Narcos Over the Border: Gangs, Cartels and Mercenaries by Dr. Robert J. Bunker (Ed.)I just finished my review copy of Narcos Over the Border. It is one of the more disturbing academic works recently published in the national security field, not excluding even those monographs dealing with Islamist terrorism and Pakistan. If the authors of this granular examination of Mexico’s immense problems with warring narco-cartels, mercenary assassins, systemic corruption, 3rd generation gangs and emerging “Narcocultas”of Santa Muerte are correct – and I suspect they are – Mexico’s creeping path toward state failure reprsents a threat to American national security of the first order.
The 237 page, heavily footnoted, book is organized into three sections: Organization and Technology Use by the narcos networks, Silver or Lead on their carrot and stick infiltration/intimidation of civil society and the state apparatus, and Response Strategies for the opponents of the cartels. Bunker’s co-authors Matt Begert, Pamela Bunker, Lisa Campbell, Paul Kan, Alberto Melis, Luz Nagle, John Sullivan, Graham Turbiville, Jr., Phil Wiliams and Sarah Womer bring an array of critical perspectives to the table from academia, law enforcement, intelligence, defense and security fields as researchers and practitioners. The effort to blend disciplinary approaches in Narcos Over the Border is both an intentional and commendable effort to break down academic and policy silos and bureaucratic “turf” perspectives that prevent analyzing Mexico’s security dilemmas as an interrelated threat increasingly resembling a full-fledged insurgency (albeit not on the classic Maoist Model).Some impressions I gained from reading Narcos Over the Border include:
- The Narco-Cartels and the Zetas, which fight each other as well as Mexico’s military ( Mexican police generally are infiltrated, intimidated, outgunned and seriously outclassed by the Cartel gunmen, Zetas and Guatemalan Kaibiles) are better armed and better trained than are the Taliban. The deadly and efficient Zetas and Kaibiles are superior to regular Mexican military forces and have established safe haven training camps in Central America.
- Narco-cartels are properly speaking, no longer narco-cartels but transnational criminal syndicates involved in a wider array of revenue generating activities, but with professional intelligence and military capabilities, and increasingly, political, social and religious agendas that are functionally reminiscient of Hezbollah and HAMAS.
- The Mexican state is severely hampered in it’s response to the threat presented by the cartels by it’s own strategic use of corruption as a cost saving measure and a tool for sustaining elite control of Mexican politics, as well as a method of personal enrichment by members of Mexico’s ruling class.
- The eschewing of the extreme violence by the cartels North of the border appears to be more of a sign of a strategic policy by cartel and Zeta bosses than a lack of capacity or evidence of a lack of infiltration into American society. To the contrary, Mexican cartel links to acutely dangerous American prison and street gangs such as the Mexican Mafia and MS-13 are significant and well documented.
- The cartels are global, not regional or local operators.
- The culture of the Narco-cartels, which draws on some romantic Mexican social and religious underground traditions, particularly the hybrid cartel La Familia , is morphing into a very dangerous “Narcocultas”, a neo-pagan, folk religion featuring ritualistic violence, beheadings and torture-murders carried out for reasons other than economic competition.
- Mexico has departed the realm of having a serious law enforcement problem and has graduated to a significant counterinsurgency war against the cartels in which the Mexican state is treading water or making progress against some cartels (possibly displacing their activities to weaker states in Central America).
The authors do not assume the worst case scenario, state collapse, for Mexico but rather an insidious “hollowing out” of the state by the cartels and a mutation of Mexico’s native culture to host a 4GW nightmare. As Robert Bunker writes:
What is proposed here is that Mexico is not on it’s way to becoming a “rotting corpse” but potentially something far worse – akin to a body infected by a malicious virus. Already, wide swaths of Mexico have been lost to the corrupting forces and violence generated by local gangs, cartels and mercenaries. Such narco-corruption faced few bariers given the fertile ground already existing in Mexico derived from endemic governmental corruption at all levels of society and in some ways, it even further aided the ‘virus’ spreading through Mexican society from this new infection. Among it’s other symptoms, it spreads values at variance with traditional society, including those:
….conceivably derived from norms based on slaveholding, illicit drug use, sexual activity with minors and their exploitation in prostitution, torture and beheadings, the farming of humans for body parts, the killing of innocents for political gain and personal gratification and the desecration of the dead.
While meticulous, Narcos Over the Border is not all-encompassing in scope. A fundamentally Mexico-centric collection of scholarly articles, it does not deal extensively with American policy makers involved in Mexico’s narco-insurgency, the intricacies of cartel financial operations or undertake case studies of narco activities in Mexican-American communities, though the authors do track narco-cartel and gang presence in cyberspace. Narcos Over the Borders represents a starting point for deeper investigation of narco-insurgency and for a national security comunity that has thus far treated Mexico as a third tier problem, a policy call to arms.Strongly recommended.