‘Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars’: interview with Sylvia Longmire

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Sylvia Longmire’s new book Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars has just been released and is available in bookstores today. She is a retired Air Force captain and Special Agent with extensive experience investigating Mexico Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTO). She now consults and writes about southwest border violence issues and blogs at Mexico’s Drug War. I interviewed her last month. 

Your book implies the violence and corruption of the drug wars will be spilling across the border from Mexico into the US. What do you see coming, how can we prepare, and what can we do about it?

The cartels are already here, and have been here for decades. The invasion has been like a virus, not like a “War of the Worlds” invasion with gunfire and explosions. The cartels already have distribution networks and trafficking systems in place across the US. We’re also starting to see a slow uptick in the number of violent incidents on the US side of the border related to drug activity in Mexico. As cartels get squeezed tighter by US and Mexican authorities, they’ll get more desperate to maintain their profits and move drugs across the border; this means they’ll be more likely to engage in risky behavior, i.e. engaging US law enforcement. The best we can do as Americans is to be aware of the situation, understand why it’s happening, and press our elected officials not just to spend more money or send more people to the border but be smarter about how border resources are allocated based on good intelligence.

Some on the left see concern about undocumented border crossings as racist. Yet the drug smuggling is real, as is human smuggling (which is arguably worse, as those being smuggled often are brutalized or held for ransom by the smugglers once they are in the States.) What would you say to those who claim border problems are figments of the right wing’s imagination?

I think both sides of the aisle tend to exaggerate issues to suit their political agendas. I do not believe that the border is as safe and secure as DHS Secretary Napolitano makes it out to be. However, I don’t think that the entire length of it is being overrun with AK-47-toting thugs. I am very concerned that there are stretches of the border where US authorities do not have the manpower or resources to prevent violent criminals from coming into the US, and parts of federal parks and reserves where Americans are warned to avoid because of smuggling activity. But I do roll my eyes when I hear certain public officials screaming through the television that we’re being overrun by narco-terrorists. Such exaggerations by the right – as well as serious underestimation of the cartels and the border problem by the left – do a disservice to those trying to really wrap their heads around the best way to devise an effective and common-sense border strategy.

An FBI agent once said of Vegas mobsters in the 1950′s, they aren’t smarter, it’s just that they’ll do things the rest of us won’t. This seems an apt description of the DTOs. However their levels of violence are orders of magnitude higher than the mobsters. What accounts for such deranged violence, how are they able to recruit children as young as eleven, and is such violence coming here?

I liken the escalation of violence in Mexico to our progression of desensitization with video games. Twenty years ago, we were all happy playing Super Mario Brothers and Legend of Zelda. Now it’s Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, and video games have maturity and violence ratings on them like movies. Over time, violent incidents in Mexico lose their shock value, and cartels have to up the ante to show their power, as well as to continue to make an impact on their rivals and the authorities. As for the other part of the question, there are few good educational and professional prospects for most of Mexico’s youth. They see the drug lords as people to be idolized, and the glamour of the narco world is very appealing: easy cash, gold-plated guns, Cadillac Escalades, beautiful women, etc. Some of these young kids have no parental supervision, and are easily lured into being dealers or lookouts or killers by something as simple as a free iPod, or cell phone, or a few hundred dollars. American teenagers in poorer southwest US cities are already being recruited by the cartels.

Law enforcement in rural areas of the West routinely find marijuana plantations with thousands of plants in remote canyons and wilderness areas. One officer said of the growers “they aren’t locals.” Small town police forces don’t have the resources to fight this. One obvious answer is legalization. What else can be done?

Domestic marijuana growing operations are a national security crisis, in my opinion. I know that sounds alarmist, and I can hear some people rolling their eyes already. But I have a serious problem with the fact that millions of acres on our taxpayer-funded national parks and forests are home to millions of marijuana plants – worth $1,000-$3,000 per plant – that are being closely guarded by Mexican nationals with AK-47s. The National Guard in California is a great example of an agency that has extensive experience working with state law enforcement to find these grows and rip them up. But you have to understand, these grows are being found in over a dozen US states, and most of them aren’t even on the border; Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina – even Michigan. The portion of the US Forest Service and National Park Service budget dedicated to law enforcement is minimal, as is the number of personnel trained and available to find these grows and destroy them. Each acre of marijuana field that is destroyed costs about $11,000 to restore, and that money just isn’t there either.

Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said $352 billion in drug money laundered by banks kept the financial system going during the peak of the 2008 financial crisis. It would seem there are vested interests who benefit mightily from drugs being illegal and this is a major if unspoken roadblock to finding solutions.

There’s no doubt that multiple US banks are laundering Mexican drug money, but the question that’s really tough to answer is the extent of their knowledge regarding where that money is coming from. I’m sure if the banks worked hard and did more digging, they could find out plenty. However, like you said, it would greatly be to their detriment. The Mexican economy also benefits greatly from the influx of illicit money into legal markets. As Scott Stewart of Stratfor wrote today, Calderón wants to reduce or eliminate drug violence, but he can’t afford to eliminate drug trafficking.

What’s your take on Operation Fast and Furious, where ATF allowed guns to be smuggled into Mexico from the US so they could be tracked?

I understand the intentions of the ATF with F&F. They were getting hammered on one side by the White House and GAO for not getting results in reducing the southbound flow of guns. They were getting hammered on the other side by the ATF for going after the “little guy” (i.e. straw buyers) and harassing law-abiding gun owners. So the ATF thought they’d think outside the box with a modified sting operation to go after the “big fish.” But talk about an epic fail laced with disastrous decision-making. Putting tracking devices from Radio Shack on the guns with a battery life of only three months? Continuing with the operation for more than a year when they had already lost track of hundreds of guns? It was just a bad idea all around to start F&F, let alone letting it run for as long as it did. The scary part is, if Congress hadn’t discovered that two of those guns showed up at the Brian Terry crime scene, would F&F still be going on?

One reason Arizona is such a hot spot for border crossings is because parts of it are too rugged to build a fence plus some of it is on Tohono O’odham Nation land which lies in both countries. How can a border that inherently porous be adequately monitored?

Lots of electronics. I only say that in a half-kidding fashion. Not only is a complete border fence impractical, but it’s also unnecessary. Some parts of Arizona don’t see much smuggling activity at all because the environment is just too hostile. So why waste taxpayer dollars to build a fence if no one’s even laying eyes on it? US Border Patrol uses a variety of cameras and sensors (I’ve seen them) to detect activity in more remote areas, and based on the situation, they can determine what warrants a physical response.

The State of Arizona is taking private contributions to build more border fences. Assuming it could be built, will it work? Or as former Arizona governor Napolitano once said, “You show me a 50-foot wall and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder at the border. That’s the way the border works.”

Here’s a recent article I wrote on the privatization of the border fence that should answer this question.

Are rumors that one cartel is making deals with the Mexican and US governments credible?

Based on conversations with my sources, Zambada-Niebla is likely exaggerating any relationship he might have had with the DEA in order to cast doubt on the allegations made against him. While the DEA does employ high-level informants in the drug world, they typically don’t let that much time lapse or that amount of drugs “walk” before making arrests.

Is legalization an option?

I definitely think decriminalization is an option that has to be considered as just one part of an overall multi-faceted strategy to combat the cartels. I don’t say legalization because that’s currently not an option for the US government due to its status as a signatory to United Nations anti-drug conventions. However, even if we decriminalize marijuana, it’s not going to stop the cartels from killing. It may make a short-term dent in their profits, but they’re making so much money off the sale of other illegal drugs and kidnapping, extortion, media piracy, etc. that they’ll easily survive.

What can we as citizens do to stop the drug wars from coming here?

Honestly, the biggest thing we can do as citizens is to help reduce drug demand by educating our children. There are also people who are more prone to drug addiction than others for various reasons, and those signs need to be recognized early by loved ones to prevent those people from resorting to drug use in desperate times. We also need to start viewing drug use and addiction as a public health issue and not a criminal issue. Mind you, the people who benefit from drug use and addiction – the dealers and suppliers who make the big money – are still criminals and need to be investigated and prosecuted. But if there are fewer people to deal to, then consequently there will be fewer dealers.

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