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A Case for a Joint Police-Military Special Operations Capable Task Force in Response to Mexican Drug Cartel Spill-Over Violence

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A Case for a Joint Police-Military Special Operations Capable Task Force in Response to Mexican Drug Cartel Spill-Over Violence

John Zambri

The cartels “operating today along the Southwest border are far more sophisticated and dangerous than any other organized criminal group in American Law enforcement history.”[1]

House Committee on Homeland Security, 2011. 

Fourth generation warfare is warfare that is characterized by a blurring of the lines between war and politics, soldier and civilian.[2]  It involves an insurgent group or other violent non-state actor[3] trying to implement their own government or reestablish an old government over the current ruling power.[4]  It is most successful when the non-state entity does not attempt, at least in the short term, to impose its own rule, but tries simply to disorganize and delegitimize the state in which the warfare takes place.[5]  Fourth generation warfare is often seen in conflicts involving failed, failing states, civil wars, involving non-state actors, intractable ethnic or religious issues, criminal insurgencies or gross conventional military disparities.[6]  Attacks against Mexican government officials, law enforcement, and political institutions by drug cartels, fall neatly into the Fourth Generation Warfare paradigm.

A number of experts contend that Mexican drug cartels should be defined as non-state armed groups as they are challenging the authority of the Mexican government.[7]  They have many of the same goals and employ many of the same tactics as traditional political or ideological non-sate groups, such as Al Qaeda as manifest in Afghanistan and Iraq.[8]  But the cartels differ from these groups in that they are purely profit-driven, and their strategy is to disable the state’s law enforcement capacity so as to facilitate their illegal activities.[9]  Since 2006 there have been over 60,000 drug related murders in Mexico.[10]  More troubling is the fact that many of these brutal murders were committed with the specific intent of intimidating the public and influencing the government to suspend its action against the cartels.[11]  Their activities have had the effect of destabilizing and degrading basic governance to the point that many Mexican border cities resemble unincorporated towns of the old American “wild” west.

This presents a challenge, particularly for the United States, as it is difficult, if not impossible to approach such organizations to negotiate.  They do not seek any formal recognition or legitimacy, so they will not respond to political pressure to comply with international humanitarian law, nor can they be engaged in drawing up treaties.[12]  Their end goal is illegal and harmful, and therefore cannot be offered any concessions regarding their activities. 

Drug cartels are non-state criminal organizations developed with the primary purpose of promoting and controlling drug trafficking operations.[13]  Mexican drug cartels, specifically, represent the most salient threat to homeland security since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.[14]  They possess the financial means to fund both kinetic – tactical paramilitary operations – and non-kinetic – information based – operations, proximity to the United States, and the added benefit of operating from a sovereign country. As reported by the House Committee on Homeland Security, Mexican drug cartels are more sophisticated, more lethal, and increasingly brazen in their willingness to use extreme forms of violence to continue their criminal enterprise than previously experienced.[15]  Their use of violence is not new or unique.  The Cartels employ horrific tactics to intimidate their adversaries and the public.  For example, they use decapitations, acid baths, torture and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and they have expanded their criminal operations to profit from kidnappings, robberies, human trafficking, extortions, and theft.[16]  Their use of military methods, to include equipment, weapons, tactics, technology, and their increasingly confrontational posture in relation to U.S. law enforcement, is a departure from their traditional tactics, techniques, and procedures.[17]

Cartels are using mature decision-making processes that incorporate sophisticated reconnaissance networks, social media and social networking for command, control and communications, techniques and capabilities normally associated with military organizations such as communication intercepts, interrogations, trend analysis, secure communications, coordinated military style light infantry operations, global positioning systems (GPS), thermal imagery and military armaments including fully automatic weapons, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), hand grenades, and armored personnel vehicles.[18]  Indeed, the level of violence and sophistication employed by the cartels is of such concern to homeland security that U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, declared that the “drug related violence in Mexico is evolving into a full blown insurgency” and that the United States “face[s] an increasing threat from well-organized, well-equipped drug traffickers.”[19]

Mexican drug cartels, such as the Gulf coast cartels, Sinaloas, Tijuana, Beltrans, and Arellano-Filix to name a few, through design or circumstances have learned to conduct criminal operations using tactics techniques and procedures that far exceed law enforcement tactical and operational capability, but fall just short of outright military operations.  To protect and expand their criminal operations, Mexican drug cartels maintain highly developed intelligence networks on both sides of the boarder and have hired private armies to carry out enforcement measures.”[20] For example, the Gulf Cartel leader Cardenas employs a group of former elite military soldiers known as Los Zetas, which makes it the first time that a drug lord has his own paramilitary force.[21]  Few experts will argue that the country’s drug gangs are not insurgents and are not prepared to engage law enforcement with military style tactics and operations.[22]  Former Los Zetas Cartel overlord, Jaime Gonzalez Duran reportedly had instructed his cells to “engage law enforcement with a full tactical response should law enforcement attempt to intervene in their operations, to include American law enforcement agencies in the United States.[23]   Secretary of State Clinton stated that preventing the violence from spreading required improved institutional capacity, particularly law enforcement together with military support.[24]

In 2009 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, regarding border violence, that the violence in Mexico is not only an international threat, but a serious homeland security issue as “spillover” violence is increasing.[25]  According to a recent House Committee on Homeland Security, subcommittee on investigations report, the violence on the Southwest border encountered by U.S. Border Patrol and local law enforcement is increasing at an alarming rate,  prompting the Department of State to issue a travel warning urging U.S citizens to defer non-essential travel to a wide swath in the northern border region of Mexico, due to ongoing violence and persistent security concerns.[26]

In the past few years the cartels have extended their reach across the United States and into Canada.[27]  Cartels are responsible for a rash of shootings in Vancouver, British Columbia, kidnappings in Phoenix and Texas, and brutal assaults along numerous border cities.[28]  The FBI in San Antonio, Texas reported that there have been 266 kidnappings in Texas since 2004, 14 reported in 2004, and 58 in 2009.  Kidnappings include Americans kidnapped in Mexico, victims abducted in Texas and taken to Mexico and victims kidnapped in Texas by subjects from Mexico.[29]  Most notably, Yvette Martinez, 27, and her friend Brenda Cisneros, 23, are among nine Americans who the FBI says have simply disappeared along the border in the last two years.[30]

There is little doubt that the cartels could wreak havoc in the U.S. if they ever decided to do so.  Officials cautioned that cartels have plenty of experience utilizing military style small unit tactics to ambush Mexican police and federals.[31]  The cartels possess intelligence capabilities, weaponry and communications equipment that challenge U.S. law enforcement, to include light and heavy automatic weapons (assault rifles like the AK-47, .50 caliber machine guns, M72 anti tank rockets, and RPG 7), armored personnel carriers, grenades, RPGs, Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs) and IEDs. [32]  American law enforcement and Border Patrol agents are armed with handguns (primarily 9mm), shotguns, and light assault rifles (.223 calibers).[33]  It is evident that local law enforcement and Border Patrol assets are woefully unprepared and inadequately equipped when compared with the weapons, tactics, and technology employed by drug cartels.[34]  Personnel, intelligence resources, tactics and technology utilized by U.S. law enforcement need to be enhanced to combat the highly organized and sophisticated cartels.[35]  These criminal enterprises have seemingly unlimited money to purchase the most advanced technology and weaponry available.

Spillover violence, as indicated above, is increasing.  Drug cartels, in order to keep their trafficking corridors open into and within the United States, are not deterred by American law enforcement efforts.  In keeping with fourth generation warfare principles, they are adeptly and routinely utilizing asymmetry, in weapons and tactics, to exploit the legal, tactical and technological gap that exists between law enforcement and military responses.  Drug cartel weapons and tactics, at present, can overwhelm conventional law enforcement capabilities, but present no match for conventional U.S. military responses.  The question, therefore, is how to deal with the drug cartels; is it a law enforcement problem or a military problem?

This author contends that it is both. 

To adequately prepare and address the current spillover violence and the potential large scale cross border attacks against U.S. institutions and citizens, it is important that a joint police – military special operations capable task force, specifically designed to address drug cartels violence, be considered. 

The envisioned task force should merge the investigative, legal, and prosecutorial expertise of law enforcement with military light infantry tactics and weapons, in a mission specific effort to combat the violence that seeps over the borders into the U.S.  Task force will required the full range of light infantry capability, to include light armored vehicles, assault rifles, .50 caliber machine guns, .50 caliber Barrett Sniper rifles to disable vehicles, penetration, and engage standoff threats.  Of particular importance is a counter-assault and counter-ambush capability.  Police officers are not trained to respond to military style small unit assaults, or complex ambushes – the preferred tactics of the drug cartels operating at the boarders.[36]  Military – special operations capable – tactics and weapons resources supplementing law enforcement capability in a task force configuration is necessary to both level the tactical playing field and give law enforcement the tools needed to combat the cartels and protect U.S. citizens.

As Secretary of State Clinton suggested, drug cartels are showing more and more indices of insurgent activity.[37] The destabilizing effects of their successful attacks on local Mexican governance, empowers the cartels to challenge U.S. law enforcement.[38]  As stated by a senior Border Patrol agent working in Arizona’s Tuscon sector, “They no longer fear us.  They are absolutely ruthless – they just no longer care about taking on U.S. law enforcement.”[39]   This new breed of cartel is not only more violent, powerful and well financed, it is also deeply engaged in paramilitary operations, to include intelligence collections on both sides of the boarder and tactically sophisticated criminal acts.[40]  They are technologically advanced, operationally sophisticated, well equipped and have proven themselves to be highly adaptable to law enforcement measures marshaled against them.[41]

The Mexican drug cartels pose a substantial threat and challenge to U.S. law enforcement and U.S. citizens.  Without enhanced law enforcement capability that a joint police-military special operations capable task force can bring to bear, the U.S. may not be able to check cartel violence at the U.S. side of the border before it is too late.

End Notes

[1]House Committee on Homeland Security.  A line in the Sand: Confronting the Threat at the Southwest Border. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2011, p 11.

[2] “Fourth generation warfare - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”, n.d., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_generation_warfare, retrieved on July 27, 2011.

[3] Non-state actors, in international relations, are actors on the international level which are not states.  “Non-state actor - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”, n.d., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-state_actor, retrieved on July 27, 2011.

[4] “Fourth generation warfare - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”, n.d., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_generation_warfare, retrieved on July 27, 2011.

[5]The military doctrine was first defined in 1989 by a team of United States analysts, including William S. Lind, and used to describe warfare's return to a decentralized form. In terms of generational modern warfare, the fourth generation signifies the nation states' loss of their near-monopoly on combat forces, returning to modes of conflict common in pre-modern times. Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7]Jessica Keralis, “Drug Cartels in Mexico.”  “Forced Migration Review - FMR 37 Armed non-state actors and displacement”, n.d., http://www.fmreview.org/non-state/Keralis.html .

[8] House Committee on Homeland Security.  A line in the Sand: Confronting the Threat at the Southwest Border.      p 12.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Cave, “Mexico Updates Drug War Death Toll, but Critics Dispute Data - NYTimes.com.”; Testimony of Thomas Harrigan, Assistant Administrator and Chief of Operations, Drug Enforcement Administration, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery and intergovernmental Affairs Hearing: “Exploring Drug Gangs’ ever-evolving tactics to penetrate the boarder and the federal government’s ability to stop them.” Congressional Documents and Publications. 2011.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jessica Keralis.

[13] “Drug cartel - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia”, n.d., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drug_cartel, retrieved on July 27, 2011.

[14] Daniel Dombey, Clinton sees insurgency in Mexico’s drug cartels. London: Financial Times Limited, 2010, retrieved from http://search.proquest.comezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/749979900?accountid=8289 on July 29, 2011.

[15] House Committee on Homeland Security.  A line in the Sand: Confronting the Threat at the Southwest Border.

[16] Testimony by Steven McCraw, House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management Hearing: On the Boarder and in the Line of Fire: U.S. Law Enforcement, Homeland Security and Drug Carel Violence. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Documents and Publications, Federal Information and News Dispatch, Inc. 2011.

[17] At a March 31 hearing by the House Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management, Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, disclosed in his opening remarks that another law enforcement bulletin had warned that cartels were overheard plotting to kill Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and Texas Rangers guarding the border using AK-47s by shooting at them from across the border…” Anthony Kimery, Cartel Threats, Attacks On US Law Enforcement and the question of ‘Spill Over’ Violence. Homeland Security Today, June 8, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.hstoday.us/blogs/the-kimery-report/blog/cartel-threats-attacks-on-us-law-enforcment-and-the-question-of-spillover-violence/19546sea1864ba598069fa4.html  on July 29, 2011. Also see, Scott Stewart, Mexican Drug War 2011 Update, The Fillmore Gazette, 2011. Retrieved from  http://www.fillmoregazette.com/politics-government/mexican-drug-war-2011-update  on July 29, 2011.  The author notes that cartels have evolved toward the use of complex ambushes initiated by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), automatic weapons, .50 caliber machine guns in their attacks against rival cartel members, law enforcement, and government officials.

[18] Drug Cartels are using advances scanners with decryption software, cell phones, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and other equipment that is state of the art and better than anything U.S. Border Patrol or local law enforcement deploy.  Barbara Hollingsworth, Mexican drug cartels hold 12 year old for ransom. Washington Examiner, Federal Information and News Dispatch, Inc. 2011. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/851277867?accountid=8289  on July 27, 2011.

Cartels have hired former Mexican Special Forces soldiers who have transferred their knowledge and training and employ complex ambushes, which include the use of diversionary IEDs coupled with “L” shaped ambushes, road blocks, automatic weapons, and RPGs.   Scott Stewart, Mexican Drug War 2011 Update, The Fillmore Gazette, 2011. Retrieved from  http://www.fillmoregazette.com/politics-government/mexican-drug-war-2011-update  on July 29, 2011.

Testimony by Steven McCraw, House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management Hearing: On the Boarder and in the Line of Fire: U.S. Law Enforcement, Homeland Security and Drug Carel Violence.

[19] Daniel Dombey, Clinton sees insurgency in Mexico’s drug cartels. London: Financial Times Limited, 2010, retrieved from http://search.proquest.comezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/749979900?accountid=8289 on July 29, 2011.

Insurgency is defined as the organized use of subversion and violence by a group or movement that seeks to overthrow or force change of a governing authority. Insurgency can also refer to the group itself. (JP 3-24).  Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Washington D.C.: Department of Defense, as amended through 15 May 2011.

[20] A Line in the Sand: Confronting the Threat at the Southwest Border. House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Investigations, September 25, 2006.

[21] Oscar Becerra, New Traffickers Struggle for Control of Mexican Drug Trade, JANE’S INTELLIGENCE REVIEW(September, 2004).

[22] Anthony Kimery, Cartel Threats, Attacks On US Law Enforcement and the question of ‘Spill Over’ Violence.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Daniel Dombey, Clinton sees insurgency in Mexico’s drug cartels.

[25] According to the DEA, the interagency community has defined spillover violence in the following manner: Spillover violence entails deliberate, planned attacks by the cartels on U.S, assets, including civilian, military, or law enforcement officials, innocent U.S. citizens, or physical institutions such as government buildings, consulates, or businesses.  This definition does not include trafficker on trafficker violence, whether perpetrated in Mexico or the U.S.  Drug Enforcement Agency, Statement of Joseph M. Arabit Special Agent in Charge, El Paso division, Regarding “Violence Along the Southwest Boarder” Before the House Appropriations committee, Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies, March 24, 2009, http://www.usdoj.gov/dea/speeches/s032409.pdf , retrieved on July 22, 2011. Testimony of Secretary Janet Napolitano, Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, Southern Boarder Violence: Homeland Security Threats, Vulnerabilities, and Responsibilities. 2009. Retrieved from http://www.dhs.gov/ynews/testimony/testimony_1237993537881.shtm, on July 27, 2011.

[26] House Committee on Homeland Security.  A line in the Sand: Confronting the Threat at the Southwest Border.     p 18.; “Mexico”, n.d., http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_5440.html, retrieved on July 27, 2011 .

[27] “Mexican Drug Cartel Violence Spills Over, Alarming U.S. - Series - NYTimes.com”, n.d., http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/23/us/23border.html?pagewanted=all. Retrieved on July 27, 2011.

[28] Ibid.

[29] House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and management Hearing: “On the Border and in the Line of Fire: U.S. Law Enforcement, Homeland Security and Drug Cartel Violence.” Congressional Documents and Publications, Federal Information and News Dispatch, Inc. 2011.

[30] Combating Violence at the U.S. Southwest Border: Hearing Before the Subcomm. On Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security and the Subcomm. On Immigration, Boarder Security and Claims of the House Committee on Judiciary, 109th Congress. (Nov. 2005).

[31] Anthony Kimery, Cartel Threats, Attacks On US Law Enforcement and the question of ‘Spill Over’ Violence.

[32]Mexico’s DTO’s first VBIEDs,” Joint Regional Intelligence Center, Force Multiplier intelligence circular, Volume 3, Issue 4, October 2010.

[33] Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams generally have in their inventory, heavier military type weapons, to include .50 Barrett sniper rifles, M249 Squad Assault Weapons, and .308 sniper rifles, to name a few.  They also receive specialized training on small unit tactics.  However, they are not armed with RPGs, hand grenades, or engage in infantry type tactics.

[34] Criminal Activity and Violence Along the Southern Border: Hearing Before the Subcomm. On Investigations of the House Comm. on Homeland Security, 109th Congress, (Aug. 16, 2006) at 20-24

(Statement of Rep. Poe, Member, U.S. House of Representatives).

[35] Ibid.

[36] Anthony Kimery, Cartel Threats, Attacks On US Law Enforcement and the question of ‘Spill Over’ Violence.

[37] “Comparing Cartels with Insurgencies « American Age”, n.d., http://americanage.wordpress.com/2011/05/13/comparing-cartels-with-insurgencies/.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Kimery, Cartel Threats, Attacks On US Law Enforcement and the question of ‘Spill Over’ Violence.

[40] Criminal Activity and Violence Along the Southern Border: Hearing Before the Subcomm. On Investigations of the House Comm. on Homeland Security, 109th Congress, (Aug. 16, 2006) at 20-24

[41] Ibid.

 

Categories: Mexico - El Centro - cartels

About the Author(s)

John Zambri is a Detective III with the Los Angeles Police Department assigned to the Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau.  He has been with the LAPD for 25 years and is also a Naval Reserve Intelligence officer with 20 years of service.  He was mobilized and deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Comments

John Zambri

Fri, 08/09/2013 - 5:15pm

In reply to by nextghost

Agreed. I don't know how effective JTF-5 or 6 were, or to any extent what their SOC level of kinetic application was, but a JTF under a similar construct, with greater response and even preemptive capabilities, equipped and trained so as to mitigate DTO's "light infantry tactics and weaponry" ostensibly is becoming increasingly necessary. The key is in the level of response - how fast we can get there with the most. Preemptive capability is preferred. I do not address the inevitable legal machinations that will have to be addressed as I think that that is an article in and of itself. But a concerted legislative effort that facilitates the creation and employment of a Joint Police-Military SOC function, as I propose, is essential for this idea to succeed. Additionally, there will inevitable be an argument that an increase in U.S. law enforcement's response posture and capability will lead to an increase in DTO's posture and capability, and so on. I disagree. The last thing the DTO's would want is for the U.S. to bring to bare a full military response. It's the reason why they seemingly continue to operate, in so far as their cross boarder incursions, in that space between U.S. law enforcement response capability and U.S. military response capability. Too much for former, but not enough for the latter.

nextghost

Fri, 08/09/2013 - 9:14am

Sounds like a partial solution would be to stand up the old NORTHCOM JTF-5 and JTF-6 constructs and expand their role into something with a little more direct action involved.

MTCarrillo

Thu, 08/08/2013 - 1:32am

Why not just form a gendarmerie?