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Mexican Drug Cartels and Terrorists: Have They Really Teamed Up?

Or is that just a national security urban legend?

by
Todd Bensman

Bio

April 7, 2009 - 12:34 am
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No one has to convince me that Islamic terrorists can infiltrate America’s land borders pretty much any time they want. I’ve traveled all over the world documenting the means, methods, and routes Muslim immigrants use to breach U.S. borders from homelands they share with true blue terrorists. If economic or political refugees from state sponsors of terror can do it as often as government capture data shows, so too can suicide bombers.

But in the rarefied genre of this sort of national security/immigration reporting, a durable notion keeps popping up that never fails to stimulate to frenzy in certain circles but which, at least to my mind, comes close to qualifying as alarmist canard. It is that Islamic terrorist organizations have teamed up with Latin American drug gangs like MS-13 or Mexico’s powerful cartels. This, it is believed, can only spell doom — and boom — for America.

The latest offering comes in a March 27 article by journalist Sara A. Carter in the Washington Times. It quotes an array of mostly anonymous U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and military intelligence sources darkly hinting that Hezbollah and Mexico’s drug cartels are working hand in glove. The evidence offered? Hezbollah has traveled on cartel-controlled routes to smuggle operatives and contraband into the U.S. The piece quotes Michael Braun, a recently retired assistant administrator and DEA chief of operations, who concludes: “They work together. They rely on the same shadow facilitators. One way or another, they are all connected.”

The piece doesn’t flat out declare evidence of a cartel/terror alliance. But it certainly leaves readers with the implication that one exists. My reporting over the years has shown that no such alliance between drug lords and terrorist groups has been validated. Well-placed federal sources and recent Homeland Security Department threat assessments say it has never been so. And even without those, such an alliance makes no sense for either group.

As for the Sara Carter story about Hezbollah, the terror group’s movement along cartel-controlled routes is most likely unavoidable happenstance being made into something more.  But this is not evidence of “growing ties with Mexican drug cartels” or collusion. Yet judging by reactions to the story, readers are left with the impression that the drug lords are going to help terrorists attack America.

At the very least, this story and many others like it imply that Hezbollah operatives cannot move through Mexico without cartel endorsement or knowing enablement of Hezbollah goals and ideology. This is a notion that is disproved in interviews I’ve had with Middle Easterners who simply hired the nearest coyote smuggler hanging around the local taco stand. Even in this era of rigorous cartel occupation of routes, I question whether they are taking bureaucratic pains to micromanage the workaday coyote smuggling.

The Carter story does nothing to add any validity to the canard of a drug gangs/terrorist alliance. Over the years, I’ve dealt with counter-terrorism officials who’ve worked in Mexico and are in the know. All of them say the double bad boy alliance canard, where objectives are mutually known and supported, is patently unfounded. It’s possible that Carter’s anonymous government sources know something my anonymous sources in other agencies do not. Carter is correct that the cartels control routes and Hezbollah does operate illegal contraband businesses throughout Latin America. But not one of my sources will connect them. One former FBI agent who spent years working counter-terrorism intelligence inside Mexico after 9/11 sent me an unsolicited email regarding Carter’s story, saying: “I disagree in principle with the Hezbollah/drug cartel linkages but people ‘sell’ this junk intel to elevate their programs and increase their budgets.”

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