Cartels and Terrorism in Latin America:

One of the key interests to the United States is the stability of the Western hemisphere. Mexican cartels have expanded their influence regionally, in Central America. The cartels have pushed south into the region known as the “Northern Triangle” made up of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The cartels have contributed to the fragile state of the region by working in tandem with existing criminal street gang in each country. Because these countries are poor, and have weak government institutions (i.e. weak or corrupt police forces, and court systems), the governments of these countries are no match for the wealth and power of the Mexican cartels.

According to Douglas Farah, a former Washington Post reporter and International Assessment and Strategy Center (IASC) fellow, “Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) have consolidated in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, to the extent that they have become the de facto authority, making the state “almost non-functional.” Guatemala in particular has been hard hit. In 2005, the Los Zetas began moving south, either to exercise greater control of their supply routes, or in part to seek sanctuary from both Mexican authorities, and rival cartels. The Los Zetas have used their influence to recruit members of the Guatemalan Special Forces known as “Kaibiles” into their ranks.

In El Salvador, the Sinaloa cartel has collaborated with the Mara Salvatrucha-13 gang (MS-13). MS-13 first emerged as a U.S. street gang during the 1980’s, and who were then deported back to El Salvador following the end of the civil war there. MS-13 has had easy access to automatic weapons and military grade explosives left over from the civil war, and have been responsible for much of the country’s gang-related violence. This new collaboration has given MS-13 access to increased expertise in the use of violence, in corruption of public officials, and in money laundering. In return, MS-13 provided the Sinaloa cartel with new members to help in their battle with the rival Los Zetas cartel. MS-13 now presents a much more credible challenge to El Salvadorian authorities.

South American countries have also felt the effects of the Mexican cartels. For example, during the 1990’s the U.S. invested considerable effort in promoting stability in Columbia by assisting that government’s efforts against the Colombian cartels. Mexican cartels have moved to fill the void left by Colombian cartels. The Beltran-Leyva Organization and Sinola cartels, for example, are known to buy cocaine from Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, which now controls a large portion of the cocaine industry in the rural mountainous regions of Colombia. FARC in turn uses the money from these cocaine purchases to sustain their operations against the Colombian military. In addition, it is widely believed that Venezuela is now the preferred transit route for cocaine and heroin exports, because the government of that country facilitates the smuggling shipments for a fee.

In light of the U.S. efforts in the war on terror, perhaps the most disturbing threat from the Mexican cartels has been their expansion into North and West Africa, where al-Qaeda affiliates have been assisting with the movement of Mexican cartel cocaine through their territory into Europe in exchange for a fee. DEA Chief of Operations Michael Braun has argued before Congress that Mexican drug traffickers are mingling with members of al-Qaeda “developing relationships today that will soon evolve from personal to strategic.” Braun would go on to say in a private interview that soon “corporate al-Qaeda will be able to pick up the phone and call corporate Sinaloa. … It’s going to bite us in the ass.” The fee collected by al-Qaeda for the smuggling of drugs into Europe will, no doubt, be used to sustain their operations against the U.S. and our allies.

The crime-terror nexus now presents a wicked problem for Homeland Security practitioners across a range of specialties. The problem of the crime-terror nexus is so complex that no single agency of the federal government (i.e. DOD, DOJ, DHS, etc.) can now contend with the problem. To effectively and efficiently contain the crime-terror nexus will require a whole of government approach.

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