Business has never been better for Mexico’s criminal syndicates.
Organized crime in Mexico and Central America has long played a dominant role in destabilizing the region while contributing to a host of social issues within the United States where one of their largest groups of clientele is located. But more recent events show that the cartels are gaining a previously unheard of boldness, potentially achieving the ability to create WMDs and expanding their control of Mexico’s economy and government while violence escalates within the country.
The threat of cartel-handled nuclear or biological weapons in particular is a grave threat to not only the Mexican government, but also the United States. With a migrant crisis due to looming unrest in South America becoming likely, possession of such weapons will give organized criminal groups a powerful bargaining chip.
I. Increasing Aggression And Acquisition Of Nuclear Materials
Heavy competition between various cartels has contributed to a murder rate that hit an all time high in 2017. Spikes in violence are due to a number of factors, such as removal of certain leadership figures like Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and a spike in migration and unrest due to a growing “Latin Spring” in parts of Central and South America. The expected surge of refugees from countries such as Venezuela means that criminal groups are likely posturing themselves to control the routes that those fleeing conflict will take as they attempt to enter the United States.
Cartels have also been involved with a number of daring robberies where radioactive materials were stolen. In February and July 2018, Mexican authorities reported thefts of radioactive materials and placed multiple states on alert. These reports were followed by revelations on July 16, 2018 from the Center for Public Integrity that an unknown amount of Plutonium-239 and Cesium-137 had been stolen out of the vehicle of two US Department of Energy employees in Texas the previous year. The materials have not yet been recovered and neither the San Antonio police or the FBI disclosed the incident to the public. It takes only 7 pounds of plutonium to build a functioning nuclear warhead, and much less to combine with conventional explosives for the purpose of creating a dirty bomb. Moving these materials across the southern US border is not prohibitively difficult due to the number of federal employees who are controlled by cartel groups and would be unable to easily tell the difference between drugs and WMDs being moved cross-border.
The danger of WMDs in the hands of Mexican criminal enterprises is twofold. Primarily because they give these organizations serious leverage over the government in Mexico and the United States, but also because the cartels’ international contacts mean that these materials can be distributed worldwide to a variety of groups.
II. International Reach
International connections offer the cartels the opportunity not only to distribute nuclear and biological agents to other groups, but also to acquire more of these materials. International terror networks such as Al Qaeda and ISIS have long had ties to Central and Southern cartel groups through their involvement with the human and drug trafficking trades making the transport of weapons, operatives and materials across the Atlantic an easy process.
Reports claiming that weapons used in the 2015 Paris terror attacks were traced to one of the illegal weapons sales that occurred during Operation Fast and Furious further show the ability of Mexican transnational criminal groups to move not just drugs, but other products across the globe. Al Qaeda operatives have for years bragged that they are able to acquire the services of scientists, chemists and nuclear physicists. With international trade between organized criminals and terror groups becoming so fluid, the idea that the cartels would be able to employ individuals with these specialist skills are hardly far fetched. Claims have also emerged in October 2017 that far left groups from the US and Europe were meeting with members of ISIS and Al Qaeda with the intent of gaining bomb-making know-how in addition to materials needed for chemical and gas weapons. This indicates the alarming likelihood that trafficking groups could be helping to distribute nuclear, biological or chemical materials to Islamist and leftist groups abroad in areas such as the European Union and United States.
Another potential source of nuclear materials is through Russian organized crime networks who are known to deal with both the cartels and Islamic terror groups. Starting first with the Colombian traffickers before establishing economic relationships with their Mexican counterparts, this trade created a new market for cocaine and heroin coming from Central and South America while in return providing a fresh source of weapons and other munitions. This relationship would also allow cartels the opportunity to acquire nuclear material from Russian connected smuggling groups, who are known to have been seeking out ISIS representatives with the intention of selling them WMDs.
The cartels have also established ties with Asian organized crime groups who act as foreign policy agents for the government of China. In 2014, the South China Morning Post reported that Hong Kong based triads 14K and Sun Yee On were engaging with the Sinaloa cartel to provide them with precursor materials needed to produce methamphetamine. In return, Mexican syndicates have been utilizing Hong Kong banks and shell companies to launder money earned from sales of illicit goods. Human smuggling of Chinese nationals into the United States has boomed due to what law enforcement officials say is an “alliance between Chinese and Latin American smuggling rings.”
Disobedient Media reported in 2017 that the 14K triad was working with local affiliates on the American West Coast to push out pro-Taiwanese criminal interests and consolidate control. A 1997 expose by The New Republic showed that the 14K triad operates as a foreign policy proxy for elements of the Chinese Communist Party.
III. Close Ties To Current Mexican Government
Despite the fact that Mexico’s incoming President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), is seen as a populist and fresh change from Mexico’s elite class his party has known ties to criminal organizations. AMLO has directly advocated a number of policies that will drastically improve rather than hamper the position of the cartels. Obrador’s Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has been described as a “trojan horse” by observers for many years. In 2011 leaked audio recordings revealed that PRD candidate for governor of Michoacan Silvano Aureoles had received $2 million from the Knights Templar cartel. In November 2014, the former mayor of Iguala, Mexico, José Luis Abarca, was arrested and subsequently charged in connection to the kidnapping and murder of 43 Mexican students by the Beltrán Leyva cartel. Abarca, who ordered municipal police to hand the students over to cartel members, was also a PRD member.
AMLO has caused outrage during his campaign by floating the idea of offering amnesty for drug trafficking leadership. He is a member of the Foro de Sâo Paulo, whose members includes states such as Venezuela where the government engages in direct collaboration with trafficking groups like the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital or PCC). Economic reforms touted by Obrador also have the convenient effect of assisting cartel business interests. On August 28, 2018, Reuters reported that a document drafted by advisors to Obrador outlined a plan to close off Mexico’s oil and gas reserves to international companies indefinitely. Mexican oil companies such as Pemex report losing over a billion dollars a year to cartel interests, meaning that government attempts to hedge foreign groups out of the oil industry will result in greater control by organized crime over these important business interests.
A government that is firmly in the pocket of criminals alone would give Mexican trafficking syndicates the leverage they need to remain the supplier of 90 to 94% of all heroin consumed in the United States. With weapons of mass destruction in their possession, they could not only dominate Mexico but threaten the United States as well, particularly as relations between the two states have come increasingly to loggerheads over President Donald Trump’s policies concerning immigration, illegal trafficking and border security. Taking adequate measures to degrade the capabilities of the cartels is essential to improve Mexico’s anti-crime operations and ensure US national security.