The Buffer Between Mexican Cartels and the U.S. Government

The Buffer Between Mexican Cartels and the U.S. Government is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

By Scott Stewart

It is summer in Juarez, and again this year we find the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes organization (VCF), also known as the Juarez cartel, under pressure and making threats. At this time in 2010, La Linea, the VCF’s enforcer arm, detonated a small improvised explosive device (IED) inside a car in Juarez and killed two federal agents, one municipal police officer and an emergency medical technician and wounded nine other people. La Linea threatened to employ a far larger IED (100 kilograms) if the FBI and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) did not investigate the head of Chihuahua State Police intelligence, whom the VCF claimed was working for the Sinaloa Federation.

La Linea did attempt to employ another IED on Sept. 10, 2010, but this device, which failed to detonate, contained only 16 kilograms of explosives, far less than the 100 kilograms that the group had threatened to use.

Fast-forward a year, and we see the VCF still under unrelenting pressure from the Sinaloa Federation and still making threats. On July 15, the U.S. Consulate in Juarez released a message warning that, according to intelligence it had in hand, a cartel may be targeting the consulate or points of entry into the United States. On July 27, “narcomantas” — banners inscribed with messages from drug cartels — appeared in Juarez and Chihuahua signed by La Linea and including explicit threats against the DEA and employees of the U.S. Consulate in Juarez. Two days after the narcomantas appeared, Jose Antonio “El Diego” Acosta Hernandez, a senior La Linea leader whose name was mentioned in the messages, was arrested by Mexican authorities aided by intelligence from the U.S. government. Acosta is also believed to have been responsible for planning La Linea’s past IED attacks.

As we have discussed in our coverage of the drug war in Mexico, Mexican cartels, including the VCF, clearly possess the capability to construct and employ large vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) — truck bombs — and yet they have chosen not to. These groups are not averse to bloodshed, or even outright barbarity, when they believe it is useful. Their decision to abstain from certain activities, such as employing truck bombs or targeting a U.S. Consulate, indicates that there must be compelling strategic reasons for doing so. After all, groups in Lebanon, Pakistan and Iraq have demonstrated that truck bombs are a very effective means of killing perceived enemies and of sending strong messages.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for the Mexican cartels to abstain from such activities is that they do not consider them to be in their best interest. One important part of their calculation is that such activities would remove the main buffer that is currently insulating them from the full force of the U.S. government: the Mexican government.

The Buffer

Despite their public manifestations of machismo, the cartel leaders clearly fear and respect the strength of the world’s only superpower. This is evidenced by the distinct change in cartel activities along the U.S.-Mexico border, where a certain operational downshift routinely occurs. In Mexico, the cartels have the freedom to operate far more brazenly than they can in the United States, in terms of both drug trafficking and acts of violence. Shipments of narcotics traveling through Mexico tend to be far larger than shipments moving into and through the United States. When these large shipments reach the border they are taken to stash houses on the Mexican side, where they are typically divided into smaller quantities for transport into and through the United States.

As for violence, while the cartels do kill people on the U.S. side of the border, their use of violence there tends to be far more discreet; it has certainly not yet incorporated the dramatic flair that is frequently seen on the Mexican side, where bodies are often dismembered or hung from pedestrian bridges over major thoroughfares. The cartels are also careful not to assassinate high-profile public figures such as police chiefs, mayors and reporters in the United States, as they frequently do in Mexico.

The border does more than just alter the activities of the cartels, however. It also constrains the activities of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies. These agencies cannot pursue cartels on the Mexican side of the border with the same vigor that they exercise on the U.S. side. Occasionally, the U.S. government will succeed in luring a wanted Mexican cartel leader outside of Mexico, as it did in the August 2006 arrest of Javier Arellano Felix, or catch one operating in the United States like Javier’s oldest brother, Francisco Arellano Felix. By and large, however, most wanted cartel figures remain in Mexico, out of the reach of U.S. law.

One facet of this buffer is corruption, which is endemic in Mexico, reaching all the way from the lowest municipal police officer to the presidential palace. Over the years several senior Mexican anti-drug officials, including the nation’s drug czar, have been arrested and charged with corruption.

However, the money generated by the Mexican cartels has far greater effects than just promoting corruption. The billions of dollars that come into the Mexican economy via the drug trade are important to the Mexican banking sector and to the industries in which the funds are laundered, such as construction. Because of this, there are many powerful Mexican businessmen who profit either directly or indirectly from the narcotics trade, and it would not be in their best interest for the billions of drug dollars to stop flowing into Mexico. Such people can place heavy pressure on the political system by either supporting or withholding support from particular candidates or parties.

Because of this, sources in Mexico have been telling STRATFOR that they believe that Mexican politicians like President Filipe Calderon are far more interested in stopping drug violence than they are in stopping the flow of narcotics. This is a pragmatic approach. Clearly, as long as there is demand for drugs in the United States there will be people who will find ways to meet that demand. It is impossible to totally stop the flow of narcotics into the U.S. market.

In addition to corruption and the economic benefits Mexico realizes from the drug trade, there is another important element that causes the Mexican government to act as a buffer between the Mexican cartels and the U.S. government — geopolitics. The Mexico-U.S. relationship is a long one that has involved considerable competition and conflict. The United States has long meddled in the affairs of Mexico and other countries in Latin America. And from the Mexican perspective, American imperialist aggression, via the Texas War of Independence and the Mexican-American War, resulted in Mexico losing nearly half of its territory to its powerful northern neighbor. Less than a century ago, U.S. troops invaded northern Mexico in response to Pancho Villa’s incursions into the United States.

Because of this history, Mexico — as with most of the rest of Latin America — regards the United States as a threat to its sovereignty. The result of this perception is that the Mexican government and the Mexican people in general are very reluctant to allow the United States to become too involved in Mexican affairs. The idea of American troops or law enforcement agents with boots on the ground in Mexico is considered especially threatening from the Mexican perspective.

A Thin Barrier

While Mexican sovereignty and international law combine with corruption and economics to create a barrier to assertive U.S. intervention in Mexico’s drug war, this barrier is not inviolable. There are two distinct ways this type of barrier has been breached in the past: by force and by consent.

An example of the first was seen following the 1985 kidnapping, torture and murder of U.S. DEA special agent Enrique Camarena. The DEA was not able to get what it viewed as satisfactory assistance from the Mexican government in pursuing the case despite the tremendous pressure applied by the U.S. government. This prompted the DEA to unilaterally enter Mexico and snatch two Mexican citizens connected to the case. Because of his involvement in the Camarena case, Honduran drug kingpin Juan Matta-Ballesteros was also rendered from his home in Honduras by U.S. government agents.

As a result of the U.S. reaction to the Camarena murder, the Guadalajara Cartel, Mexico’s most powerful criminal organization at the time, was decapitated, its leaders — Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo and Rafael Caro Quintero — all arrested and convicted for their part in ordering the killing. The tremendous pressure applied to Mexican authorities by the U.S. government to arrest the trio, coupled with the fear that they too might be rendered, ultimately led to their detention, although they did maintain sufficient influence to ensure that they were not extradited to the United States.

The Guadalajara Cartel also lost its primary connection to the Medellin cartel (Matta-Ballesteros) as a result of the Camarena case, and the cartel was eventually fractured into smaller units that would become today’s Sinaloa, Juarez, Gulf and Tijuana cartels. The Camarena case taught the Mexican cartel bosses to be careful not to provoke the Americans to the point where it will bring the full power of the U.S. government to bear upon their organizations (a lesson recently demonstrated by the unilateral U.S. operation to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan).

But in addition to unilateral force, sometimes the U.S. government can be invited into a country despite concerns about sovereignty. This happens when the population has something it fears more than U.S. involvement, and this is what happened in Colombia in the late 1980s. In an effort to influence the Colombian government not to cooperate with the U.S. government and extradite him to the United States, Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellin Cartel, resorted to terrorism. In 1989 he launched a string of terrorist attacks that included the assassination of one presidential candidate, the bombing a civilian airliner in an attempt to kill a second presidential candidate and several large VBIED attacks, including the detonation of a 1,000-pound truck bomb in December 1989 targeting the Colombian Administrative Department of Security (DAS, Colombia’s primary national intelligence and security service) that caused massive damage in the area around the DAS building in downtown Bogota. These attacks had a powerful impact on the Colombian government and Colombian people and caused them to reach out to the United States for increased assistance despite their concern about U.S. power. The increased U.S. assistance eventually led to the death of Escobar and the systematic dismantling of his organization.

The lesson in the Escobar case was: Do not push your own government or population too far or they will turn on you and invite the Americans in.

Full Circle

So, in looking at the situation in Mexico today, there are indeed cartel organizations that have been hit hard. Over the past few years, we have seen groups such as the Beltran Leyva Organization, the Arellano Felix Organization, the VCF and Los Zetas heavily damaged. Many of these groups, particularly the VCF, the Arellano Felix Organization and Los Zetas, have been forced to resort to other criminal activity such as kidnapping, extortion and human trafficking to fund their operations. However, they have not yet undertaken large-scale terrorist attacks. The VCF tiptoed along that line last year, with La Linea’s small-scale IED attacks, as did the Gulf cartel, but these groups were careful not to use IEDs that were too large, and La Linea never employed the huge IED it threatened to. In fact, the overall use of IEDs is down dramatically in 2011 compared to the same period last year — despite the fact that explosives are readily available in Mexico and the cartels have the demonstrated capability to manufacture and employ them.

It is also important to recognize that in the past couple of years, when the United States has become heavily interested in attacks linked to the Mexican cartels, the cartel figures believed to be responsible for these actions have been arrested or killed. This has happened in cases such as the March 2010 murders of three people with ties to the U.S. Consulate in Juarez, the September 2010 murder of David Hartley on Falcon Lake, the February 2011 murder of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata, and even the previously mentioned July 27 threats against U.S. interests in Juarez. This means that the chances of a cartel such as the VCF getting the United States directly involved without the cartel being directly impacted are probably quite slim. In other words, if the VCF attacks the U.S. Consulate in Juarez, it can expect to be targeted directly by the U.S. and Mexican governments, instead of the governments focusing on other cartel players in the city, such as the VCF’s rival, the Sinaloa Federation.

As noted in our last cartel update, we anticipate that in the coming months the Mexican government campaign against Los Zetas will continue to impact that group, as will the attacks against Los Zetas by the Gulf cartel and its criminal allies. We also anticipate that the aforementioned Sinaloa pressure against the VCF in Juarez will not diminish. Nor will Mexican government pressure: We have seen reports that Luis Antonio Flores (also known as El Comen 2 or El Tarzan), El Diego’s replacement as the leader of La Linea, was arrested Aug. 16. However, we have seen nothing that would indicate that this pressure will cause these groups to lash out in the form of large-scale terrorist attacks like those associated with Pablo Escobar. Even when wounded, these Mexican organizations have shown that they seek to maintain the buffer protecting them from the full power of the U.S. government.

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