Confronting the narcoterrorism nexus

U.S. officials worry that a confluence of powerful drug-trafficking cartels, terrorist groups and an insecure southern border poses a strategic threat.

Green Berets assigned to the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) engage enemy targets during a training mission held Feb. 20 on Eglin Air Force Base in Northwest Florida. The mission required the Special Forces soldiers to assault a mock drug-cartel outpost and document sensitive materials found inside. (Capt. Thomas Cieslak/7th Special Forces Group (Airborne)

MIAMI – On a recent morning, Gen. John Kelly sat in his spacious office at U.S. Southern Command headquarters, a sprawling complex on the outskirts of Miami with a staff of more than 1,200 people. A tall and lanky Marine with a pronounced accent from his native Boston, Kelly is one of the few officers ever to rise from the enlisted ranks all the way to four-star general. Looking out the windows, he interrupted a discussion with a journalist to point to a civilian airliner banking toward the headquarters.

“Look, he’s not supposed to be on that flight path,” Kelly said, watching the aircraft until it disappeared from view. He then cracked a joke. But as a veteran of multiple combat tours and the commander of an organization tasked with helping to counter some of the most powerful and violent criminal cartels and terrorist groups in the world, it never hurts to stay alert.

Southcom is one of the smaller and most under-resourced of the U.S. military’s geographic commands, in large part because its area of responsibility is Latin America, a vast region of 31 countries and more than 475 million people that is nevertheless often an afterthought for U.S. officials preoccupied with higher-priority crises, like Syria or Ukraine. Nor does it help that Southcom’s primary mission involves some of the most intractable problems the U.S. government has faced, including long and unsuccessful “wars” on drugs and terror and an inability to secure the southern U.S. border.

And yet, in the news of any given week, Southcom officials see a threat matrix that has a direct impact on the lives of millions of Americans. The public recently learned, for instance, that Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the world’s most notorious drug lord, had escaped from a maximum-security prison in Mexico for the second time. Governors and mayors across the country have recently begun warning of an unanticipated heroin epidemic that has seen the number of heroin-related deaths in the U.S. nearly quadruple. Time magazine recently reported that tiny El Salvador is now on track to replace little Honduras as the world’s most murderous country outside a declared war zone. Peace talks between Colombia and the FARC narcoterrorist insurgent group are reportedly on the brink of collapse. Argentines remain transfixed by an ongoing investigation into the mysterious death earlier this year of that country’s best-known prosecutor, who was found with a bullet in his head after building a case that Iran’s terrorist proxy Hezbollah was behind the long-ago bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, and his government knew about it.

In the news of any given week, Southcom officials see a threat matrix that has a direct impact on the lives of millions of Americans.

The linkages between those seemingly unrelated stories are easily missed in a frenetic news cycle, but Southcom officials are paid to connect the dots. Though a military command that is officially responsible for monitoring and detecting drug trafficking and supporting U.S. law enforcement operations in the region, Southcom is also an operational and analytic hub for U.S. counterdrug and counterterrorism activities in Latin America. Its headquarters includes more than 30 representatives from U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, as well as liaisons from their law enforcement counterparts in numerous Latin American countries.

Southcom officials know that the Sinaloa cartel leader “El Chapo” Guzmán’s escape from a Mexican supermax prison speaks to the enduring strength and reach of major Mexican drug-trafficking organizations. The current heroin epidemic in the United States is an outgrowth of the American public’s voracious appetite for illegal drugs, which sustains a $650-billion-a-year business. The Mexican cartels who fight over that lucrative market are largely responsible for the deaths of more than 120,000 Mexicans estimated to have been killed in drug violence over the past decade. The tactical alliances those transnational criminal organizations have with brutal street gangs like Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 along the smuggling pipeline helps explain why eight of the 10 most violent countries in the world are in Latin America.

Perhaps most worrisome, Southcom officials know that the nexus of violent drug cartels, transnational smuggling organizations and terrorist groups in Latin America continues to sustain terrorist hybrids such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Peru’s Shining Path, and to attract extremist groups like Iran’s shadowy terrorist proxy Lebanese Hezbollah, which has long had a presence in the region, due in part to a large Lebanese diaspora in Latin America. That nexus represents the dangerous and rapidly evolving threat of narcoterrorism.

In this Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014 photo, Joaquin El Chapo Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican navy marines at a navy hanger in Mexico City, Mexico. Guzman, the head of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, was captured overnight in the beach resort town of Mazatlan. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
In this Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014 photo, Joaquin El Chapo Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican navy marines at a navy hanger in Mexico City, Mexico. Guzman, the head of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, was captured overnight in the beach resort town of Mazatlan. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

“I’m paid to worry about worst-case scenarios, but to me if a known terrorist group is doing business with a known illicit smuggling network, that amounts to convergence, and we’re seeing it in my area of operations,” Kelly said in an interview. The organizations may not share the same motives or ideology, he noted, and if a terrorist group announced that it wanted to ship a load of anthrax or some other weapon of mass destruction to the United States, a smuggling cartel would probably consider it bad for business.

“But these illicit smuggling networks don’t check passports or do baggage checks, and they involve thousands of unscrupulous subcontractors who are interested in money, not motive,” said Kelly. “So if we don’t care about a heroin epidemic or illicit drugs from Latin America that kill 40,000 Americans on average each year, or the fact that these cartels are corrupting and intimidating the governments of our neighbors with illicit money and violence, then we should at least care about these brutally efficient smuggling networks that reach deep inside the United States. ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] often talks about that vulnerability on their websites.”

An evolving threat

The nexus of terrorism and powerful drug-smuggling cartels is not new, nor is it hypothetical. In the 1990s, the U.S. joined in Colombia’s fight against Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel, a hyper-violent drug cartel that turned to terror in its fight against Colombian authorities, routinely bombing police buildings, assassinating judges and politicians and even blowing up a civilian airliner in flight. Colombia’s successful fracturing of the Medellín and Cali cartels in the 1990s had the unintended consequence of creating a vacuum in the lucrative drug trade. That vacuum was eventually filled by Mexican cartels and Colombia’s FARC, which morphed from a Marxist insurgency relying on terrorist tactics into primarily a drug production and trafficking organization. Now under pressure from the Mexican and Colombian governments, those groups are fracturing once again, forming new alliances and seeking sanctuary in weak or more permissive countries like Venezuela and Bolivia, where the government has expelled the U.S. ambassador and the Drug Enforcement Agency representative.

An officer of the Prosecutor General's Office guards packages containing cocaine during a media presentation at the airport in Tumaco, Colombia, Saturday, March 16, 2013. According to Col. Jorge Mora, commander of an Army counter narcotics brigade, troops seized 3.9 tons of cocaine that belonged to rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC,  in a jungle area near Timbiqui, on Colombia´s southern Pacific coast. (AP Photo/William Fernando Martinez)

“The Mexican cartels are definitely fragmenting like the Colombian cartels before them, and in that reordering we are seeing more contact between transnational criminal organizations and terrorist groups, though the overlap remains relatively small,” said John Donnelly, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s special agent assigned to Southcom. “I asked an intelligence analyst recently about the connection between transnational criminal organizations in the region and terrorist groups like Hezbollah, which is certainly present in Latin America. His reply was, ‘Define connection.’ Both terrorist and smuggling groups swim in the same pool and use some of the same services, such as money laundering. That connection exists, but it’s not an ideological connection.”

In the post-9/11 era, the most resilient al-Qaida franchises and terrorist groups have survived the United States’ “global war on terror” by constantly adapting to the pressure. In that Darwinian landscape, many groups responded to the Treasury Department’s increased scrutiny of their funding sources by turning to the drug trade or other independent streams of money, such as kidnapping and extortion. According to DEA statistics, nearly 40 percent of the State Department’s designated terrorist groups are now involved in drug trafficking.

Until recently Derek Maltz was in charge of the DEA’s Special Operations Division. “The model that has long concerned us is the FARC in Colombia, which evolved from a terrorist insurgency into primarily a sophisticated drug-trafficking organization because at some point they realized the money was easy,” he said. “Now we’re seeing that same phenomenon repeated around the world, with terrorist groups getting involved in drug trafficking because the money is good. That’s been the case with the Afghan Taliban, al-Shabab in Somalia, the Kurdish PKK terrorist group in Iraq and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. Because of this nexus of narcotics and terrorism, we can’t just focus on an extremist group’s terrorist activities anymore. We have to also go after its money-laundering and funding streams, its arms and drug smuggling, its logistics infrastructure. We have to go after the whole network.”

A hybrid threat

The connective tissue between those terror, drug cartel and smuggling networks makes narcoterrorism a potent threat. For instance, in 2011 an Iranian operative named Mansour Arbabsiar with dual Iranian and American citizenship approached an extremely violent Mexican drug cartel with a murder-for-hire proposal. Arbabsiar was working for the Iranian military, and he proposed that a cartel hit man assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States by bombing a popular restaurant in Washington, D.C., that the ambassador frequented. The risk of being tied to a violent drug cartel and a mass-casualty terrorist attack in the heart of the nation’s capital did not deter Iranian military officials. Luckily, and only by chance, the individual Arbabsiar approached was a DEA informant, and the plot was thwarted.

According to DEA statistics, nearly 40 percent of the State Department’s designated terrorist groups are now involved in drug trafficking.

In another instance the same year, DEA agents in Guatemala intercepted a shipment of cocaine and $20 million tied to the hyperviolent Mexican cartel Los Zetas. In a wide-ranging conspiracy investigation, the DEA discovered that the drug shipment was part of a smuggling network that moved product from South America to Europe via West Africa. The profits were then laundered through the Lebanese Canadian Bank, which scrubbed the money in part by financing a string of used-car dealerships in the United States. The ultimate benefactor of the proceeds was Hezbollah. The U.S. Treasury Department ultimately shutdown the Lebanese Canadian Bank by exposing its links to Hezbollah and sanctioning it under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.

“In that case you had cocaine being moved by Mexico’s Los Zetas cartel generating profits passed through a Canadian-Lebanese money-laundering bank to the Hezbollah terrorist group, which has killed a lot of Americans,” said Maltz. In that sense the case resembled the DEA’s arrest of Afghan heroin kingpins Khan Mohammed and Haji Juma Khan, both of whom shipped heroin to the United States and used the profits to arm the Afghan Taliban for their fight with U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

The investigation of the Lebanese Canadian Bank was just one of a number of cases suggesting that Africa is the next destination where drug trafficking and terrorism are converging. “If you’re a South American businessman involved in drug trafficking, why wouldn’t you ship your product through West Africa, where governments are weak and you are much less likely to encounter U.S. law enforcement, and on to Europe, where you can get a much higher price on the street?” said Maltz. “It’s a no-brainer, which is why we think Africa is going to be the next Afghanistan in terms of a hub of narcoterrorism.”

Members of the Mexican Navy surround Eric Jovan Lozano Diaz , alias  Cucho  alleged financial operator of drug cartel Los Zetas , on Friday June 15, 2012 in Mexico City . Lozano was detained in the northern border city of Nuevo Laredo in possession of just over 41 million pesos ( equivalent to about 2.9 million dollars) and more than a million dollars, all cash, the agency reported. (AP Photo / Alexandre Meneghini)

The ability of hybrid narcoterrorist groups in Latin America to corrupt and undermine governments as far away as Africa was revealed in a 2012 case involving Guinea-Bissau. One of the world’s poorest nations, Guinea-Bissau had already been dubbed Africa’s first “narco-state” because so many of its top military and civilian leaders were on the payrolls of drug cartels. As a hub for transshipment and a marketplace where drug proceeds could be traded for arms, the nation had attracted representatives of Hezbollah, FARC and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. In 2012, DEA sources posing as Latin American drug traffickers approached Guinea-Bissau Naval Admiral José Américo Na Tchuto, who agreed to help store and transship two tons of cocaine. Admiral Na Tchuto also agreed to supply advanced weapons to the FARC narcoterrorist group as part of the deal, including surface-to-air missiles.

“To close the deal, we took a beautiful big yacht and parked it in international waters just off the coast of Guinea-Bissau and sent a motor skiff into shore to bring Admiral Na Tchuto and his co-conspirators out to the yacht to ‘celebrate’ the deal,” said Maltz. “And then we arrested them in international waters.”

An existential threat

Despite the rapidly evolving threat of narcoterrorism in Latin America, Southcom has struggled with shrinking budgets and an acute lack of drug interdiction and surveillance assets. As a result, its counterdrug task force was able to respond only roughly 25 percent of the time last year even when suspected drug traffickers were detected. Meanwhile, the State Department has supported a Central American Regional Security Initiative to help weak Central American countries cope with the violence and instability engendered by predatory trafficking cartels and tens of thousands of gang members, many of them forcibly deported veterans of the L.A. gang wars. And yet the initiative failed to stop a wave of nearly 70,000 immigrant minors that swept up on the Southwest border last year trying to escape the violence.

At that time, Gen. John Kelly made headlines by calling the confluence of terrorism, violent drug cartels, collapsing societies and out-of-control migration an “existential” threat. He stands by that assessment.

Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, talks with Navy Lt. Greg Ewing in an aircraft cockpit. Ewing is part of the Navy's Patrol Squadron 10 which is flying detection and monitoring missions out of the Cooperative Security Location in Comalapa in support of multinational counter drug efforts. Comalapa, El Salvador, January 9, 2013. (Juan Quintero / U.S. Embassy / Office of Public Affairs).

“There have been notable successes in this region, such as Colombia’s fight against FARC, which has really lost strength and influence, but I continue to be concerned about this convergence between known terrorist organizations and illicit smuggling and money-laundering networks,” said Kelly. “There are those in the intelligence community who take the view that it is not a major threat and argue that those groups will never find common cause. I think those who take that view are simply trying to rationalize away the problem because no one wants to raise another major threat at a time when we face so many around the world.”