Is the War on Drugs the New War on Terror?

By Jed Bickman 08/26/11

The US military is using controversial tactics from Iraq and Afghanistan in the war against Mexico's drug cartels.

An Iraqi detainee in Abu Ghraib prison. Photo

The New York Times reports that the Obama administration is stepping up its cross-border cooperation with Mexico in a series of unprecedented operations against the drug cartels. In what officials call “boomerang” raids, Mexican commandos are launching helicopter assaults from American soil on leading drug-traffickers in Mexico. The DEA and other US law enforcement agencies are providing logistical support, including staging areas for the raids. Launching such missions from the Yankee side of the border evades, as the Times put it, the “corrupting influences of criminal organizations." Previously CIA operatives had reportedly been posted at Mexican military bases—as officials considered embedding an American team in a Mexican counternarcotics police unit. Even more provocative to Mexican sensibilities, the US is operating unmanned surveillance drones in Mexico's airspace, a tactic also used by the military against terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such actions seem to carefully skirt the niceties of international law, which prohibits the US from conducting military-style raids within Mexico and vice-versa. The Times also reports that top US military vets of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been recruited to draft anti-cartel strategies based on counterterrorism operations used against al-Qaeda and others. “The military is trying to take what it did in Afghanistan and do the same in Mexico,” one officer confirmed.

What the military did in Afghanistan included torture, illegal rendition, black sites and other breaches of the Geneva Convention. As the War on Drugs increasingly resembles the War on Terrorism, we have to ask: If the Mexican cartels are treated as terrorists, will they respond by acting like terrorists? These criminal organizations, in addition to terrorizing certain cities and towns in Mexico with extreme violence, are major players in the global black market in drugs and guns. In April, local police in Bronwnsville, Texas, found and defused an improvised roadside bomb—a tactic widely deployed against US troops in Afghanistan by Al Qaeda and the Taliban—set by Mexican cartels in a speculated retaliation for a DEA campaign to capture the leader of the Gulf Drug cartel, Ezequiel Cardenas. As Andrew Rice reminded us a few weeks ago, the Mexican people are paying the price for the US War on Drugs. So far the vast majority of the bloody fallout from the battle along the border has taken place on Mexican soil. But if the US counterterrorism complex continues to amp up its role, taking operations to “the dark side,” there’s always the risk that the drug cartels will respond in kind, adopting terrorist methods. WIll the boomerang raids boomerang on the US?

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Jed Bickman.jpeg

Jed Bickman is a journalist and copywriter living in the greater New York City area. He is the associate editor at The New Press. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.