Tom Diaz

Archive for January, 2009|Monthly archive page


In Crime, Gangs, Guns, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on January 26, 2009 at 12:04 pm
Curtis Publishing Co.)

The Mounties Always Get Their Hombre (Image: Curtis Publishing Co.)

“Gangs are increasingly conducting criminal activity across the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada borders,” according to the “Strategic Findings” on gangs in the National Drug Threat Assessment 2009, released in December 2008 by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The report’s sections on gangs and drug trafficking organizations are important reading.  Together they provide more confirmation that — in the eyes of law enforcement agencies throughout North America — “street gangs” are no longer gritty neighborhood affiliations of marginalized youngsters.  They have morphed into deeply rooted criminal organizations with strong ties to transnational organized crime.  In the case of Latino street gangs, this means in particular the Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) that control most of the wholesale drug trafficking in North America.

Tough Guys Edward James Olmos, Bruce Willis, and Don Johnson.  Olmos Later caught hell from the Mexican Mafia for his portaryal of that organization in his film, "America Me."

Miami Virtue: Tough Guys Edward James Olmos, Bruce Willis, and Don Johnson. Olmos later caught hell from the Mexican Mafia for his portrayal of that organization and one of its founders in his film, "America Me."

The Mexican DTOs have pushed aside the old Colombian cartel apparatus in the United States, which still exists but is much less important than in the Miami Vice era of the 1980s.  According to the 2009 Threat Assessment, “Mexican DTOs are the greatest drug trafficking threat to the United States; they control most of the U.S. drug market and have established varied transportation routes, advanced communications capabilities, and strong affiliations with gangs in the United States.”  This is, of course, why the war going on in Mexico today is so important to the United States.

Law enforcement officials have a range of opinions about how integrated Latino street gangs have become with the DTOs.  But virtually all informed officials agree that, at a minimum, street gangs are the primary retail outlets for drugs and serve as important auxiliaries to the core DTOs (which are themselves somewhat fluid).  This is one of the themes I developed in my forthcoming book No Boundaries:  Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (University of Michigan Press, 2009).  [And, yes, that was yet another shameless plug.]  The DTOs love the gangs because they are already in place and know the U.S. system.

Box Stores Move The Goods More Efficiently Than Local Mom and Pop Stores

Box Stores Move The Goods More Efficiently Than Local Mom and Pop Stores

An ominous development noted in the Threat Assessment:  “Gangs are also increasing their involvement in wholesale-level drug distribution.”  This cannot be good.  Think of “mom and pop” stores displaced by one of the big “box store” chains.  As gangs move into wholesale trade, the illegal drug distribution structure becomes more integrated, more efficient, more profitable, more able to corrupt government officials, and more capable of reaching out violently anywhere on the continent to enforce rules, payback intramural offenders, and claim more territory.  These results will in turn put more stresses on state and local law enforcement organizations.

Naturally, international borders are key points at which the criminal synapses connect.  Here is how the Threat Assessment summarizes the gangs’ cross-border roles:

Gangs are increasingly conducting criminal activity across the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada borders. Gangs smuggle drugs, firearms, and aliens across the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada borders. Most gang-related criminal activity along the U.S.-Mexico border occurs in South Texas and California. Several regional- and national-level gangs operate in the Del Rio/Eagle Pass, Laredo, and Lower Rio Grande Valley areas of South Texas. Street and prison gangs such as Mexikanemi (Texas Mexican Mafia), Tri-City Bombers, Hermanos de Pistoleros Latinos, and Texas Syndicate transport and distribute illicit drugs throughout the South Texas area. Some of these gangs have established associate gangs or chapters in border cities in Mexico, according to law enforcement reporting. A number of gangs based in San Diego and Los Angeles also conduct cross-border smuggling operations. Street and prison gangs such as Sureños 13, 18th Street, and Mexican Mafia (La Eme) maintain significant influence over most of the local suburban and rural gangs in San Diego and Los Angeles. These gangs work very closely with Mexican DTOs located in Tijuana, Mexico, to smuggle drugs and illegal aliens into the United States.

It’s worth noting that although the United States complains about drugs pouring in, it is the “narco-state” of firearms.  The Wild West U.S. civilian gun market fuels the war in Mexico and is the source of virtually all of the handguns used in crime in Canada.  You’re doing a hell of a job on the rest of the world, NRA!

MS-13 Gangsters Arrested and Perp-Walked in El Salvador

MS-13 Gangsters Arrested and Perp-Walked in El Salvador

The Canadian case is instructive.  According to the report, “Gangs pose a growing problem for law enforcement along the U.S.-Canada border, particularly the border areas in the New England and Pacific Regions.”  News reports confirm this “growing problem” (as did the report of a Canadian government official at an international anti-gang conference, sponsored by the FBI and the Salvadoran National Civil Police, I attended in El Salvador two years ago as an observer).  For example, the Canadian new service, Canwest, reported on May 23, 2008 about this MS-13 presence:

Admitted Salvadoran killer Jose Cardoza Quinteros, of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang, was deported this week by the Canada Border Services Agency after initially being granted refugee status by the Immigration and Refugee Board. Cardoza Quinteros, who admitted when he arrived in Canada to committing four murders and throwing grenades into crowds of rivals, had argued he could face harm if sent to El Salvador. Canwest News Service has learned he was removed to the U.S., and not to his native country.

Similarly, in June of last year, the news agency AFP reported:

Toronto police dismantled the Canadian operations of a violent gang with Central American roots by arresting 17 local members, authorities said Thursday. “We are confident, with the conclusion of this investigation, that we have identified individuals who were responsible for establishing an MS-13 clique here in Toronto,” police chief William Blair told a press conference.

The Toronto police claim to have “dismantled” MS-13 reminds me of similar claims made by the Los Angeles Police Department in the late 1980s after about the same number were rounded up and deported.  It didn’t happen then, and I doubt that it has happened in Canada.

God bless the cops, but this problem is not going to go away unless “Change” is made — big time — in how the U.S., Mexico, and Canada confront the DTOs and the gangs.

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from


In Cultural assassination, Geezer Rants on January 23, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Okay, enough with the prankster headlines.

“‘Benjamin Button’ sweeps Oscar nominations with 13,” for example. Don’t they have any grown-up editors at Newsday to squelch this kind of childish newsroom humor?

And, where are the copy editors?  How could they let something like a nomination for Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino slip through the cracks?

You’re saying that this isn’t a joke?

Not Brad Pitt

Not Brad Pitt

These are the real decisions of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the “the more than 6,000 artists and professionals who bring the magic of the movies to life?”

This nomination explains why it’s much safer to keep movie stars and their moneyed handlers out of Washington.  If this is “magic,” the safest place to keep it is in Los Angeles.

But, “magic?” Look, this is possibly the worst movie in history. Its closest rivals are:

  • The Golden Child (1986) — Eddie Murphy’s alternative to root canal surgery without the painkiller.
  • Forrest Gump (1994) — Tom Hanks’ dopey ode to feel-good vacuity (the warm-up to Cast Away, his vacuous feel-good ode to dopiness in 2000).
  • The Crossing Guard (1995) — Out of Ambien?  Drug store closed?  Watch Jack Nicholson sleep walk through Sean Penn’s self-indulgent, endless soporific and see whether your butt or your brain cries “Uncle!” first.

It’s not even fair to include The English Patient (1996) in this list of incredibly dull movies, it’s such low-hanging fruit.

No Clark Gable

No Clark Gable

These are the kind of movie you go to because someone with whom you want to share life’s most meaningful moments — or, whatever, you know — wants to see it.  Something … I have no idea what … overrides one’s innate intelligence and critical sense.

Putting that aside,  what these movies have in common is that they are empty intellectual calories.  There is nothing to them.  None of them tells a good story.  They are “buzz” movies.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is all of that down and doubled.  You’ve already read everything you need to know or will ever learn about or from this wretchedly boring exercise in prancing Brad Pitt in various forms of digital special effects across the screen.  A man is born old and gets younger.  The progression affects people around him.  After the first five minutes, the only mental exercise you will enjoy will consist of looking at your watch and wondering whether you need a new battery.

Okay, if you insist that there must be something more to it — some weighty theme or deep literary artifact hiding behind this really silly device — read the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald here.  It’s free.  It’s online.  It takes much less time than the movie.

And it’s just as light weight.


In Crime, Gangs, Guns, Latino gangs, Mexico, Terrorism and counter-terrorism, Transnational crime on January 18, 2009 at 2:32 pm


“Away out here they got a name
For rain and wind and fire
The rain is Tess, the fire Joe,
And they call the wind Maria.”

(“They Call the Wind Maria” is from the 1951 Broadway musical comedy Paint Your Wagon, lyrics by Alan J. Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe.)

Some years ago the Pentagon used to be called “the Puzzle Palace.” Then James Bamford wrote a book about the National Security Agency titled The Puzzle Palace and the term was preempted for the code-breaking entity (also known as “No Such Agency” in an earlier era).  One can easily see how each connotation is distinctly apt:  the NSA solves puzzles.  The Pentagon is a puzzle.

One of the pieces of the current Pentagon puzzle is something called the United States Joint Forces Command.  Never heard of it?  Wonder what it does?  Wonder no more.  Here’s the command’s official description of its “mission and strategic goals”:

The United States Joint Forces Command provides mission-ready joint-capable forces and supports the development and integration of joint, interagency, and multinational capabilities to meet the present and future operational needs of the joint force.

Clear on that? If this multisyllabic concatenation of jargon is an example of the kind of prose Bush the Lesser got from Strategic Genius Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, no wonder the Iraq adventure went bad.

A more sharply written product of the command is an intriguing document titled the Joint Operating Environment 2008, also known as JOE 2008.  JOE is described as an “historically informed, forward-looking effort to discern most accurately the challenges we will face at the operational level of war, and to determine their inherent implications.”  It’s a kind of road map of bad stuff that can happen military-wise through the 2030s.  (You can download a pdf of the 51-page report here.)

Poor JOE 2008 got itself into an appendage wringer the moment it was released to the public last December, with this statement:

The rim of the great Asian continent is already home to five nuclear powers: China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Russia.

Uh-oh.  Did someone say, “North Korea”? That put some nameless, faceless, but exceedingly honest bureaucrat’s appendage right smack in the kimchi.  See, the United States has vowed it will never accept North Korea as a nuclear power.  JOE hit the fan and someone commanded the command to clarify things thusly:

The statement regarding North Korea does not reflect official U.S. government policy regarding the status of North Korea. The U.S. government has long said that we will never accept North Korea as a nuclear power. This clarification has been communicated to the embassy of the Republic of Korea.

Well, that certainly “clarifies” things.  However, according to a report in The New York Times today, North Korea could have as many as six nuclear bombs.  The matter thus seems to turn on what the meaning of “is” is.  For more background on the Korea kerfuffle, see this Korea Times piece.  But, because JOE 2008 was originally an internal document, a fair inference would seem to be that this is a case of truth colliding with diplomatic fiction.

JOE 2008 also made this sobering observation:

In terms of worst-case scenarios for the Joint Force and indeed the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico.
The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels.  How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state.  Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone.


A serious impediment to growth in Latin America remains the power of criminal gangs and drug cartels to corrupt, distort, and damage the region’s potential.  The fact that criminal organizations and cartels are capable of building dozens of disposable submarines in the jungle and then using them to smuggle cocaine, indicates the enormous economic scale of this activity. This poses a real threat to the national security interests of the Western Hemisphere.  In particular, the growing assault by the drug cartels and their thugs on the Mexican government over the past several years reminds one that an unstable Mexico could represent a homeland security problem of immense proportions to the United States. 

Drug Traffickers Are Building Submarines Like These in the Jungle (DEA Photo)

Drug Traffickers Are Building Submarines Like These in the Jungle (DEA Photo)

As observed elsewhere on Fairly Civil, Mexico is indeed in an exceedingly violent existential struggle with drug trafficking organizations, largely armed by smugglers who easily acquire their military-style killing machines — including semiautomatic assault rifles, Barrett 50 caliber anti-armor sniper rifles, and “vest-busting” handguns like the FN FiveSeven — on the wide-open U.S. civilian firearms market.  Latino street gangs — like the 18th Street gang and MS-13 — are increasingly involved in the traffic of both drugs and guns, as described in detail in my forthcoming book from the University of Michigan Press, No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (Spring 2009).

A failed Pakistan is truly scary (what happens to its 50 nukes?).  But a truly failed Mexico — JOE 2008 does not predict such a result, but merely observes this could happen — would put all kinds of evil right across the border.

Mexico Before The Mexican American War

Mexico Before The Mexican American War

Putting aside the sensitive and imponderable question of the likelihood of a collapse, what seems to have grabbed the attention of Mexican authorities is the JOE’s  reference to “an American response.”  Alarm bells were quite fairly raised, given the history of U.S. incursions into Mexico, particularly the ripping off of a huge chunk of Mexican territory in the name of Anglo-Saxon “Manifest Destiny” in the so-called Mexican American War.  (This sordid history is also laid out in No Boundaries.) Mexican officials read the JOE 2008 report as suggesting armed U.S. intervention might be necessary.  Secretary of Governance Fernando Gomez Mont tartly rejected that idea in an interview with CNN in which he declared “inadmissible” the suggestion of United States intervention.

But what could the implications of a failed Mexico be for the United States?  The answer would obviously depend on the definition of failed state.  (For definition go here, and for Foreign Policy Magazine’s index of failed states, go here.)  Among the principal attributes of a failed state are “loss of physical control of its territory or a monopoly on the legitimate use of force; erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions; an inability to provide reasonable public services; and the inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.”  Here are a few impacts one can extrapolate from this definition and the JOE 2008 report.

1.  North-bound immigration would be increased by hordes fleeing disorder.  This happened during the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s and the wars in Central America in the 1980-1990s.   It has also been reported that some Mexicans in the United States illegally are already deciding to stay here — in spite of pressure from toughened immigration enforcement — because they fear the violence in Mexico more than they fear ICE’s raids.

2.  The illegitimate use of force, failure to provide public services, and co-option of national decision-making would spread throughout the region and exacerbate existing economic distress. This would impel even more migrant flight.  For one example of the spread of Mexican DTO violence in the region, see this CNN report from Guatemala.

3.  This increased immigration would add more pressure to the challenge of Latino assimilation in the United States. The JOE 2008 report addresses this issue under the rubric of “Trends Influencing the World’s Security”:

By the 2030s the U.S. population will climb by more than 50 million to a total of approximately 355 million.  This growth will result not only from births in current American families, but also from continued immigration, especially from Mexico and the Caribbean, which will lead to major increases in America’s Hispanic population.  By 2030 at least 15% of the population of every state will be Hispanic in origin, in some states reaching upwards of 50%.  How effective Americans prove in assimilating these new immigrants into the nation’s politics and culture will play a major role in America’s prospects.  In this regard, the historical ability of the United States to assimilate immigrants into its society and culture gives it a distinct advantage over most other nations, who display little willingness to incorporate immigrant populations into the mainstream of their societies.

4.  Intra-Mexican violence would spread to the territory of the United States. Violence by the Mexican drug traffickers is reported to have already come to the United States (mostly in the form of internal warfare, settling unpaid debts, etc.)  But first-generation ethnic groups have always stayed in touch with political developments in their home countries, and some minority of such groups has often inflicted violence on factional rivals in the United States.  Moreover, the United States has often served as a home base for exiled opponents of one or another Latin American state, launching clandestine operations from U.S. soil.

5.  The proximity of the United States to uncontrolled Mexican territory (no man’s, or if you prefer, no woman’s land) would invite the establishment of clandestine bases and training grounds by terrorist and other armed groups wishing to do violent ill to the United States or its interests in the region. JOE 2008 makes an elegant point one can relate to this possibility, which is the ability of small, informally organized, but extraordinarily violent groups to take advantage of technology:

One does not need a militia to wreak havoc.  Pervasive information, combined with lower costs for many advanced technologies, has already resulted in individuals and small groups possessing increased ability to cause significant damage and slaughter.  Time and distance constraints are no longer in play.  Such groups employ niche technologies capable of attacking key systems and providing inexpensive countermeasures to costly systems.  Because of their small size, such groups of the “super-empowered” can plan, execute, receive feedback, and modify their actions, all with considerable agility and synchronization.  Their capacity to cause serious damage is out of all proportion to their size and resources.

6.  The supply of illegal drugs would explode. Freed of even minimal existing enforcement restraints in Mexico, traffickers would be free to concentrate on building and strengthening their ties and conduits with Latino (and other) gangs inside the United States.

If you were President Obama, what would you do?

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 437 other followers

%d bloggers like this: