Narcoterrorism: The Other World Terror

After September 11, 2001 George W. Bush declared a global War on Terror. His terminology generated controversy. It’s not narrow enough of a definition. Critics often put “War on Terror” in quotes, implying illegitimacy. The weak, vague terminology is a product of political correctness and Bush’s desire not to alienate Muslims by calling it the “War on Islamic Terror.” It’s not a War on Islam, just Islamofascism and people who blow up “infidels,” but that name would surely offend.

Some say it’s impossible to wage war against an undefined enemy. How do we fight a war on terror? When is it over? What exactly is terrorism? A dictionary-esque definition would go something like this (from the Wikipedia page):

Terrorism is the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion.

Would this include the Mafia and organized crime who extort businesses? What about my uncle, a union enforcer who uses violence (or the threat of) to intimidate those who go against the union or union members who go against the leadership? Is my uncle a terrorist? I hope not. The Wikipedia article goes on:

Common definitions of terrorism refer only to those violent acts which are intended to create fear (terror), are perpetrated for a religious, political or ideological goal; and deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants (civilians).

Inspiring fear for “religious, political, or ideological goal[s]” leaves out for-profit terrorism. So the Mafia’s in the clear, but my uncle’s in the grey. Either way, discounting for-profit terrorism leaves out a form of world terrorism second only to Islamic: narcoterrorism.

In ~4 years in Latin America, you read a lot of drug cartel news. I’ve learned a lot about the business. One core competency in being a large scale narco is “the systematic use of terror.” They systematically use terror to intimidate the government, police, journalists, and anyone who opposes their business.

From an earlier post on Colombian drug cartels:

Enrique Low Murtra wanted nothing more than to leave his job as Colombia’s justice minister to open a law office and return to his previous career as a university teacher. ‘I would like to imagine that vengeance is not eternal …’ he said … Two months earlier, on the instruction of Colombia’s president, Virgilio Barco, Low Murtra had signed warrants for the arrest and extradition to the United States on drugs charges of the five leading members of the Medellín Cartel … Faced with constant death threats, the minister sent his daughter out of the country. ‘Even going for a haircut has become a problem,’ he said. So intense did the threats become that, in July 1988, Barco sent him to Switzerland as ambassador … In 1991, he was back in Colombia, working as he had hoped as a law professor at the University of La Salle. No longer in government service, he had no bodyguards. He was gunned down at the entrance to the university.

Over three years had passed since the judge signed arrest warrants. The drug cartels never forget. They can’t let people get away. They need a high fear factor. Revenge and intimidation are key parts of the business.

In the story above a judge is assassinated. Maybe killing law enforcement officials isn’t the same as blowing up the World Trade Center. More from Wikipedia’s article on terrorism:

An abiding characteristic is the indiscriminate use of violence against noncombatants for the purpose of gaining publicity for a group, cause, or individual.

This is how I define terrorism:

Terrorism is the systematic and indiscriminate use of violence against noncombatants for religious, political, ideological, or economic goals.

I include for-profit motives. I also require indiscriminate violence against noncombatants to qualify as terrorism, clearing my uncle and most organized crime, both of which are discriminate.

Narcoterrorism is indiscriminate. Narcos don’t only target law enforcement. My Pablo Escobar article illustrates his tactics. He downed a commercial airliner. He bombed public buildings in Bogota, killing mostly civilians to intimidate the public into supporting a government peace deal. He kidnapped and killed Bogota’s elite families who had nothing to do with law enforcement, but were friends and family of policy makers.

A disturbing example of narcoterrorism came from Rolling Stone’s American narco in Mexico story earlier this year. After infamous trafficker Arturo Beltran was killed by Mexican Marines, the Beltran Leyva cartel responded:

The night of the funeral for a commando who had been killed in the raid, assassins went to the home of the soldier’s family and machine-gunned his mother, sister, aunt and brother in their sleep, leaving behind nearly three dozen spent bullet casings.

A soldier’s entire family is killed after his funeral. That turned my stomach. Mexico is currently the heart of narcoterrorism; their cartels have begun to mimic Colombian tactics.

I’ve heard stories of murdered Colombians who had nothing to do with law enforcement. A lawyer helped some campesinos escape their FARC-dominated region. The FARC cell in Bogota killed the lawyer and his whole family. Civilians working noncombatant roles for the government in FARC red zones, if identified, are harassed and stalked even after returning to the city.

Islamic terror garners more global attention. It’s more of a threat because Islamofascists fault the US, Europe, and “the West” for their problems. Also, extreme interpretations of the Koran mandate believers to “slay the infidel.” Islamic terror overshadows narcoterrorism, illustrated in the difference between their respective Wikipedia articles. The Islamic Terror article is almost 10,000 words with over 180 sources. The narcoterrorism article is under 500 words, has bad punctuation, and cites only four sourcesMexico’s drug war has claimed 40,000 – 50,000 lives. That’s almost 20 times the casualties on 9/11, just in Mexico!

Will narcoterrorism ever garner the attention it deserves? The US government doesn’t ignore it given Plan Colombia and current efforts in Mexico. But in the hearts and minds of citizens of the developed world, narcoterrorism almost doesn’t exist. It only affects a few countries and doesn’t directly threaten America or Europe. It goes largely unnoticed. When Islamic terror has been subdued, will developed countries turn their attention to for-profit narcoterrorism?



  1. I wonder if narco-terrorism can be stopped through legalization.

    Do you think Mexican or Colombian cartels would prefer legalization, or is it more profitable to keep it illegal?

    I think the insidious thing about narco-terrorism is that its right on people’s front porch. I live in Denver. Terrorism is out there, but its not a daily threat to my life or my family. Having tweakers who don’t mind killing patrolling your neighborhood would be compelling in the worst kind of way. In that sense, I wonder if it is even more effective. Further, Islamic terrorists are usually playing defense, bombing things in retaliation, where the narcos seem to play more offense.

    It is hard for me to imagine where I would fit into the scene. I do NOT like law enforcement in my shit, and I do not agree with a lot of laws. I could party with the coca farmers for all my days.

    But, I do NOT like the insanity and chaos of that side, and I appreciate a good dose of law and order too. I appreciate both sides. I can’t get behind indiscriminate killings of innocents, but both sides are capable of that as well.


  2. I know this is a bit beyond you Colin (in years) but Regan declared war on drugs and the narcos when he was in office but by declaring war on drugs it became a double edged sword as it gave the US government the right to use any and all tools at it disposal to win that war including military action no warrants were needed for tapping the phones or taking of bank accounts the DEA would walk in your house and just go to looking thru your stuff and if you got a lawyer and sued them then they would just get the fish and wildlife dept to keep an eye on you no matter where you lived as the game wardens do not have bounderies & you can not sue them for harrasment


  3. colin – whatever you want to name them, a lot of people are killed every year (month, week, day?) by these vicious psychopaths. and it will go on until the drugs in question are legalised.

    after all, we don’t have many murders nowadays by liquor distributors in defending or expanding their territories, but we used to – when it was illegal.

    roby swan


  4. mexico has been the narco-gateway to the world for many years, and only in the last few have we seen this kind of violence. everything was peaceful before the police and politicians actually started doing there jobs. killings were discriminate. i spent half my life there growing up, but i have not been there in years. its important to remember that nafta and the amero have put a lot of pressure on mexico. before nafta – drugs were good for business; now, american companies are good for business and no one will buy into the amero in a narco state. this has forced the government to clean up that chaotically beautiful country. but it is not controllable, and the narcos still have a lot of control over police, leaving the citizen with no one to turn to. to clean up mexico would take an entire change in cultural paradigm.

    just the same i’ve just had one friend get out of jail for a “terrorist threat”. he got in an argument and told the guy he was going to kick his ass. that’s it, sounds like bullshit but its not. i believe the definition of terrorism will continue to expand until . . . who knows.

    i think its a good time not to be in the u.s. check this out:

    kid arrested for burping:

    12 year old arrested for farting:

    12 year old girl arrested for writing “i love my friends” on her desk:

    this is the way the going and “terrorism” just puts it in the express lane. i’m happy to be in peru and can’t even believe i was allowed to leave the u.s.


  5. 2012 should have telling implications on what direction this goes with elections in both Mexico and the U.S. Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI) was/is the early front runner in Mexico and the PRI has a loooong history of making deals….I just spent some time working in D.F. and had numerous elites tell me there is a ‘soft’ understanding in Mexico that Peña Nieto is going to lighten the military efforts and ‘make deals’ with the cartels. Most don’t seem to necessarily think he wants to give the cartels more freedom to empower his own interests, its just a different approach (i.e. stop the headliner 72 body beheadings that are making terrible waves around the world for Mexico and we’ll give you some wiggle room on certain things….) from Calderon’s, which some argue has not been the most effective. I’m not going to get into the whole argument of the U.S. influence on the problem/solution, just noting next year could/should be a telling one for narcoterrorism in Mexico…

    More Important Side Note: Just ordered me some Expat Chronicles’ paraphernalia, so toss that on the jolly fat man’s sleigh for me!!!


  6. Something to keep in mind about the drug legalization aspect. This will not cause the Cartels to go away. They will just find other means to make money. One method of making money would be to take political control of the country. Then your protection money is legitimate – aka taxes.

    As a side note: Nixon (if not before) started the War on Drugs.


  7. @Mike

    It’s pretty difficult for organized crime to take political control of a country. In fact, I can’t think of a single instance of it happening. (Even Afghanistan — a basket case if there ever was one — was ruled by the Taliban, not the local opium trade.) Escobar might have come closest, and he was only a lousy alternate before the political establishment closed ranks against him. Deprive the cartels of their billions in drugs profits, and I think you’ll see their influence greatly decrease, not the other way ’round.

    To put it another way: If a cartel could seize control of a government, why wouldn’t it do so now?


  8. Recently read the novel “The Cobra” by Frederick Forsyth which is about the cocaine trade. It’s well researched (Forsyth has a background in jourrnalism) although ficticious of course. But you get an excellent insight into the drug trade from both sides (crooks and law enforcement) as well as the psychology of high level drug trafickers. Most of them are actually clinical psychopaths.

    By the way: !!! MERRY CHRISTMAS !!!


  9. If alternative income sources were available for mafia, they’d be exploiting them already. U.S. mafia also make money from gambling, extortion, prostitution and anything else they can.

    Legalizing drugs would take away a big market from them, just as ending Prohibition shrank the U.S. Mafia.


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