Mexico Drug Cartels: Fighting Transnationalism with Transnationalism

Particularly in light of the Administration’s recent rollout of its Transnational Criminal Organization program, the NYT’s article on our escalating war in Mexico raises several concerns. As I laid out, that program basically applies a number of GWOT tools–such as freezing of funds–to the fight against completely arbitrarily designated TCOs.

The NYT article shows how a terrorist approach has already been applied against Mexico’s drug cartels.

In recent weeks, small numbers of C.I.A. operatives and American civilian military employees have been posted at a Mexican military base, where, for the first time, security officials from both countries work side by side in collecting information about drug cartels and helping plan operations. Officials are also looking into embedding a team of American contractors inside a specially vetted Mexican counternarcotics police unit.

Officials on both sides of the border say the new efforts have been devised to get around Mexican laws that prohibit foreign military and police from operating on its soil, and to prevent advanced American surveillance technology from falling under the control of Mexican security agencies with long histories of corruption.

Let’s unpack this language: The US is operating on Mexican soil at least partly to prevent “advanced American surveillance technology” from falling into corrupt Mexican security agency hands. Any bets on what that advanced technology is, particularly given that we could presumably wiretap extensively from the comfort of our own Folsom Street room or similar? How about drones?

The U.S. government has begun deploying drones into Mexico after Mexican officials requested U.S. aircraft to help them fight drug-trafficking organizations.

Although U.S. agencies remained tight-lipped Wednesday on flying drones over Mexico, the chief of the Mexican National Security Council, Alejandro Poiré, admitted that his government asked for this type of support to gather intelligence.

Poiré in a statement said the Mexican government defines the operations, most of which take place in border areas.

“When these operations take place, they are authorized and supervised by national agencies, including the Mexican Air Force,” Poiré said Wednesday.

Furthermore, Poiré said, the governments were not breaking any national sovereignty laws because they were simply assisting in gathering intelligence. The drones are for surveillance only and are not armed.

So, particularly given Benjamin Wittes’ and my earlier agreement that one of the risks of drones is that some entity–a terrorist organization or a drug cartel–would gain control of one or more of them, reflect on the apparent fact that we’re deploying to Mexico, in part, to make sure that Mexico’s corrupt security agencies don’t have control of the drones we’ve got flying over Mexico.

This feels a lot like Pakistan already: the unreliable partner, the transparent fictions to make it appear as if a military invasion is not a military invasion.

Now add in the mercenar–um, I mean, the “team of American contractors.” A way to put boots on the ground while still pretending we’re not putting boots on the ground (don’t want to get into another one of those spats about what constitutes hostilities, you know).

“The government has argued that the number of deaths in Mexico is proof positive that the strategy is working and that the cartels are being weakened,” said Nik Steinberg, a specialist on Mexico at Human Rights Watch. “But the data is indisputable — the violence is increasing, human rights abuses have skyrocketed and accountability both for officials who commit abuses and alleged criminals is at rock bottom.”

Of course, our past use of mercenaries have shown they are susceptible to the same kind of corruption that we point to, in Mexico, as the reason why we need to station our own people there to keep (presumably) drones safe.

Now compare this report on Mexico from the NYT,

“The government has argued that the number of deaths in Mexico is proof positive that the strategy is working and that the cartels are being weakened,” said Nik Steinberg, a specialist on Mexico at Human Rights Watch. “But the data is indisputable — the violence is increasing, human rights abuses have skyrocketed and accountability both for officials who commit abuses and alleged criminals is at rock bottom.”

With this must-read story about how our night raids in Afghanistan–that get their target over 50% of the time (presumably meaning they hit the wrong target almost as often)–have led locals in the area where the 30 Americans got shot down over the weekend to sympathize with the Taliban.

“There are night raids every day or every other day,” said a second doctor who asked not to be identified because he feared for his safety. He said he lives about 100 yards from the parched riverbed where the U.S. Chinook helicopter crashed.

“The Americans are committing barbaric acts in the area and this is the reason that the Taliban have influence,” he said.

We’ve been using the tactics we appear to be rolling out now in Mexico for a decade already in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And while we’re down to just 50 or so members of al Qaeda, we seem to be destabilizing two already dicey countries.

And that’s the thing–and the reason I keep saying that using drones and mercs maybe isn’t the way to fight these transnational threats.

We’re arguing that the Mexican government is not strong enough right now to fly its own drones, much less defeat the cartels (even putting aside questions of the market we refuse to address here in the US). Yet to combat that, we’re chipping away at Mexican sovereignty.

Why, if these transnational threats are so dangerous to nation-states, do we keep using transnational forces to combat them?

Four Mobs: Yet More Bizarre Thinking Behind Administration’s Transnational Crime Program

Robert Chesney took a look at the Executive Order associated with the Administration’s roll-out of its Transnational Crime Organization program yesterday, which basically blocks the property of a group considered to be a TCO (note, in some places the Admin uses the acronym TOC; I agree with Chesney that TCO makes more sense and so will use that instead now).

As I guessed yesterday, the EO basically institutes a “material support for TCO” concept, directly parallel to the terrorist one.

Section 1.  (a)  All property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person, including any overseas branch, of the following persons are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in:

(i)   the persons listed in the Annex to this order and

(ii)  any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Attorney General and the Secretary of State:

(A)  to be a foreign person that constitutes a significant transnational criminal organization;

(B)  to have materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order; or

(C)  to be owned or controlled by, or to have acted or purported to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order.

(b)  I hereby determine that the making of donations of the types of articles specified in section 203(b)(2) of IEEPA (50 U.S.C. 1702(b)(2)) by, to, or for the benefit of any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order would seriously impair my ability to deal with the national emergency declared in this order, and I hereby prohibit such donations as provided by subsection (a) of this section.

(c)  The prohibitions in subsection (a) of this section include, but are not limited to:

(i)   the making of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services by, to, or for the benefit of any person whose property and interests in property are blocked pursuant to this order; and

(ii)  the receipt of any contribution or provision of funds, goods, or services from any such person.

(d)  The prohibitions in subsection (a) of this section apply except to the extent provided by statutes, or in regulations, orders, directives, or licenses that may be issued pursuant to this order, and notwithstanding any contract entered into or any license or permit granted prior to the effective date of this order.

The EO also clarifies something that was not clear from yesterday’s dog and pony show rolling this out: the Administration has listed four organizations that will, at this point, be considered TCOs:

3. YAKUZA (a.k.a. BORYOKUDAN; a.k.a. GOKUDO)

Now, like Chesney, I have a few questions about this list. Like Chesney, I want to know why only Los Zetas is listed. Are we really playing favorites among Mexico’s drug cartels? Chesney thinks it might be a reaction to Los Zetas’ murder of an ICE agent earlier this year. But the choice also has curious implications for the Operation Fast and Furious program, in which ATF agents dealt guns used by Los Zetas members. Is this just a way to give ATF a way to validate the concept behind that failed program?

But there may be another reason. I suggested yesterday that Wells Fargo, which last year entered into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement for the money laundering it did for Mexican cartels in 2005, ought to be on the list of TCOs, too. The one cartel I know of that is definitely tied to that money laundering, however, is Sinaloa. So by leaving Sinaloa off the list, you leave of the necessity of freezing the funds of TBTF banks.

I’m even more mystified by the inclusion of the Yakuza–Japan’s mob–on the list. Japan has long tolerated the Yakuza even while making claims they’d crack down. Did we consult with them before we put the Yakuza on the list?

More curiously, the Yakuza played a key role in the response to this spring’s Japanese earthquakes (this is akin to the role that some terrorist organizations had in Pakistan’s flood and earthquake response, as well as Hezbollah’s general role in Shiite Lebanese welfare). This post provides a good description of the Yakuza’s role and their reasons for providing such humanitarian aide. Some highlights:

In truth, the measure of a yakuza boss is not how honourable he is, it’s how much cash he brings in, a fact that might help explain the mobsters’ motives for providing aid. A senior member of one organised crime group in eastern Japan acknowledges this. He says: “It’s usually about money. Earthquakes and disasters are one of the few times that yakuza can do what they’re supposed to do: help other people. We can do it because we’re not bound by red tape. It’s as simple as putting up the money, ordering the soldiers to buy supplies, put them on trucks, and carry them to areas where they’re needed. Certainly some members are looking at this as a chance to gain goodwill and local support when the reconstruction begins. In my case, I just want to give back to the community where I was born. That’s the spirit of the yakuza. That’s the ideal. Other people have other motives.”

Whatever their mixed motives, right now the yakuza are apparently helping the weak and the suffering, bringing warm blankets to those who are cold, feeding the hungry and getting water to the thirsty. The Sumiyoshi-kai and the Inagawa-kai in total have sent over 200 tons of supplies to devastated areas according to police sources and raised several million dollars from their own members to facilitate the aid. The Matsuba-kai, the Kyokuto-kai (both in Tokyo), and even smaller groups like the Aizukotestu-kai (in Kyoto) are all chipping in.


One member of the Sumiyoshi-kai group I spoke to, a full-time gangster in the Saitama prefecture specialising in extortion, explains the efforts simply:

“In times like this, the usual societal divisions are meaningless. There aren’t yakuza and civilians or foreigners and Japanese. We’re all Japanese now. We all live here. Down the road, there is money to be made, for sure.

“Right now, it’s about saving lives and helping each other out. Ninety-five per cent of all yakuza are human garbage. Maybe 5 per cent uphold the rules. Right now we’re all doing our best. It’s one of the few times we can be better than we normally are.”

Even a senior police officer from Ibaraki agrees, speaking under conditions of anonymity. “I have to hand it to the yakuza. They have been on the ground from day one providing aid where others don’t or cannot do it. Laws can be like a two-edged sword and sometimes they hamper relief efforts. Sometimes, outlaws are faster than the law. This is one of those times.”

Now, it doesn’t appear that the Yakuza used foreign aid to pay for this humanitarian support. That is, it doesn’t seem like western money effectively went to the Yakuza, meaning it could be contrived as material support for a TCO.

Nevertheless, there are sure to be a whole host of ways in which American businesses might end up funding the Yakuza.  We’ll quickly find those businesses to be in the position that Chiquita got in, though without the cover story that they paid terrorists to protect their employees.

And then, ultimately, there’s the process by which mobs get picked as TCOs. The current list almost seems like a test of concept–an attempt to throw several different kinds of mobs on the list, to see how the new legal toy works in practice.

But remember it’s the Secretary of Treasury deciding, with no transparency, who is and who is not on the list. You know–the same guy insisting that banks never be held to account for their crime, even while he enables them to become more powerful.

Again, don’t get me wrong. Transnational gangs are a big problem. But this is a gigantic slippery slope that none of us really get to see even as we’re already sliding down it.

And it still doesn’t protect us from the banksters looting our own economy.