The U.S. government has released its 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, which undermines scaremongering by those who warn of an “invasion” of Mexican criminal gangs in U.S. cities.
As might be expected, the multinational gangs that figure the most in the U.S. government’s description are Mexico drug traffickers syndicates, from the Sinaloa Cartel to the Zetas, and their American allies. Somewhat surprisingly, Colombian groups don’t appear in the report at all, an indication of the degree to which Mexicans have supplanted Colombians as the primary source of drug-related concern for American policy-makers.
As the report indicates, “US-based gangs and MDTOs [Mexican drug trafficking organizations] are establishing wide-reaching drug networks; assisting in the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and illegal immigrants along the Southwest Border; and serving as enforcers for MDTO interests on the US side of the border.”
Furthermore, the assessment suggests that gangs from Mexico and Central America could grow even more influential in U.S. cities. According to the report’s authors, the violence in northern Mexico could spur increased immigration flows into the U.S., thus increasing the ranks of disaffected and disenfranchised youths north of the border. This could provide fertile recruiting ground both for local gangs and transnational Mexican groups.
However, there is little evidence to support such a worry. Immigration to the U.S. has slowed to a mere trickle in the past few years, even as the drug-related violence near the border has grown far worse. While growing, the number of Mexican asylum-seekers remains quite small; a few thousand “narco-refugees” each year are unlikely to generate a surge of gangland youth bent on taking Mexico’s drug wars into U.S. territory.
The report is also noteworthy for what it doesn’t say. For the past several years, U.S. authorities have highlighted the role of Mexican criminal groups in the U.S., painting the picture of a situation that is growing ever-more precarious. In 2008, the National Drug Intelligence Center published a report that named 195 U.S. cities in which Mexican traffickers “operate,” including remote locales like Decatur, Alabama and Kalamazoo, Michigan.
That number continued to rise. “Mexican drug cartels are in well over 200 cities here in the United States,” Gil Kerlikowske, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told The Daily earlier this year. In the same report, an ICE agent told The Daily that the activities of Mexican gangs in cities “all over America” was “the stuff of nightmares.” Despite the fact that law enforcement officials gave little context or qualification for their concerns, voices like Rep. Michael McCaul and Lou Dobbs used such comments to stir up fears of an invasion in progress by Mexican criminal groups.
The most recent assessment, in contrast, offers a much more nuanced picture of the relationship between the most notorious Mexican gangs and crime in U.S. cities. Rather than a Mexican hegemon pulling criminal strings on U.S. streets from thousands of miles away, what we see is evidence of a supply chain. The Mexican groups all have local partners charged with retail distribution of their merchandise: the Sinaloa Cartel works with, for instance, the Latin Kings and the Mexican Mafia, while the Zetas work with the U.S.-based branches of MS-13 to market their drugs.
This is not fundamentally different from the relationship other foreign drug traffickers — Vietnamese opium producers, Colombian cocaine manufacturers — have set up to import drugs into the U.S. Indeed, foreign producers of any good, illegal or otherwise, will by necessity have a similar relationship with domestic retailers. Rather than the ominous incursion of the world’s nastiest gangs into the U.S., this is merely the working of a global supply chain.
The report is also interesting in that it describes the Sinaloa Cartel, widely considered Mexico’s most powerful, as closely linked to the Mexican Mafia, which is one of the most powerful street gangs in the American West. As a recent report from David Skarbek explains, the Mexican Mafia uses their control over the prison system in California — where their enemies are subject to easy retribution — to multiply their influence over other gangs in the state.
In that sense, the alliance between the Mexican Mafia and the Sinaloa Cartel pairs the most powerful criminal group in Mexico with the strongest group in California, the U.S. state with the biggest drug market.