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.

Let’s Get Down to Business: Mr. Obama goes to Africa

President Barack Obama and Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete kicked around a special soccer ball in Dar es Salaam on July 2nd that is designed to generate electricity for small gadgets like lamps and cellphones.

I was away for 2 weeks staffing a summer camp, removed from the comforts of home and technology, so I apologize for not giving you all something to read. But now I’m back!

Something that happened just a few days before I left for camp was President Obama’s trip to Africa. At the end of his June 27th to July 2nd tour of Africa, President Obama met with his predecessor George W. Bush in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to commemorate the victims of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings there and in Nairobi, which brought Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to the attention of the American public for the first time.

Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush pay their respects to the victims of the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Tanzania, an attack that put al-Qaeda on the map.

On the surface, his talks were all about the economy and reengaging the continent in a new push: a $7billion, five-year initiative that would partner with African countries and the private sector to bring electricity to millions of Sub-Saharan Africans.

An excellent idea and stellar foreign policy move if everyone follows through on their commitments. And considering China has been ramping up its own foreign investment on the continent in exchange for their natural resources, we should certainly be positioning ourselves there to have just as much, if not, more influence there (most Africans would be more favorable in cooperation with us anyway considering we’re less likely to bring scores of our own workers to the continent, unlike China, who sets up shop there and typically bring over their own people to work).

China has been sending workers to Africa since the Mao years to build roads and railways, but investment has surged in the past 15 years as the People’s Republic has sought to secure vital resources it needs to fuel its economy.

But if you think this Africa trip was only about trade and investment in infrastructure on the continent, think again. Diplomacy is a game of give and take, wheeling and dealing, where no one side is expecting to come out of a talk empty handed. The intention of bringing economic stability and development is certainly there, but there were likely other issues on Obama’s agenda as he met with some of the African continent’s key leaders. And I’ll give you a hint, it has to do with my first paragraph and it rhymes with “commemorism.”

Ladies and gentlemen, the laying of the wreath on that memorial in Dar es Salaam was no accident (I’m not saying that they weren’t paying their respects and that the gesture wasn’t genuine). Is it a coincidence that the visit to Dar es Salaam marked the conclusion of the Africa trip? Of the 21 individuals charged with participating in the 1998 attacks, only 4 are still at large; the rest have been killed, imprisoned, or await trial in the United States (not a bad track record if you ask me).

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb poses a great threat to the continent, and boasts affiliates from coast to coast, from Mauritania in the West to Somalia in the East.

What I’m saying is that the trip to Tanzania with Bush was subtly conveying a message to the continent: we’re doubling down on Africa, in both the economic and security sphere. Development of a stable and growing economy is absolutely, positively, 130% necessary for the long term health and political stability of any country; foreign investment is also an excellent tool to that end. With that being said, there’s a Catch 22 here; few invest in a country that is considered unstable. Militants and terrorist organizations have become threats to governments and to the safety of populations all over the continent.

With the U.S. military pulling out of Iraq, winding down its operations in Afghanistan, and re-positioning itself in the Pacific, Pentagon leaders see the threat from terrorists and extremists groups growing in much of Africa. Our military presence in Africa is a heck of a lot bigger than sending 100 special operators into central Africa to play “Where’s Waldo?” with Joseph Kony.

As you can see from this fun, interactive map (courtesy of John Reed from Foreign Policy), the U.S. has been quietly positioning itself for a long-term commitment in Africa for the better part of a decade (And that map just shows the countries where the U.S. has operated in this past spring.) And aside from all the clandestine ops I just revealed to world by using the top secret database called Google, look no further than the Army’s Africa page for more details about their publicly disclosed African operations. Truth be told, it is subtle, but extensive; training African troops, intelligence sharing, surgical raids by JSOC (stay tuned for an upcoming article about those guys), drone strikes, etc. After years of task forces and temporary designations, the U.S. military under Donald Rumsfeld established USAFRICOM in 2008, a unified command for the continent like USNORTHCOM, USSOUTHCOM, USCENTCOM, USEURCOM and USPACOM.  For the most part, the U.S. has been engaging in preemptive, low intensity operations by empowering African militaries to counter militant threats, and is leading from behind.

With the threat of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Shabaab in the Horn and Boko Haram in Niger, M23 in Central Africa, and an uptick in drug trafficking with profits going to these groups there is certainly a great risk of regional instability if we do not engage aggressively.  Problems are also posed by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa and Ansar al-Dine. Since the fall of Qaddafi we have seen Libya threatened by hundreds militia groups and M23 wreaking havoc in the entire Great Lakes region of Central Africa.

Check out AON’s 2013 Terrorism and Political Violence map and you’ll see what I mean when I say that Africa as a whole is an enormous security concern.

In West Africa there are also major narco-trafficking problems, with the profits feeding the insurgencies in Mali and Algeria. Similarly, East Africa has been experiencing upticks in heroin trafficking by way of the Indian Ocean from the poppy fields in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the Sahel region of North Africa, cocaine and hashish trafficking is being facilitated by, and directly funding, organizations like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The U.S. draw-down in Afghanistan presents an opportunity for Africa to become a theater of expansion for the U.S. military, and I’m certain that we’ll be seeing more African operations for the foreseeable future, though the footprint will be light as it will be mainly small deployments and training operations.  But as you can probably tell, the U.S. isn’t “reengaging” Africa; the truth is that it never left.