A flurry of new information and expert opinion issued within the last several weeks indicates that the United States will see increased violence involving Latino street gangs, like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), during 2009. More violence is also predicted in Mexico, as the Mexican government continues its war on the powerful Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs), also called “cartels.”
Fairly Civil has already reported the news from the National Drug Threat Assessment 2009 that some street gangs are moving beyond their role as the nation’s primary retail drug outlets and “increasing their involvement in wholesale-level drug distribution.”
The National Gang Threat Assessment 2009, released today and available in a PDF file here, confirms that assessment. “Gang members are the primary retail-level distributors of most illicit drugs. They also are increasingly distributing wholesale-level quantities of marijuana and cocaine in most urban and suburban communities,” according to the new report.
The National Gang Threat Assessment reports two other elements that — combined with the move into wholesale drug trade — are likely to increase the potential for violence.
One is the continued territorial expansion of gangs:
Gang members are migrating from urban areas to suburban and rural communities, expanding the gangs’ influence in most regions; they are doing so for a variety of reasons, including expanding drug distribution territories, increasing illicit revenue, recruiting new members, hiding from law enforcement,and escaping other gangs. Many suburban and rural communities are experiencing increasing gang-related crime and violence because of expanding gang influence.
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Expansion into new territory means friction with existing drug distributors — possibly other, smaller bore gangs — and the resulting necessity to “rationalize” markets. As a knowledgeable FBI agent told me in the course of my researching my upcoming book —No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (U. of Michigan Press, 2009) — the gangs don’t sit down to negotiate “rationalizing” markets. They whip out the guns and start shooting. Last gang standing gets the market. (In this regard, retired Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Gang Sergeant Richard Valdemar has a short piece here, useful for navigating the sometimes-confusing nomenclature (e.g., sureno and norteno) of the California-based gangs that could be infiltrating your placid neighborhoods far from the West Coast.)
Even more troubling is the Gang Threat Assessment report’s carefully understated notice of the potential for confrontation between U.S.-based gangs and the Mexican DTOs: “Some gangs traffic illicit drugs at the regional and national levels; several are capable of competing with U.S.-based Mexican DTOs.” (My emphasis.)
Roll that phrase around in your mind one more time. Competition in the business of trafficking illegal drugs almost certainly means violence. But the Mexican DTOs have proven themselves to be capable of unbounded levels of well-armed and bizarrely cruel violence — from attacking police stations with rockets, to rolling severed heads into bars, to boiling bodies in vats of acid. If a U.S.-based gang or gangs goes up against the Mexican DTOs, a blood bath could result. In this regard, it is worth remembering that the Mexican DTOs basically did to the Colombian cartels what this pregnant line suggests: grew up and took over the old Colombian drug distribution system.
Meanwhile, the private global intelligence firm Stratfor, has released the following assessment of the future of tortured Mexico in its (subscription) Annual Forecast 2009 for Latin America:
Regional Trend: Mexico’s Cartel Crisis Will Build
At the time of this writing, there are no reasons to expect the level of violence in Mexico’s cartel wars to lessen. The death toll of drug-related violence in 2008 was about 5,700, more than twice the previous year’s figure. There are no signs that competition among the cartels is diminishing, and the government does not appear to be letting up on its assault on the cartels. The cartels have demonstrated the ability to undermine the effectiveness of law enforcement around the country and have even demonstrated the ability to strike at government targets in Mexico City. An increase in either the frequency of attacks or the severity of intimidation tactics by cartels against Mexican law enforcement is all but certain. Escalation could include the use of devices such as car bombs and other methods of targeted assassination. As the global recession generates more unemployment, the likelihood of more violence, civil unrest, rising crime and a surge of cartel recruits will only increase.
But although Stratfor sees the situation in Mexico on a continued downward spiral, we do not envision a sharp escalation of violence spilling into the United States in 2009. The cartels must balance the need to move their product across the border with their need to fight law enforcement interference, and it is not in their interest to provoke a substantive response from the United States. For now, Mexican cartels use U.S. street and prison gangs to manage drug distribution and retail inside the United States. That relationship will continue, and potentially increase during 2009, but not to the extent that the cartels’ bases of operations will move north of the border. An increase in cartel-related gang violence in the United States is likely in 2009, but a massive increase in cartel violence that severely impacts U.S. civilians – or a high-profile increase in cartel corruption of U.S. politicians and law enforcement (congruent to the situation on the Mexican side of the border) – would be counterproductive. As long as that is true, the side effects of the cartel war that spill over the border will remain a law enforcement challenge – as opposed to an existential threat – for the United States.