Mexico Brands Drug Gang Tactics ‘Terrorist’

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A report by Mexico’s government has branded the actions of the Familia drug gang as “terrorist” — a misleading term to describe a criminal group that has no more political aims or violent tactics than its rivals in the Mexican underworld.

The Secretariat of Public Security’s report, titled “Results of the Federal Police in the combat of the criminal organization the Familia,” has sparked wide interest in the country. Applying the “terrorist” label is a guaranteed attention-getter, and, indeed, the report was front-page news on a number of different newspapers.

However, the moniker is not well used here. Even if one overlooks the overtly political or religious element of most modern terrorism and accepts that drug gangs in Mexico occasionally employ terrorist-style tactics, it’s not clear that the Familia has earned the designation.

A workable definition for terrorism in Mexico’s underworld could be the intentional targeting of civilians or the use of sophisticated explosive devices, not for their tactical advantages, but to sow fear among the local population. Using this guideline, there have been a handful of instances of terrorism in recent years: the grenade attacks on the independence day celebrations in Morelia in 2008, the shootings of partying youths at a handful of bars in Torreon in the first half of 2010, and the car bomb attack on the Federal Police in Juarez in July 2010.

But none of these acts were committed by the Familia (the perpetrators were, respectively, the Zetas, a local prison-based gang believed to be connected to the Sinaloa Cartel, and La Linea), nor have any of the group’s attacks risen to that standard.

The report seems to base its terrorist designation on the group’s use of “propaganda tactics in a terrorist mold to generate a climate of violence and social intimidation through executions, messages, threats on banners, and internet videos, with the objective of creating spaces of impunity for their operations.”

This analysis is surely correct, but virtually every drug gang in Mexico engages in propagandistic “narcomantas,” sensational killings, and Internet videos, all of which are designed to influence popular opinion. The Familia –especially former boss·Servando Gomez, alias “La Tuta,”·who now heads a splinter group calling itself Los Cabelleros Templarios — may place more emphasis on public relations than some other groups, but it is a difference of degree rather than of type.

It is not, therefore, clear than any of this separates the Familia from its rivals. In other words, if the Familia is a terrorist group, than so are a vast majority of the major criminal organizations operating in Mexico.

The Familia has, however, long been known as one of the drug gangs that is particularly aggressive with regard to extortion and other non-traditional sources of illicit income, a phenomenon that has grown more prominent in Mexico over the past several years. As a result of the Familia and other gangs’ expansion into other criminal realms, rates of extortion, kidnapping, and other crimes, which often affect the law-abiding public in ways that drug trafficking does not, have shot up in Mexico in recent years.

As Excelsior reports, the government document also offers new details about the revenues extracted by extorting legitimate businesses in Michoacan. For instance, the gang extracts sales “taxes,” charging vendors $1.50 for every ton of metal sold, and ranchers a dollar for each pound of meat.

The Familia also reportedly imposes illegal “taxes” on farmers, charging rates of up to 30 percent on avocado and lime shipments.

The timing of the report is also striking, as such reports are not released by the Mexican government with great frequency. After a series of blows over the course of the past year, the Familia is a shell of its former self. One of the few bosses remaining from the Familia’s rise to power, Jose de Jesus Mendez Vargas, alias “El Chango,” was arrested last week. As a result, much of what the report is describing could soon be thing of the past, though it does offer an indication of the degree to which gangs can impose themselves on everyday commerce.

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