For years, if not decades, Mexican drug lords and various upper-level members of Mexico’s transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) have resided in the United States. But because the savage drug war in Mexico has become so dangerous for them, they now prefer to spend more and more time at their “vacation” homes in the relative safety of US cities and communities.
Knowing that violent TCO members are living among us is disturbing on many levels, and has begged the question of whether the United States can be equated to Pakistan as a country that allows itself to be a “safe haven” for violent criminals and narco-terrorists?
In April 2006, the Department of State defined terrorist safe havens as follows:
"A terrorist safe haven is an area of relative security exploited by terrorists to indoctrinate, recruit, coalesce, train, and regroup, as well as prepare and support their operations… Physical safe havens provide security for many senior terrorist leaders, allowing them to plan and to inspire acts of terrorism around the world. The presence of terrorist safe havens in a nation or region is not necessarily related to state sponsorship of terrorism. In most instances cited in this chapter, areas or communities serve as terrorist safe havens despite the government's best efforts to prevent this."
Using the State Department’s own definition, one only has to replace the term “terrorist” with the term “TCO,” and a strong argument can be made that the United States fits technically can be construed to be a narco-terrorist safe haven.
Even Mexican President Felipe Calderón believes the US is a safe haven for leaders of cartels based in his country. In October 2011 he told The New York Times Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera - the capo of the Sinaloa Federation and arguably the most wanted man in the Western Hemisphere - was holed up somewhere north of the border.
“The surprising thing here is that he or his wife are so comfortable in the United States” that it “leads me to ask … how many families or how many Mexican drug lords could be living more calmly on the north side of the border than on the south side?” Calderón asked.
“What leads Chapo Guzmán to keep his family in the United States?” Calderón mussed.
Calderón broached the subject of Guzmán’s wife because in August 2011 Emma Coronel gave birth to twin girls in a Los Angeles hospital. Calderón said reporters ought to be asking why she was never detained.
There are no charges pending against Coronel; therefore, US law enforcement agents have no grounds to detain her. And, unfortunately, the same is true of many other members of Mexico’s TCOs who are residing in the United States.
The fact is many TCO members and individuals working for them have dual citizenship or are legal permanent residents of America. While they may have extensive criminal records in Mexico, as long as they haven’t committed a crime in the United States and Mexico hasn’t sought their extradition, they can lead relatively normal lives north of the border without law enforcement interference. This isn’t to say US law enforcement agencies aren’t aware of their presence or activities; it’s just that there’s not much they can do unless these TCO members commit a crime here.
It’s this situation that ultimately separates the United States from places like Pakistan when it comes to the “safe haven” definition. In April 2009, the State Department wisely updated their definition to read:
“Terrorist safe havens are defined in this report as ungoverned, under-governed, or ill-governed areas of a country and non-physical areas where terrorists that constitute a threat to U.S. national security interests are able to organize, plan, raise funds, communicate, recruit, train, and operate in relative security because of inadequate governance capacity, political will, or both.”
There are no areas in the US southwest that can be defined as “ungoverned, under-governed or ill-governed.” The US government is also not actively assisting TCO members living in the country or purposely ignoring their presence. In fact, US southern border region law enforcement agencies are more alert than ever to the potential threats posed by TCO members living in their jurisdictions. But that doesn’t mean the Mexican government will see it that way.
President Calderón has pointed his finger at the United States and blamed the federal government for the violence in his country. He says the drug war is a direct result of Americans’ demand for illegal drugs and US guns laws that allow tens of thousands of firearms to be smuggled across the border every year. Based on his casual statements about “El Chapo” Guzmán possibly living in the US, his next salvo may be to declare the United States a “narco safe haven” and to attempt some sort of legislative (and ultimately symbolic) action to this end.
Hopefully, this isn’t where Calderón is headed. He knows the US government is trying to fight this war as a partner with Mexico, despite its various policy shortcomings. President Obama also knows Calderón’s approval rating has been slipping and that his political party isn’t faring well in the run-up to Mexico’s July 2012 presidential election. It’s possible Calderón may still try to play the “narco safe haven” card, but if he does, it undoubtedly will be rebuffed by Obama.
In the meantime, US agencies can work harder to make America a much more difficult operating environment for TCO members by more aggressively scrutinizing suspicious financial transactions and expanding human intelligence networks to identify future drug smuggling activity.
Mexico’s “narcos” don’t operate in a vacuum on either side of the border. And while their networks are extremely difficult to penetrate, it’s not impossible. US law enforcement agents just need the proper tools and support to ensure that TCO members’ lives here are made as difficult as possible - that they’re made to understand their presence north of the border isn’t welcome.
A retired Air Force captain and former Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Homeland Security Today correspondent Sylvia Longmire worked as the Latin America desk officer analyzing issues in the US Southern Command area of responsibilty that might affect the security of deployed Air Force personnel. From Dec. 2005 through July 2009, she worked as an intelligence analyst for the California state fusion center and the California Emergency Management Agency's situational awareness Unit, where she focused almost exclusively on Mexican drug trafficking organizations and southwest border violence issues. Her book, "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars," was published in Sept. To contact Sylvia, email her at: sylvia(at)longmireconsulting.com.