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Dispatch: Organized Crime vs. Terrorism

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Analyst Reva Bhalla uses the Mexican drug cartel war to examine the differences between an organized criminal group and a terrorist organization.

Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Mexican lawmakers recently passed legislation defining punishment for acts of terrorism. The most interesting aspect of this law is what was encompassed in that definition of terrorism, which could apply to cartel-related activities. This could be an emerging tactic by the Mexican government to politically characterize cartel-related activities as terrorism and use that as a way to undermine popular support for organized criminal activity in Mexico.

There are some very clear distinctions between organized crime and terrorism. Organized criminal groups can engage in terrorist tactics. Terrorist groups can engage in organized criminal activity. These two sub state actors have very different aims, and these aims can place very different constraints on each.

An organized crime group cannot exist without an extensive peripheral network. In that peripheral network that will involve the bankers, politicians and police; basically the portals into the illicit world that protects the core of the organized crime group, which revolves around business activity. In this case being drug trafficking that the Mexican cartels are engaged in. With such a network territorial possessions come into play, and again, popular support is needed. That doesn't necessarily mean population condones the violence committed by the cartels but it does mean that the cartels can effectively intimidate the population to tolerate activity and allow business to go up on as usual.

By contrast a terrorist group does not need to rely on as extensive network. By definition terrorism is primarily driven by political aims. The financial aspect of their activities is a means to an end, so this place is very different constraints on the terrorist group and allows the terrorist group to engage in much bolder, riskier and violent acts then an organized crime group would. What's important about a terrorist act is that it's used to draw attention to their political objectives. Essentially terrorism is theater.

An interesting dynamic that we haven't seen quite play out yet in Mexico is when an organized crime group starts to adopt terrorist tactics. We have seen examples of where some cartels have engaged in beheadings and IED usage but not to a degree yet where there's been a big public backlash. In fact, in Mexico we've seen the population and major business groups come out against the government calling on the government to stop the offensive against the cartels and to allow business to go on as usual.

We have seen international examples of where this line has been crossed. For example, in 1992 the Sicilian Mafia La Cosa Nostra crossed a big line when they launched a massive car bombing against an important official. That unleashed a huge wave of public backlash. We also saw this in Colombia with Pablo Escobar and the huge IED campaign that swept across Colombia and that eventually turned people against the cartel dominance and resulted in intelligence sharing that led to the downfall of some of those key cartels. What we may be seeing here is a more subtle tactic by the Mexican government to deal with the cartels.

Despite the very important distinctions between organized crime groups and terrorist groups, the branding of an organized crime group like the Mexican cartels as terrorists could be a way to undermine the public tolerance for a lot of their activity in the country. Again, we have not seen this line crossed in Mexico and I don't think we're quite there yet but it will be interesting to see how the Mexican government attempts to re-brand the cartel war.

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