politics. This flawed decision-making process leads to a ready, fire, aim approach. Instead, we need to calm down and think things through.
Firstly, this particular crime is not a border issue. The US citizens were traveling in Mexico legally. The drug cartel members who kidnapped them did not cross the border and enter the US illegally. No wall with an alligator-filled moat and a ring of landmines would have prevented this tragedy. Arguing that this is a border issue, i.e. potential dangers of open borders, etc., is domestic politics, using the situation to attack one group or another for political advantage. Yes, the Mexican drug cartels are a SERIOUS problem but that problem needs to be viewed accurately, without the intention of political gain.
There are many points to address regarding Mexican drug cartels but I am going to focus on the proposed US response due to the recent event. Senator Lindsey Graham, among others, is arguing to unleash "the fury and might" of the US against the cartels. Though, he says he isn't asking for the US army to invade Mexico. He did propose declaring the cartels terrorist organizations. Let's look at both of these proposals.
Sen. Lindsey Graham
There is no universal agreement on the definition of terrorism, but the closest I could find that describes it is, " the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims." I am not trying to be pedantic here but drug cartels do not fit this definition. Terrorist organizations have a political goal, an ideology. Drug cartels are criminal enterprises. They are motivated by profit margins, not ideology. Tactics and techniques that work for terrorist targets might not work for criminal organizations. It is critically important to understand the enemy so that we can fight the right fight.
Sen. Graham, while desiring to unleash the full fury of the US on these cartels, does not advocate a US invasion of Mexico. Frankly, I find this ridiculous. The implication of Sen. Graham's proposal would require sending in the Joint Special Operations Command (SEALS and Delta among others) and other unconventional forces into Mexico to destroy cartel infrastructure and I assume kill cartel leadership. They would be supported by drones, combat aircraft, and all the other necessities of special operations. We would launch missile strikes inside Mexican territory. Yet we expect the Mexicans to understand this is not an invasion. In whose book? It is the height of arrogance to expect the Mexican government to stand by and not react while US forces maneuver throughout Mexico conducting combat operations. Mexico will see this as a violation of their territorial sovereignty, even an invasion. They will not passively stand by. Graham is engaging in wishful thinking.
The drug cartels will also not stand by and watch as we decimate them. As I noted above, these cartels are criminal enterprises, violent and illegal businesses run for profit. Their first reaction will be money, bribery, payoffs, and the like. When that doesn't work they will resort to violence, and not just in Mexico. The Mexican drug cartels have organizations deeply embedded in the US. That is how they distribute drugs. It is likely that as the US applies violent pressure in Mexico, the cartels will respond with violence inside the US. Casualties will mount, including innocents on both sides, requiring escalation. Of course, we can destroy labs, eliminate cartel leaders, and if the Mexican military reacts we can destroy them as well. But, what starts out as a series of surgical strikes will turn messy and I can guarantee that if they pursue this policy within 1-2 years there would be significant numbers of US combat troops deployed inside Northern Mexico.
For years I worked on counternarcotics operations in Mexico, among other countries. The US government devoted considerable resources to the "war on drugs." The US committed the military, State Department, DEA, and the Intelligence Community to battle drug cartels. The US committed everything just short of military invasion. There were spectacular victories, entire organizations destroyed, and cartel leaders jailed, yet here we are having the same discussion. Clearly, we were unable to defeat the cartels. I believe this indicates that the proposed “precision, the full fury of the US” might run into trouble under Sen. Graham's proposal. In the past, every time a drug cartel was destroyed another rose up to take its place. Every time a drug trafficker was jailed or killed ten others lined up to take his place. There is too much money to be made in the drug trade to deter these crimes.
In a Fox interview, former Attorney General Bill Barr stated, “Nobody is talking about a conventional takeover of Mexico or rolling the military down to invade Mexico. Our military on these kinds of things with the intelligence we have can act with precision and through special operations, the use of drones, going after the finances, which we know how they’re structured and where they are. We can decimate – we can destroy these groups in a relatively short period of time. It’s just a matter of will.” How many times have we heard that story—it just requires will, we can destroy these groups in a relatively short period. The troops will come home by Christmas. That is just bullshit. It will not play out like that and instead will turn into another of our seemingly endless conflicts that we are fond of. How long did it take us to grind down the Taliban, al-Qaida, El Shabab, and ISIS? I don't see this as playing out any differently.
Lacking in this rush to crush the cartels is actually addressing the root cause of the problem. We don't like to accept responsibility for the issue but the drug cartels persist because of the endless need of American consumers for the product the cartels produce. We buy the drugs. We provide them with the billions of dollars that allow them to hire assassins, bribe officials and run their empires. We provide 70% of the weapons the cartels buy to wage their wars. We don't address this because people in the US make money from it. We turn a blind eye to the money that gets laundered in US banks. We should not be surprised to know that large parts of the Florida and Texas economies benefit from drug money. These are the root causes of the drug trade and without addressing these problems the trade will continue.
One of the many problems with Sen. Graham's proposal is that we are left thinking and acting tactically rather than strategically. We can go in with the best of America's military and technology. We can inflict serious damage on drug organizations and anyone who stands in our way. To what end? This is not the movie Sicario.
I don't have the answers. It is a difficult problem to deal with and extremely frustrating that after decades of combating drug trafficking, we are no closer to even impacting the trade, let alone stopping it. I was never as professionally frustrated as I was working on counternarcotics. That having been said, designating these organizations as terrorist groups and committing the full might of the US military is not the solution, or at least not the main solution. This is an extremely complicated problem, involving systemic corruption within the Mexican government, and to an extent, within the US. It involves a large US consumer market, as well as huge amounts of money that cause people to get into the business or turn a blind eye when it profits them personally. What Graham and others propose is just more of the same we have done in the past, and I suspect politically motivated rather than a serious solution.