Monday, June 6, 2011

Review: Cartel: The Coming Invasion, But Who Knows the Name of Our Enemy

Cartel, the latest book on the drug wars in Mexico, often annoys and seldom rewards the reader despite its wide range.

Authors often don’t choose their own titles, but they can veto a publisher’s choice.

Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars (Palgrave MacMillan, Sept 2011), the title of this 242-page volume by Sylvia Longmire, is the first annoyance. Although not a right-wing, xenophobic track, the title kicks off the book with an alarmist tone and establishes its nationalist perspective. 

The author argues how “the situation of the reality in Mexico” is “impacting national security.” Her alarmist use of the term “invasion” will surely resonate among border hawks, immigration restrictionists, Tea Partiers, and other alarmists who charge the Obama administration isn’t doing enough to “secure the border.”

In her Mexico’s Drug War blog, Longmire describes herself as “an intelligence professional with eight years of military law enforcement experience, six years of analytical experience covering Latin America, and over four years of analytical experience covering Mexican DTOs and border violence issues.”  Her blog is described as “an ongoing analysis of southwest border violence by an experienced intelligence professional.”


Longmire also writes for Homeland Security Today, which gives more background about her intelligence background. She is a “retired Air Force captain and former Special Agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.” From Dec. 2005 through July 2009 Longmire 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 may have benefited from fewer years as an intelligence professional and a military law enforcement officer and more years as an analyst of Latin America, Mexico, and border issues. Her four years at the California fusion center seems to have resulted in a typical case of fuzzy fusion-center threat assessment.


Although sympathetic with Mexico’s plight, her analysis may also have benefited from more experience and field work in Mexico.


Cartel attempts to mix the colorful style of feature journalism with the authoritative assessments of a veteran analyst.


On both counts, she fails while in the process contributing to an alarmism about border security and Mexico that will -- if regarded as a credible assessment of the drugs wars -- lead to more wasteful spending on border security and more support for U.S. intervention in the Mexican government’s bloody mess of a drug war.


The drug-related violence spreading across Mexico is, admittedly, not well understood or easily analyzed. As analysts and close observers search for the proper terminology to describe the phenomenon, there is, for example, much thoughtful debate.


Shifting Terms


Some stress that Mexico is approaching a failed-state status, others say the country is best described as a failing state, while other stress the country’s still vibrant economy and the limited geographical concentration of the violence in six or seven states. 


There is also debate over how to identify the organizations that are largely responsible for the more than 40,000 dead in the past four years.  The term cartel is most commonly used to describe the main groups, such as Los Zetas and el Cártel del Golfo. But cartel is not a helpful term since it refers to a formalized group of producers and distributors that sets price and production levels. It was more accurately used in the 1980s and 1990s to refer to the main cocaine-trafficking organizations in Colombia.


Today, however, the drug trade in the Andes, Central America, and Mexico is more fractionalized, although the leading Mexican organizations are routinely attempting to consolidate their control over geographical areas through violence or through alliances with less powerful groups.


Longmire doesn’t contribute anything but confusion to the debate with continually shifting preferences for new terminology.


In a highly provocative essay (“Redefining Terrorism: Why Mexican Drug Trafficking is More than Just Organized Crime”) she authored with John P. Longmire IV in 2008 for the Journal of Strategic Security, the author argued that the cartels aren’t just criminal and drug trafficking organizations, they are terrorists.


The essay’s first line reads: “Mexican drug traffickers are more than criminals. They are terrorists.”


Presaging the current proposal by Michael McCaul, the right-wing congressman from Texas, to classify Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations as terrorist organizations, the Longmires concluded that such a reclassification would open up more diplomatic room for U.S. military involvement in the drug wars, both along the U.S. border and in Mexico. They wrote:

“The practical argument for redefining Mexican DTOs as terrorist organizations is that resources could then be allocated differently and more effectively. Today, the brunt of the battle against Mexican DTOs is borne by law enforcement….

“A new definition may [also] open up avenues for providing assistance to Mexico in a fashion that is more diplomatically acceptable. Calling Mexican DTOs terrorist organizations would also allow Mexico and the United States to engage in more aggressive actions against DTOs that could not be used against criminal organizations. While it is ultimately up to the Mexican

“Government to decide how to handle DTO violence, redefining the problem could provide a bigger selection of tools than currently available….

“While Shakespeare said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a Mexican DTO with a different name could mean a real change in the war on drug cartels. It could open up new opportunities for governments to finally end the DTOs' reign of terror throughout Mexico and along the US border.”

As should be clear, any reclassification of Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations as terrorist organizations would create a foundation for expanded U.S. military involvement along the border and intervention in Mexico. The U.S. government is already meddling in the failed drug wars in Mexico, and leading Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers are already routinely extradited to the United States.


By recklessly putting the nonideological, profit-maximizing drug trafficking organizations such as the Gulf Cartel in the same category as Al Qaida, the federal government would effectively make many Americans terrorist collaborators: consumers who use Mexican-sourced drugs, banks that deposit and transfer drug dollars, landlords and families who have drug dealers living in their houses, and all businesses that sell goods, including guns, to those who have a connection, however indirect, with the drug trafficking organizations in Mexico.


(For an insightful look at the implications of this proposed reclassification, see Adam Isacson’s April 18 Blog post in the Just the Facts Blog.)


But Longmire keeps changing terms and shedding her previously preferred nomenclature.


In Cartel, although the author does raise the specter of Mexican drug traffickers as international terrorists, she opts for the term “criminal insurgency” to describe their operations. She says that both the Mexican and U.S. governments are backing away from accurately identifying the drug trafficking organizations for political reasons. “This substantially limits any strategy,” opines this self-identified intelligence professional. Strangely, Longmire makes no mention of her previous argument that they should be identified as terrorist organizations.


Now, even before the official release of Cartel, Longmire is changing terms again. In her June 3 blog posting, “Some thoughts about drug war nomenclature,” she makes no mention of her advocacy of the terrorist classification or criminal insurgency categorization, instead Longmire now tells us that what we are dealing with are transnational criminal organizations or TCOs.


Longmire writes:


“As my longtime readers know, I've been using the acronym "DTO" to refer to the major drug trafficking organizations in Mexico since I started this blog in March 2009. The problem is, I can't say that the term DTO is entirely accurate anymore.
“I did a presentation a few months ago for US Northern Command, and they use the acronym "TCO" for transnational criminal organizations.  Homeland Security Today magazine uses the same one, and for good reason. Organized crime groups in Mexico are engaged in much more than just drug trafficking. They're involved in kidnapping for ransom, extortion, human smuggling, and the sale of pirated goods...and a partridge in a pear tree. The acronym "TCO" more accurately encompasses the wide variety of criminal activities in which groups like Los Zetas and La Familia Michoacana are involved.
“So, from now on, I'll be referring to them as TCOs, instead of DTOs.”

Longmire also noted in her blog posting that she will no longer be using the term cartel: “I will say that TCOs aren't cartels in the pure sense, although they exhibit many characteristics of the traditional Latin American drug cartels.”
What’s so amazing about Longmire is not simply her frequently shifting perspective. Rather it is her failure to attempt to defend her evolving analysis in any systematic way or to situate her own “analysis” in any larger theoretical, geopolitical, or scholarly context.
Are for, example, these TCOs like some transnational corporations that no longer have a home base but are equally based in the United States and Mexico? Are these TCOs really intent on invading the United States as your book implies?
No question that the main drug trafficking organization in Mexico are involved in other criminal enterprises – from sales of counterfeit CDs to theft of oil and gas to extortion of businesses – but have they truly lost their main identity (and source of income) as drug traffickers?  
Assumed Identities
Longmire uncomfortably assumes the style of feature journalism while also assuming that her authority as intelligence analyst preempts the need for scholarly referencing. 

In her book and her articles for Homeland Security Today (see, for example: Mexico’s Drug War is Impacting Communities Well Beyond the Border, June 2), Longmire often tells a story as if she were on the scene – when in fact she apparently was stuck behind a computer in one of the worst-than-useless fusion centers created by the Department of Homeland Security to collect mountains of unvetted data.

The book leads off with a description of how Border Patrol agent Mark Miller spent one day patrolling stretch of California’s border with Mexico. It was the day that he hunted down, alone and by foot, a group of illegal border crossers who were heading south toward the border. When he reached them, they had just crossed the border fence; and as he approached, alone, he saw automatic weapons and balaclava-covered faces. The men identified themselves a Mexican military, but Miller thought otherwise. “Since that time,” writes Longmire, “Miller has heard many other stories involved armed encounters with suspected Mexican military personnel (or darn good impersonators), often related to narcotics smuggling events.”

With language like “his adrenaline immediately kicked in,” “what seemed like an eternity,” and “unconcerned with anything but the thrill of the chase,” a reader would assume that the author was accompanying Miller. But on the eighth page, we learn in the last line of the story that the “incident occurred ten years ago, and the border is more dangerous than ever.”

Looking back over those pages, there isn’t one statement within quotation marks. Only if we turn to the reference notes at the book’s end do we learn that Mark Miller is not the name of an actual agent, but that “the name of the Border Patrol agent in this story was changed to protect his identity.” Longmire claims that “all details are factual.”

One has to wonder why the author couldn’t find a Border Patrol agent or official willing to identify him or herself. One also has to wonder why the editors of Cartel permitted this dubious reporting.

Fictitious names repeatedly appear in Cartel – and we aren’t talking about shadowy figures who are cartel members or inside sources but Border Patrol agents and Mexican-Americans she has interviewed. Reading on, we meet several more several others fictitiously named by Longmire, including three more Border Patrol agents – Chris Moreno, Mike Allen, and John Ridge -- whose “stories” illustrate Longmire’s contention that the border is not stopping the “invasion” of the drug cartels. Only if a reader scans the reference notes can a reader discover this subterfuge. 

For whatever reason, Longmire gives surnames to the Border Patrol agents while the two Mexican-Americans she interviewed – for her “Mexican People” chapter – only go by Jose (without accent) and Sonia. These two figures were her only identified personal interviews for “The Mexican People.”

Longmire is a border security hawk.

Echoing the rhetoric of borderland sheriffs, Longmire writes that, “Law enforcement officers from local police departments and sheriffs’ officers along the southwest border form the front line of defense against southwest border violence.” To illustrate this assertion, Longmire uncritically recounts one of the most colorful border myths propagated by the border hawks – that deputies under the command of Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West (a favorite Fox News source on the border) confronted a Mexican military unit that was in the process of smuggling marijuana across the Rio Grande in far West Texas.

According to Longmire, “No one knows the lay of the land in these places better than the local cops.”

Longmire carelessly and repeatedly mixes illegal immigrants and what she calls the “bad guys” and “adversaries.” For example, she incorrectly describes the “line watch” duty of Border Patrol agents as “trying to catch bad guys –smugglers, coyotes, terrorists, and others.”

It is true that the Border Patrol also carelessly categorizes all illegal border crossers as “dangerous people,” but mostly what the agents do is to watch for illegal immigrants crossing to find work or reunite with their families. As an analyst, Longmire should also know better than lump together smugglers, coyotes, and terrorists. Such inexactitude leads to the kind of alarmism that animates the border and immigration debates, where little or no distinction is made between terrorists and immigrants, as if all illegal border crossers threaten national security.

Longmire does attempt to give a holistic overview of the invasion threat – with chapters on a larger variety of subjects, including ones on marijuana cultivation in the United States, drug-related kidnappings, and one chapter on how the “Mexican people” feel about the drug wars. But virtually none of this, apparently, comes from the author’s personal experience or field research.  With the exception of two or three personal interviews (other than with those falsely named), almost all of the material is drawn from news reports.

A U.S. reader would do better going directly to the news source and stay away from Longmire’s over-wrought analytical overlays. The invasion of the U.S. in the title is probably enough to keep Mexican readers far away from the writings of this intelligence professional.


Sylvia said...

Mr Barry,

Good evening! First, I want to thank you for taking the time to read my first book. While it's obvious you didn't like it, it's also obvious you didn't skim it and took a good, hard look at it. I know it must have taken some time to put your review together, and I appreciate your honesty.

As for the shifts in my choice of nomenclature, I understand your frustration. I first wrote that piece about "Redefining Terrorism" almost three years ago, but I still stand behind its fundamental message - that the phenomenon that is the drug war in Mexico today is misunderstood by many in government because viewing the cartels as mere criminals is too limiting. I still like the term "criminal insurgency," but it hasn't been officially adopted. My switch from DTO to TCO just follows in line with many government organizations. The drug war and the groups involved are very fluid, so my views and assessments of certain things are going to change over time.

As for not spending time in the field, I definitely haven't, but that was never my job. With "Cartel," I never intended to provide a view of the drug war from the ground; journalists like Charles Bowden do a much better job of that than I do. As an analyst, I try to take all those hundreds of news clippings, interviews, and law enforcement reports and try to make sense out of them for my book and blog readers. I agree that having boots on the ground provides a very different perspective. However, that wasn't what I was aiming for.

I do have to mention that I'm disappointed you didn't talk more about my discussion of the debate over border violence spillover, how the extent of southbound weapons trafficking can never be truly determined by its very nature, or how Mexican cartels/DTOs/TCOs have an active presence in every corner of the U.S. I understand that you feel this might be alarmist, but it doesn't change the fact that they're using our highways to transport drugs, homes in our neighborhoods to stash those drugs - as well as kidnapping victims - and co-opt American gangs to sell those drugs in our communities. This is the fundamental message I try to get across in my book - that the cartels are here, and if our two governments can't come up with better solutions to deal with these groups, more could be on the way.

Again, thank you for taking the time to read and write. While we don't agree on the book's contents, at least we can agree on the gravity of Mexico's situation.

Sylvia Longmire

Sylvia said...

Mr Barry, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to read Cartel; I appreciate that. Of course, I'm disappointed that you weren't pleased with my book. As the author of Cartel, I would just like to point out some things that I felt you overlooked.

First, you spent a lot of time critiquing the changes over time in my references to cartels/DTOs/TCOs in Mexico. Yes, it was my publisher's choice to use the word "cartel" as the title of the book, and when I do interviews for mass-meda outlets, I use that word as well. The general public equates the word with the concept of drug traffickers. I agree that the term is not a completely accurate descriptor. But it's a turn-off for many readers to have to go through acronyms, especially when those acronyms often vary from report to report. And my change on my blog from using the term DTO (for drug trafficking organizations) to TCO (for transnational criminal organization), I felt, was thoroughly explained in this blog post:

I was also recently quoted in an article by Tim Steller in the Arizona Daily Star on this very issue:

"At first, Longmire didn't want "Cartel" as her book title because it's not used accurately, she said. The standard definition of a cartel is an association of businesses that conspire to set prices, and that doesn't describe today's Mexican traffickers, she said. But Longmire recognized the word is commonly used to describe drug trafficking groups, and she agreed."

As for my lack of time in the field, it was never my job to have "boots on the ground." I was an analyst for four years for the State of California, and a counterterrorism analyst for all of Latin America in the Air Force for almost three years. It was always my job to take hundreds of military, law enforcement, and media reports from the people who were on the ground, put them together, and try to make sense out of them (i.e. detecting patterns and trends) for people who didn't follow the minutiae on a daily basis. That's what I've tried to do with Cartel. I'm also disappointed that you didn't mention so many of the things that I did write about in Cartel. For example:

- An entire chapter dedicated to the struggle of the Mexican people, including their fears, the ninis, the vigilante groups, and in increasing victimization of innocents. Javier Sicilia's son was still alive when Cartel went to press, so I wasn't able to include his movement.
- An entire chapter dedicated to the struggles and challenges posed to the Mexican government in trying to deal with the drug war.
- An extensive discussion about the debate over whether or not border violence spillover violence is happening.
- An entire chapter dedicated to weapons trafficking, and why the full extent of the problem can never be determined.
- An entire chapter dedicated to marijuana grows in the US being run by cartels/DTOs/TCOs, and the challenges of detecting and preventing them.
- An entire chapter of suggested solutions to developing better strategies - for both the US and Mexican governments - for managing the drug war.

My goal with Cartel is to help the American people understand how the drug war is impacting the US, partly by demonstrating that the cartels/DTOs/TCOs are present in some way, shape, or form across the country. I also want to provide an explanation for who the major players are, what is happening in Mexico, and more importantly, why it's happening. Although Mr Barry has taken issue with many aspects of my book, I invite all of your readers to determine for themselves whether or not the book accomplishes these goals. Cartel hits the shelves on September 27th, but if any of them have a platform for publicizing reviews, I'd be happy to have my publicist send them an advance copy; just email me at spooky926(at) Thank you so much for your time!