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The Mexican Cartel Debate

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The Mexican Cartel Debate:


As Viewed Through Five Divergent Fields of Security Studies

by Dr. Robert J. Bunker

Download the Full Article: The Mexican Cartel Debate

The Mexican cartel debate is becoming increasingly more important to U.S. national security, however, it is also becoming ever more confused, heated, and at times downright nasty, with little agreement about what is taking place in Mexico or in other regions of the Americas, such as Guatemala, Honduras, and even this side of the U.S. border. To shed some light on this critical debate—a debate we need to have now and not later— it is the contention of this author that, since the Mexican cartel phenomena is being looked at by scholars from divergent fields of security studies and since each field of study brings with it its own key assumptions and concerns, preferred responses, terminology, works, and authors, those analyzing the problem are often talking at cross-purposes which is unproductive. Additionally, dissention among those within each individual field of study about the threat the cartels represent—the divergences among those who study insurgencies as but one important example— adds another layer of confusion to this debate.

It can be argued that an ordinal threat continuum exists, differentiated by field of security study, of the danger that cartels represent to the Mexican state and, in turn, those states bordering it. Taken together, these threat assessments are helping to actively influence U.S. public and governmental perceptions of the conflict now taking place in Mexico and, ultimately, help shape U.S. policy. While it is accepted that other major factors and biases are in play—U.S. federal and state governments and administrations, political parties and action committees, citizens groups, and the ideological leanings of the individual media outlets all attempt to influence this debate—academics and professionals aligned within recognized fields of security studies have a disproportionate impact due to their propensity to actively publish as well as get their messages out via other media. The debate benefits from each field's unique insights, unfortunately, these come with the baggage of having its own biases and their own interests at heart. Accordingly, some attempt will be made to mitigate the deleterious effects of this fact while seeking potential areas for cooperation between the fields.

Download the Full Article: The Mexican Cartel Debate

Dr. Robert J. Bunker has had the privilege of being involved in projects related to all five of these fields of security studies over the last two decades. This has provided him with a rather unique perspective on each of these fields, their assumptions, concerns, and the major authors influencing them. He holds degrees in political science, government, behavioral science, social science, anthropology-geography, and history.

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. Robert J. Bunker is an Adjunct Research Professor, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Adjunct Faculty, Division of Politics and Economics, Claremont Graduate University. He holds university degrees in political science, government, social science, anthropology-geography, behavioral science, and history and has undertaken hundreds of hours of counterterrorism training. Past professional associations include Distinguished Visiting Professor and Minerva Chair at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College; Futurist in Residence, Training and Development Division, Behavioral Science Unit, Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy, Quantico, VA; Staff Member (Consultant), Counter-OPFOR Program, National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center-West; and Adjunct Faculty, National Security Studies M.A. Program and Political Science Department, California State University, San Bernardino, CA. Dr. Bunker has hundreds of publications including Studies in Gangs and Cartels, with John Sullivan (Routledge, 2013),  Red Teams and Counterterrorism Training, with Stephen Sloan (University of Oklahoma, 2011), and edited works, including Global Criminal and Sovereign Free Economies and the Demise of the Western Democracies: Dark Renaissance (Routledge, 2014), co-edited with Pamela Ligouri Bunker; Criminal Insurgencies in Mexico and the Americas: The Gangs and Cartels Wage War (Routledge, 2012); Narcos Over the Border: Gangs, Cartels and Mercenaries (Routledge, 2011); Criminal-States and Criminal-Soldiers (Routledge, 2008); Networks, Terrorism and Global Insurgency (Routledge, 2005); and Non-State Threats and Future Wars (Routledge, 2002).


Analist (not verified)

Thu, 02/24/2011 - 5:04pm

Dear friends. I share your interest on this matter. Thus I recommend a work recently published by CNAS "Crime wars..." which includes an innovative definition of the term narco insurgency.

Dr. Bunker:
This is a very useful article. Neither Americans nor Mexicans have a clear understanding of the threat the DTO power and violence present. I suggest that the worst case scenarios do not go far enough to consider scenarios north of the border.

I have been struck by the contrast between the many papers that analyze the principal DTOs in Mexico, the areas of activity, their leadership, etc. with the utter lack of such analysis of the criminal organizations distributing $40 to 60 billion of drugs in the U.S. There are references to Bloods and Crips, outlaw motorcycle gangs, La Cosa Nostra organizations. But no one in the U.S. media or academy seems to be putting any detail on a city by city overview. The USG says that the Mexican DTOs are operating in 240 or so cities in the U.S. What does this really mean?

A worst case scenario is that the Mexican level corruption and violence become features of life in the U.S.

slapout9 (not verified)

Mon, 02/14/2011 - 11:40pm

carl, I don't doubt that at all but that is what good subversion campaigns do. They manipulate good honest decent people into believing a lot of Bull Sh**.

carl (not verified)

Mon, 02/14/2011 - 5:57pm


What I based my judgment on is the people I see, the opinions I hear expressed and the types of political candidates supported. All seem pretty reasonable to me.

slapout9 (not verified)

Mon, 02/14/2011 - 5:42pm

carl, I have! The guy that cuts my hair is one of the big baggers in my area!!!!! Incidentally if you research some of the founding members(reference: Carl Denninger) you will find many have left the movement in disgust because the movement has been hijacked and subverted from what it originally was.

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 02/14/2011 - 5:34pm


As stated, half joking. I'm not worried about the main stream tea baggers, though I think (my political beliefs) they're economic view is a road to disaster. There are always groups that can be exploited by others, much as the communists used to mobilize several of the labor unions. Agree it isn't fair to compare the Tea Baggers to subversives.

carl (not verified)

Mon, 02/14/2011 - 5:28pm


"But Tea Baggers are clearly a subversive group(they want to destroy the loyalty to our government through propaganda put out by the ruling elite and they don't even realize it)."

This will come as a big surprise to all those people I saw. If they have one of those rallies in your area, you should go see and judge for yourself.



Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 02/14/2011 - 5:11pm

Some in that group may be vulnerable because they blindly follow the mad ranting of entertainers like Glen Beck without digging deeper to uncover the Paul Harvey rest of the story version.

It wouldn't be in the Cartel's long term interest to support the Tea Baggers or any other group that would weaken our economy, and then we wouldn't be able to pay for the drugs!

Half joking, half serious.

slapout9 (not verified)

Mon, 02/14/2011 - 3:49pm

carl, no that group (Tea Party) want be a recruiting target for MS-13 but other groups are. But Tea Baggers are clearly a subversive group(they want to destroy the loyalty to our government through propaganda put out by the ruling elite and they don't even realize it). Obama has cut taxes and the Economy is "NOT" recovering, it is stuck at the bottom and in some cases has become worse. A lot of folks in that category will become recruitment material not just for drug gangs but other types of criminal organizations/enterprises as personal safety nets begin to break. Just my opinion.

carl (not verified)

Mon, 02/14/2011 - 2:00pm


It is a stretch to go from hostility to ever growing government intrusions into life with concomitant restrictions on individual freedom and ever higher taxes, straight into "I want to be part of MS-13!" The anti is anti BIG BIG Government telling us what we can say, think, eat, drive and do. The "anti" motivation is that life is pretty good now, but ever bigger government is screwing it up. I find it hard to believe that the people I saw at a Tea Party rally last spring are going to be a target recruiting demographic for Los Zetas.

slapout9 (not verified)

Mon, 02/14/2011 - 10:27am

I couldn't find any YouTube clips that fit.....but you know I tried!

Dr. Bunker,
Yes, the size of the problem is probably unknown but what we do know is, it is big,serious and very deadly. Because as you point out it shifts loyalty from the Government to whatever organization will create security and prosperity. Something that Senior policy makers don't seem to truly grasp, particularly with the current Political Propaganda that "Govern met is bad and Government is the problem." This plays directly into the seductive narrative of the criminal empire. All they have to do as say "see I told you so, your Government is bad,your own Government Parties say they are bad. Come join our team/group/family/etc. and receive a better life"

I think we are in deep trouble.

Dr. Robert J. Bunker (not verified)

Sun, 02/13/2011 - 7:39pm

To Bill M.:

We, I fear, are already seeing that shift in loyalty from the nation-state to the highest bidder. That is why I think we have entered into a "war over social and political organization." Which competing organizational form offers people the best societal goods-- economic resources, security, ideology/a sense of belong to that entity. States use to have a monopoly on this as the dominant form of political organization. The cartels and gangs are now competing with the Mexican state re this. For many Mexican peasants the cartels and gangs may have far more to offer them than the Mexican federal government ever did.

Yes-- if we assumed this was all true-- the shifting taking place re the rise of criminal challengers to the nation-state form-- then this will be far more than a law enforcement problem. For some Central American states they have already reached this point as has Mexico with troops coming into this. For the US homeland this threat is still a law enforcement problem-- we definitely want to keep it that way...

Dr. Bunker,

You'll find Slapout frequently makes wise observations based on common sense, and he generally finds a youtube link to support his argument. The fellows from Alabama prefer to watch youtube rather than read :-).

On a serious note, I found your comments to be very interesting. I have read up to 30% of the global economy is black, and while hard to substaniate, it does seem probable when you look at the scale of organized crime and State's participating in illicit activity.

Not only can that result in greater means for these groups than some of the States they exist in, I think it also portends a potential shift in loyality from the nation to the highest bidder. We have already seen this in Mexico, where elite soldiers have joined with the Cartels because they are offering greater pay. I think we something similiar in Afghanistan, but will let the experts comment on that.

Assuming this is all true, and we agree (not saying there is agreement at this time) that is a serious threat to national security, then is this now more than a law enforcement problem?

Dr. Robert J. Bunker (not verified)

Sun, 02/13/2011 - 2:50pm

To slapout9:

This is really a key area of concern that you are focusing on. I don't think we know what the size of the illicit global economy is in relationship to the legal global economy-- at least I haven't seen any really good research on it. The sense that I have is that the illicit proportion is growing over time but I can't back it up with hard numbers. This would mean criminal armies/groups will have more and more resources to draw upon-- especially since the illicit profit margins are so high and they do not have state public debt/public good expenditures already figured into their budgets. One peso/dollar for the Mexican cartels goes further for power (politico-military) acquisition that for the Mexican government-- the cartels get a multiplier effect of some sort.

I've looked at estimates of what the Mexican cartels are making off illicit U.S. drug sales and it ranges from about $10-40 billion (lows and highs) yearly with about $15-20 billion a somewhat safe estimate. Even this in not agreed upon because some scholars/analysts now think much of that money stays in the U.S. for part of the distribution network-- which I don't really agree with. We are all guessing at this point.

A strategic concern that I have is that if the illicit proportion of the global economy is actually on the rise then nation-states are at an increasing disadvantage vs criminal entities. If the illicit proportion gets too high then nation-states are being cut out of a sizable revenue stream. Can those states then compete with the criminal entities in the future or will they be forced to compromise societal ethics & morality and tap into these illicit revenue streams? China is a good example of a state that is profiting from illicit revenues re counterfeit goods/does not respect copyright/patent laws-- but then they are an autocratic state/have a very different take on human rights. I don't have answers just lots of questions/concerns at this point.

slapout9 (not verified)

Sun, 02/13/2011 - 10:53am

I liked the paper a great deal. Especially the idea of a continuum because it shows how these organizations gain power and adapt over time if they are not dealt with. I would add Criminal Capitalism as a driver behind the idea of Criminal Armies. It makes them self funding/supporting without the aid of a traditional state power behind them.

Bob's World

Sun, 02/13/2011 - 7:42am

Drug Cartels are the thorn in the paw of Mexican Society.

The U.S. can go pound that thorn deeper into the flesh, so that it is no longer visible, and provide little relief of the problem.


The U.S. can stay home, address the twin problems of US Illegality and demand, and thereby slowly help ease the thorn out of the paw.

It is not that the U.S. is the sole source of the problem, but we will never be the sole source of the solution either. This is about recognizing and taking responsibility for our role, and adopting measures that target the US aspect of the problem, rather than pointedly ignoring the same in a very deliberate political move to shift that responsibility onto others. This is how we approached the GWOT as well.

Responsibility for ones share of liability is not the same as some event being one's fault. (I.e, 9/11 was not the fault of the US government, but the US government has responsibility for our share of the liability in causing the conditions that gave rise to that attack.) But in politics the two are far too close together, so taking responsibility becomes a rare action. Far easier to get out the blamethrower and start blazing...


Sat, 02/12/2011 - 11:08pm


Sorry, I was admittedly unclear there.

What I meant was that wrecking the kind of destruction and mass-murder required to cause population displacement would not require much sophistication in terms of armaments or organization - just a simple mission order and a willingness to commit atrocities.

We saw similar gruesome results with wild, barely coherent militia groups unleashed by the Indonesian army on the East Timorese ( Real Red Iron, Red and White Iron etc.).

The beheadings and torture-murders in Mexico indicate the Narcos may have the stomach for similar tactics

tequila (not verified)

Sat, 02/12/2011 - 10:10pm

Uh, what?

What possible connection could the Rwandan genocide have to do with Mexico?

The interahamwe were a state-organized and state-run ethnic militia. It was not an expression of state collapse, but rather of state-run genocide. They were more like the SA than the Zetas.


Sat, 02/12/2011 - 7:50pm

"Can you imagine trying to stabilize an urban center the size of Mexico City?"

Yep. Or even provide basic services if 1-2 million non-residents show up over a few days time, toting their belongings in a sack or back of a pick-up truck.

Look what the Interhaemwe acheived in Rwanda with a few machetes, some elbow grease and a maniacal level of bloodslust.

Dr. Robert J. Bunker (not verified)

Sat, 02/12/2011 - 6:41pm

A few comments:

To zenpundit:

Excellent comment. Yes- state failure/collapse is a concern. It was touched upon re Note #5 with the Grayson cite. We had some US Army affiliated writers discussing this possibility at one point but it seems those discussions have either ceased or were shut down. I mentioned this also in the Narcos book re "being locked in a room with a rotting corpse" if Mexico failed. I went back and forth re putting state failure concerns in the model-- my gut feeling is it would reside in insurgency studies and not in another field of studies. The issue then is which is 'worst case'-- Mexican state failure or governmental capture? I think capture is uglier but I respect you thinking that state failure may be worst case. Can you imagine trying to stabilize an urban center the size of Mexico City?

To Robert C. Jones:

Ok- I get the part about being a pointy head guy who over thinks things. Where I think-- sorry I did it again-- you are going with your comments is that we are talking symptoms of the "demand for illicit drugs in the US" and should instead be focusing on this problem (Note-- the cartels are trying to create demand for illicit drugs in Mexico and other countries to expand revenues and also are no longer just "drug cartels"-- they are getting into all sorts of illicit means of money making-- so the problem is morphing/evolving). But lets get back to the "demand for illicit drugs in the US" which you focus on. I've looked at this from traditional, left, and right of center perspectives and all of the policy options stink-- the question is which are less lousy than the others and/or could we blend the counter-demand/other strategies somehow? I even did a co-authored chapter on this subject-- it was one of the most difficult essays I have ever done. Since this area of concern has come up in your other threads/comments I really think you should consider doing an essay on how we should respond to this problem. I'm really stumped on this one-- we are very much caught between a rock and a hard place-- so I welcome all new insights.

Bob's World

Sat, 02/12/2011 - 5:28am

I have a friend who loves to develop complex solutions to complex problems. Hell employ a lexicon that forces people to look up words to understand what he is talking about; employ a vast amount of data to provide as sense of objectivity to problems that are inherently subjective; employ calculations to massage that data; and then bundle it all up in multi-color charts that clearly show trends that may or may not be real. Generals and Admirals love it, action officers hate it, and I just kind of scratch my head and think "how does this really help, what is the real root of this problem, how can we simplify this."

The problem with the study of conflict is that conflict itself is both a problem and a symptom of other problems. To solve the problem of the conflict itself without also understanding and addressing the underlying problems that the conflict is a symptom of leads too often to some temporary suppression of symptoms, misguided solutions, or poorly designed peace agreements that lead directly to renewed conflict in short order.

I admit I don't know much about "ordinals" (I did look it up, and still don't know much about them) and while I understand what a "continuum" is, I looked that up as well to try to make sure I understood where Dr. Bunker is going here.

Where I ended up is that there are five broad categories or theories of conflict study that are all applied to Mexico (I confess I could not see how they were either "ordinal" or a "continuum") that attempt to describe this symptom of some deeper problem that manifests itself as conflict. I certainly agree that proponents for any one of these five theories may well engage in intellectual fratricide with proponents of other areas as they seek to promote their theories and fit a problem into their particular category.

Where I could see where each of these five theories describe a problem that could indeed disrupt or even destroy the stability of Mexico, I did not see where any really got to looking at what the underlying problem is that is giving rise to this growing symptom of conflict and organizations that wage conflict.

Products that are illegal create an illegal market. When demand for that illegal product is high the illegality drives up the price, which in turn attracts those who are willing to act outside the law in exchange for a share of those profits. The U.S. populace has such a demand for a family of drugs that have been outlawed by the U.S. government. The legal status of this market creates a functional sanctuary for those who trade in it. To participate in the market one must opt to go outside the law, and once outside the law one is no longer constrained by the law. This is a powerful "sanctuary" (similar to what we grant to organizations such as Hezbollah when we place them on a "terrorist" list). This is very liberating. Free from the constraints of law while participating in a very lucrative market is invariably going to result in violence of competition and the corruption of government officials.

I guess for me the primary question is, "do we want to analyze and debate how to mitigate the symptom, or do we want to analyze and debate how to solve the problem"?

The symptoms are a Mexican problem that is growing to a scale to where they are threatening to begin impacting the U.S. as well. The problem itself is a U.S. problem that only affects a small portion of the society directly and is considered manageable with current approaches of law enforcement and social services.

So do we ramp up an additional operation to go after the symptoms of the problem? Perhaps, that does appear to be the trend. Or, do we take the symptom of growing violence and instability in Mexico as a clear metric that it is time to quit fooling ourselves that our current approaches to legal drugs in America are "managing" this problem. They aren't.

We must tackle the legality issue. We must tackle the demand issue. Given the moral, social, and political components of this particular problem it is like the proverbial "third rail" in congress. No one has the balls to touch it. So instead we continue to attempt to manage it, while looking over at the neighbors and debating the growing symptoms of our failure to act decisively at home. Sadly, it is far more acceptable to argue for a war-like intervention into Mexico to attack the symptom of this problem than it is to address passing legislation in congress to attack the problem itself.

We don't need to over-think this, but we do need to get smarter.

Robert, This is an important paper. In my view, you make a significant contribution unifying disparate fields of inquiry. Beyond that, you make a cogent case for the importance of this discussion in a grand strategy context. Zenpundit's comments are also important, we have already seen internally displaced persons and refugees emerge from this internal/external, networked war. We need to closely monitor where this may (or will) go... Lot's of important research needs to be conducted to tie the various theories and hypotheses together with empirical justification. I suspect we are all at the stage of grounded hypotheses! Criminals, brigands, and insurgents have existed separately and at times converged since the Roman era--and perhaps before. They are doing so now in new, networked ways. Thanks for moving the ball forward... JPS


Sat, 02/12/2011 - 12:18am

I think the worst case scenario would not be a "take-over" or hollowing out of the Mexican state, but rather an effective state collapse if violence escalates to the point of generating population displacement and war refugees.

All it would really take is for one of the more feared cartels to begin to systematically target and "cleanse" a significant urban center

Dark Helmet (not verified)

Sun, 02/20/2011 - 10:29pm

Ah yes, the root....

Give away as many kinds of drugs and as much of any drug that any may care to try.

It will resolve itself and raise the quality of the gene pool.

It is bad luck to interfere with natural selection.