It’s Time to Wage War on Transnational Drug Cartels
The southern border of the United States remains mired in chaos, disaster, and death. Contrary to claims by the Biden administration–in particular Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas–the border is not secure. Indeed, the day-to-day reality and the data make clear that America’s southern border is the furthest thing from secure and is enduring record levels of apprehensions, human trafficking, and drug seizures.
The consequences of the administration’s willful negligence to perform their constitutional duties under Article IV, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution can be measured in the mounting bodies of dead Americans from fentanyl poisonings, the fragmented communities throughout the nation, and the growing power of the transnational cartels benefitting from our failures. These cartels have grown in power and influence and, with operational control of the U.S. southern border, they pose an ongoing national security threat that policymakers must address.
Background: Who Are the Cartels?
For over 60 years, vast swaths of northern Mexico have been under some form of influence from numerous transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) that profit from human suffering. These TCOs, better known as the cartels, have created a multi-billion dollar business moving people and drugs into the United States through sophisticated networks of informants, mules (drug runners), and coyotes (facilitators). The cartels are able to exert such autonomy in large part due to longstanding historical factors.
Throughout its history, the Mexican government has never fully controlled its own territory, particularly in the northern border region. In the mid-19th Century, various internal and external conflicts–including the Mexican-American War–greatly altered Mexico’s geographic boundaries. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, signed in 1848 between Mexico and the United States, ceded roughly 55 percent of Mexico’s total territory away into what is now New Mexico, California, Utah, Nevada, and a significant portion of both Arizona and Colorado. The treaty also solidified the Rio Grande River as the official border between Texas and Mexico.
The Mexican Revolution in the early 20th Century further fragmented the politics and geographic identities within Mexico–culminating in a coalition of northern warlords ousting then-President Venustiano Carranza following the 1920 election. Decades of post-Revolution rule were dominated by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) with the exception of holdouts in the northern territories who rallied around the National Action Party (PAN) following its establishment in 1939.
Periods of weak central governance, sustained corruption, and internal strife contributed to power vacuums for transnational criminal organizations to thrive. In areas along the US-Mexico border, the cartels have seized the opportunity to grow their power base and broaden their networks–which have now spread throughout the country.
The cartels are brutally violent, inflict terror on both the people and government of Mexico, and operate with relative impunity along the US-Mexico border. While there have been attempts in the past to crack down on cartel militancy, the government of Mexico has been unable or unwilling to uproot these narco-terrorist networks that permeate their northern and central territories and influence both local and federal governments. It is a disturbing reality that significant elements of the Mexican government are under the sway of or on the payroll of the cartels.
Among some of their more notorious–and recent–displays of violence:
The atrocities of the various cartels–and their criminal gang affiliates–are too numerous and heinous to fully document. However, the ongoing war has been raging for decades. During the tenure of former President Felipe Calderón, Mexican military forces attempted to impose order and break apart cartel operations throughout Michoacán and other regions.
It is estimated that during Calderón’s six-year term (2006-2012), between 50,000 and 120,000 Mexican citizens were killed by narco-terrorist and organized cartel-on-cartel violence. In one particularly gruesome instance in 2012–reminiscent of the favored tactics of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda–Gulf Cartel operatives beheaded three members of the Los Zetas on camera.
In the same year, Sinaloa and Gulf Cartel operatives terrorized the town of Nuevo Laredo–just across from the US border–in their ongoing war against the Los Zetas. These massacres caught international attention for the severed human heads dumped in front of city hall and bodies hung from bridges.
There is little doubt that these TCOs have much in common with foreign terrorist organizations despite protestations from US bureaucrats and some policy organizations. The threat they pose to the United States and our citizens is real, pervasive, and growing. However, in order to defeat the cartels, it is first important to understand some of the major players, where they operate, and their preferred methods of exerting power.
Evolution of International Criminal Syndicates
The modern incarnation of the cartels traces its origins back to the 1960s during the large-scale production of marijuana and the use of Mexican gangs as transporters for drug operations from Colombia. Indeed, the first major cartel within Mexico primarily distributed Pablo Escobar’s Colombian-produced cocaine: the Guadalajara Cartel.
While their primary role was the transportation of Colombian cocaine, the Guadalajara Cartel also oversaw marijuana and heroin production in Mexico. They would increase in importance and profitability when American crackdowns on narcotic kingpins in Colombia made Mexico a more ideal route for trafficking–especially along routes through Central America where enforcement remained relatively lax throughout the 1980s. This cartel would last until roughly 1987, though the exact date of its dissolution remains somewhat ambiguous.
American action against Colombian cartels, the capture of Guadalajara Cartel senior leaders, and the imposition of the “war on drugs” fractured Guadalajara into smaller cartels, including the Sinaloa, Tijuana, and Juarez organizations.
The dismantling of the Guadalajara Cartel’s monopoly sparked conflict among would-be successors as the cartels fought for control over Mexican territory and various drug trafficking routes through Central and South America. This would escalate significantly following the loss of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in the 2000 Mexican presidential election after 71 years of unified one-party rule. For decades, the single-party nature of Mexico’s governance had allowed the cartels to integrate themselves deeper into Mexico’s political system. The arrival of the more conservative National Action Party and its subsequent electoral victory resulted in a wave of aggression and escalating violence among the various cartels to maintain control of “their” territory.
The resulting Mexican Drug War and its violent ebbs and flows over the past two decades have metastasized in no small part due to America’s failure to secure its own borders and treat the cartels as the grave national security threat that they are. As part of the continuing power struggle, the splintered cartel factions have morphed beyond serving as mere transportation entities for the trafficking of illicit drugs. They have evolved into full-scale global distributors, embraced their role as the primary purveyors of synthetic opioids responsible for poisoning tens of thousands of Americans, and enthusiastically engage in the most prolific human trafficking operations on the planet.
Overview of the Major Factions
It is important to note that the cartels are not united organizations that work in unison to distribute drugs, traffick people, and enrich themselves through corrupt agreements with elected officials. Often, the cartels compete with one another–sometimes in a gruesomely violent fashion–over territory, product control, and financial resources. However, loose affiliations and coordination among these various factions are relatively routine as means to achieve particular ends.
The Sinaloa Cartel: Perhaps the most well-known cartel, Sinaloa is one of the oldest and arguably the most dominant of the major drug cartel factions operating in Mexico. Formerly led by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Sinaloa maintains strongholds in much of the northwestern portion of Mexico (specifically the state of Sonora) as well as major routes along Mexico’s Pacific coastlines. Analysis from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) categorizes the Sinaloa cartel as operating akin to traditional “mafia-like” organizations, wherein violence is offset by providing “support” to communities under their influence in order to win over locals. This has allowed Sinaloa to integrate vertically into economic operations in territories they control, providing for the widescale production of illegal narcotics.
Area of Operations: Sinaloa is involved throughout the United States and across most of the US southern border. They control most of the drug trafficking corridors in Arizona, New Mexico, and California with an especially dominant presence along the Arizona-Mexico border.
The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG): Just over a decade ago, CJNG was considered one of the smaller cartels. In 2010, CJNG separated from Sinaloa and has since become one of the fastest-growing cartels renowned for its brutality. Jalisco maintains narcoterrorist operations in more than two-thirds of Mexico’s states. They are committed to ascending to the top of the drug trafficking chain and have pioneered the fentanyl trade ravaging American communities and towns. Jalisco routinely engages in violent confrontations with law enforcement and authorities who dare to threaten them, marking them as one of the more feared cartels. According to the DEA, Jalisco is responsible for more than one-third of all drugs inside the United States.
Area of Operations: Jalisco is involved in a number of trafficking corridors in California where criminal illegal alien gangs in larger California cities serve as their primary distributors.
Juarez Cartel: One of the oldest cartels, Juarez maintains a rivalry with Sinaloa and has established its central power base in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Periods of violence between Juarez and Sinaloa operatives have occurred as Juarez has sought to dominate the trafficking of marijuana, cocaine, and more recently, methamphetamine and heroin.
Area of Operations: Juarez is involved in trafficking corridors along the southwestern border of Texas as well as much of New Mexico. Their primary distribution hubs inside the United States include El Paso, Denver, and Chicago.
Gulf Cartel: The Gulf Cartel has been operational for decades, serving as one of the most constant sources of marijuana, heroin, and cocaine trafficking into the United States. In recent years, the Gulf Cartel has fractured and battled for control with the Los Zetas. According to a recent DEA analysis, the Gulf cartel has operated jointly with the more violent elements of the Jalisco cartel in a bid to shore up its holdings along the eastern part of northern Mexico. Among its most violent divisions are the Reynosa/Los Metros elements within the Gulf Cartel. Its base of power primarily resides in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas with distribution hubs in Houston and Detroit.
Area of Operation: Gulf cartel operatives are involved in trafficking corridors mainly along the southeastern border of Texas–specifically in areas along the Rio Grande Valley,
Los Zetas: The Los Zetas were originally the paramilitary enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel before a violent split in 2010 fractured the organizations and led to an official split. The DEA long considered the Zetas to be the “most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and violent” cartel. Their primary area of influence has historically been in eastern, central, and southern Mexico, though factionalism and targeted actions from other cartels and government forces have further splintered the cartel in recent years. The most dominant strain of the Zetas, the Cartel del Noreste, remains a powerful player in northeastern Mexico in states like Coahuila, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo Leon.
Area of Operations: The Zetas–specifically the Cartel del Noreste–continue to control routes along the Texas border where they push methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl into hubs in Dallas and New Orleans.
Beltran-Leyva Organization: This cartel is one of the newer players in the narcoterrorist world in northern Mexico. The group was first formed in 2008 following a split from the Sinaloa Cartel. While their founders have all since been arrested or killed, their loyalists continue to operate throughout Mexico and maintain ties with Jalisco, Juarez, and the Los Zetas serving as traffickers and mules.
Area of Operations: Because the BLO maintains ties with multiple cartels, their operations are widespread across the US-Mexico border where they smuggle cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, methamphetamine, and marijuana to distribution hubs in Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
While there are dozens of smaller cartels and groups that comprise the various narcoterrorist and transnational criminal ecosystems throughout Mexico and Central America, the ones listed above serve as the most prominent and primary drivers of drug smuggling, human trafficking, and opioid poisonings throughout the United States. The profoundly harmful impact that these organizations–and the feckless response of the United States government–have had on American society cannot be overstated.
Analysis: Cartel Impact on Border Security
The chaos playing out along the US southern border is almost exclusively driven by the cartels and their sophisticated trafficking of drugs, people, and criminals. The subsequent fragmentation of communities, neighborhoods, and families within the United States is entirely preventable if only the United States would take the lawful actions necessary to defend its borders and its people.
A recent report from July 2022 revealed that cartels are making nearly $13 billion per year on human trafficking operations in the US and throughout Central America. This figure was closer to $500 million from human trafficking in 2018, meaning that in just four short years the cartels have seen a 2,500 percent increase in profits from trafficking men, women, and children. Incredibly, this figure does not take into account the profits being made from fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamines, and other synthetic opioids directly responsible for the escalating overdose and poisoning deaths of American citizens.
During the Biden administration, more than 3.5 million illegal immigrants have been apprehended by border protection agents. That is equivalent to the entire population of Utah. Since the beginning of FY2021 (October 2020), an additional estimated 900,000 illegal immigrants have evaded apprehension entirely and disappeared into the interior of the United States.
A 2017 report from Doctors Without Borders revealed that some 33 percent of women trafficked through Central America and through Mexico reported being victims of sexual abuse from smugglers, coyotes, and others. The data is confined solely to the women surveyed, but such numbers are a staggering reminder that humanitarian suffering and exploitation go hand-in-hand with the cartel’s profit motives.
The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that a record 71,000 Americans died from fentanyl poisonings in 2021. This is a 23 percent increase from the more than 57,000 Americans who died from these synthetic opioids in 2020, which was itself a 54 percent increase from the 37,000 Americans who died from fentanyl poisoning in 2019. According to the DEA’s own data, the Mexican cartels are responsible for the vast majority of the fentanyl flowing into America’s communities.
The flow of fentanyl into the United States is accomplished through a fairly sophisticated logistical network that includes the involvement of Chinese production dens, that routinely ship the raw material to the cartels, who then press into production fentanyl-laced pills and other counterfeits. While communist Chinese dictator Xi Jinping claimed to crack down on these fentanyl dens in May 2019, key chemicals involved in the production of fentanyl continue to make their way to Mexican cartels from Chinese markets.
The cartels attempt to confine their direct involvement largely to the manufacturing process, but some groups have been known to outsource this to smaller factions and local criminal groups in Mexico. Simultaneously, cartel trafficking of other major drugs continues apace with record levels of heroin and methamphetamine seizures occurring at the US. border throughout key sectors. The human suffering and devastation due to these narcoterrorist organizations is undeniable.
Waging Defensive War: Defeating the Cartels and Defending the United States
Given the scope of the cartels’ power, influence, and operational control over the US southern border, long-lasting border security cannot be fully achieved until the US fundamentally reorients its posture toward these transnational criminal organizations and wages defensive war against the cartels to protect the American people. This will entail a broad array of new and sustained border security policies, congressional authorizations that target specific cartels, and a clear-eyed assessment from the executive branch on both the necessity and pathway for victory.
An important point of emphasis is that none of the actions outlined against the cartels should supplant continued efforts to bolster the US’s border security and interior enforcement capabilities. Border barriers should continue to be funded and constructed. Navigable roads should continue to be developed for CBP agents patrolling along the Rio Grande. Safe third-country asylum protocols should be reinstated. Sanctuary cities that flaunt federal immigration law should be stripped of federal funding. And “catch-and-release” policies must be statutorily abolished.
Furthermore, the strategic goals of the defensive war against the cartels must be made absolutely clear to both the American public and the Mexican government. These goals include:
Achieving these goals requires a comprehensive and sustained campaign that reduces the various cartels–particularly factions identified under new cartel statutory guidelines–to a level no different than that of a common street gang. These guidelines are essential in that they will identify the more violent cartel factions as entities akin to foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs), but uniquely tailored to the threat posed by the cartels. While the FTO model is a good approach, it is operationally challenging for targeting the cartels which tend to operate in sprawling and visible ways within Mexican society, which is different from Islamic terrorist groups and their hidden cells that tend to operate clandestinely.
The creation of a new statutory designation for the cartels would be similar to the existing definition of transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) in the U.S. code, but provide for a more surgical approach with enhanced powers that allow for financial, diplomatic, and direct action typically reserved for FTO designees. In other words, the new designation would create a new category for dealing with violent international drug cartels that provide for severe sanctions and the killing of cartel leaders and their operatives as elements of American foreign policy, without reliance on the American criminal justice system. Such an approach would also allow Congress to provide more limited authority to the President than is currently available under the FTO statute, thereby exercising its policy-making role without impairing the President’s authority or ability to be the implementer of such policy. Execution will require the coordination of all branches of the US government in a measured, tiered approach that works in tandem with the non-corrupt elements of the Mexican government.
Executive and Congressional Leadership
It is incumbent upon the president to build the public case that the cartels pose an ever-increasing danger and, through their actions, have declared nothing less than a war on the American people and our way of life. This is no simple task and the details matter greatly in how it is presented to the American public. Its execution, especially in light of major foreign policy mistakes made following the 9/11 attacks that resulted in the “forever wars” in the Middle East, must be taken into account in order to build trust in a mission that is vital for both the security and health of the republic.
Similarly, Congress must embrace its Article I authority to finally protect the citizens from whom they derive their authority. If the cartels are to be destroyed–and America’s sovereignty restored alongside our security–it is vital that Congress take the appropriate measures to put an end to the suffering and human misery being inflicted on their own constituents at the hands of murderous, violent cartels.
Tier One: Declaration Phase
Under the first tier of a war against the cartels, the US government is formally announcing its intention to invoke its inherent right to self-defense and putting into place the pieces necessary to bring forth the full force of the federal government to secure its borders and defeat those profiting off the abuse of migrants and the destruction of US communities from safe havens inside Mexico.
During the Declaration Phase, the following actions should occur:
If these actions fail to deter continued cartel activity and operational control over the southern border, then the US. government must move to the next tier of war against the cartels.
Tier Two: Organization Phase
Under the second tier, the US government is assembling the various political, policy, and procedural mechanisms necessary to realign its posture against the cartels and toward potential direct action. During the Organization Phase, the following actions should occur:
If these actions fail to have the desired impact, then the US government must move to tier three.
Tier Three: Engagement Phase
Under the third tier of war against the cartels, the US and Mexican governments are actively utilizing direct action against cartels designated as cartel networks or affiliated factions. This is likely to be the most prolonged phase. During the Engagement Phase, the following actions should occur:
If these actions fail to thwart the operations of the cartels and secure the border after a sustained and targeted campaign, then the US government should move to the final tier.
Tier Four: Victory Phase
Under the fourth and final tier of war against the cartels, the US government is employing its full might to secure its border and defeat the violent narcoterrorists designated as cartel networks or affiliated factions until such entities have been reduced to gang-level nuisances. During the Victory Phase, the following actions should occur:
Purpose of New Cartel Statute
The new cartel statute requires assessing violent drug cartels in a manner similar to how we have historically treated Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other international Islamic terrorist organizations, but definitionally separate from that of a foreign terrorist organization. As mentioned previously, the new statute is meant to provide enhanced authority for dealing with violent narcoterrorist factions without confusing their operational activities and ideological proclivities with that of radical Islamic terrorist groups.
There are sound arguments made by serious policy analysts–such as Todd Bensman at the Center for Immigration Studies–that suggest designating the cartels as foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs) could be counterproductive and harmful. Ultimately, these arguments boil down to an FTO designation potentially straining existing resources against radical Islamic terrorists and antagonizing cartels into engaging in open warfare against the American populace.
This is an important distinction that policymakers should take into consideration and an underlying reason for the proposal to create a new cartel-specific designation in the US code that is distinct from both TCOs and FTOs. However, it is equally important to note that the cartels are already killing tens of thousands of Americans every year. This will continue until they are stopped. And unlike radical Islamic terrorist groups, the cartels are operating on our border, in close proximity to our military might, and in an ostensibly allied nation that can assist in ripping apart these groups.
It is therefore imperative that elected leaders state outright that the overarching goal of US policy is to defeat these specific cartels and restore security to our communities, safety to our citizens, and sovereignty to our nation and to Mexico.
Acknowledgment of Risks
Waging even defensive war on the narcoterrorist cartels in Mexico does present risks that clear-eyed policymakers should take into consideration. These risks include:
No war is without risks, and these risks are real and present challenges that would face US leaders who decide to put an end to the cartels controlling America’s southern border and ravaging American communities. The reality is that the cartels are growing more powerful, reaping billions of dollars to continue expanding their narco-state empires, and pose a significant threat to fully destabilize and take down Central American governments–all while fueling human trafficking and drug distribution that is killing tens of thousands of US citizens.
Waging war against the cartels with a strategy aimed at protecting the American homeland, dismantling cartel smuggling routes, destroying designated cartel factions, ending the mass illegal immigration overwhelming our communities, and establishing Mexican control of all of Mexican territory is the fastest way to restore order, security, and peace in the United States and the Western Hemisphere.
It is long past time for the United States to restore its sovereignty and put an end to the chaos at the border. While it is currently incumbent on states to invoke their Article I authority to secure their borders from invasion due to the Biden administration’s willful refusal to defend the country, the reality is that a future administration and Congress will need to stop the murderous international drug cartels responsible for the mayhem engulfing Mexico, Central America and our communities. This will require both courage and extremely specific mission parameters that focus squarely on restoring the security and sovereignty of the United States.
Waging war against the cartels and confronting select cartel networks and affiliate factions in a manner similar to existing FTO designations is the surest way to bring an end to the chaos. To date, the Mexican government has proven itself incapable or unwilling to address the murderous cartels adequately. Success in this mission will restore faith in America’s ability to protect herself and her allies from those who seek power and profit off of death and destruction.
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