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Cartels at War: Mexico's Drug-Fueled Violence and the Threat to US National Security

Cartels at War: Mexico’s Drug-Fueled Violence and the Threat to US National Security by Paul Rexton Kan. Potomac Books, 2012, 193 pp.

When most Americans consider major threats, they tend to look toward either international terrorism or a peer/near-peer state such as China or Russia. However, one area receiving increasing concern is the drug-related violence in Mexico. Long a part of Mexican life, the prevalence of drug-related violence saw a massive uptick after 2006 when the Mexican government, under President Calderon, actively attacked the drug cartels in an attempt to reduce their influence. The resulting violence placed Mexico among the most dangerous places on the planet for murder and violent crimes (60,000 killed since 2006). Nor is this violence contained within national borders, as the United States, Mexico’s largest economic partner (legal and illegal), dealt with the fallout, including increased violence against US citizens in Mexico, increased drug-related violence in the United States due to interaction with the cartels, and further uncertainty in US-Mexican diplomatic and economic relations.

It is in this environment that Paul Kan defines the threat posed by the Mexican cartels to US national security in Cartels at War. He describes the cartels and their actions as purely economically driven and cites the violence as a form of “high-intensity crime” vice “low-intensity conflict” or any form of insurgency against the Mexican government. The author also provides an overview of the key cartels/organizations throughout Mexico, indicating their origins, where they primarily operate, and their interactions with other cartels. From there, Kan discusses what the Mexican government has done internally to counter the cartels via judicial, executive, and military means. He follows with a discussion of the impact in the United States and US responses to the Mexican violence. The book concludes with a way ahead, calling for increased US-Mexican cooperation as well as a series of targeted actions to defeat/disrupt/diminish the respective cartels.

A key point in Kan’s work is his attempt to frame the unique situation in Mexico. When analyzing the high-intensity crime aspect of the Mexican cartels, he discounts many of the expected criteria that would lead one to label the situation in Mexico an insurgency. Additionally, Kan takes care to emphasize that Mexico is not another Colombia. The cartels, while primarily engaged in drug trafficking, also engage in other forms of criminal activity, from human smuggling to the sale of exotic animal parts. The cartels do not have any major motivations other than economic, lacking the political or religious ideology that defines groups such as the FARC in Colombia or the various Islamic extremist groups throughout Asia and Africa. While the cartels may bribe politicians and sometimes use religious imagery or religious actions to further their aims, it is strictly for economic purposes. For example, Kan notes that cartels, while primarily operating near the US border (for transport to key customers) and the rimland/heartland (for drug production/distribution), have not yet moved in to divide Mexico City. A goal of any insurgency is undermining a government, making destabilization of political and social activity in a national capital a key objective.

As for proposed solutions, Kan’s idea of targeted engagement—tailoring a combination of military/law enforcement coordination as well as working to provide aid to the general Mexican populace—seems simple on the surface. Trying to implement it, however, will be a very difficult challenge. When Kan describes the origins of the cartels and the rise of the drug violence, he provides insight as to where such initiatives will find difficulties. Long before 2006, drug cartels held sway in the government, primarily with interaction with the PRI governments that long dominated Mexican politics. The cartels are well entrenched in many Mexican towns and society itself. Even if cutting off the demand for drugs primarily in the United States could happen, it is likely the cartels would move into different areas to diversify their criminal activities to maintain their funding streams. Kan does not provide the truly utopian vision of total elimination of all the cartels, instead calling for varying degrees of action against certain organizations. In this case, he calls for the total defeat of the Zetas cartel but more of a concentrated neutralization of the LFM, LCT, and Sinola cartels.

Overall, this work provides a fairly concise overview of the situation in Mexico, particularly the background of the various cartels, the rise of drug violence, and how that violence is impacting the United States. Given the rash of increased reporting about border actions in the US media, it is good to have a more academic perspective on the situation and its implications. The recommended solutions, while based on solid research and expertise, are possible, but it will take years of concerted effort, along with billions of dollars and other resources, to counter the cartels and the violence. While it is not impossible to eliminate them, perhaps the best option will be to marginalize the cartels. This work is recommended for those with a cursory knowledge of the situation in Mexico. For those with greater knowledge and understanding, this work provides a starting point for debating recommendations on how Mexico can overcome the cartels in the near and long-term future.

Maj Scott C. Martin, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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