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Eduardo Salcedo Albaran & Luis Jorge Garay at Small Wars Journal

How Corruption Affects National Security of the United States

by Eduardo Salcedo-Albaran and Luis Jorge Garay

Journal Article | October 6, 2011 - 3:35pm


The number of crimes specifically related to domestic security has dropped in cities located near the U.S. side of the U.S./Mexico border. At the same time, the number of officials charged for corruption in different security agencies has increased, including those on the U.S. side. After analyzing more detailed empirical evidence than the one considered in this document, these situations could sustain the hypothesis that Mexican Transnational Criminal Networks (TCNs) operate in the U.S. side of the U.S./Mexico border mainly throughout corruption and co-optation instead of violent procedures to confront other TCNs and U.S. security agencies. However, at this point, it is possible to propose this hypothesis for the purpose of exploration and discussion. Validating or dismissing this hypothesis would allow establishing the possibility that innovative or even sophisticated methods of corruption carried out by Mexican TCNs inside the U.S. directly affect the security of the U.S. If this is the case, identifying, modeling, analyzing and countering these forms of corruption should be priorities for Domestic National Security.

Preliminary Considerations

Transnational Criminal Networks (TCNs) currently operate across the Western Hemisphere. Currently, major TCNs supply large amounts of illicit drugs for U.S. markets.[i] Among these TCNs, the Mexican ones dominate distribution of illicit drugs in the U.S.[ii] Their operation, mainly consisting in mobilizing loads of chemicals and illegal drugs from South and Central America into the U.S., is usually carried out through (i) violence, (ii) traditional forms of corruption, like cash bribery, and (iii) non-traditional forms of corruption like bribery through sex, recruitment and other forms of co-optation.[iii] As a result of these procedures, different levels of State Capture (StC) or even Co-opted State Reconfiguration (CStR) are registered in different countries along the region. For instance, in Mexico, different stages of Co-opted State Reconfiguration at the administrative level of the State ofMichoacán have been identified. This situation mainly consists in long-term agreements established between the TCN known as La Familia Michoacana and officials belonging to security agencies of the Michoacan State.

However, it is important to point out, after modeling a Mexican TCN operating in Colombian territory and a Colombian TCN operating in Mexican territory, that there is no evidence of CStR processes committed by each TCN in foreign territory. This means that according to both cases, procedures oriented to consolidate a CStR process are carried out by domestic TCNs. This could be one of the main reasons explaining the transplantation process[iv] of TCNs across Western Hemisphere, like it has been observed in the case of Los Zetas currently operating in Guatemala through Guatemalan criminal hand-labor, which doesn’t necessarily coincide with the traditional expansion process observed under a scheme of joint ventures.[v] In this sense, it is critical to model and analyze the procedures carried out by Mexican TCNs, such as Los Zetas or La Familia Michoacana in U.S. territory, in order to identify if their operative scheme coincides with previous research findings—meaning, that they are not carrying out processes of CStR.

Bearing this in mind, in the present document we propose the following hypothesis: violence and non-traditionaland sophisticated forms of corruption are different criminal strategies applied by Mexican TCNs, depending on the institutional and coercive capacities that they face in Mexico and the U.S. Specifically, it seems to be the case that violent strategies are mainly but not exclusively carried out by the Mexican TCNs in the Mexican territory, while non-traditional and sophisticated forms of corruption are mainly but not exclusively carried out in the U.S. territory. If this is the case, a criminal adaptation consisting of a strategically differential execution of violence and corruption could be inferred. Testing empirical evidence to sustain or dismiss this hypothesis is critical in order to identify priorities on counter-criminal procedures to be adopted by security agencies at the U.S.

Crime Boom on the Mexican Side and Decreasing Crime on the U.S. Side?

There is strong evidence of violent events committed by Mexican TCNs all across Central America and Mexico. Some of these violent events include mass murders resulting from confrontations (i) between TCNs, (ii) between TCNs and Mexican security agencies and, recently, (iiii) from TCNs’ intimidation against civilians. Some of these cases reported, with wide media coverage, have been: More than 70 people murdered in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico, on August 2010; more than 30 people murdered in the Petén Region, Guatemala, on May 2011; more than 50 people murdered in the city of Monterrey, Mexico, on August 2011 at the Casino Royale, in which Los Zetascommitted retaliation for unpaid extortions; and (iv) more than 35 people murdered in the city of Veracruz, Mexico, on September 2011.

Some murders and other violent events have been registered in rural and urban territories located near the U.S./Mexico border. As an example of the thousands of cruel events registered in Mexican territory, in September 24, 2011, Los Zetas decapitated and mutilated a Mexican female blogger that used social networks like twitter to alert about TCNs’ activity. The murder was registered 1 mile away of the border. As a result of numerous events like this, Mexican authorities, mass media and international observers today point out Ciudad Juarez and Monterrey, among other border territories, as criminal hotspots where violent and cruel events are registered almost every day. For instance, Ciudad Juarez has been identified as the most dangerous city in Mexico, where several TCNs collide.[vi] Even while there is not an official Mexican record specifying the amount of deaths registered at the border,[vii] Mexican and international media coverage allows inferring a situation of intense urban and rural violence.

However, there is not media or official records identifying events like those mentioned above in the U.S. side of the border. No mass murders, piles of corpses in the middle of highways, decapitations, mutilations, incinerations or tortured bodies hanging in urban bridges have been registered in the U.S. side of the border. In fact, official records show a decreasing rate of specific crimes. For instance, a comprehensive and detailed analysis of data provided by 1600 county police agencies located at the Southwestern U.S. border, show a general decreasing tendency in murder rates between 2005 and 2009 in a 100-mile region near the border.[viii] Other crimes such as robbery, assault, rapes, burglary and car theft show also a decreasing or a non-increasing tendency since 2005 at the same 100-mile region near the border. According to the USA Today Newspaper, “academics […] confirmed the results of this analysis, finding that proximity to the border goes hand-in-hand with lower crimes when adjusting for cities' demographic changes. The analysis also found statistical significance between border cities' crime rates and those for the rest of the state”[ix]. Additionally, the National Crime Victimization Survey suggests a steady or decreasing tendency of extortions and kidnappings near the border.[x]

Does this tendency mean that Mexican TCNs’ operation is decreasing in the U.S.? This does not seem to be the case. In fact, intelligence reports provided by the U.S. Department of Justice point out that Mexican TCNs such as Los Zetas, El Cartel de Sinaloa, El Cartel de Juarez and La Familia Michoacana operate in over 1200 cities of the U.S.[xi] Also, on the Arizona/Mexico border and the Texas/Mexico border there has been intense heroin-trafficking activity. Specifically, the amount of heroin seized in the Southwest border has increased between 2007 and 2010 as follows: 358 Kilos, 496 Kilos, 737 Kilos and 935 Kilos.[xii] Therefore, as result of the increase in heroin production by Mexican TCNs, combined with an increase in the transportation of South American heroin by Mexican TCNs, availability has increased in the States of Illinois, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. All this is the result of Mexican TCNs today producing and/or transporting the second largest amount of heroin in the world, behind Afghanistan.[xiii]

In general terms, the preliminary consulted evidence seems to sustain the fact that increasing and intense violence is carried out by Mexican TCNs in the Mexican side of the border, to dispute and control trafficking routes. However, this is not the same strategy applied on the U.S. side of the border, where decreasing criminal rates have been observed. At least, it can be accepted that on the U.S. side of the border we don’t observe the same type of violence happening in the Mexican side. This decreasing tendency could mean (i) a lack of criminal activity of Mexican TCNs like Los Zetas, or (ii) the application of a criminal strategy different of that consisting in violent confrontation between against other TCNs and against security agencies. In conclusion, intense violent procedures like those observed in Mexico seem to be a strategy mainly avoided on the U.S. side of the border.

Increasing Sophisticated Corruption on the American Side of the Border

While there isn’t evidence of intense and cruel violence carried out by Mexican TCNs on the U.S. side of the border, such as we see on the Mexican side, some media information would suggest that sophisticated and non-traditional forms of corruption are increasing.[xiv] As explained above, in the present document we refer to this assophisticated forms of corruption in order to highlight that these situations do not consist of traditional bribery carried through monetary exchange. In fact, it has been stated that recruitment procedures carried out by Los Zetasinclude those observed in official espionage agencies, applied to achieve long-term agreements.[xv]

Additionally, the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security reported that “since 2003, 129 U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have been arrested on corruption charges and, during 2009, 576 investigations were opened on allegations of improper conduct by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials.”[xvi] In this sense, different U.S. official reports,[xvii] including the Department of Homeland Security and the Joint Forces Command[xviii], point out that the Mexican cartels and gangs represent one the most important threats to U.S. National Security because of the increasing recruitment, corruption and co-optation of U.S. officials. As a result, different cases of conspiracy between drug-traffickers and border and domestic officials have been judicially documented.

It must be stated that intense corruption has not only been registered in the U.S. In fact, there is strong judicial evidence of sophisticated forms of corruption also happening in the Mexico territory, not only consisting of bribery by means of monetary exchange and expensive gifts, but also by steady agreements between security agents and drug-traffickers. This in turn produces different stages and levels of State Capture and Co-opted State Reconfiguration, specifically at the local/municipal level, but not yet at the national level.

Regarding recruitment procedures, additional evidence should be consulted in order to determine if those procedures are similar in the Mexican and the U.S. territories.

In general terms, preliminary evidence seems to sustain the fact that sophisticated forms of corruption are increasingly being applied in the U.S. territory by Mexican TCNs, such as Los Zetas, in order to co-opt security officials, specifically at the local level. There is also official and judicial evidence showing increasing corruption in the Mexican side of the border. In conclusion, sophisticated forms of corruption committed by Mexican TCNs seem to be registered at both sides of the border but specifically at the local level in the U.S. case and at the local and provincial level, at least, in the Mexican case.

Explorative Hypothesis

According to the preliminary evidence consulted, it seems possible to argument that (a) Mexican TCNs, such as Los Zetas, are applying sophisticated forms of corruption at both sides of the border, and that (b) Mexican TCNs are focusing violent procedures in the Mexican side of the border. Also, at this point it seems not erroneous to argument that TCNs such as Los Zetas are mainly targeting security agencies in the U.S. side of the border through non-traditional and sophisticated forms of corruption, instead of applying intense violence, such as frontal confrontation or mass murders. However, deeper and more detailed evidence must be consulted, and a comparative analysis must be carried out, in order to properly validate this hypothesis.

Even though potential terrorist attacks and violent events cannot be dismissed in the U.S. territory, since high-impact armament belonging to Los Zetas has been found in U.S. territory, it seems that Mexican TCNs have been mainly operating in the U.S. through different forms of corruption instead of intense and frontal violence. If this is the case, it is a priority for the National Security of the U.S. to analyze, model and understand those procedures of corruption implying massive recruitments, long-term agreements, StC and CStR. These procedures could be underestimated because of lack of violence; however, critical consequences such as institutional infiltration and co-optation must be considered as threats for National Security. Innovative approaches for understanding the structure of TCNs, their procedures, and more importantly, to what extent and perdurability they are reaching into the United States security agencies and institutions through corruption and co-optation, is essential in improving the U.S. capacity to face this serious challenge to its security agencies.


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