After nine U.S. citizens were killed in the Mexican border state of Sonora in November, President Donald Trump threatened to label cartels terrorist organizations. When it came to it, however, he holstered the executive pen and backpedaled out of the saloon at the request of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who desires to embrace the cartels with “abrazos no balazos”—hugs not bullets.
Now comes word that a 13-year-old Oklahoma girl visiting Mexico with her family has been killed in yet another cartel ambush on a long and lonely stretch of highway just south of Falcon Heights, Texas. In the background of these recent tragedies has been the mob to military transformation of the cartels, reflected in their uniforms, tactics, and equipment. Americans might have a hard time telling the difference between the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and the Mexican National Guard.
CJNG, says Uttam Dhillon, the Drug Enforcement Agency’s acting administrator, forms a “present and growing danger,” with at least two dozen cells operating within the United States. A report by the Courier Journal profiles CJNG as a billion-dollar organization with “a large, disciplined army.”
It manages an extensive criminal enterprise, “from the suburbs of Seattle to the beaches of Mississippi and South Carolina, California’s coast, the mountains of Virginia, small farming towns in Iowa and Nebraska, and across Kentucky.” CJNG uses sophisticated money-laundering techniques and has proven itself capable of waging cyberwarfare.
The Rise of the ‘Narco Navy’
So “army” is not an exaggeration, nor have the cartels limited themselves to a ground game. Consider the rise of what analyst Adam Elkus calls the “narco-navy.”
Last summer, the U.S. Coast Guard released footage of a dramatic interdiction, in which an operator leaped onto a moving “narco-sub” hauling 16,000 pounds of cocaine. A similar low-profile vessel (LPV) made it across the Atlantic last November carrying more than $100 million in cocaine to Spain from South America. But that LPV looked like a child’s toy compared to the camouflaged, 74-foot-long, twin-propeller leviathan with a 5-foot conning tower found on a sandy beach in Ecuador.
Taking a combined arms approach to organized crime, they’ve got “narco-tanks,” too.
Fitted out with .50 caliber rifles and machine guns, narcos recently fielded “tanks” and armored personnel carriers in Culiacán against a joint task force of Mexican National Guard and police. They successfully plucked Ovidio Guzmán López, a son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, out of the hands of Mexican authorities. Footage from that skirmish revealed an arsenal that would make Wayne LaPierre clutch his pearls.
Cartel gunmen brought to bear M249 Para light machine guns, designed specifically for airborne units, along with the M72 LAW, a portable one-shot 66-mm unguided anti-tank weapon. In 2015, narcos managed to shoot down a military helicopter with a similar portable anti-tank system, killing members of an elite Mexican special forces unit.
‘You Need a Military Strategy’
“What we saw in Culiacán was the parallel state showing itself,” said Edgardo Buscaglia, an expert on organized crime at Columbia University. What Buscaglia calls the “parallel state,” historian Crane Briton referred to as the “illegal government.” The legal, in this case, Mexican government, explained Brinton, “finds opposed to it, not merely hostile individuals and parties . . . but a rival government, better organized, better staffed, better obeyed.”
The communications, intelligence, and organizational infrastructure of the cartels were such that they were able to mobilize a rescue operation for López before he was even detained by authorities. The families of soldiers and police were identified and targeted as cartel gunmen positioned themselves in strategic locations around the city, placing a noose around the throat of Culiacán.
“You need a military strategy to contain these groups—and the president is moving further and further away from one,” said Buscaglia of Obrador’s cuddly approach to the cartels. Indeed, even as the cartels become more militaresque, Obrador has expressed a desire to liquidate Mexico’s army.
“If it were up to me,” said the Mexican president, “I would get rid of the army and turn it into the National Guard”—that is, into a glorified police force. Whatever plan Obrador has in store likely will be bad for Mexico and the United States, which is ultimately what the cartels are after.
“What Mexico’s increasingly powerful transnational criminal organizations are battling over—and the reason gang warfare has reached record heights,” writes Josh Meyer in the Washington Post, “is the opportunity to make enormous amounts of money trafficking fentanyl and other synthetic opioids into the United States.”
The cartels will only become bolder and more violent as they grow confident in their ability to operate with impunity, a gruesome fact evidenced by the new record high of 35,588 murders in Mexico last year, according to data from the national public security system. All this means, on the one hand, is that more Americans will likely be caught in the crossfire over there and, eventually, here. On the other hand, it means more drugs will flow across the border.
Domestic street gangs, prison gangs, and even Asian money-laundering organizations, according to the DEA, act as conduits for cartels, fueling the flames of the opioid crisis that already claims thousands of lives every year. It’s worth noting that the cartels have managed to infiltrate some American law enforcement agencies to this end, from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to sheriff’s departments, as “Operation Blue Shame” and inquiries by the Center for Investigative Reporting have revealed.
Why a Terrorist Designation Isn’t the Way to Go
While it ought to be clear that these are not ordinary “gangs,” declaring them terrorists would likely create more problems than it would solve. In a meeting with U.S. Attorney General William Barr, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrar pointed out that people living in areas with declared “terrorist organizations” would have credible asylum claims. Put another way, that move could trigger a wave of mass immigration that, ironically, would benefit the cartels most of all.
“In many instances,” CPB has noted, “criminal organizations are saturating areas with large groups with the belief that they can smuggle narcotics or other contraband into the United States while Border Patrol agents are occupied.” This is essentially “swarming,” or, a “seemingly amorphous, but deliberately structured, coordinated” strategy to overwhelm an already understaffed Border Patrol—something Sheriff A.J. “Andy” Louderback of Jackson County, Texas, is all too familiar with.
Louderback has observed firsthand the cartel’s “ability to penetrate our border, their ability to move fluidly and silently in any different direction with a 10-minute phone call to make massive changes in what they’re doing, to reroute a load, to reroute humans.” This is a kind of flexibility that we are not currently prepared to handle. I spoke to Louderback, a veteran in the war against the cartels, about the challenges facing officers in this arena.
Local agencies, he said, suffer from being “siloed” from county to county, even as the cartels are “clearly” becoming more aggressive and sophisticated. Those looking for a long-term solution ought to focus on enhancing a “network approach to law enforcement.” Louderback has been involved with the 287(g) Program, an initiative that partners local agencies with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The program trains local officers to perform immigration law enforcement functions.
Although 287(g) partnerships have been fruitful, it is nevertheless a process dependent on funding and the willingness of agencies to enroll. The cartels, by contrast, have no such bureaucratic obstacles and have no short supply of blood money. Fortunately, lawmen like Louderback now have an ally in the White House.
How to Stop Drug Cartels From Controlling Our Border
If the administration wants to go on the offense, it could take a few practical steps in the right direction. Adding more cartels to the list of transnational criminal organizations would allow us to squeeze them as much as possible financially. But it would not be enough, as Giovanni Falcone advises, to “follow the money.” The Insurrection Act, which the president has mentioned before, is another instrument that would be useful in this fight.
Because of the Posse Comitatus Act, our troops on the border operate in a passive, observe and report capacity. The Insurrection Act could remedy that problem. If it is “clearly lawful,” as University of Texas Law School professor Stephen I. Vladeck writes that it is, for the president to use the act in immigration matters, then surely that lawfulness extends to border security. “And although Congress in the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 generally prohibited use of the federal military for domestic law enforcement,” Vladeck writes, “the Insurrection Act was always understood as the principal exception to that general rule.”
Use of the Insurrection Act, according to the text, is permissible to “restore public order and enforce the laws of the United States when, as a result of a natural disaster, epidemic, or other serious public health emergency, terrorist attack or incident” the usual authorities are incapable of maintaining order. To say nothing of their subversion of our immigration laws, the cartels have fueled a massive public health emergency at a time border agents are understaffed and dealing with corruption in their ranks.
Indeed, Ralph DeSioa, a CBP spokesman in San Diego, recently told reporters that the significant decrease in drug seizures at the border was the result of not enough personnel. Although some checkpoints “weren’t completely mothballed,” they “weren’t as operational as the years before,” he said. “We had to minimize those operations to deal with the crisis along the southwest border.” Where might we find a pool of lean and hungry young men ready to defend our country from foreign threats?
For local law enforcement, Louderback told me, the military is a “tremendous support group.” He added that the “implementation of strategies involving local law enforcement” and the military “are going to pay tremendous dividends quicker.”
Around 90 percent of all heroin consumed domestically comes from Mexico. Far more addictive and deadly fentanyl surges through our border in large quantities as well, killing Americans by the tens of thousands across the country. Between 2013 and 2017, according to data compiled by the Washington Post, more than 67,000 people died of opioid overdose. That is more deaths than the combined number of American military personnel killed during the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars.
There are, therefore, good reasons to invoke the Insurrection Act. It would untie the hands of the military and allow them to actively engage in the fight, just as a federal appeals court has lifted the block on $3.6 billion for the southern border wall. Troops could man additional patrols to counter the vast network of Mexican cartel scouts operating within the U.S. while hunting, not merely observing, smugglers and narcos who cross the border. Even without the Insurrection Act, Army Engineer battalions and Navy Construction Battalions could be building the wall right now.
How to Work with a Weak Mexican President
But what can be done about Mexico? Obrador opposes a large-scale show of American military might on Mexican soil. Still, Trump could continue to offer special mission units for surgical strikes on cartel leaders. Remember that Delta Force and SEAL Team 6 played a critical role in the takedown of Pablo Escobar in cooperation with the Columbians.
After the White House approved the mission against Escobar, Gen. Bill Garrison reportedly told Delta commander Jerry Boykin, “I want you to go down there . . . Select a few folks to take with you. Keep it small.” It’s likely Delta was involved in the more recent capture of El Chapo, too.
Collaboration between American special mission units and Mexican authorities, then, might be the most prudent and pragmatic strategy. It would make Obrador look measured in his approach and advance American national security interests in the face of a growing threat, while restraining the use of special mission units to high-value targets.
Many decisions lie ahead of us, and none will be made easily. What is certain is that cartels are no longer afraid to open fire on a vehicle with Oklahoma license plates, even as they reduce more and more of our communities to their drug fiefdoms. In the face of all this, President Trump, fresh off his acquittal, could make a difference and advance on this field of the America First agenda.