Small Wars Journal

Mexico's war bleeds into San Diego

Last Friday, the Los Angeles Times covered a crackdown by U.S. authorities on a Mexican drug cartel's cell that operated in the suburbs of San Diego. San Diego County prosecutors have charged 17 people, some of them U.S. citizens, with a wide variety of crimes, including nine murders. Some excerpts from the article follow:

Spillover crime from Tijuana's gang wars is relatively small, given the scale and brutality of the violence there. Nevertheless, the gang's migration to the San Diego area reinforces concern that border vigilance is no match for Mexican organized crime.

After Arellano-Felix cartel members in 2002 killed Lopez's brother in a gangland dispute, he moved his cell across the border to stage retaliatory attacks against anyone suspected of cartel links, according to authorities.


Police started getting chilling reports of criminals using tactics typically seen only on the streets of Tijuana: Men dressed in police uniforms and bullet-proof vests snatching victims in daylight and throwing them into cars before speeding off into traffic. Bodies bearing signs of torture were dumped.

The crimes haunted residents in such suburbs as Chula Vista and Bonita, where many prominent Tijuana families had moved to escape violence only to find that criminals had followed and blended into the cookie-cutter anonymity of American suburbia.

The veteran gang prosecutor leading the case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Mark Amador, said the gang was the most vicious he's ever prosecuted. "I've never seen a more ruthless, cold-blooded, sociopathic group," he said.

These Mexican gang members sought sanctuary in the U.S. due to the pressure they were under in Mexico. As competition from other cartels and pressure from the Mexican army increases, it is natural that cartel members will seek refuge inside the U.S. Once in the U.S., they will need to generate funding to maintain their organizations and pay their expenses. That means cartel-style criminal commerce with cartel-style violence.

According to George Grayson, a professor at William and Mary, an associate scholar at FPRI, and an expert on Mexico's cartels, the Arellano-Felix cartel is a small player compared to the presence other Mexican cartels have already established in the U.S. Or what is yet to come.

Grayson's latest essay at FPRI concerns La Familia, the exceptionally violent organization that rules Michoacán state, west of Mexico City (you can find Grayson's body of work on Mexico at FPRI at this link). On July 13th, La Familia made headlines across the world when it captured and executed 12 Mexican federal police officers. Shocking as that act was, it gives little indication of the scale of La Familia's organization, which specializes in the production and distribution of methamphetamines. According to Grayson, La Familia is now the parallel government in Michoacán, using money, a religious message, camaraderie, and a social services network to recruit and maintain a base of support from Michoacán's economically desperate population. Needless to say, La Familia is also suspected of owning most of Michoacán's mayors and other top public officials.

What does this mean for the U.S.? According to Grayson:

While it used to be satisfied with doing business in Mexico, La Familia is moving aggressively into the U.S. market. Reportedly, it has struck deals to pass through the Northwestern region dominated by "El Chapo's" Sinaloa Cartel and the divided, much weaker Arellano Felix Organization. Their trailers, replete with hidden compartments tucked under fruits and vegetables, enter the U.S. through Mexicali, Tijuana, or Tamaulipas and head for Atlanta, Dallas, or Los Angeles. The presence of 3.5 million Michoacán natives north of the Rio Grande enhances the traffickers' ability to sell their product in these cities, as well as use these metropolitan areas as hubs from which to supply smaller communities. DEA officials indicate they are beginning to receive inquiries from law-enforcement agencies on both coasts about "La Familia," a cartel with which the local police have little or no experience.

Mexico's drug war is another example of an irregular war showing no regard for a formal nation-state boundary. At first, the U.S.-Mexican border suited the purposes of several interests. It sheltered much of the U.S. population from Mexico's problems. And some of Mexico's cartel members used U.S. territory for a sanctuary.

But such protection could not last long. Where cartel members move, criminal commerce and violent competition have followed. And that has brought Mexico's drug wars into America's suburbs. The good news is that San Diego's prosecutors seem to have won a round. But it is only the beginning of a very long bout.


Robert C. Jones

Sat, 08/25/2012 - 6:17pm

Better title is "America's Drug Policy makes Mexico Bleed."

There are those who think we need to send US military to Mexico to help defeat the symptoms of our domestic drug policies. There is no logic in that.


Sat, 08/25/2012 - 4:44pm

Many of the responses are interesting, particularly the argument of who takes the lead in countering the Cartels. Because there is a discussion about who should take the lead, one might assume the concern may be because no one actually trusts the forces available to take the lead. Not because of them, but due to a lack of strategic direction from the various organizations leaders. The issue is much larger than the author presented, although a good job was done presenting the subject for argument. In open publications we are seeing considerable activity by Hezbollah and the Quds mixing with the Cartels, and no one is speaking to the problem, or the proverbial elephant in the room, Islam. Second, it is not without note the Cartels control an area east of Nogales, and have warned law enforcement in the area they are sniper targets if drug movement interference takes place, and for the federal officials the threat is compounded with a hands off approach by the current HLS Secretary. Other signs of concern, are the tattoos found on the Cartel members. The designs increasingly have Arabic symbols, among the typical "art" posed by members. Such graphics are a probable indication the Islamic forces are making inroads with the Cartel members. Those of us who have fought in the Middle East also recognize the killing methods used by Islamic forces, and in subsequent use by the Cartels. For the purpose of debate, allow me to suggest the possibility of a grand strategy posed by an Islamic Force against the United States. Is it feasible a group, shall we say the Muslim Brotherhood, who have effectively conquered North Africa, (and are now working on the Middle Eastern nations) to attack the soft underbelly of the United States by using the drug weakness in our nation for their insidious purpose of conquering the world? Sounds preposterous doesn't it, but it may merit some discussion.

shecky (not verified)

Wed, 08/19/2009 - 4:45am

"Mexico's war"? The war on drugs is pretty much America's war, and would likely not even exist were it not for the demand from the good ol' USA. The best thing that could be done is giving up on this stupid war, and letting people do with their bodies as they see fit.

The situation in Mexico may, in the near-future, require a military response. Not only because we are being, in essence, "invaded" by a hostile organization (not to mention the illegals that are coming from that area) but because of what those hostile organizations are doing to the government of Mexico (such as it is) and how that impacts our security.

If rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan are important in order to keep them from turning into "failed states" that serve as havens for America-hating terrorists, then helping Mexico, our southern neighbor, is even more important as they are teetering on becoming a failed state, or at the very least a narco-state run by narco-terrorists with no problem violating our borders and laws.

Crum16B (not verified)

Mon, 08/17/2009 - 7:09pm

In response to Reed11b, why not the DEA?? Isn't that what we train, pay and charge them to do?? If not them, then who??

The drug problems that Mexico and America face are not waning. Some harsh measures need to be taken in this situation in order to clean up the border. Past and current border / drug trafficking policies just do not work. We need stronger penalities for the cartel members, agreements between our countries, and more importantly, we need the idiots buying the crap to stop.

Why don't we treat Mexican Cartel's as Terrorists...pumping the illegal and dangerous drugs into our streets and our kids??

How much does anyone want to bet that the DEA is going to be the lead agency on this fight? I feel this would be a mistake, though my suggestions for improving the situation are not politically viable.