Mexico: Fire on our doorstep

Though the U.S. and Latin American authorities make the occasional high-profile arrest, like the recent arrest of Mexico's Public Enemy #1 Joaquín

Though the U.S. and Latin American authorities make the occasional high-profile arrest, like the recent arrest of Mexico’s Public Enemy #1 Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, there is little reason to believe the drug war has any end in sight.

–Peter Kouretsos– No group seems to be more threatening to U.S. interests and national security than the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). ISIS has certainly been an attention-grabber; beheadings, mass executions, and public displays of their victims are just a few tactics in their toolkit. Their rampage and trail of carnage has been dubbed by many as not only medieval, but unique, an uncommon sight in the 21st century. However, while ISIS continues to dominate headlines through their atrocities in faraway lands, many are oblivious to the far more immediate and gruesome atrocities committed by Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs), commonly known as the “drug cartels” just south of our border, and the threat they pose to the United States and the Western Hemisphere.

A recent report read that in 2014, only Iraq and Syria had more deaths than Mexico. Estimates put conflict-related civilian death tolls in Iraq last year at roughly 18,000, and Syria 70,000, with thousands more wounded. Mexico? 15,000. That’s down from last year’s Mexican government estimates of 16,000, and another 60,000 since 2006. Judging from the Mexican government’s record of deflating these figures, the true numbers are likely far worse. Beheadings, dismemberments and acid baths are among the many tools they use to terrorize the public. ISIS routinely makes the headlines for killing journalists, but it is not uncommon to see a journalist’s or a local politician’s hanging corpse on public display in Mexican local plazas, with signs that read “This is my punishment for talking.” In fact, more than 60 journalists have been silenced for covering the drug war.

The immediate concern is Mexico, but the TCOs have plagued many countries. Out of the world’s 50 most violent cities, 34 are in Latin America. To be sure, this is not all of the violence is directly attributed to drug violence. Systemic corruption, political instability and poverty are all core issues, but the TCOs thrive in these environments and perpetuate the cycle. In many areas, the authority of the Mexican state appears to be extremely weak or nonexistent. A clear example of the extent to which the authority of the Mexican state is being challenged happened earlier this month, when a Mexican military helicopter was shot down by members of the up and coming Jalisco New Generation Cartel. In another incident in September 2014, TCOs kidnapped and murdered 43 students connected to drug-war protests at a college in Guerrero . It was later revealed this was made possible with the help of local politicians and the police. It is clear that the Mexican state has trouble protecting its own citizens, but it is even more troubling and embarrassing when it cannot protect the citizens of other countries. Since 2002, more than 600 Americans have been killed in Mexico by TCOs.

Further, once merely just a part of the narcotics supply chain, Mexican TCOs have begun taking control of the whole thing, interfacing directly with raw-product suppliers in South America at the top, and consolidating their control of retail distribution at the bottom. The biggest retail market of course is the U.S. It would be understandable for our public and the media to play down the TCO threat if the violence was restricted to south of the border; but since 2006, nearly as many Americans died in the U.S. from TCO-related violence (some 6,000) than American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. They are covered as U.S. based “gang-wars,” but make no mistake, the TCO connection is there. Just last week the DEA seized 50kg of heroin in New York, the largest bust in New York state history; the drug ring which was busted had been receiving similar sized shipments each month, all from suppliers in Mexico. Over the last decade, Mexican TCOs have infiltrated thousands of U.S. cities and municipalities on a level that groups like ISIS can only dream about.

As in Mexico and Central and South America, once the TCOs have consolidated their control of major distribution networks here from local gangs, they will fight each other and anyone else who stands in the way, for market share. U.S. intelligence officials have publicly asserted that the ISIS poses no specific or credible threat to the U.S. homeland. However, can the same be said of the Mexican TCOs? The Middle East may be burning with no end in sight, but there’s a fire on our doorstep.

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Weekend Wrap-up

1) The Bomb Didn’t Beat Japan…Stalin Did: The most interesting read of the week goes to Ward Wilson’s argument in Foreign Policy that the Japanese surrender had far more to do with the Soviet Union’s entry into the Pacific Theater than with the dropping of the atomic bombs. Revisionist bits like this are nothing new, and the debate on Japan’s surrender has raged on for more than half a century. However he does make a convincing case, which I encourage you to read. But in the end, Wilson is not completely right or completely wrong; there is no silver bullet in history that explains a particular event. Whether you agree with him or not, the significance of the question of surrender and the experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are at the heart of everything we think about nuclear weapons.

2) Syria’s future tied to freedom for captured Christian leaders: Prior to the Syrian conflict roughly 10% of Syria’s population was Christian. If the Christian community wants any future as a tolerated minority in their home-country, the release (or lack-thereof) of two Orthodox Christian bishops may decide their fate. Moreover, while uncertain now, the future for any minority group’s survival in Syria, be it religious, social or political are also at stake. But the op-Ed calls for the Turkish government to negotiate their release. Considering what they have been doing to their own minority Orthodox Christian community, this may be wishful thinking; or you can make the argument that Turkey does not want any more Christians in their country, and the threat of Syrian-Christian refugees flooding their country may be enough for Ankara to push for a guarantee the Ancient Church has a future.    

3) The most embarrassing graph in American drug policy: A few decades and hundreds of billions of dollars later, the policy community has little to show for their argument that billions of dollars spent on supply-side narcotics interdiction works. The theory of “Incarceration is a proxy of risk” is not being played out in the real world.

4) Another piece on Turkey this week, but only because of the monumental historical event that took place: The Fall of Constantinople. On May 29, 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. The fall of the city marked the end of the Byzantine Empire and the significance of this cannot be overstated. Some have argued that many Byzantines fled to Italy, bringing with them ancient literature, philosophy and art that would culminate into the Renaissance. As the new capital of the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople became a symbol of Islamic power, and the religion gained a foothold in Eastern Europe. The Fall is celebrated by Turks to this day, as it marks the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire. In recent years, fears of a “neo-Ottoman revival” have been circulated but I don’t buy it; that assumes Turkey completely dominates the Middle East again, which is unlikely. What is more likely however, is Turkey’s “soft power” in politics, economics, and diplomacy. Turkey may very well be the key to a more stable Middle East.