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Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars

Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars

Author: Sylvia Longmire
New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 256p.
Reviewer: David A. Marvelli | January 2012

Sylvia Longmire’s Cartel presents an insightful introduction to a very complex topic of consequence for U.S. national security: the Mexican drug trade and its incipient violence and destabilization of Mexican governance. The book covers a wide range of topics, to include a concise history of the Mexican drug trade, human smuggling and mass immigration, as well as weapons trafficking from the U.S. to Mexico.

While dealing with a variety of issues, the topics are tied together by Longmire’s central thesis, which is conveyed in the subtitle “the coming invasion [to the United States] of Mexico’s drug wars.” Despite the sensationalized warning of an “invasion,” Longmire’s use of illustrative anecdotes from interviews with law enforcement personnel and media reports provide a window into the consequences of the Mexican drug trade on the U.S. that is not often captured in national crime statistics. For instance, she details accounts of drug-related kidnapping operations against drug dealers as well as others not associated with the drug business. Other telling tales include the indiscriminate retaliatory violence against individuals in the U.S. who owe Mexican drug traffickers money.

The downside of Longmire’s use of anecdotes and media reports is a limitation on her ability to convey to the reader that violent activities in the United States are in fact increasing as a result of the Mexican drug trade (a central proposition of her thesis). Although she acknowledges the discrepancies between anecdotal reports and state and national crime statistics—which have repeatedly demonstrated either a decline or stagnation of the reported violence in the Border States—she suggests this discrepancy results from a lack of a common definition of “spillover violence,” given that most official definitions of spillover violence exclude trafficker-on-trafficker violence. While there have certainly been violent crimes committed on behalf of the Mexican drug traffickers in the United States, the specific magnitude of the problem remains an elusive question, especially when the violent crimes may be committed by US-based drug distribution networks.

Interrelated with the ambiguity of defining spillover violence is Longmire’s lack of a clear definition of just what constitutes a “cartel”—a central concept to her overall analysis. Does a “cartel” include all components of the drug trade: producers, manufacturers, couriers, and distributors? The author does not tell us. This lack of a guiding definition permits Longmire to group U.S. gangs with Mexican drug organizations, suggesting U.S. gangs work for the cartels by pushing drugs onto U.S. children (p.193). The suggestion that American gangs work for the cartels is misleading. American gangs, such as the Mexican Mafia and the Barrio Azteca, indeed have known associations to Mexican drug traffickers, but are in fact autonomous organizations willing to work with Mexican drug traffickers in order to ensure a steady supply of narcotics for distribution in the United States. They do not literally work for the Mexican cartels.

Despite these shortcomings, Cartel offers a sobering account of the unprecedented violence in Mexico and the consequences it has had on Mexican governments at different levels. These issues alone are of great consequence for regional stability and for U.S. national security.  

David A. Marvelli is a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University and an intelligence analyst for the Federal Bureau of Investigation

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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