Organized Crime in Mexico, Central America and the Carribean


By: Gerald F. Witherspoon, Sr. 20141023

The Battle for Influence

Actualized or realizable security is the premise upon which legitimate governments and criminal organizations and networks battle for influence. That is, empty promises from politicians employing security-oriented rhetoric that does not stem the tide of a wide range of human insecurities provides ample opportunity for global citizens to be recruited by illegitimate groups who have materialized armed protection and secured economic opportunities.

Homes have been invaded, innocent men, women, and children murdered, entire communities destroyed by natural and unnatural disasters, and staggering unemployment rates continue to rise. Untold amounts of unheard cries point to the inability of respective governments to stabilize and protect their domains.

Transnational criminal organizations or gangs such as the MS-13 (predominantly composed of Central Americans) threaten citizen security while simultaneously initiating members searching for support after succumbing to vulnerability (Seelke 2012). Terrorists such as the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas revolucionarias de Colombia) and the ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional) and the right-wing paramilitary group the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) spotlight these failures as they solicit support for their governmental denouncements (Thachuk 2007).

Migrants attempting to flee insecurities run the risk of being perceived as terrorists or transnational criminals. That is not to say that illegal immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean are innocent as many turn to criminal organizations for help and “The U.S. remains the preferred destination” (Thachuk 2007).

Moreover, governments attempting to counter threats to national security run the risk of wasting resources on “threats” that do not actually exist.

The Need to Clarify Transnational Threats for Efficient Resource Allocation

As prefaced in a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) titled, Border Security: Understanding threats at U.S. Borders, “Any smuggled item or individual hidden among the legitimate flows potentially constitutes a threat to U.S. security or interests” (Rosenblum, Bjelopera, and Finklea 2013).

The report put forth “actions” and “intentions” as the primary determinants when categorizing “unauthorized travelers” as “terrorists, transnational criminals, and other illegal migrants” (Roensenblum, Bjelopera, and Finklea 2013). Still further, it demonstrated how some goods are outright illegal while others become illegal only when smuggled for the purpose of avoiding enforcements such as taxation (Roensenblum, Bjelopera, and Finklea 2013).

It is important to distinguish amongst these various actors and activities in order to avoid misdirecting funds from budgets that are already scarce. Furthermore, there would be grave consequences to underestimating relative threats.

For instance, illegal immigrants may have as their motive a desire for improved economic circumstances and increased safety with no intention to engage in additional criminal activity. In contrast, terrorists and transnational criminals may also use illegal entry, but for the purpose of launching a violent attack for various reasons.

Logically, the latter two would carry a higher risk of introducing illegal goods such as weapons (potentially including WMDs) and transnational criminals, especially, would have  a high propensity to introduce drugs and other pirated or counterfeit products that have a debilitating effect on the economy and grand society. Nevertheless, illegal items and individuals continue to travel full circle from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean to the U.S.

The Impact of Organized Crime on State Legitimacy and International Security

Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) offer one candid example of how legitimate governments and international security are undermined.  Mexican DTOs are some of the most violent and influential and have a presence in more than 1000 U.S. cities demonstrating the spill-over effect (Beittel 2013).

Drug sales are used to finance the corruption of U.S. and Mexican border officials and “…help neutralize government action against the DTOs, ensure impunity, and facilitate smooth operations” (Beittel 2013, 7). Mayors, local and federal police, elite airborne special force members, and high ranking army officers  have been counted amongst their ranks, suspected and charged with crimes such as contracted murders and the facilitation of drug trafficking  (Beittel, 2013).

Past attempts (namely the Merida initiative – conceived by Presidents George Bush and President Calderon) to curtail drug trafficking and violence have reportedly led to fragmentation and escalations in violence and competition (Beittel 2013).

The once esteemed Mexican military was considered by some to be more effective at committing human rights violations than delivering an antidrug campaign (Beittel 2013).

As if fragmented DTOs and other criminal groups were not enough, there has been an upsurge in self-appointed self-defense groups (Beittel 2013). These groups claim local, state, and federal authorities are not providing adequate protection. State governments sometime tolerate these groups, but often engage in denial and criticize them for undermining “legitimate government authority” (Beittel 2013, 37).


Effective government or governance appears to require a fine balance between institutions that provide adequate security to the general population and the ability to retain public support by preventing criminal organizations from exacerbating vulnerabilities within the wider society.

The loss of public confidence leads to citizens who seek out ways to protect themselves and are confronted with the recruitment of, or endangerment by, gangs, cartels, mafias or DTOs.

Lopsided resource allocation toward militarization schemes may drain the prospect for successes that could otherwise be attained.

DTOs such as the La Familia Michoacana (LFM) project images of “Robin Hood” by “donating food, medical care, and schools to benefit the poor” (Beittel 2013, 17). These are insidious implications of possible other strategies that may exist and could effectively alleviate great levels of insecurity.

Governments have their work cut out for them as vulnerable populations and criminal organizations alike anticipate an effective or ineffective response throughout Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.  The U.S. must plan carefully and allocate resources strategically in order to stave off insecurities perpetrated and exploited by opportunistic criminals while considering the transnational ramifications of their policies and partnerships.


Beittel, June S. Mexico’s Drug Trafficking Organizations: Source and Scope of the Violence. CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service, 2013.

Rosenblum, Marc R., jerome P. Bjelopera and Kristin M. Finklea. Border Security: Understanding threats at U.S. Borders. CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service , 2012.

Seelke, Clare. Gangs in Central America. CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service , 2012.

Thachuk, Kimberley L. 2007. Transnational Threats. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.


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