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Terrorism and Organized Crime: Exploring the Mexican Situation

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Terrorism and Organized Crime: Exploring the Mexican Situation

Yalí Noriega Curtis

In October 2011, the United States announced that it had uncovered a plot in which a couple of suspected Iranian terrorists had tried to hire a person belonging to a Mexican drug cartel known as Los Zetas, to carry out the assassination of the Saudi ambassador to the US, in US territory. During the course of the investigation, however, it became apparent that the man they had contacted was in fact an under-cover DEA agent who did not belong to the Zeta cartel – or to any other cartel –, and no conclusive proof that the suspected terrorists were officially sent by Iran was to be found (or at least, made available to the public) (Savage & Shane 2011). 

This paper explores the possibility of Mexican drug cartels establishing close ties to Islamic terrorist groups; it will also look at the transformation of criminal organizations into terrorist groups, and vice versa, using Tamara Makarenko’s crime-terror continuum. To understand the process in which Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) might become linked to terrorism, we will study the case of the South American Tri-Border Area, in which these connections have already been established among different criminal organizations and groups such as Hezbollah.  Despite this close-to-home example, there is little evidence that Mexican drug cartels are interested in either establishing ties with Islamist groups or in becoming terrorists themselves. However, they are not above using terrorist tactics when they might further their goals, and it is here that Makarenko’s model becomes a useful analytic tool.

News outlets both in the United States and in Mexico reported as a fact that Islamic terrorist groups had established links with the largest Mexican drug cartels. In their view, it is likely that the next terrorist attack in the United States will be carried out through the cooperation of both kinds of groups (Gómora 2015; Judicial Watch 2015; Wyler 2011). However, since there is no conclusive proof that the cartels have ties with the terrorists, serious terrorism and crime experts, as well as journalists, have denied these claims (Valencia 2011; Kiely & Nacht 2014). The intelligence agency Stratfor, for example, has no evidence of those ties in their coverage of Mexican DTOs from 2010 onwards (Stratfor). This could be because Mexican drug cartels are not interested in carrying out terrorist activities, especially in the United States, where they have their largest market, for fear of the response they would undoubtedly elicit.

Around the world, the cooperation between organized crime and international terrorist groups is not a new (post-9/11) phenomenon. Several authors have studied it, mentioning the processes of rapprochement and perhaps even eventual integration between the two activities. Tamara Makarenko's crime-terror continuum (2004) is a useful tool for analyzing the situation between the Mexican drug cartels and international terrorist groups. She states that “a single group can slide up and down the scale – between what is traditionally referred to as organized crime and terrorism – depending on the environment in which it operates” (130). In her model, she establishes that organized criminal organizations and terrorist groups are at opposite sides of the spectrum; the first step towards the center is the possible alliances each kind of group might forge with the other side; this is then followed by the use of the other's tactics (that is, organized crime will use terror to advance its goals, while terrorist groups might get involved in crime to finance their operations). The center of the spectrum is what Makarenko calls a 'black hole': this is where the difference between political crime and commercial terrorism becomes blurred. This overlapping of criminality and terrorism is particularly worrisome because criminal organized groups “can provide both revenue and a capability that the terrorist organization does not posses [perhaps they] have more to exchange than a narcotics distribution network and the cash to fund terrorist operations and training” (McCaffrey & Basso 2002: 250).

Makarenko’s Crime-Terror Continuum (131)

To combat both organized crime and international terrorism, governments are constantly updating the activities that they deem are legally unacceptable. According to Préfonatine and Durand (2004) “[t]he list of behaviours related to terrorism that are criminalized is constantly being extended. Most of the activities in which terrorists groups must get involved to pursue their goals are being criminalized”. This contributes to the sense that criminal organizations and terrorist groups are one and the same, even when there are clear differences among them.

Authors such as Carter (1997) and Cressey (1997) note several characteristics that appear throughout the definitions of organized crime used by different countries or international agencies. Among the most important are the accumulation of profit, their consolidation as business ventures, and corruption. This becomes clear in the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime in its Article 2 (a), which defines DTOs as “structured group[s] of three or more persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offences established in accordance with this Convention, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit” (UNODC 2004, 5). Finally, for Cressey the term 'confederation' “refers primarily to the organization of a government” while “[t]he word cartel refers primarily to the organization of a business” (6). It is important to underline this distinction here because the term applied to the Mexican organizations throughout the literature and the media is 'cartel'.

In short, the goal of a criminal organization is to increase its profits and minimize the risks incurred. These groups will target rival organizations competing for the same market or route, or governmental forces that are seeking to eradicate them, rather than people not related to the drug trade. This best illustrated by the famous request that authorities and civilians choose between silver or lead (a bribe or a bullet) when dealing with DTOs.

On the other hand, the goals of a terrorist group may vary: they might seek to undermine a government, to topple it completely, to expand their religion or to end a foreign occupation. In short, terrorist groups tend to have political and sometimes religious motivations for their violence. Another very important difference is that terrorists will attack innocent people, in an effort to send a message to a larger audience. While there is no single definition for terrorism, experts agree on these main characteristics (see Walter 1969, Wilkinson 1974, Wilkinson 1977, Seto 2002, Hoffman 2006, and Schmid’s The Routledge Handbook of Terrorism Research 2007).

Criminal organizations might move to the other side of Makarenko’s continuum, while terrorist groups might forsake their political goals and transform themselves into simple criminals. A terrorist group might transform into a criminal organization when it needs to finance its operations without raising public attention. The reasons behind a criminal organization becoming involved in terrorism are less clear: they might do so to divert attention from their activities, in order to keep the authorities engaged in combating terrorist attacks, rather than tracking other illegal operations, such as drug smuggling. Millard (2003) believes that this possibility is “particularly threatening since they may have access to vast funds. What could make those groups especially dangerous may be the fact that their threats and acts of terrorism would not necessarily be meant to achieve publicity or dramatize their cause” (169). In Mexico, the cartels kill brutally, using what could be called terrorist tactics to assert their control over a certain territory, most notably in the states of Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Jalisco, and Guerrero, where they corrupt and control authorities, fill power vacuums, and in some cases (notably La Familia Michoacana and the Knights Templar) even enforce codes of conduct in the territories they control. This however, does not necessarily mean they have become terrorists with a political agenda, as their objective remains to ensure the drug traffic, and resulting profits, flow as freely as possible.

Thus, although international terrorist organizations may turn to crime to fund their activities, organized crime does not necessarily use terrorism, except occasionally when it serves their goals. If complete transformation is improbable, we need to analyze the links between the two different types of organizations. As the example at the beginning of this paper seems to suggest, international terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda or Hezbollah appear to be interested in establishing some kind of relationship with the Mexican drug cartels, which could provide them with financial resources, but also with the possibility of establishing bases near the Mexico-US border, or with safe passage into the United States when required. Their success in creating this kind of cooperation with the DTOs remains to be seen.

Links between terrorist groups and organized crime have already been established in several places around the world. Shelley et al (2005) demonstrate that these organizations already cooperate in places such as Central Asia, the Golden Triangle (South East Asia) or in South America. Clutterbuck (1990) also mentions the Italian Mafia and their links to right-wing terrorism inside European territory. These links appear all around the world, not just in developing countries.

Al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah, among other Islamic terrorist groups, have established those connections in the so-called Tri-Border Area (TBA) between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay (Hudson 2003, Abott 2004). According to Hudson, these international terrorist organizations have been present in South America since at least the early 1990s, when they attacked the Israeli embassy and other Jewish community centers in Buenos Aires, Argentina. They have also worked in cooperation with organized criminal groups that include the Lebanese Mafia or the Hong Kong Mafia, as well as other local groups, in activities that include - but are not restricted to - money laundering, buying weapons, forging documents, and trafficking of people. The links between terrorists and criminal organizations have become so intertwined, that “they often cannot be distinguished clearly” (Hudson 2003: 37). It is worth remembering here that “[t]he nature of alliances between groups varies, and can include one-off, short-term and long-term relationships. Furthermore, alliances include ties established for a variety of reasons such as seeking expert knowledge (i.e. money-laundering, counterfeiting, or bomb-making) or operational support (i.e. access to smuggling routes)” (Makarenko 2004: 131). Organized criminal groups might use terrorist networks to expand into European and Middle Eastern markets. For their part, terrorist groups might be interested in hiring cartel hit men to carry out assassinations. This is the main reason that, according to some sources – mostly newspapers – the DEA and the US Department of Justice have issued reports informing of Hezbollah or Hamas activities in Mexico (Esquivel: 2011). [However, I could not get hold of those reports to confirm their veracity.]

In the TBA, links between FARC, Colombian cartels and international terrorist groups were also established. When the cartels were dismantled in Colombia and their trade subsequently diverted to Mexico, it is likely that the contacts with Islamic terrorist groups made in the Southern cone were also transferred to the Mexican drug cartels. Perhaps these contacts were even forged independently of the Colombians, through the relative ease of travel to Mexico, which might have prompted contact with Mexican drug-trafficking groups. This, however, is mere speculation. So far there is no conclusive evidence of successful interaction between international terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda and others, and the Mexican DTOs. Despite this lack of proof, but building on the increasing brutality of the cartels, their professionalization, and the collective fear they generate, several articles and papers have been published about the possible links between Mexican drug cartels and international terrorist groups. Most of them specifically seek to influence security policies in the United States (see Kan 2011, and the discussions at the Joint Policy and Research Forum 2011). These authors try to stress the fact that organized crime, while not necessarily terrorism itself, might use terror tactics to pursue its goals. This is important in terms of policy because it might move politicians to approve counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency measures in addition to crime-fighting ones. Mexican authorities, however, have chosen to fight DTOs using state and federal armed forces; they have implemented strategies used to combat regular criminal activities, such as location and detention operations, seizing of certain assets (not financial , seizing of drugs and weapons, and extradition).

We must focus then on Makarenko's spectrum. Mexican organized criminal organizations, like other similar groups around the world and more specifically in Latin America, use terrorist tactics against their competitors to defend their processing plants, smuggling routes and markets. These actions are not meant to send a message to the general population, and they certainly do not seek to change the political regime. When they are directed towards the law enforcement agencies or the army, or politicians they do not have a use for anymore or cannot corrupt, it is to keep them from interfering with their activities or in retaliation for the capture or killing of a drug lord. Indeed, as Shelley et al (2005) establish, most traditional criminal organizations would be badly affected by political instability, as they depend on the corruption of officials and money laundering through legal establishments to procure stability and continue their operations. In Makarenko's words, drug cartels have moved one step closer to the center of the spectrum, using terrorist tactics but keeping their own goals intact.

The opposite might be true, in fact. In places where the state has no power, either as a result of violence or because it is not interested in establishing and strengthening institutions, organized crime or a terrorist group will fill the vacuum. Organized criminal groups are better suited for this position, as their resources can be invested in building infrastructure and improving living conditions, therefore gaining the support of the local population. Terrorist groups, on the other hand, might benefit from a breakdown of governmental institutions, as that means they could carry out their activities in secret and without fear of persecution.

However, there is a case to be made that the smaller criminal organizations, which have sprung from the larger ones, will benefit from a disruption of law and order. They will use violence to force the government out and establish their own command in those regions. For Makarenko (2004), “[t]here is growing evidence that these non-state actors are producing alternative economic and political structures in the absence of a strong state. In fact, criminal and terrorist groups in weak states have already constituted de facto governments” (139). This is the case of over 71% of the municipalities in Mexico, which got basic services from the revenues of the cartels, and now are under their authority. There, the cartels carry out their criminal activities at all hours of the day, in plain view (Gómora 2012).

The strongest claim that Mexican – and other – criminal organizations are becoming terrorist is their use of methods such as beheadings, which were previously only used by terrorist groups (Parrish 2012; although it comes up in almost every article I have read). However, narcos only behead their enemies; they do not kill civilians to send a message. These attacks against civilians are usually extortions or protection rackets, mostly against businesses but also sometimes against individuals. DTO operators will also hang people from bridges and occasionally will leave signs with messages for the Army or the Federal Government. However, these messages are directed to rival cartels or the government, and their goal is to keep them from taking over production sites or smuggling routes. None of these messages, however, have indicated a will to change the current political situation, i.e. change the party in power or influence legislation.

It appears that in Latin America and specifically in Mexico, organized crime groups are moving towards Makarenko’s 'black hole' but it does not seem likely that they will cross over into full-fledged terrorism, since it could attract the sort of international attention that merits direct foreign intervention, and, therefore, interferes with trafficking activities. At the same time, it is not clear that the Mexican DTOs will actively support international terrorist groups if cooperation with them affects their profits in any way. It is more likely that they would use terrorist networks to expand their markets in other parts of the world. What is indeed clear is that “the nature of the violence itself is expanding in such a way looks a lot like terrorism” (Zarate 2011: 48).

Perhaps the most appropriate term to be used in relation to the situation in Mexico is narco-terrorism, which refers to the use of terrorist tactics to influence the drug-fighting measures of a country. It is “an understanding that the two phenomena of narcotics trafficking and terrorism are interconnected” (Björnehed 2004: 305). Peruvian President Fernando Belaúnde Terry coined the term, linking the Shining Path to the coca production and trafficking in the 1980s. Miller & Damask believe the concept of narco-terrorism was used during the Cold War to imply the USSR had ties to South American criminal groups, thus promoting American interventionist policies in the region (1996).

Narco-terrorism is concerned with the drug trade, and this activity's “tremendous potential has made it the linchpin of terrorism and crime” (Yungher 2008: 87). Millard (2003) describes it as a “terrorist activity destined to protect a criminal activity, not political, and it takes advantage of the resources generated through drug trafficking. It is used to further the goals of the drug traffickers” (160). The concept, then, reflects more accurately what has been happening in Mexico: criminal organizations that focus mainly on the drug trade have used horrific attacks against government forces and each other, but they have not engaged with international terrorist groups.

Mexican DTOs have used terror tactics, such as beheadings or public hangings to warn off rival groups and fight against the army and police forces. Indeed, those attacks occur most often in the cities or routes that are being contested, including most cities in Northern Mexico. They become more violent when the army has killed or captured a cartel leader and his subordinates are fighting each other for control of the organization.

At the same time, this kind of  attacks put pressure on the different armed forces to find and capture – or kill – the perpetrators. They often find themselves as the victims of violence, especially through direct attacks. This did not influence the last administration in pursuing a different strategy. The brunt of the war on drugs was being borne by the armed forces, especially the Army and the Navy, since the Federal Police seemed either incapable of fighting the drug cartels or were infiltrated or corrupted by them.

The United States have been supporting the fight against the cartels through the Merida Initiative. However, it has not been successful in curtailing the activities of the cartels, and most Mexicans regard it either as a failure or as an attempt on the side of the US to control Mexican security policies. The initiative focuses only on organized crime, so perhaps trying to get the US government involved in more effective measures by calling the cartels terrorist is not so far-fetched. It is important to remember, however, that these calls for action come from American analysts. No Mexican, whether analyst, commentator or politician, has decided to play the terrorism card, fearing a US intervention.     

To reiterate, although Mexican drug cartels might be moving to the center of Marakenko's crime-terror continuum, it seems highly unlikely that they will move to the opposite side of the spectrum. There is a possibility that the Mexican cartels will change their stance in the future and either engage more with international terrorist groups or become terrorists themselves. That would depend both on any changes in the combat strategy on the part of the armed forces and on the relationships established between the different criminal groups. Right now we can talk of the cartels using terrorist tactics, but not about them becoming terrorists. They still lack the political motives as well as the indiscriminate targeting of civilians, no matter how horrific their killing sprees are. Furthermore, following the death or capture of several drug lords, some DTOs have split into smaller groups, which not only weakens their hold on the territories, but implies a period of reorganization and inter-group fights, leaving less time and resources to establish terrorist connections.

In conclusion, reports like the one mentioned at the beginning of this paper are fodder for journalists, as well as for policy advisors and analysts who would like to see a more forceful governmental response to the activities of criminal organizations. However, to this day they still need to find conclusive proof to substantiate their claims and therefore, be subject to serious consideration by policy-makers. Some of these reports are not only lacking sufficient bases for their claims, but they even willfully ignore other facts. For example, they fail to mention that most weapons used by the Mexican drug cartels come from the United States. For a bilateral policy that is effective in combating crime – and terrorism – issues such as this one must be taken into consideration by those wishing to influence decision-makers. It might be still too soon to declare that Mexican DTOs have become terrorist groups, but policy-makers and analysts would do well to keep it in mind as we study the developments here.

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Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Yalí Noriega Curtis is a Mexican Foreign Service Member, with an MA in Terrorism and Security from the University of Salford, UK (2013). She has worked at Amnesty International Mexico, the Attorney General's Office for the State of Morelos, in Mexico, and currently at Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores as Diplomatic Attaché.