Mexico: Rebranding the Cartel Wars

8 MINS READDec 25, 2010 | 15:02 GMT
Mexican lawmakers recently approved reforms to the federal penal code to punish terrorist acts. Significantly, the legislators acknowledged that the definition of terrorism was written in such a way that violent and extortionist acts of cartels could be classified as terrorism. Fundamental differences between organized criminal and terrorist groups exist, but politically characterizing certain cartel acts as terrorism could develop into a more subtle attempt by the Mexican government to dilute public tolerance for cartel activity. If implemented against cartel members, the law could also carry significant implications for U.S. involvement in the drug war.
In a Dec. 15 plenary session of the Chamber of Deputies in Mexico City, Mexican lawmakers approved reforms to the federal penal code to punish terrorist acts with 10- to 50-year prison sentences. Under the law, terrorism is defined as "the use of toxic substances, chemical or biological weapons, radioactive materials, explosives or firearms, arson, flooding, or any other means of violence against people, assets, or public services, with the aim of causing alarm, fear, or terror among the population or a sector of it, of attacking national security or intimidating society, or of pressuring the authorities into making a decision." Though the reforms focused on specific changes to the penal and financial code of the law, Mexican lawmakers approving the text publicly acknowledged that violent and extortionist acts of drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) could be characterized as terrorism and could thus subject drug traffickers to extended prison sentences. The move is part of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's attempt to address the record drug violence of 2010 by reforming Mexico's penal system while cooperating closely with the United States in extraditions of high-value cartel members. Yet as Mexico's overcrowded prisons and the most recent mass prison break on Dec. 17 in Nuevo Laredo have demonstrated, the Mexican penal system is simply unable to cope with the government's offensive against the drug cartels. Given the corrosive effect of corruption on Mexico's courts and prisons, these are not problems that are likely to see meaningful improvement any time soon. Still, the political move to potentially redefine organized criminal activities of drug cartels as terrorism could shed light on a more subtle tactic by the government to dilute public tolerance for cartel operations in Mexico.

Organized Crime vs. Terrorism

The goals of militant groups employing terrorism are often ideological in nature, whereas the goals of organized criminal elements are primarily economically-driven. Still, the activities undertaken by both types of groups often overlap: Militant groups that employ terrorism can engage in organized criminal activity (think Hezbollah and its heavy involvement in drug trafficking and illegal car sales) and organized crime syndicates will sometimes, though more rarely, adopt terrorism as a tactic. At the same time, due primarily to their divergent aims, an organized crime group is placed under very different constraints than a terrorist organization. Those differences will dictate how each will operate, and also to what extent their activities will be tolerated by the general populace. The primary objective of an organized criminal group is to utilize its core illicit business (in the case of Mexico, drug trafficking) to make money. To protect that core, some territory is unofficially brought under the group's control and an extensive peripheral network, typically composed of policemen, bankers, politicians, businessmen and judges, is developed to provide an umbrella of protection within the licit world. In building such a network, popular support is essential. This does not always mean the population will condone an organized crime group's activities, but the populace could be effectively intimidated — or rewarded — into tolerating its existence. Generally, the better the organized crime syndicate is able to provide public goods (be it protection, jobs or a portion of the trade revenue) the better insulated the group and its activities will be. By contrast, a militant group primarily employing terrorism is pursuing a political goal, and the financial aspects of their activities are merely a means to an end. Such a group will not need to rely on as extensive a network to survive and thus faces fewer constraints in dealing with public sensitivities. While the organized crime syndicate will be more accommodating to the state to ensure their business carries on as usual, the militant organization will be focused on disruption. These groups could be more willing to incur the cost of losing popular support in the targeting and scale of their attacks as long as it attracts attention to their political cause (or if they are motivated by a religious ideology that they believe transcends the need for popular support). A militant group can attempt to adopt the benefits of a peripheral network by free-riding off insurgencies and organized crime syndicates, as al Qaeda has done with the insurgent and criminal networks in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maintaining such relationships, however, can be a very costly affair and the interests of both actors run a high risk of colliding.

The Cost of Employing Terrorism

An interesting dynamic can occur when organized crime groups resort to terrorist-style tactics, and they end up paying for it with an irreparable loss in public support. This was the fate of Sicilian mafia group La Cosa Nostra, whose decision to launch improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in 1992 against magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino unleashed a public outcry that catalyzed the group's decline. Similarly, Pablo Escobar and his Medellin cocaine cartel saw their downfall following the murder of popular presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan, the bombing of Avianca Flight 203 and a campaign of large vehicle-borne IED attacks across urban Colombia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Once the level of violence surpassed a certain threshold, the Colombian government was able to gain enough traction with the public to obtain the necessary intelligence to place the Medellin cartel on the defensive. Critically, the government also had the public's endorsement in taking heavy-handed measures against the cartels, something that the Mexican government today lacks. In Mexico, cartels have gradually become bolder and more violent in their tactics. Decapitations have become a favorite intimidation tactic of the most prominent cartels, and in 2010 some organizations began using IEDs in their campaign of violence. That said, those cartel members conducting the IED attacks have refrained from targeting crowds of civilians out of fear of losing their peripheral networks. This sensitivity could be seen in the outrage that followed the September 2008 Independence Day grenade attack in Morelia, Michoacan state, which was the first clear case of indiscriminate killing of civilians in the drug war. The Gulf cartel seized the opportunity to join in the public demonstrations, hanging banners that offered rewards for the perpetrators and labeling the attack as an act of narco-terrorism. In the Mexican case, such "narco-terrorist" tactics are more likely to be used by cartels to try to undercut their cartel rivals, using public abhorrence toward terrorism to their advantage while still maintaining a pool of support. The cartels have in fact been more successful in raising the level of violence to the point where the public itself is demanding an end to the government offensive against the cartels, a dynamic that is already very much in play in Mexico's northern states on the frontlines of the drug war. Some of these public demonstrations and petitions by business firms are even directly organized and/or facilitated by DTOs. But this is also a very delicate balance for the DTOs to maintain. Should a line be crossed, the public tide could swing against the cartels and the government could regain the offensive and the popular support to pursue the cartels with an iron fist. This is why the best long-term insurance policy for the cartels is to expand their networks into the political, security and business establishment to the furthest extent possible, making it all the more likely that those simply wanting business to go on as usual will outnumber those looking to sustain the fight. The potential rebranding of cartel activities as terrorism could thus be indicative of a more subtle approach by Mexican authorities to undermine public tolerance for the cartels. The unsavory terrorist label could have more impact than the classification of organized crime that many in Mexico now consider a way of life. Even then, the large number of Mexicans overwhelmed by all facets of the drug war could write off such a classification as a mere public relations move. Though Mexican lawmakers have yet to implement the reforms, rebranding Mexican cartel members as terrorists could significantly heighten U.S. involvement in the conflict and attract more funding and materiel for fighting the cartels. Cartel members could also be subjected to more stringent punishment outside Mexico if they are arrested or extradited abroad and classified as terrorists under Mexican law. Still, this move for now is strictly a political characterization, the effects of which have yet to be seen. The Mexican government wants to keep a close check on U.S. anti-cartel activity in Mexico, and would want to avoid providing its northern neighbor with counterterrorism as a rationale for unilateral military intervention on Mexican soil. There are several fundamental differences between terrorist and organized criminal groups that dictate how each will operate when placed under certain constraints. The Mexican populace is by and large fed up with the cartel violence, but the cartels have not resorted to terrorist tactics and civilian targeting on a scale that would risk the degradation of their peripheral networks. This is a line STRATFOR expects Mexican DTOs to be mindful of, but is a situation that bears close watching as the government searches for ways to drive the cartels toward a breaking point.

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