Mexico’s Cartels Are More Depraved, Dangerous than ISIL

The horrific rampage of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has captured the world’s attention. Many Western commentators have insisted that ISIL’s crimes are unique, no longer practiced anywhere else in the civilized world. Worse still, they argue that the group’s barbaric practices are intrinsically Islamic, a product of the aggressive and archaic worldview which dominates the Muslim world.

The ignorance of these commentators is stunning. In fact, there are organizations whose depravity, scale, and threat to the United States far surpass that of ISIL. But these groups do not engender the kind of collective indignation and hysteria that ISIL provokes, begging the question: Are Americans truly concerned ISIL’s specific atrocities or the threat they supposedly pose? Or are they particularly disturbed because it is Muslims who are carrying out these actions, or posing this threat?

For example, even as U.S. media establishments and policymakers radically inflate the threat posed by ISIL to the Middle East and United States, most Americans appear to be unaware of the institutional magnitude of Mexican drug cartels, let alone the scale of their atrocities or the threat they pose to the U.S.:

Comparison of Depravity

A recent United Nations report estimated nearly 9,000 civilians have been killed and 17,386 wounded in Iraq in 2014, more than half since ISIL fighters seized large parts of northern Iraq in June. It is likely that the group is responsible for another several thousand deaths in Syria. To be sure, these numbers are staggering. But cartel-related violence ended more than 16,000 lives in Mexico during 2013 alone, and another 60,000 from 2006 to 2012 — a rate of more than one killing every half hour for the last seven years. Even worse, these casualty estimates are from the Mexican government, which is known to deflate the actual death toll by around 50 percent.

But the casualties alone do not convey the depravity of the narcos: They carry out hundreds of beheadings every year. Beyond decapitation, they are known to dismember and otherwise mutilate the corpses of their victims — displaying piles of bodies prominently in towns to terrorize the public into compliance. The cartels routinely target women and children to further intimidate the communities they occupy. And much like ISIL, the cartels use social media to post pornographic images of their crimes.

(This author is not a fan of proliferating violence-porn, but to help provide perspective, here is a sampling of how horrific these acts can be, with my apologies to anyone who views it)

Like ISIL, narcos recruit child soldiers, molding boys as young as 11 into assassins or sending them on suicide missions during armed confrontations with Mexico’s army. They also kidnap tens of thousands of children every year to use as drug mules or prostitutes, or to simply kill and harvest their organs for sale on the black market. Those who dare to call for reforms often end up dead. In September, with the apparent assistance of local police, cartels kidnapped and massacred 43 students at a teaching college near the Mexican town of Iguala in response to student protests. A search in the area for the students has uncovered a number of mass graves containing dozens of mutilated bodies burned almost beyond recognition, but none of the remains have been confirmed to be of the students; these 28 seem to be victims of another mass atrocity the media never covered–meanwhile the students remain missing, and presumed dead.

Like ISIL, the cartels deploy car bombs and other terrorist tactics in response to the state crossing their “red lines”–typically in heavily populated public areas.

While the Islamic militants have killed a handful of journalists, the cartels murdered as many as 57 since 2006 for reporting on cartel crimes or exposing government complicacy with the criminals; much of Mexico’s media has been effectively silenced by intimidation or bribes. These censorship activities extend beyond professional media, with narcos tracking down and murdering ordinary citizens who criticize them on the Internet, leaving their naked and disemboweled corpses hanging in public venues. Yet intellectuals such as Sam Harris appear to be more outraged when Muslims protest or issue threats in response to blasphemous or anti-Muslim hate speech than when cartels murder dozens of journalists and systematically co-opt the media of an entire country.

Similarly, Westerners across various political spectrums were outraged when ISIL seized 1,500 Yazidi women, committing sexual violence against the captives and using them as slaves. Here again, the cartels’ capture and trafficking of women dwarfs that of ISIL. Additionally, narcos systematically use rape as a weapon of war and hold tens of thousands of Mexican citizens as slaves for their various enterprises.


Comparison of Scale

While ISIL is trying to achieve a state, the cartels already have one. They have infiltrated every level of the Mexican government: from law enforcement and the military, to the judiciary, political parties, and even private-sector enterprises such as the banks and media organizations. They act with virtual impunity, checked only by competition from other cartels.

ISIL shocked the world by netting an estimated $2 billion during their capture of Mosul in August. Additionally, the group generates more than $1 million per day from enterprises such as extortion, kidnapping, smuggling, and oil sales. This pales in comparison with the cartel economy. For example, the Sinaloa cartel alone generates more than $3 billion every year–more than $8 million per day. Conservative estimates hold that, collectively, the Mexican cartels earn at least $6.6 billion annually, which translates into more than $18 million daily.

Like ISIL they raise this money through a variety of means: drug production, sales, and trafficking; operation of prostitution rings; smuggling of people, arms, and other goods; extortion and kidnapping; illicit mining and logging; capturing and selling billions of dollars in illicit oil–with their enterprises operating at the global scale.

While ISIL has up to 31,000 fighters at its disposal, the cartels have more than 100,000 foot soldiers—more than three times the number of ISIL fighters, and roughly equivalent to the size of the actual Mexican army (many of whom also work for the cartels, with Los Zetas founded and led primarily by military and police defectors).


Comparison of Threat

ISIL beheaded two Americans this summer and has warned about executing a third; additionally, one U.S. soldier has died in efforts to combat the militant group. By contrast, from 2007 to 2010 the cartels have killed 293 Americans in Mexico and have repeatedly attacked U.S. consulates in Mexico.

While ISIL’s beheadings are no doubt outrageous, the cartels actually tortured, dismembered and then cooked one of the Americans they captured — possibly eating him or feeding him to dogs. Somehow this failed to provoke any hysteria from Western news outlets.

And the death is not restricted to the Mexican side of the border: from 2006 to 2010 as many as 5,700 Americans were killed in the U.S. by cartel-fueled drug violence. By contrast, 2,937 people were killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks. Over the last decade, some 2,349 Americans were killed in Afghanistan while 4,487 Americans died during the Iraq war. In four years the cartels have managed to cause the deaths of more Americans than 9/11 or the entire U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, on average Americans have been killed at more than twice the rate by cartel-fueled drug violence than by the wars in the Middle East over the last decade, and at more than five times the rate of those killed by acts of domestic terror committed by Muslims, including 9/11.

Narcos have infiltrated at least 3,000 U.S. cities and are recruiting many Americans, including U.S. soldiers and law enforcement officers, to their organizations. Their infrastructure in America is increasingly sophisticated and robust, with Mexican cartels now controlling more than 80 percent of the total illicit drug trade in the United States, and their top agents deployed to virtually every major metropolitan area. There are no realistic assessments indicating that ISIL could achieve a similar level of penetration within the United States.

In fact, ISIS was primarily concerned with seizing and holding territory in Iraq and Syria until the U.S. began targeting them. Even now, while they have called for “lone wolves” to carry out attacks on American targets, so far those arrested in connection to ISIL have been trying to go and fight abroad rather than plotting domestic actions. To the extent ISIL wants to kill Americans, their primary tactic has been to try and lure U.S. soldiers to their turf by publically executing any citizens they can capture in Iraq or Syria. U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly asserted that ISIL poses no credible threat to the United States homeland; the same cannot be said of the cartels.


Explaining the Dissonance

It is clear that the campaign against ISIL is not driven by the group’s relative threat to the United States or the scale or inhumane nature of their atrocities. If these were the primary considerations, the public would be far more terrified of, and outraged by, the narcos. Perhaps the U.S. would be mobilizing 50 nations to purge the Sinaloa cartel rather than shielding them from prosecution, arming them, helping them polish off their rivals, or even move drugs into the United States—all the while resisting commonsense drug and gun policy reforms that could dramatically undermine the groups. Instead, the so-called “War on Drugs” is waged primarily on America’s poor and minorities.

Some may attempt to argue that despite the asymmetries, the cartels are less of a threat because ISIL is unified around an ideology which is antithetical to the prevailing international order, while the cartels are concerned primarily with money. This is also false:

A good deal of the cartel violence is perpetrated ritualistically as part of their religion which is centered, quite literally, on the worship of death. The narcos build and support churches all across Mexico to perpetuate their eschatology—and their gospel, derived from Catholicism, is making fast inroads into the United States and Central America.

One of the cartels, the Knights Templar (whose name obviously evokes religious warfare), boasts about its leader’ death and miraculous resurrection. When cartel members are killed, they are buried in lavish mausoleums, regarded as “martyrs,” and commemorated in popular songs glorifying their exploits in all their brutality.

Their ideology transcends religion: the narcos portay themselves, and are viewed by many, as heroes resisting an international order which exploits Latin America, as well as the feckless governments which enable it—with cartels compensating for state failures in governance. In short, the cartels have ideological and geopolitical motivations and ambitions whose challenge is no less pronounced than that of ISIL.

But unfortunately, the U.S. cannot formulate an effective response to these much more severe threats because the American public is far too busy disparaging Islam, while its military kills Arabs and Muslims abroad. What is fueling the disproportionate reaction to ISIL is Islamophobia, not any empirical realities.


Published 10/20/2014 by Al-Jazeera America
Syndicated 10/25/2014 by Al-Jazeera English
Syndicated 10/25/2014 by Yahoo! News

8 thoughts on “Mexico’s Cartels Are More Depraved, Dangerous than ISIL

  1. I really enjoyed your article because it put things into perspective. I was actually searching on information about the cartels as compared to ISIS, due to a discussion I was having the other day in which I said it was strange that ISIS gets so much attention but the cartels right next door do not. I wasn’t sure on how the actual numbers compared (and obviously sources for hard numbers on either cartel violence or ISIS are intrinsically not impossible to get with 100% accuracy) but your article did a good job of laying everything out there comparatively.

    My only quibble with your conclusions would be that there are geopolitical and diplomatic issues at play in America’s response to the separate matters. With Mexico which is a NAFTA partner and a country we have deep diplomatic ties with we could not conduct any military activities there without approval and wide acceptance from the Mexican political establishment. In Syria we can essentially act however we please, because it is a state riven by civil war in which there is no recognized legal authority. In Iraq we have a long standing military association with that country. We enforced a no-fly zone to insulate northern Iraq’s Kurdish population after the Gulf War and of course we had a large occupation force in Iraq for many years during the 2000s.

    I think also in the “court of international opinion” America is held responsible for Iraq’s military since we essentially trained it and built it from nothing after disbanding Saddam’s military. So in essence there is some amount of “American prestige” on the line in Iraq where there is none in Mexico. The Iraqi government has asked for some amount of military help with ISIS, I don’t believe Mexico has asked for similar with the cartels, but I could be wrong on that count.

    I don’t think any of this justifies our current media craze over ISIS versus almost disinterest in what happens in Mexico, but I think it at least makes it understandable as to how the government has behaved. While I don’t like seeing our President utilize military force solely to protect “prestige” I understand that all leaders try to protect against their country looking bad to different degrees. You can see that everywhere from Angela Merkel to Putin to Erdogan to Obama.

    What concerns me most about our current campaign against ISIS is we are essentially taking sides in a sectarian conflict in which neither side is really “right” or “wrong.” When it spills over into sectarian violence between different branches of Islam there is no “right” or “wrong”, and being on either side I think hurts the United States. I have read many reports that since our air strikes against ISIS, we are now largely viewed negatively by anti-Assad Syrians, because attacking ISIS associates us in their minds with the regime or makes it seem that America is siding with Iran-backed Shia fighters over the Sunni rebel factions in Syria.

    Note when I speak of factions here I am just speaking generally, I know that ISIS certainly doesn’t represent the Sunni “norm” nor do the atrocities committed by Iranian backed Shia groups represent the norm by Shia either. I am just using the terms the same way I would use the term “Catholic” or “Protestant” forces to describe different groups fighting in the Thirty Years War.

  2. I didn’t see my response in your list of reasonable questions. Perhaps that’s because I’m an incurable bigot. Or perhaps you address it in one of the long responses. I’ll read those later (i.e. not at work :) ). Anyway here’s my reason why ISIL perhaps should get more attention than the cartels.

    ISIL is just getting started. Given its proximity to enormous oil reserves, its effectiveness on the ground to this point, and its demonstrated ability to recruit from all over the world they pose the greater long term threat. Get them now while they’re relatively small and we could save ourselves (and the rest of the world) a huge problem later.

    The cartels, on the other hand, have been with us for decades. They’ve already grown beyond the point where they cannot be easily controlled. At this point (unless you hold that ISIL has considerable appeal to Muslims as Muslims) they are more entwined with Mexican and Central American society than ISIL is with societies in its neighborhood. Taking them on now would be a greater undertaking than is taking on ISIL.

    Thus we’ve concluded that the cartels are a large problem that can only be managed. ISIL, on the other hand, is a smaller problem that could be stopped now, but could if not stopped soon grow into a massive problem that we will at best only be able to manage.

  3. ISIS is far more dangerous. ISIS, like many jihadist, often uses suicide bombings where as Cartels wouldn’t dare use them and why would they given that cartels fight for money/power not god. There ISIS is less fearful of dying than the cartels. ISIS is also a much bigger organization with more people than anyone cartel. ISIS has bigger and more lethal arms(tanks and heavier weapons) and their leadership has much more extensive military background. They also are more media frenzy and are able to recruit people throughout the world.

  4. when you read about the cartels in america, its often with people who are involved in the drug trade form the start. i think the cartels truly show their beastly nature when they return home to mexico with guns, money, and government protection.

  5. No doubt the cartels are despicable, but ISIS wants to slaughter entire ethnic groups and cultures. I’ve heard of them shooting infants, decapitating toddlers, and crucifying young adolescents.

    ISIS has actually killed way more people than your statistics show. The IBC project showed that in 2014, ISIS killed 18,000 civilians, and the IBC acknowledges themselves that they probably undercount.

    Remember that’s just in Iraq though, they’ve killed way more people in Syria. ISIS one time killed 1,000 civilians in a single day.

    1. As it relates to those killed by ISIS, it should be remembered that this article was published roughly a year ago–and at least a few months prior to any report that could summarize all of 2014. So we were working with the best numbers we had at the time. That number could be correct–although it should be noted that most stats on ISIS’ casualties include any who were killed in the context of their war, regardless of by whom. And also, considering the asymmetrical nature of the warfare in question, “civilian” does not necessarily mean “non-combatant” (I explain this in greater depth here).

      But in terms of American deaths, there is really no comparison. Two U.S. soldiers have died in the campaign so far, one by accident. And a few Western hostages have been killed in that context–although in the case of Kayla Mueller, she was apparently killed by a coalition airstrike rather than by ISIS. Cartels, meanwhile, directly killed hundreds of Americans over the periods cited in the study. And cartel-fueled drug violence continues to kill thousands of Americans every year. So even if ISIS has come to match or even exceed the killing of the cartels–the fact that the latter kills so many American citizens and operates right on our southern border should prioritize them far more. After all, the primary responsibility of the government is to serve and protect American citizens.

      The cartels also do truly horrific things with infants, toddlers and young people…really, any depraved thing ISIS does, there is a cartel analog.

      But again, ultimately, the question isn’t so much which group is worse–but which one should be a more significant national security priority for the United States. And by that measure, the cartels clearly should “win.”

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