Small Wars Journal

Mexican Cartel Strategic Note

Sun, 09/25/2011 - 11:17pm

Mexican Cartels (Transnational Criminal Organizations) Now Operating in Over 1,000 US Cities; Up From 195 US Cities

The recent publication of the US Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), National Drug Threat Assessment 2011 ( (August 2011) provides an important strategic insight into Mexican cartel penetration into the United States. On p. 8 of the document, a single sentence states:

Mexican-based TCOs were operating in more than a thousand U.S. cities during 2009-2010, spanning all nine OCDETF regions.

The corresponding note (g) is as follows:

Included are traffickers who purchase illicit drugs from TCO associates and distribute them on their own, cells that function as an extension of the TCO to traffic illicit drugs in the United States, and cells that provide warehousing, security, and/or transportation services for the TCO.

Prior publicly released National Drug Intelligence Center data on Mexican TCOs (Transnational Criminal Organizations) operating in the United States dates back to a situation report and a series of maps from April 2008. The Situation Report: Cities in Which Mexican DTOs Operate Within the United States ( This sentence from the Discussion section provides a baseline concerning Mexican cartel penetration into the United States:

Federal, state, and local law enforcement reporting reveals that Mexican DTOs operate in at least 195 cities throughout the United States.

The acronym “DTO” stands for Drug Trafficking Organization which has since been replaced by the acronym “TCO”— Transnational Criminal Organization— used in the 2011 document— to convey that the Mexican cartels are now viewed as more threatening and capable (with transnational reach) entities. This data comes from

“Federal, State, and Local Law Enforcement Reporting January 1, 2006 through April 8, 2008”. No corresponding note exists concerning the metrics of the data pertaining to this report, though it assumed, that the same data collection methodology was utilized by the US Department of Justice analysts. If this assumption is accurate:

This would mean that Mexican cartel operational penetration into US cities is now thought to be 500% higher than previously estimated in the time frame of roughly three years. The baseline of “at least 195 cities throughout the United States” has increased to “more than a thousand U.S. cities”. 

While the April 2008 document was supported by Map 1. Cities reporting the presence of Mexican drug trafficking organizations showing the locations of the Mexican cartels in the United States, the new August 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment does not provide such a map. A query and public request for information to NDIC public affairs concerning the release of such a map was made. The response was that such a map would now be considered a law enforcement restricted document. While this might be understandable from an operational security (OPSEC) and counter-intelligence perspective, it is in variance with an open public debate on the Mexican cartel (and gang) threat to the United States and the more encompassing threat to Mexico, Central America, and other regions of the Western Hemisphere.

If US Congressional and Senate committees—such as the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee (— and those focusing on homeland security are to continue their public hearings on this broadening threat, some consideration should be made as to US strategic requirements and open public debate. Ten years after the 9/11 attack by Al Qaeda, the United States has reached a pivotal strategic decision point in our national policies. Are we to continue with our national security policy of focusing on that terrorist entity (and its group of networks) as the dominant threat to the US and the homeland or will the Mexican cartels (and their supporting gang networks) now be recognized as replacing Al Qaeda as the number one threat to our government and safety of our citizens? While the violence potentials of Al Qaeda are universally recognized— we will never forget the thousands of our dead mourned after 9/11— the violence associated with the criminal insurgent potentials of the Mexican cartels and their ability to corrupt and undermine governments in the Western Hemisphere must now be considered far more threatening to our nation.1


1. Two issues should be further clarified. First, any type of Al Qaeda inspired attack taking place domestically— even a botched suicide bombing attempt against the DC metro system— would result in heightened media sensationalism and a continued US Governmental focus on Al Qaeda as the primary threat to this nation. The fallout from such an incident would likely serve to downgrade our perceptions related to the greater threat stemming from the more corruptive and subtle insurgent activities of the Mexican cartels combined with their use of symbolic violence.  Second, I want to reiterate that the cause of global jihad promoted by Al Qaeda and other elements of radical Islam are still a significant threat to US interests and our global security posture. In the case of our allies in Europe, for example, Al Qaeda and radical Islam continue to be the number one external and internal strategic threat to many of these nations. When our own domestic security scales weigh the threats, however, Al Qaeda and radical Islam, has to now be considered less of a threat to the security of the United States than the Mexican cartels and their associates. Ultimately, while we can live with governmental failure and internal strife in Afghanistan and/or Iraq—we cannot say the same concerning Mexico, given the cross border cartel infiltration we have now identified per the National Drug Threat Assessment 2011.



Wed, 09/28/2011 - 11:32pm

It is of course true that the people who have to deal with the impact of the cartels, locally or elsewhere, do not have the ability to change policy. Certainly they have to do what they can to manage the symptoms. They also, IMO, need to put much more energy into publicly and loudly reminding those who <i>do</i> make policy that managing the symptoms is at best a stopgap measure that is not likely to produce more than transient success, if that. Whether in the War on Drugs or the war in Afghanistan, we no longer have the luxury of pretending that strategy and tactics can salvage untenable policies. If policymakers have the option of shirking their responsibility and shoving the ball off on those who have to execute, that's what they will do. They won't see the light and they need to feel a lot more heat.

I should have been more clear: there is a threat to the US; not an existential threat, but a threat. There is a far greater threat to Mexico. The ultimate source of the threat, though, is not the Mexican cartels, but US drug policy, and if we want to address the threat at source, that's what we need to change. That's not to say efforts to control the cartels should be abandoned, but they deed to be recognized as the stopgap measures that they are, and there needs to be a lot more agitation for a drug policy revamp... or at least for an acknowledgement of the problem. Policymakers will not move while they can still pretend that the problem is the cartels.

Michael G

Mon, 09/26/2011 - 9:40pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

A couple of points:

First: "The problem isn't Mexico, or in Mexico. The problem is us." -Agreed. We’re supplying the demand, no doubt about it. That's all on us.

Second: "I'm not sure that I agree that Mexican cartels represent a threat to US security." -Disagree. Mexico represents the third largest trading partner of the United States. If the Mexican government is unable to enforce the rule of law or property rights, how will our trade be affected? In the current economy, can we really sustain a tainted trade environment with Mexico? Furthermore, Transnational Criminal Organizations are just that – they’re transnational. What happens when the drug wars start occuring inside the United States to a larger degree? What happens when our police become too corrupt? What happens when our police start becoming too intimidated?

While I don’t believe it’s an existential threat to our sovereignty, I do think it’s a legitimate concern that needs to be dealt with as a part of our overall national security.



Mon, 09/26/2011 - 10:12am

In reply to by Dayuhan

True, but many who have to deal with the cartels are not in a position nor have the authority to do much about the demand. Until something is done to curtail demand the cartels are a serious threat to national security and to security all the way down to the local level. Those responsible for that security do not have the luxury of sitting back and waiting for a national drug policy that addresses the demand side.

I'm not sure that I agree that Mexican cartels represent a threat to US security. Looks to me more like the American appetite for illegal drugs, which is what brought the cartels into existence, is a threat to American security, and a far greater threat to Mexican security. Supply doesn't create demand, demand creates supply. Our current approach to the "war on drugs" has not curtailed demand at all and has curtailed supply only enough to assure a level of profitability that makes the cartels inevitable. Either we get serious about reducing demand or we just legalize the stuff and deal with it. Creating an overwhelming incentive toward cartel development and then trying to suppress the consequences is a fool's errand if ever thee was one.

The problem isn't Mexico, or in Mexico. The problem is us.