Mexico is a war zone again. But anyone who believes that’s just Mexico’s problem, think again; American national interests are at unprecedented risk.
Cartels’ smuggling syndicates are at each other’s throats along Mexico’s northern border and in Pacific states known as the Tierra Caliente (Hot Zone) as Mexico sends in its military. The warfare has left hundreds dead and whole city blocks scorched, vehicles burning, and citizens taking shelter from hours-long gun-battles. Millions of Mexicans are readying for worse to come.
But so too should Americans. Because, unlike past drug war conflicts in Mexico, the paramilitary armies are swollen like never before with military-grade weaponry bought and paid for by millions of foreign nationals who answered the siren call of President Joe Biden’s open-doors border over the last 20 months, paying cartels huge amounts of money to cross into the United States. The cartels’ growing arsenals and Mount Everest-sized piles of new cash may inalterably compromise Mexico’s central and state governments like never before.
The very real prospect that America would lose even its current imperfect, wanting partnership with Mexico’s government portends serious security, public safety, and even wide-ranging economic impacts on the American people.
I’m not alone in my estimation that Biden’s cartel-enriching mass migration crisis poses serious threats to important U.S. national interests, including many that are rarely discussed out loud, such as Mexican oil and auto-parts exports.
“The criminal organizations in Mexico have made a lot of money off our lax border enforcement, and it stands to reason they’d invest a substantial percentage of that money into the thing that gives them their power,” Christopher Landau, ambassador to Mexico from 2019 to 2021, told me in a recent telephone interview. “Their power is measured in terms of money and weapons. The more money and weapons they have, the larger stick they’ll be carrying and the more influence they carry in Mexico.”
“It stands to reason that anything that increases the power of the cartels in Mexico is adverse to our interests,” he said.
The U.S. needs at least a minimally reliable Mexican government partner for matters of tracking fugitives, controlling illegal immigration when desired, interdicting drug trafficking, and intelligence-sharing for bi-national criminal investigations, and on a wide range of other national security matters.
Empowered Cartels Might Threaten Exports to US
In the past, the cartels avoided actions most likely to provoke U.S. demands that Mexico conduct military crackdowns, raids, arrests, and (worst of all) extraditions of cartel suspects to the United States for prosecution. All of that was bad for business.
But what happens when what is left of Mexican government autonomy is reduced any further, or entirely, too intimidated or bought off to retaliate on behalf of America?
The probability that Mexico’s newly muscular cartels become true puppet masters of Mexico’s central government stands at a high water mark, only rising the longer Biden allows his mass migration over the southern border to continue fabulously enriching them.
Dare anyone finally say this aloud, but: the more militarily powerful the cartels become compared to Mexico’s military, the more likely they will feel free to press a thumb down on the 212 million barrels of Mexican heavy crude oil the U.S. imported in 2021, and nearly a million barrels a day now. Perhaps, for any number of petty reasons of their own — say the U.S. incarcerates a beloved drug-trafficking relative — vengeful paramilitary overlords might want to meddle in Mexico’s huge auto part export business upon which American car makers heavily depend.
Cartel puppet masters less worried about American-ordered retaliations against them inside Mexico might feel emboldened to make thousands of American companies feel less secure operating in the country. Or they might do the same to the hundreds of thousands of American expatriates who make their homes and lives in Mexico. More Americans are concentrated in Mexico than anywhere else outside the U.S., an estimated 1.6 million.
When cartel power and whim to target American communities in Mexico overtakes the power and autonomy of Mexico’s central government to protect and deter on their behalf, what then?
“Your hypothesis does not seem far-fetched to me, in that the more power these groups have in Mexico, the less we can count on Mexico as a partner and the greater the challenge for us on everything dealing with Mexico,” Landeau said. “Even on energy … on auto component supply. It’s conceivable. Our economy is very bound up with Mexico.”
Cartels Own Enormous Amounts of Weaponry
It’s impossible to know how much military hardware the Biden border crisis bought and paid for, but the cartels are clearly reinvesting their massive profits into the sort recently uncovered in historic amounts from a northern State of Sonora raid. Inside four houses controlled by a faction of the Sinaloa Cartel, the Mexican army recovered 2.8 million rounds of ammunition, 89 hand grenades, 20 machine guns, six .50 caliber sniper rifles, more than 150 handguns and automatic rifles, and bulletproof vests.
The list of seizures involving high-grade military weapons is far too long to list here. The cartels have gone on an international shopping spree for weaponry that includes land mines, shoulder-fired rocket launchers, and belt-fed fully automatic machine guns. They make their own tanks and bomb-dropping drones. Their soldiers are as well-equipped and trained as any first-world nation’s, arguably better than those of the Mexican military.
In recent months, for instance, the Sinaloa Cartel has shifted major weapons acquisition activity southward into Central American black trade routes through which they are collecting the Israeli-made Galil ACE rifle made in Colombia, and automatic M16s and 5.56 mm rifles in El Salvador. But the weaponry is coming in from every direction, including from Mexico’s own military, its corrupted personnel selling advanced firepower to the cartels.
In May 2022, U.S. authorities broke up a Cartel del Noreste scheme to buy $500,000 worth of machine guns, grenades, and rocket-propelled launchers to be smuggled south from the U.S. into Mexico. An August 2022 report showed that the state of Tamaulipas seized 257 shop-built armored “narco-tanks” from the cartels in recent years, so-called “monsters” made of semis, SUVs, or pickup trucks encased in thick steel with machine-gun ports. Video shows well-kitted masked cartel soldiers filling them.
These are armies, with highly trained special forces units, supported by professional intelligence operations and run by warlords. They threaten one of the most important partners in the economic well-being of all Americans.
Debate has swirled for many years around the question of whether Mexico long ago fell into failed statehood. The reality is that the United States made do with a fairly compromised Mexico that was hanging in there. The sub-state paramilitary cartel armies reduced the Mexican government’s ability to act for America, but usually not enough to stop business continuity over the American border.
“In the past, when the criminal elements have gotten emboldened, the Mexican government has taken them on,” former Ambassador Landau told me. “But it’s not clear that’s in the cards right now. It’s far from clear, and I think the impacts will be massive.”
Millions of Border Crossers Paying Fees to Cross
Biden’s election brought big change to cartel fortunes. Whereas before Biden, the cartels concentrated on smuggling drugs into America, they took a passive interest in the human smuggling business. They’d typically have third-party smugglers move migrants over the border areas they controlled and take a small cut for the crossing. But the gully washers of new human traffic that Biden spurred after his election — in their unprecedented millions — commanded their full attention. The potential earnings were far too great to be ignored, said retired Texas Department of Public Safety Capt. Jaeson Jones, probably one of the nation’s most knowledgeable cartel experts.
“People became the gift that just keeps giving,” he said. Like real estate yielding extremely high rent or toll roads, “They look at it as the best kind of commodity. It’s a commodity that can be told to move on its own and then it does, and at the same time, have to pay just for the crossing.”
Biden’s open-door border policies lured in more than 4 million foreign nationals since Inauguration Day 2021 to date apprehended by Border Patrol and another million who got through to become “got-aways.” Biden created a Frankenstein of a mass migration crisis, the largest in American history by every metric.
The majority of those 5 million would have had to pay. For the first time in memory, reporting indicates that human smuggling had become a multi-billion-dollar business in 2021 and may even have surpassed drug smuggling proceeds in 2022.
No one knows how much cartels really make, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) intelligence has taken stabs at it. ICE’s Acting Deputy Director Patrick Lechleitner told Congress the human smuggling industry was generating somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million a year for the cartels prior to 2018. That revenue went as high as $13 billion through the end of 2021. A lower estimate came from John Condon, acting assistant director of international operations at ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations. He told a congressional committee the revenue ranged between $2 billion to $6 billion per year.
How much they earn is murky because smuggling fees can range widely, depending on how far an immigrant is traveling and nationality.
Immigrants have told me they’ve paid anywhere from a few hundred dollars just to swim the river to $12,000 per head to travel from Guatemala or Honduras. Cartels adapt prices and pricing strategy quickly to changes in American practice and policy.
Border Patrol agents tell me, for instance, that the Gulf Cartel came up with a pricing strategy to account for the pandemic-related rapid expulsion measure under Title 42. Illegal aliens returned multiple times could not be expected to pay $1,500-$2,500 each time. So the cartels offered Title 42 package deals, where a couple of thousand dollars buys a package of three guaranteed post-expulsion crossings.
In those areas, the migrants are all required to buy plastic bracelets proving payment, like at a water park. This innovation reflected a recognition that cartels can be overrun and that they simply created an inventory control system to capture the revenue.
That’s what legitimate business owners call a good problem to have.
Outgunning the Mexican Government?
As the next cartel war kicks into overdrive, the thing to watch is whether the cartels totally dominate Mexico’s central government with their new bribery cash and firepower.
Will the Mexican military, which is now deployed, be able or willing to bring the cartel warfare under control? Recent history shows that Mexico’s military, at least under President Andrés Manuel Lopez-Obrador, will accede to back-channel cartel demands at the point of their guns.
Consider an incident in 2019, when the Mexican army stormed a house in the Sinaloan city of Culiacan and arrested the 28-year-old son of convicted Sinaloa Cartel “Los Chapitos” faction boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. The eldest son, Ivan Guzman, quickly mustered a very significant private army and retook the entire city with armored vehicles and .50 caliber sniper rifles. They outmaneuvered and outfought the Mexican forces during hours of gun battles and took families hostages. They threatened a bloodbath if Guzman’s son was not released.
The Mexican government capitulated and released Guzman’s son in what was widely regarded as a humiliating military defeat at the hands of a mere paramilitary group.
When we see more such defeats — or perhaps worse, no effort to even try — we’ll know to worry.