Lately news from the U.S.-Mexican border has not been encouraging. The Border War there is entering a new phase as cartel operatives begin to operate extensively behind the front line: infiltrating American communities and posing new praxeological problems for the American response, let alone providing a new case for reframing canonical international relations analysis. Using war vocabulary terms like ‘border war,’ ‘front line,’ and ‘infiltrate’ is almost unavoidable in discussing the current situation along the southern frontier of the US and northern Mexico. Usually, the intersection of this vocabulary and criminal justice poses a problem in framing law enforcement as soldiers and criminals as enemies: a highly problematic dualism for civilian policing in a democracy. Combined with the increased militarization of the American police since 9/11, this vocabulary and trend is particularly odious. Nonetheless, the Cartels are a new enigma and their strategies, tactics, and behaviors are broad and significant enough that there is no suitable alternative to war vocabulary to describe their activities, especially given that their behavior approximates that of states. Indeed, the problem this new infiltration poses is that, contrary to past and artificial ‘War on’ framings in which the oppositional rhetoric damaged law enforcement efficacy, these infiltrating agents of foreign powers merit a war against them. Thus, they sit uncomfortably between the remit of the Justice Department and the Defense Department – a grey area in which spies and terrorists have only before threatened the United States, and in which the United States lacks an established response.

Image courtesy of Christus Vincit, © 2013, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Christus Vincit, © 2013, some rights reserved.

According to the Associated Press, operatives working directly for Mexican cartels have increasingly infiltrated American cities. This is a strategic shift from relying on local gangs for the transport, storage, and distribution of narcotics. Direct cartel presence has so far been found in 1200 American communities. Representing the significant expanse of the cartels far from the border, Chicago’s ‘Public Enemy Number One,’ a title once held by Al Capone is a Mexican cartel leader named Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, even though he has never been in Chicago. He earned this distinction because he leads the Sinaloa cartel that supplies Chicago’s narcotics market.

One way of viewing these agents is simply as criminals to be investigated and prosecuted. In this framing, the appropriate response is restrained to pure law enforcement. The United States has invested significantly in this realm and pursues an intense federal policy to root out these actors. That said the cartels that these infiltrators represent are peculiar entities from an international relations standpoint. In some areas of Northern Mexico they have subsumed the State: even adopting some social services in the same vein as Hamas. They maintain significant armed forces that are known to wear uniforms and bear identifying insignia and operate increasingly sophisticated military equipment. Many cartels effectively control territory and they have revenues larger than some recognized states. They are far more complex and internationally relevant than other criminal syndicates in their pseudo-military forces and control of territory. To highlight this distinguishing characteristic, if the Cosa Nostra in Italy had displaced Italian state forces and had uniformed infantry forces that did battle with the Italian army on a daily basis, they would not be considered just a criminal entity.

Therein lies the problem: responding to these infiltrators with military force within the United States is fraught with constitutional dilemmas and would be a woe-some precedent. There are very compelling reasons to limit the response to civilian law enforcement within a democracy- this has been the historical response to terrorism and espionage within the U.S. However, the downside of the law enforcement response is that policing would necessarily become more militarized. This can be seen in recent developments in agencies near the border. Once para-military entities and tactics are adopted, it is incredibly difficult to limit their application solely to the cartel infiltrator. As mentioned earlier, when we deploy frames which set up the police as soldiers and the subjects of their investigations as enemies, this perspective bleeds into law enforcement conduct with their non-cartel constituencies, with negative consequences for both the police and the country.

As these agents of foreign criminal state-like entities increasingly infiltrate US communities far from the border, these praxeological questions will only become deeper and more pressing. At the moment, there is neither an easy or apparent solution. Considerable attention should be given to any response as a short-term response to an acute political emergency may have lasting detrimental effects on the structure of American justice and defense.

In the bigger picture, these cartels, their infiltrators and the paradox of responding to them illustrate how a new type of actor in international relations rephrases old debates. The connections that these ambassadors-cum-infiltrators have to pseudo-state entities renders them different in character to clandestine terror cells, in that they are tied to an organization with territorial affiliation and criminal or commercial goals rather than political. This demonstrates that international relations as an academic pursuit, let alone a practical exercise must remain open to new forms and types of actors that do not fit in to pre-determined typologies. In the past cartels have been painted with either the criminal or “War on” brush. Their increasing penetration of America indicates that we need to critically re-engage with this phenomenon and avoid inept but politically convenient categorizations.

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