At Large

Gray Side of Border Sercurity

Mexican drug gangs have an armistice with the U.S.

By 11.7.13


There is an interesting documentary that runs on the National Geographic TV channel entitled Border Wars. The series chronicles the continuing battle by American law enforcement -- primarily the Border Patrol and DEA -- to inhibit the flow of drugs and illegal immigrants into the U.S. The title is misleading because the “war” tends to involve little bloodshed, as neither the organized criminal smugglers nor the border agents want the commerce in narcotics and people to become a combat affair – unlike the case in Mexico itself.

There are incidents, of course, where officials and innocents are killed or wounded on the U.S. side. This was the case of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry killed, killed by a weapon from the “Fast and Furious” project, and the mysterious shooting of a long time Arizona rancher whose property was crossed regularly by smugglers. A great deal of press attention was given to the killing of an official ICE agent traveling by car to inspect facilities in the northern provinces of Mexico and the tourist David Hartley who was shot and presumably drowned on his jet ski-boat on Falcon Lake.

Nonetheless, as lamentable as these deaths have been, for an armed adversarial contest the casualties tend to be low and more involved with exploitation of the undocumented migrants both during and after their hazardous journey to the United States. The real war, and bloody battling, takes place within Mexico itself where, depending on current alliances, thousands can die every year. A key operational question at this time is the determination of how the rival narcotics groups are continuing to divide the areas of domination (turf) ever since one of the leaders of the key “cartels,” Los Zetas, was killed last fall and his replacement, Miguel Trevino Morales, captured in July.

Unfortunately there is no sign that there is any desire to run these illegal businesses in any fashion other than through the most bloody discipline and means of competition. It appears that there is truly a bloodthirstiness that equals the religious rites of the ancient indigenous tribes of the region. Only the weapons are different. While the American border areas with Mexico tend to be relatively free of deadly contest between law enforcement and Mexican criminal gangs, the armed conflict between and among the urban drug gangs in the United States continues apace. Chicago’s murder rate attests to that fact.

What is in effect an armistice between U.S. border police and the criminal “transporters” from Mexico is maintained by an unwritten agreement that the American agents will not fire on cross-border operations unless they perceive their lives threatened. The traffickers from the Mexican side are careful to surrender peacefully when caught. Except in the cases of dangerous rock-throwing by Mexican toughs on the other side of the fence lines, very rarely is this armistice broken. In this manner reportedly $20 billion to $40 billion (depending on the year) gained from illegal narcotics and human trafficking has become a staple of the Mexican economy as truck loads of greenbacks are hauled, carried, sailed, and flown southward. All the horrific battling over territory, route control, and administration occurs in Mexico – and starts again in American cities. The actual border crossing remains relatively peaceful.

The security of the U.S./Mexico border is thus maintained both by a vigilant U.S. border force and a sophisticated entente between the opposing interests. The major drug cartels had found the safest way to repatriate their profits from the sale of their “products” in the U.S. was to invest it wherever and whenever they could and then regain the profits in legal transfers via other countries. The recent recession has made profitable investments in the United States and Canada harder to find, thus requiring the more hazardous transportation south of the vast amounts of physical cash. The upturn in the domestic American economy has once again allowed drug money to flow into legitimate enterprise, but still large amounts travel to Mexico the old fashioned way.

A great deal of discussion in the American press has been devoted to the need to prevent terrorists from slipping across the border in the Southwest. Supposedly this is one of the justifications for requiring strong border security. The reality is that the drug cartels with their illegal immigration sideline also want to make sure that foreign terrorists do not use the same pathways to slip into the U.S. It’s hard enough getting their illegal customers across the border without having the gringos go crazy over catching terrorists.

It is well understood by all the drug bosses, no matter their relative power, that any indication of cartel-affiliated knowing assistance in the infiltration of terrorists will be countered by a full scale U.S. military action securing the border from Texas to California. The level of the military presence would be massive. This is just what the illicit narcotics business and the Mexican government do not want to have happen. It has been made clear that any serious sign of terrorist use of the smuggling routes would result in the establishment of an Afghanistan-like special operations force roaming about both sides of the southwest border. This type of military activity is not unknown to this area of the Southwest and would change the entire border environment -- to say nothing of the vast amount of legal commerce between the two nations.

At this stage peaceful relations between the United States and Mexico depend on the maintenance of the Mexican government and drug cartel’s commitment to protecting the U.S. from terrorist infiltration… and our southern neighbors well know it. Illicit immigration and drug interdiction appear to be a secondary priority between the two nations despite the highly publicized coverage of the border.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.