|Billboard on I-10 in El Paso, Texas|
Republished with permission
The Threat of Spillover Violence
|Kate Steinle and murder suspect Francisco Sanchez|
In the evening of July 1, 2015, Kate Steinle, a 32 year old woman was out for a stroll with her father at Pier-14 along the San Francisco waterfront when she was killed by a man in an apparent random shooting. Pier 14 is one of San Francisco’s busiest tourist destinations, and a place where people gather to take in the beautiful scenic views, joggers exercise, and families push strollers at all hours of the day and night. Within an hour, the San Francisco police had apprehended the suspect in the shooting, 45 year old Francisco Sanchez.
Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez (or Francisco Sanchez; given name José Inez García Zarate), of Guanajuato, Mexico, was formally charged with first-degree murder and a firearm enhancement on July 6, 2015. He had previously been deported from the United States a total of five times, most recently in 2009. He was on probation in Texas during the time of the shooting. He had seven prior felony convictions, four for drug trafficking. The firearm Sanchez used in the shooting had been stolen days before from a federal law enforcement official.
The murder of Kate Steinle, and subsequent arrest of Sanchez drew national attention when GOP Presidential candidate, Donald Trump pointed to the incident as evidence of the need to secure the border with Mexico. “This senseless and totally preventable act of violence committed by an illegal immigrant is yet another example of why we must secure our border immediately.” Trump said in a public statement. The incident raises several concerns for the Homeland Security Enterprise.
The former head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, General Barry McCaffrey said after a visit to Mexico in late 2008, “Mexico is not confronting dangerous criminality, it is fighting for survival against narco-terrorism.” Hal Brands, an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and History at Stanford University, agrees with General McCaffrey, and goes a step further saying, “Well-financed cartels are doing battle with government and one another for control of drug corridors into the United States, significantly destabilizing internal order in Mexico.” Former U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton described Mexico as “looking more and more like Colombia looked twenty years ago.”
For the sake of comparison, the civil war fought in Sri Lanka between the brutal Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam and the government ground on for a quarter of a century, claiming perhaps 130,000 lives. Most estimates of the number of people killed in Mexican drug-related violence since late 2006 put the number at more than 60,000. However, some estimates place the number much higher, at 120,000 to 130,000, much closer to the number of deaths that occurred during the 25 year long Sri Lankan civil war. Although there is no official breakdown of the numbers, the victims of Mexico’s drug-related violence include suspected cartel members, government officials, including law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, members of the Mexican military and those considered innocent civilians.
So far, the United States has not experienced the same level of high intensity violent crime occurring in Mexico. However, the violent actions of the Mexican Cartels are affecting the United States nonetheless. The pernicious nature of the highly competitive illegal drug market and the violent actions of the cartels present a number of challenges for the United States. The close geographic proximity of the two countries makes it almost impossible to avoid.
The border between the United States and Mexico is 1,951 miles long. Each year more than 300 million people cross the border, approximately 90 million cars, and 4.3 million trucks. The border spans four U.S. states, and six Mexican states. There are thirty city pairings (cities directly across the border from one another), and approximately 12 million people live on both sides of the border. Mexico is the third largest U.S. trading partner and the third largest supplier of crude oil, and according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, in fiscal year 2011 U.S. goods and services trade with Mexico totaled $500 billion. So, the U.S. has a vested interest in maintaining a Mexico that is both secure and contributing to the prosperity of the United States, and North America. President Obama made this point in his National Security Strategy, when he described the stability and security of Mexico as “indispensable.”
The U.S. is already feeling the effects of weakening stability and security in Mexico, brought about by the cartels and their propensity to commit high intensity violent crimes. These effects can be broken down into three general categories. First, there are those effects, which occur inside the U.S., which can be directly related to crimes committed by the cartels, their affiliated gangs, and drug users. Second, there are those effects that adversely affect U.S. interests in Mexico. Finally, there are effects that challenge U.S. interests around the region, and around the world. All three categories reflect how widespread and detrimental Mexico’s cartels and the violent crimes they commit have become.
The Rule of Law
|Joacquin “El Chapo” Guzman|
On the evening of July 11, 2015, Mexico’s most notorious criminal, Sinaloa Cartel boss, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, calmly walked to the shower in his cell at Altiplano prison, a Mexican maximum security facility. He bent down next to a low wall, and disappeared from the view of the surveillance camera mounted on the wall of his cell. Some 18 minutes later prison authorities would find that he had slipped through a two foot by two foot hole in the floor of the shower, climbed down some 30 feet into a tunnel, complete with lighting and ventilation, and road a motorcycle on rails 1.5 kilometers to a nearby construction compound, in the nearby neighborhood of Santa Juanita, where he would disappear.
|El Chapo's tunnel|
This was not El Chapo’s first escape from a Mexican maximum security prison. On January 19, 2001, he escaped from Puente Grande prison with the assistance of several government employees. Someone opened his electronically secured cell. Someone disabled the video cameras. Someone smuggled him onto a laundry truck in a burlap bag, and someone drove him out of the prison. The subsequent investigation eventually lead to numerous accusations of corruption on the part of prison staff following the escape, with charges eventually filed against more than 70 prison employees.
In Mexico, the “plata o plomo” ultimatum has lead to widespread corruption. “Plata o plomo” means silver or lead. In other words, the cartels are offering a bribe to the public official. If the official refuses the bribe, the cartels threaten to kill the official, and often threaten to murder the official’s entire family as well. Faced with this ultimatum, is it any wonder that corruption in Mexico is so widespread? Law enforcement officers in the U.S. have also been targets of the “plata o plomo” approach, though to a lesser extent than in Mexico.
Cartel-Influenced Corruption North of the Border:
In August of 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a special report entitled, “On the Southwest Border — Public Corruption: A Few Bad Apples.” The report indicates the FBI works closely with many federal agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and the DEA. The result has been more than 400 public corruption cases originating from the Southwest Region — and more than 100 arrests and about 130 state and federal cases prosecuted in 2010. From 2004 to 2010, 103 CBP agents were arrested or indicted on corruption charges including drug smuggling, alien smuggling, money laundering and conspiracy.
These cases of cartel-influenced corruption have not been limited to low-level employees. The arrest of Richard Cramer, a high-ranking official with ICE demonstrates that even top officials can be enticed by cartel bribes. Cramer’s arrest warrant indicated he advised drug traffickers on law enforcement tactics, and he pulled classified files to help them identify turncoats.
The Panama Unit:
The corrupting influence of the Mexican cartels is also affecting state and local law enforcement in the United States. For example, In December 2012, the FBI arrested members of the Hidalgo County, Texas Sheriff’s Department anti-drug unit, known as the Panama Unit. In April 2014 nine agents were convicted on conspiracy charges for drug trafficking, in addition to three drug traffickers who were working with the Sheriff’s deputies. Court documents revealed members of the Panama Unit stole drugs from local warehouses along the border, and worked for the cartels by guarding freight trucks carrying drug shipments north from the border. The Justice Department recently created an FBI task force to make criminal cases in the Rio Grande Valley and begin to curb the corruption that involve local police units, federal border officers, courthouses, school boards, hospitals and ballot boxes.