What's at Stake Nationally With Transborder Security?

By CTU Faculty

CTU Homeland Security Degree - Trans-border crimeI recently presented at the Trans-Border Narco-Terrorism Conference co-hosted by Angelo State University, Texas Tech and the Transborder International Police. The conference was a perfect example of regional collaboration between academia, public sector – both from the U.S. and Mexico – and the private sector. A smattering of national and regional representatives from the security industry was also represented. It was a success, not by virtue of the number of participants, but rather by who was present, the information shared, and discussion of the hard issues found at the nexus of narcotics trafficking, crime and terrorism. Trans-border crime and terrorism surrounding the narcotics trade is very ugly, but it is a very real and timely issue for homeland security.

Gangs create “laws”

The reports of mass killings in Mexican border towns adjacent to major gateways into the U.S. is for the most part gang-on-gang activity working to control the ports of entry. Using “gang” almost seems quaint when considering the tactics, financial resources, numbers and firepower of the major cartels, which out-gun the local and national police at every level. Plus, through a campaign of targeted terror, the cartels are able to manipulate individuals as well as the social and security systems to do their bidding, regardless of the resistance or heroism displayed by their victims. The result is the growth of ghost neighborhoods where, increasingly, towns are empty of legal commerce and public life along the U.S. border. These towns are not lawless exactly, as the criminal activity enforces behavior according to its code. But, law in whole swaths of Ciudad Juarez, Matamoros and elsewhere from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean is unrecognizable under our north-of-the-border understanding of rule of law.

Drugs control the economy

The U.S., Mexican and Latin and South American (LAS) governments have long focused on the criminal aspects of the illegal drug trade – production, sale, distribution and consumption. None of this comes cheap. In the U.S. alone, the counter-drug business has cost roughly $100 billion per decade since 1980. Of course that’s only part of the story. In the past five years, more than 50,000 deaths in Mexico have been attributed to drug-related violence. Add in deaths due to drug use and violence in the U.S. and in other LAS countries, the total cost in human life and suffering is staggering.

More than a gang or drug issue

The costs are high and the results appear nominal at best, though “dismal” seems closer to the truth. Without debating drug control policy, or engaging in the debate about shifting law enforcement focus from production and trans-shipment to counter-consumption strategies and the U.S. market, there seem other wicked problems associated with the drug trade that might need some broader thinking.

For example, let’s think beyond narco-crime to consider narco-terrorism. Certainly with the type of violence – in terms of targets, techniques and quantity – one easily can argue that the cartels and their surrogates are employing terror as a tool to achieve their ends. So, what larger implication does this present for U.S. Homeland Security?

For years, governments and intelligence agencies have looked for clues that the narcotraficantes, or drug traffickers, have either been penetrated by or merged with international terrorist groups dedicated to attacking the U.S. There has been reporting that Al Qaeda and Hezbollah have made contact with the cartels. These groups have no moral issues with partnering with the narcotraficantes. On the contrary, illegal trade in variety of contraband provides a major funding source for their operations. Professed adversaries of the U.S. will look for every opportunity to gain a foothold in the homeland. Collaboration with the cartels – perhaps as a means to provide one cartel a competitive edge over another – will remain the Golden Fleece for Islamic extremists. It’s an area of homeland security we should all be watching.

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Image credit: Flickr/Jonathan McIntosh