Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law

What is Beyond the Border?

Stephanie Leutert
Wednesday, July 20, 2016, 1:47 PM

Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children have been brutally murdered. Their bullet-riddled bodies can be found in ditches, hanging from bridges, or strewn across highways and city centers. Many more have fled in search of safety, only to be raped, beaten up, or robbed along the way. Tens of thousands have simply disappeared.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children have been brutally murdered. Their bullet-riddled bodies can be found in ditches, hanging from bridges, or strewn across highways and city centers. Many more have fled in search of safety, only to be raped, beaten up, or robbed along the way. Tens of thousands have simply disappeared.

Along rural paths and throughout inner-cities, gangsters, thugs, bandits, and mass murderers roam and kill with what can seem like complete impunity. Governments and police are at best helpless to make it stop and at worst complicit in the slaughter.

I’m not talking about Iraq or Syria. The cities that I’m talking about aren’t Sarajevo during the Balkans war or Grozhny during the Chechen wars. The violence that I’m describing is not far away. This is the violence in the world geographically closest to the United States. And it’s going on right now.

This is the murky bloodshed currently bathing Mexico and Central America.

You might expect—given the extreme nature of the violence, its longevity, its proximity, and its consequences for our region—Mexico and Central America would be front and center in the discussions of the U.S. national security establishment. But they’re not. Take a look through Lawfare’s articles—or those of any other national security-oriented publication or website. You’ll see endless discussion of ISIS, Syria, Al Qaeda, and robots that don’t even exist yet. But most of the time, the closest the discussion will get to Latin America is writing on Guantanamo.

That we systematically under-discuss our own neighborhood in the national security arena is much clearer than why we do. I can think of several possible explanations for why the region just south of our own country largely escapes our attention.

One could be a loyalty to stale paradigms, in which this stuff is just narco violence. That is, we may be deferring to images of cartel shootouts and Pablo Escobar-style criminal groups to explain away the current violence as familiar. Or perhaps we are less interested when violent actors are supposedly profit seeking, lacking extreme ideological beliefs and eschewing political objectives. Or maybe we want to believe that these countries’ governments—with adequate U.S. support—have the ability to tamp things down. Colombia did it eventually, right?

Or maybe it’s even because solutions don’t involve decisive military victories, but rather a combination of institution building, corruption cleansing, economic development, and law enforcement reform. This is admittedly not as adrenaline pounding as tackling security challenges in other parts of the world. Plus, it doesn’t involve our troops in a combat capacity and the violence isn’t specifically directed at Americans or the United States.

But here’s the thing: the violence going on in Mexico and the northern strip of Central America almost certainly has a bigger impact on the United States on a day-to-day basis than anything going on in the Middle East.

Consider: the same gang cliques that are terrorizing Central Americans are operating in our own major cities. The Mexican drug traffickers dissolving their rivals in acid are also moving their products to every forgotten corner of our country. The drug money is not just corrupting Mexican politicos but is also aimed at U.S. border patrol and customs agents. And the victims of organized criminal gangs in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are steadily arriving at our southern border, seeking asylum and international protection.

Don’t get me wrong, these are not failed states, and in the case of Mexico, pretty far from it. Mexico boasts the world’s fifteenth largest economy, attracting some $28 billion in foreign investment in 2015 and over 87 million international tourists. But along the fringes of society, just out of sight, atrocities—or as the Open Society Justice Initiative has reported: crimes against humanity—have and continue to occur.

The United States simply cannot untangle itself from the bloodshed. It has roots not just in the security of the region, but in our cravings and addictions, in the Second Amendment, in our money laundering regulations, and even criminal deportations that continue to fuel so much of the mayhem. It is also, on the other side of the ledger, our billions of taxpayer dollars that are funding anti-violence programs, our legal system that is processing the individuals running away from the violence, and our court system that is prosecuting some of the worst offenders.

This column represents a joint project of Lawfare and the University of Texas at Austin’s Strauss Center, an effort to looks seriously at each and every one of these issues and more over the next year. As the Mexico Security Initiative Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin for the upcoming academic year, I’ll use the column to try to take Lawfare’s readers on a serious intellectual journey through the violence and governance failures below our southern border.

There’s a lot to cover. Today’s Mexican drug cartels don’t look like anything like the traffickers highlighted in Netflix’s hit show Narcos. They don’t even look much like the cartels that existed in Mexico ten years ago. The newer groups are often smaller, more nimble, and they are hyper-violent. They don’t always even fall under the “narco” category. Instead, running extensive criminal structures that extort businesses of all sizes, kidnapping community members and migrants for ransom, funnelling billions of dollars in oil, and ferreting their way into any possible revenue-generating activity.

Nor is the violence in the region just about the cartels. The column will also cover the Central American transnational gangs—particularly, but not limited to, MS 13 and Barrio 18. These criminal groups are slaughtering citizens at the world’s highest rate (outside of traditional conflict zones), attracting tens of thousands of recruits, instilling fear into entire neighborhoods and cities, and threatening the social fabric and very stability of their countries.

Our focus will also go beyond the bodies piling up in the region’s streets and morgues and follow those who are running for their lives.

These are the silent displacements, such as the 3,000 individuals who fled cartel fighting in La Tuna, Arroyo Seco, and La Palma, Sinaloa, Mexico only a few days ago and remain displaced in the neighboring pueblos. There are higher-profile cases too, such as the more than 128,000 Central American children who have shown up alone at our southern border since October 2013. We’ll trace the role of organized crime in these displacements and in human smuggling networks, the systematic criminal exploitation of those who flee, and the legal and policy frameworks that will determine these individuals’ fates once they reach the United States.

During the coming year, I may not be able to provide many straightforward answers. For every massacre, there are varying testimonies. For each claimed policy success, there are myriad criticisms or hidden consequences. But here’s what I can promise: we will not ignore what’s going on, so to speak, within the neighborhood. We will look beyond the border and dive directly into the shadowy and critically important underworld that is the Mexican and Central American criminal landscape.

Stephanie Leutert is the Director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin. She writes for Beyond the Border, a Strauss Center and Lawfare collaboration, and provides an in depth look at security and migration challenges in Mexico and Central America.

Subscribe to Lawfare