‘Santa Muerte’, are the Mexican cartels really coming?
11 Jul 2017|

On 2 January 2010, street gang member Hugo Hernandez was kidnapped in the state of Sonora, Mexico. Seven days later, pieces of his body were found spread across several locations in the town of Los Mochis, Sinaloa. A soccer ball with his face sewn onto it was later discarded outside the town’s city hall, with a message that read, ‘Happy New Year, because this will be your last’.

The slaying of Hernandez was an act of revenge that would later be linked to a Mexican drug cartel. It’s just one of the many acts of extreme violence that have become synonymous with Mexican organised crime groups, or cartels, such as La Familia. While Mexico isn’t a fully fledged narco-state, its government is engaged in an asymmetric conflict with various drug cartels. In the process, Mexico’s cartels have become an existential threat to the rule of law.

For other countries, including Australia, the expansion of Mexican organised crime groups, including Mexican cartels, beyond national and regional geographic boundaries brings with it significant domestic, national and regional security risks. However, there’s much more to the Mexican organised crime threat than cartels.

In popular culture, the labels ‘Mexican cartel’ and ‘street gang’ conjure an image of a highly organised, hierarchically commanded and ultraviolent crime group. Even Mexico’s infamous Sinaloa cartel, rumoured to have an increasingly ominous presence in Australia, is more an alliance of criminal figures than a hierarchical organisation.

There should be little doubt that those groups, as a collective phenomenon, have consistently demonstrated a propensity to use breathtakingly barbaric violence for revenge and intimidation. Unfortunately, popular characterisations of the structure and organisation of the groups does little justice to the complexity of the threat that they pose. And those generalisations lack the necessary granularity to be useful in the development of disruption- and mitigation-focused strategies.

For American policymakers, it has been convenient to conflate well-known US-based Mexican street gangs, transnational street gangs such as the ‘Mexican Mafia’, and transnational organised crime groups such as the ‘Mexican cartels’ into a single homogeneous threat grouping: ‘the cartels’. It’s equally convenient to link all Mexican organised crime activity together with the cartel threat. Such conflation enables the seriousness of the threat at hand to be communicated to government decision-makers in terms that will ensure funding and policy responses.

Frustration with the inability of law enforcement arrest and seizure strategies to undermine the drug trade and associated organised crime has further complicated policy decision-making. In the US and Mexican governments’ cases, it’s likely that that frustration has underpinned government policy, thereby expanding the role of the military and intelligence agencies in the ‘war on drugs’ (PDF).

But conflating those groups doesn’t produce policies and strategies that will result in operational activity that has long-term disruptive effects on the groups involved. Moreover, the current understanding arguably doesn’t allow for the involvement and integration of enforcement operations with other whole-of-government social, economic and development strategies.

It’s likely that Mexican cartels have been supplying Australia’s cocaine market since at least the late 2000s. In August 2014, the Australian Crime Commission revealed that it had intelligence suggesting that Mexican cartels were singling out Australia as a particularly profitable destination for smuggled illegal drugs. Then, in September 2014, the commission’s chief executive, Chris Dawson, stated that ‘recently we’ve seen the emergence of Mexican cartel activity within Australia’.

Since 2015, the AFP has found that Mexican organised crime has adopted a hands-off approach to operating in Australia and Asia, particularly Japan. In that operating model, Mexican organised crime groups importing methylamphetamine into Sydney and Melbourne have used the services of West African networks. The West African organised crime groups provide people on the ground in Sydney and Melbourne to collect drug importations and distribute them to Australia’s outlaw motorcycle gangs, which operate domestic illicit drug distribution networks. Mexican organised crime groups have essentially moved into the wholesale-to-wholesale illicit drug market, distancing them from law enforcement risk.

To be clear, while the Mexican organised crime problem has links with Australia’s problem with street gangs and domestic organised crime, they aren’t the same problem. The problem Australia faces with Mexican organised crime has several different dimensions. The first is that the Mexican business models present real challenges for Australia’s strategies for reducing illicit drug supplies.

Today ASPI is releasing its latest special report, ‘Santa Muerte’, are the Mexican cartels really coming? The report argues that the menace of Mexican organised crime is no longer looming on the horizon for Australia and Asia; it has already arrived. However, the local nature of the problem isn’t likely to be the same as in either the US or Mexico. The threat needs to be viewed in a regional context.

The general pattern is clear:

ASPI’s report recommends that Australia’s next national organised crime response plan focus on:

  • reducing the permissibility of the environment for Mexican organised crime to operate in the ASEAN region
  • making the importation of illicit drugs through onshore parties and cooperation with collaborators in transit countries more difficult
  • restricting organised crime access to precursor chemicals at the point at which they are manufactured. The aim of that strategy is to decrease precursor availability in order to drastically increase the wholesale and retail price of synthetic drugs in the ASEAN and Australian illicit drug markets
  • filling jurisdictional gaps, which have been exploited by Mexican organised crime, by coordinating enforcement cooperation across ASEAN
  • restricting the freedom of movement of Mexican organised crime groups across ASEAN through further regional cooperation.