Why Are Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations So Dangerous?

April 9, 2017

Martin Scott Catino, Ph.D.


El Chapo


Large areas of Mexico growing and shipping illegal drugs in the open; El Chapo arrested, escaping and arrested again; drug traffickers expanding territory and reach into the US; US Customs and Border Patrol agents arrested for working with cartels; gruesome killings by cartels in Mexico and the US, Mexican government officials complicit in drug trafficking; and government reports warning of the dangers of cartels; all are bits of information making headline news and topics of scholarly research but making little sense of the strategic danger Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (MDTOs) pose to US security—as well as major human rights problems.  This short post will posit that the chief danger of MDTOs is their vertical (government structures), horizontal (area, demographic, and local structures), and subterranean (law enforcement and security organizations, businesses, political groups and activists, and other areas of cover) penetrations.  This growing reach and sophistication of MDTOs threatens human security and the viability of government by allowing the cartels to have increasing capabilities, freedom of movement, and impunity from prosecution.  This penetration into the critical power structures and human domain of an area or country is therefore critical for understanding the subject and addressing the issue.


Police, Drug, Poppy, Field, Agriculture, Crop, Mayo, Village, City, Tajumulco, San Marcos, Guatemala, Border, Mexico, Operation, Destroy, America, Plant, Car, Health, Opium,

Mexican police destroying drug cultivation fields


VERTICAL PENETRATION OF THE STATE.  The recent arrest in the United States of Edgar Veytia, the Attorney General of the Mexican state of Nayarit, on drug trafficking charges (court document, https://www.scribd.com/document/343568363/Edgar-Veytia-Complaint-NY) is not an isolated case. Declassified US Government documents reveal a very real problem of high ranking or federal level Mexican officials complicit in drug trafficking, a complicity reaching into military, security, and governance structures in varying ministries of the Government of Mexico. [See National Security Archive, http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB515/ and http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB445/

The problem is so acute it makes headline news. So often while conducting interviews with US border security officials I would ask the question: What is Mexico’s connection to the MDTOs? The answer was often enough, “The government is the cartel.” See Lee Morgan, The Reaper’s Line; Mike Ligon, Ten Years on the Line: My War on the Border; Terry Kirkpatrick, Sixty Miles of Border. Nathan Jones, Mexico’s Illegal Drug Network and the State Reaction; and Anabel Hernandez, The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers.  While the exact nature of the GoM to the cartels is debated, understanding the deep penetration of the state is critical for understanding the threat and the cultural terrain.


The net result of the penetration of the state is large areas of Mexico (major land areas) where illegal drugs are grown, stored, and shipped in the open with complete impunity. The GoM attempts to interdict some of these locations have done little to arrest the problem—and some experts add are cover operations of their complicity. The local populations and indigenous groups have suffered much in these operations. And Mexican military detachments have openly assisted in transshipment operations across the US-MX border as witnessed by many local sheriffs of the Border Association. See their Congressional Testimonies here, http://www.aila.org/infonet/testimony-on-border-incursions


The aforementioned sources have done an excellent job noting these issues in detail but special attention should be given to Ion Grillo. His two books, El Narco; and Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America, are extraordinary expositions of the problem, which his investigative journalism has uncovered. Illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and political corruption are intertwined in the open in such places as Altar, Sonora, Mexico. Video documentaries like Vice News,   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hB_66Z7G7_Y illustrate the point well.   



Dr. Mireles and his self-defense group


HORIZONTAL PENETRATION. Places like Altar, Mexico, the Michoacán state, and Guerrero state, are notable examples, and the last two have given rise to self-defense groups seeking to retake their state.  José Manuel Mireles Valverde, a Mexican doctor who helped form a self-defense group/vigilante group (the terms depend on one’s viewpoint) made international headlines and called attention to the issue of horizontal penetration. Dr. Mireles and his group repeatedly asserted that the local cartels had completely taken over (penetrated) the economy, security forces, and governance of the Michoacán state leaving the local population as victims to violence, murder, rape, and extortion—and home invasions. The documentary Cartel Land (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fkLlO-nY6G8) is an extraordinary view of the subject.


As cultural intelligence experts and practitioners note, penetration of the population, or human terrain, is among the most dangerous outcomes of cartel activity. The ability of cartels to coopt, bribe, incentivize, and animate local populations with jobs, propaganda aiming to generate support, narcocorrido (drug ballads), and social support and community support programs all works to strengthen MDTO operations. Ion Grillo, noted earlier, has done much work to expose this problem that occurs in Mexico—and a problem that has entered the United States as border communities and other areas embrace the drug cartel narrative. 


[I personally witnessed this problem when substitute teaching in the Tucson Sector during the 2016 school year. The cartel culture was on occasion embraced as a glamorous lifestyle, one to be imitated. Local police forces in Texas have attempted to  address this problem by developing anti-gang and cartel programs to help school aged children to avoid the trappings of the gang and cartel lifestyle.]


But the problem is also evident in the United States, but with different objectives.  MDTOs, the most severe threat among international organizations, effectively exploits family ties on both sides of the border.  At 2015 DEA report notes:

The foundation of Mexican TCO operations in the United States is comprised of extended family and friends. Families affiliated with various Mexican TCOs in Mexico vouch for US-based relatives or friends that are deemed trustworthy enough to help run various aspects of the drug trafficking operations in the United States. Actual members of Mexican TCOs are usually sent to important US hub cities to manage stash houses containing drug shipments and bulk cash drug proceeds. (DEA, National Drug Threat Assessment, https://www.dea.gov/docs/2015%20NDTA%20Report.pdf


Exploiting Hispanic communities by blending into the local terrain, the MDTOs keep a low profile and avoid confrontation and overt actions that could disrupt their expanding operations. (Ibid). The point here is that a lack of “spillover violence” is not an indicator of security but the very opposite—a point missed by many accounts that focus on the lack of violence theme in contrast to Mexico.


Douglas, AZ, a typical town penetrated by cartel activity


SUBTERRANEAN PENETRATION. Among the most dangerous advances of the MDTOs is their penetration of the subterranean (underground) structures of a country or area.  When cartels are able to penetrate the local police (security), political, business, social, and educational structures of an area they have increased their presence and operational capabilities by gaining valuable intelligence, influence, impunity, and cover. An insightful analyst or warfighter concerned about this topic should be focused not just on presence and operations of the MDTOs but penetration and increasing penetration into these areas. For instance, when MDTOs made inroads into local police in Nogales, Arizona, and government structures of Douglas, Arizona, or Border Patrol in these areas of the Tucson Sector (See Ligon, Kirkpatrick, and Morgan sources cited earlier) the problem becomes exponentially more problematic. 


Applying cultural intelligence and studies, or operationalizing it as the Marine Corps doctrine states, involves understanding how cultural terrain can be exploited by a malign actor. The MDTO threat to the United States serves as an example of how these non-state actors or Transnational Criminal Organization can gain power by penetrating vertical, horizontal, and subterranean structures of a country and its communities.


Dr. Scott Catino serves as a security consultant in the Richmond, VA area. He is a veteran of OEF, and OIF, and served two terms as a US Fulbright Scholar in Bahrain. He is co-author with Ed Ashurst of Alligators in the Moat: Politics and the Mexican Border.


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