Measuring Drug-Related Terrorist Activity in Mexico


Overview Since mid-2009, Mexican drug cartels have increased their use of terrorist tactics as a means to coerce rivals and intimidate authorities and society.

By Alejandro Schtulmann

The September 2009 grenade attack on in Morelia, Michoacan, which left eight people dead and 37 wounded, formally inaugurated this new phase of drug violence, which has since intensified.

Broadly speaking, the new type of violence is characterized by:

(i) Emblematic assassinations. Whereas the cartels previously used the executions of subordinates to send a message of dissatisfaction to higher-ranking officials, they are now more frequently going directly after those officials and politicians who threaten their operations, or against emblematic figures in order to send a message to the political class. Recent assassinations, such as that of Rodolfo Torre Cantu, the PRI’s gubernatorial candidate in the state of Tamaulipas on June 29th, or the killing of Santiago mayor Edelmiro Cavazos August 22nd in Nuevo Leon, are examples of their changing tactics.

(ii) Increased use of explosives; greater sophistication. The July 16th car bomb in Ciudad Juarez, which left four people dead and scores wounded, is an illustration of the increasing use of explosives by cartels and their cells, as well the greater sophistication in the preparation of these attacks. Both the assassinations of Torre Cantu and Cavazos also evidenced well-rehearsed and highly coordinated plans. This modus operandi contrasts with previous uses of violence, which tended to be less sophisticated. Interestingly, recent operations against the cartels have uncovered training camps similar to those used by terrorist organizations in the Middle East, along with espionage equipment and sophisticated explosives.

(iii) Targeting of civilians. While civilians have frequently been collateral victims of intra cartel violence, the deliberate targeting of civilians is on the rise, with cartels commonly killing entire families or even friends of their enemies, along with anybody who resists their extortionate demands. The latter was the case in the recent killing of 72 undocumented migrants on August 23rd who refused the demands of their captors. At the same time, cartels are increasingly willing to use explosives against civilians. For instance, on August 28th, groups apparently connected to Los Zetas detonated a series of hand grenades at different points near downtown Reynosa, Tamaulipas, leaving 15 civilians wounded, nine of whom were hospitalized. Finally, last September 15th, authorities in Cancun, Quintana Roo, frustrated plans by an armed group with ties to Los Zetas to carry out a grenade attack on revelers at the bicentennial celebrations.

(iv) Mounting attacks against authorities and journalists. During 2010 there has been a sharp increase in kidnappings and executions (“levantamientos”) of law enforcement officials and journalists investigating drug-trafficking activities or connections between cartels and public officials, along with constant threats directed against law enforcement agencies, newspapers, media companies and their directors.

A Matter of Semantics?

Official statements so far have abstained from using the word “terrorism” to avoid causing widespread panic and deepening market fears. Nevertheless, the reality is that the events and the trends described above have crossed over into the realm of terrorism.

Although definitions of terrorism tend to vary according to political context, most accepted definitions cite the use of brutal violence as a means to coerce individuals or society to yield to specific demands. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.” 


Like other terrorist organizations worldwide, Mexican cartels are resorting to terrorism as a means to intimidate and coerce authorities into abandoning specific policies. This strategy also serves to prove that they have the capacity, resources, and willingness to answer to any provocations by the government.

The underlying difference between acts of terrorism carried out by cartels in Mexico and those used by extremist groups in the Middle East or Europe (e.g. the ETA in Spain) is the lack of a fundamental political or religious ideology motivating them. In Mexico, the rationale for the cartels is to protect their multimillion-dollar operations.

It is this economic rationale that explains hard-to-fathom acts of violence such as the recurrent attacks against rehab centers, whose main object is to drive addicts away from recovery and back into consumption (see our special report from July 29th).

Objectives of Drug-Related Terrorism

Aside from their key objectives of coercion and intimidation, the escalation of violence by cartels aims to undermine the authority of the state by fomenting a chaotic environment and demonstrating the government’s incapacity to guarantee the security of its citizens.

The best-known modern example of drug-related terrorism is that of Colombia. This South American country experienced a brutal period between 1989 and 2000 during which powerful drug cartels (the Medellin Cartel under Pablo Escobar and the Cali Cartel in particular) fought the government with a campaign of terror. This was characterized by summary executions of civilians, car bomb attacks, armed assaults on government buildings, kidnappings and assassinations of government officials and politicians, and even the hijacking and exploding of civilian airliners.

In Colombia, the cartels also financed and influenced various armed insurgent groups (a remote yet possible scenario in Mexico) as a means to create a chaotic environment that would allow them greater freedom to operate.

This strategy of terror led the country into social crisis and political vacuum—with the state losing control of large parts of the country’s territory—the consequences of which are still being experienced today.

Sowing a Little Anarchy

Evidence in Mexico demonstrates that the drug cartels have realized some success in sowing chaos in particular regions in which they operate, as well as changing internal and external perceptions about the country’s security situation.

Earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was concerned about the escalating “insurgency in Mexico,” implicitly likening the situation to that of countries such as Iraq in past years, or more recently, Afghanistan. Although her comments were later softened by President Barack Obama and high-ranking officials at the State Department to avoid creating frictions with the Mexican government, the fact is that external perceptions about the country’s security are rapidly deteriorating.

Clearly, the perception of lawlessness is more acute in those regions that have long been affected by drug violence. For instance, after cartels murdered one of its reporters on September 16th, the Ciudad Juarez newspaper El Diario responded, “If the goal of these killings is to convince us that the cartels are the de facto authorities [in Chihuahua], that has been very clear for several years.”

The result has been growing skepticism regarding the state’s security policies that translates into increased political costs for the Calderon administration’s security strategy. Likewise, because much of President Calderon’s original political capital was founded on his perceived toughness against organized crime, this growing skepticism has translated into a loss of popular support for the president.

Deepening Cycles of Violence

Like Colombia in the early years of the terror campaign, the use of these tactics in Mexico is characterized by the multiplicity of actors involved. In the context of a war of attrition between cartels and the state, this situation tends to lead to deepening cycles of violence as rival cartels are pushed to ever-greater lengths to win fear and respect—at least until the state manages to put down the most belligerent cartels. These cycles were present in Colombia and are key to understanding the emergence of terrorist activity in Mexico.

At the same time, the use of terrorist tactics by various groups, as opposed to a single actor, makes it all the more difficult for authorities to identify those responsible for such acts, much less to eradicate the problem by putting an end to a single cartel (a highly ambitious, yet attainable goal).

This was the case with the 2009 Morelia terrorist attack. Preliminary investigations pointed to members of cartel of La Familia as the authors of the attack. An alternative hypothesis is that Los Zetas carried out the attack in an attempt to further set the government against La Familia. In the end, the government carried out a few arrests (acting on tips provided by other criminal groups), but it was never able to bring in those who masterminded the attack, and thus never presented any firm conclusions to the public or attributed the attack to any particular cartel.

Mexican Cartels and International Terrorism

In this new wave of violence, there have also been warning signs that Mexican drug cartels may be willing to take actions that cross over to international terrorism.

Under the U.S. legal code, international terrorism is defined as “activities that appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by assassination or kidnapping.” According to the same definition, these acts occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S. or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they intend to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate. Just as with the general definition of terrorism the motives are commonly ideological, religious, or political.

Although relatively minor in scale, the Juarez Cartel’s killings of U.S. consulate employees and their relatives in Ciudad Juarez on March 14th fall under such a definition. Upon investigating the assassinations, Mexican authorities discovered that the motive behind the attack was to draw the U.S. government’s attention to the alleged favoritism exercised by the Calderon administration towards the Sinaloa Cartel.

Nevertheless, the possibility of more attacks against U.S. nationals (both diplomatic personnel and private citizens) aiming to pressure the U.S. government should not be discounted. Cartels have on different occasions thrown grenades at U.S. consulates in northern states. It is no coincidence that U.S. State Department has requested their diplomatic personnel in the state of Nuevo Leon to take their children out of the country as a security measure against the rapidly deteriorating situation in this state currently disputed by Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel.

At the same time, there is a growing danger that Mexican drug cartels may reproduce and intensify their terrorist tactics in Central America, where they have greatly increased their presence in order to secure new transit routes. The countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, where the bulk of drug trafficking activity in the region is concentrated, have seen the worst of the violence. The combined drug-related executions(DREs) in these countries during 2009 were nearly double those in Mexico during the same year. This surging violence has been attributed to turf wars between Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel over control of key transit routes. These cartels have also incorporated local criminal groups into their feud. Furthermore, in March 2009, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom as well as other high-level politicians in these countries received death threats that have been traced to Los Zetas.

Clearly, should a Mexican cartel attempt to assassinate a high-level government official from one of these Central American countries, it would automatically gain a spot in the U.S. State Department’s list of international terrorist organizations—not to mention the serious consequences that such an attack would have on the political and economic stability in these countries, which have notably weaker institutions than Mexico or Colombia.

So far, the U.S. government has not yet branded any Mexican cartel as a terrorist organization, as it did with paramilitary groups financed by cartels in Colombia. However, we can foresee this happening in the future, with Los Zetas (Mexico’s most belligerent criminal organization) well placed to be first on the list.

Monitoring Terrorist Activity: Relevance and Initial Methodology

Since the outset of Mexico’s offensive against drug cartels, we have used DREs as the best proxy in measuring the dimensions of the conflict between rival cartels and between cartels and the state. We have also relied on DREs to monitor levels of violence in those states with concentrated trafficking activity. However, as explained in our Rule of Law and Security Update of July 21st, the increasing use of terrorist tactics by drug cartels necessitates a different type of methodology—one that distinguishes between traditional drug violence and those attacks which are properly described as acts of terrorism.

For instance, the execution of a mayor or a gubernatorial candidate can’t be classified as just another DRE; it has a different meaning and greater ramifications. At the same time, on the scale of terrorist tactics, a grenade thrown at a crowd of civilians differs from the targeted assassination of a high-level government official.

Why Monitor Terrorist Activity?

Evidence from the Colombian experience suggests that the incipient use of terrorist tactics in Mexico is likely to escalate as the war between the cartels and the state intensifies and some cartels decide to engage into a war of attrition with the Mexican state.

Even in a scenario where DREs decline, the increased use of terrorist tactics could lead to an even sharper deterioration in quality of life for citizens in regions bitterly contested by the cartels. This deterioration of security conditions could have important destabilizing effects at the political and economic levels. Hence, there is a need to track the frequency and sophistication of such attacks.

An Initial Approach

In a first attempt to monitor the use of terrorist tactics by Mexican drug cartels and define a series of parameters of drug violence, we have created an index consisting of seven levels of terrorist activity. Each level comprises a series of incidents that have actually occurred either in Mexico or Colombia as well as a number of potential developments. These have been grouped according to different criteria, including: i) the gravity of each action in terms of purpose and its modus operandi; ii) social, political, and geographical context; iii) media impact and social perception; and iv) potential effects on social, political, and economic stability.

Level ONE represents the intensification from ordinary drug violence (i.e., mostly taking place at the intra-cartel level—with limited attacks against authorities) into a number of basic acts of terrorism, judged according to the current context and dynamics that have characterized the phenomenon; Level SEVEN represents the most critical and potentially destabilizing situations.

For instance, even though this isn’t in itself an act of terrorism, we consider monthly DREs above the one-thousand mark to be an important threshold, given the ramifications that these extremely high levels of violence have on social and market perceptions, as well as the impression of lawlessness and impunity that such a level of violence conveys.

Drug-Related Terrorist Activity in Mexico

A Note on the Methodology

Many questions may arise concerning the criteria used to categorize the different types of actions or situations in the table above. Although we would like to dedicate more space to explaining these criteria, this will be done meticulously in the months ahead as we continue working on the index and as testing and refinement take place. In this context, it is important to note this is EMPRA’s first attempt to measure drug-related terrorism activity in Mexico, and we will continue to revise and improve our approach toward monitoring this threat. Feedback and comments are welcomed.

The goal is to be able to monitor the evolution of this phenomenon with increased precision and to eventually be able to anticipate spikes of terrorist activity, as we have successfully done with levels of DREs during the past few years. This will allow us to construct more accurate risk scenarios.

Monitoring will take place on a monthly basis, although results may be presented via bimonthly or quarterly updates.

Final Considerations

Notwithstanding the definitions discussed above, the fact is that much of the most recent violence is already perceived by the public as terrorism. The combination of spiraling drug violence and the growing use of terrorist tactics has begun affecting public perceptions at the local, national and international levels, causing support to dwindle for Calderon’s offensive against the cartels.

Although it is known that the Calderon administration has been weighing the possibility of using the word ‘terrorism’ to label some of the violence by Mexican cartels, a number of officials within his inner circle fear the word will be mishandled by critics to highlight the failures of Calderon’s strategy of confrontation towards the cartels.

Our view is that the Calderon administration will sooner or later have to incorporate this word into its lexicon when discussing particular acts of violence in Mexico. Indeed, employing such rhetoric may help Calderon by consolidating backing for his security policies among voters—provided his administration can successfully use it to galvanize public outrage against the cartels. As noted above, the experience in Colombia suggests that Mexico is still at an early stage in the use of terrorist tactics by cartels.


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