This past week, Al Jazeera America published a piece by Musa al-Gharbi in which the author argues that Mexico’s drug gangs, who have effectively transformed parts of the country into a war zone, are a greater threat to international security than the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Why, then, is there an obsessive fixation in the United States on the mayhem in the Middle East when a bloodbath is playing out just across the border? According to al-Gharbi, it’s all about identity. ISIL’s barbarity is not what attracts our attention, al-Gharbi argues, but “the fact that Muslims are committing these crimes.”
Al-Gharbi has a point. By any measure, the Mexican drug gangs are just as vile and murderous as ISIL has been in Syria and Iraq. For nearly a decade the cartels have terrorized Mexico with gruesome killings, wholesale kidnappings, and widespread intimidation that have destabilized the country and spilled over into the United States. Yet for all that, their actions have not received sustained attention, and do not elicit the type of existential dread ISIL has over the course of this year. There may be more going here than al-Ghobri recognizes, but his argument that “America’s obsession with ISIL is fueled by Islamophobia rather than any empirical realities” certainly warrants serious consideration.
While al-Gharbi’s analysis is useful and provocative, his argument is not without problems. For one, al-Gharbi is sloppy with his data. He pins the blame for over 60,000 murders—12,000 in 2013 alone—squarely on the cartels, noting that Mexico has suffered “more than one killing every half hour for the last seven years. What is worse, these are estimates from the Mexican government, which is known to deflate the actual death toll by about 50 percent.” While the numbers are indeed atrocious, and likely larger than reported as al-Gharbi suggests, the violence has hardly been a one-sided affair.
In point of fact, the staggering body counts that have piled up in Mexico are as much a consequence of the government’s militarized war on drugs as they are a product of the hyperviolent cartels. Immediately upon assuming power in 2006, then-President Felipe Calderon announced an all-out military campaign designed to crush the cartels and root out the corruption that has crippled local and state law enforcement. The results were disastrous, with wanton acts of killing and destruction perpetrated on all sides. Tens of thousands of people were killed.
Murder isn’t the only thing that spiraled out of control during this period. The number of human rights abuse claims against the military has also risen precipitously in the years since the Mexican government launched its war against the cartels. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the military—which has been tasked with investigating itself on this front—has been slow to find fault with, let alone punish, any alleged perpetrators of abuse.
None of this is to suggest that the cartels are less of a threat than al-Ghobri contends. The rash of beheadings, public executions, and acts of intimidation carried out by the drug gangs speak for themselves. Still, failing to acknowledge the government’s role in perpetrating the fear and violence that have gripped Mexico over the past decade is to miss a significant part of the narrative and offer a distorted history of the country’s recent drug wars.
Al-Gharbi also misses the mark in drawing comparisons between the motivations driving ISIL and the cartels. “Some may argue that despite the asymmetries, the cartels are less of a threat than ISIL because ISIL is unified around an ideology, which is antithetical to the prevailing international order, while the cartels are concerned primarily with money. This is not true.” In fact, it is.
While he rightly bristles at the racist suggestion that ISIL’s brutal campaign in Iraq and Syria is somehow intrinsically Islamic, al-Gharbi sees fit to chalk up the cartels’ murderousness to their adherence to a Christian death cult. Much of the violence, al-Gharbi argues, "is perpetrated ritualistically as part of their religion, which is centered, quite literally, on the worship of death. The narcos build and support churches all across Mexico to perpetuate their eschatology. One of the cartels, the Knights Templar (whose name evokes religious warfare), even boasts about its leader’s 'death and resurrection.'" There’s no doubt that faith plays a part in some of this violence, but religion is hardly its chief impetus.
The unifying ideology that links the warring cartels is not death worship, as al-Gharbi contends, but neoliberal capitalism. The drug gangs are, first and foremost, highly organized actors seeking profit in a lucrative illicit market. Like their counterparts in the formal economy, the cartels compete for advantage using a variety of tools and methods. In the contest for black market monopoly, anything goes. Murder, kidnappings, torture, and corruption unsurprisingly emerge as effective tactics in a game where there are no rules.
The bloody struggle between cartels for market monopoly didn’t emerge from thin air. Instead, it has been conditioned by the restructuring of Mexico’s political economy over the past twenty years. For much of the twentieth century, the Mexican drug trade was dominated by the state. In the years when Mexico was administered by the authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party, different trafficking outfits were allowed by the government to ply their trade in return for a cut of the action. Competition was mediated by the ruling regime. The pressures for liberalization in the 1980s and 1990s disrupted this arrangement. As Mexico transitioned into multiparty democracy and away from state-led economic development policies, the patronage politics of drug trafficking broke apart. Ironically, while liberalization of the marketplace provided cover for Mexican elites to establish monopoly control of various economic sectors, competition in the drug trade increased dramatically. Rising levels of violence and corruption were the natural result. If anything, cartel violence has been an expression of free markets run wild.
In the years since, Mexican cartels have orchestrated a reversal of the old order. Organized crime has captured the state in parts of the country, and violent disputes for the production and trafficking of drugs—not to mention other commodities—have become the order of the day. The Mexican government claims it is making headway in getting the gangs under control and minimizing their power. It has scored a series of high profile victories against various cartels including, most recently, the arrest of Chapo Guzman—head of the Sinaloa syndicate. If these gains are in fact significantly weakening the power of the drug gangs, however, the cartels haven’t let on. Mass killings and other acts of terror continue apace.
Meanwhile, the rising power of Mexican cartels continues to profit the American economy. Washington’s militarized war on drugs not only sends American-made guns south as drugs flow north, but ensures healthy growth for the private prison industry in the United States. The real winners, though, are the banks. Billions of Mexican narco dollars are funneled through international banking channels each year, and US accounts have been the main safety stations for dirty cash. Even after American authorities moved to clamp down on laundering activities in the United States, the banks made out like bandits. When the Feds slapped a $1.9 billion fine on HSBC for laundering dirty money, NPR noted that, for the bank, “this represented a man with a hundred dollars in his pocket paying a fine of seven cents.”
Which brings us back to the comparison between ISIL and the cartels. Al-Gharbi is certainly correct to suggest that American Islamophobia drives our preoccupation with the latter’s rampage through Iraq and Syria. It’s worth considering, however, that ISIL’s threat to international security is also chiefly political, and lends itself easily to overly simplified notions of good-versus-evil—the bread and butter of justifications for American actions in the Middle East. We should not be surprised, then, that the response to ISIL has been straightforward—sustained aerial bombardment and coordinated action with local military groups shouldering the burden of fighting ISIL on the ground.
The case of the cartels, by contrast, is more complex, and largely economic. Mexico’s drug gangs are not interested in establishing a state. Far from it. They are dedicated to keeping the state crippled in order to broaden their market share. Serious reckoning with the cartels, then, goes far beyond the application of coercive force. Military responses to the ascendency of Mexico’s drug gangs only raise the stakes, and therefore the profits to be had. Real solutions demand coming to terms with the financial institutions that gave life to the cartels and continue to be sustained by them. Only then will the politics follow, if at all.
Michael Busch is Senior Editor at Warscapes. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.