Mexico is a place of many rumors and much chisme, or gossip. One of the most frightening rumors you hear these days—especially given the tragic, ISIS-inspired shooting in Orlando—is that members of the so-called Islamic State have infiltrated the cartels, seeking to recruit hardened sicarios, hit men, to their cause.
ISIS’s nefarious motive, naturally, would be to use the cartels’ drug shipping networks and smuggling tunnels to ferret terrorists, or even weapons of mass destruction, across the U.S. border.
Fortunately such tales remains nothing but chisme—and not very plausible rumor mongering at that.
Although some far-right media outlets in the U.S. have presented the unholy alliance of jihadist warrior and Aztec assassin as likely, if not inevitable, so far there’s absolutely no evidence behind such claims.
(Full disclosure: I spent eight months out of the last year reporting up close with both law enforcement and the cartels in Mexico and, after much searching for just such a headline-grabbing, cartel-ISIS link, was unable to find so much as a prayer rug. Or anybody who knew what a prayer rug was.)
In fact, the two groups actually seem more like natural enemies.
That’s because it’s hard to imagine a wealth-loving, famously decadent crime lord like Guzmán—or any of his fellows—getting along with their dour, tee-totaling, thobe-wearing counterparts. The Mexican press have also had great fun at ISIS’s expense, wittily skewering the unlikely Islamic invasion.
Given how jealously the cartels guard their turf and prized smuggling routes—and their penchant for slaughtering would-be competitors—any jihadists who showed up quoting the Quran and talking up Allah are unlikely to have much success at recruitment, and would likely be risking their lives in the process.
Just because we aren’t likely to see cartel capos and Sunni fundamentalists playing nice anytime soon doesn’t mean there aren’t troubling similarities between the two groups.
Both use nearly identical tactics against those who would oppose them, including publicized beheadings, slavery, and the deployment of child soldiers. And both have an uncanny ability to appeal to the poor and downtrodden in their respective homelands, which gives them a powerful constituent base for easy recruitment.
The standard narrative in the U.S. is that ISIS is motivated primarily by fundamentalist religious fervor, whereas the cartels are more like us: secular, even capitalistic in nature. It was this line of thought that led to Sean Penn fawning naively all over Chapo Guzmán in the Mexican jungle. But this perception, much like Mr. Penn’s prose style, is dangerously flawed.
At least two major cartels—Los Caballeros Templarios (The Knights Templar) and La Familia Michoacana—were openly religious cults that practiced Satan worship and cannibalism. They also built shrines and idols, and distributed pamphlets preaching their death-obsessed ideology to the masses.
Even other, less sectarian Mexican gangs, have strong ties to the occult. The skeletal figure of Santa Muerte, the Death Saint, is also worshipped by sicarios from all the major cartels—who often seek her blessing before raids, abductions, and assassinations.
Some observers go so far as to argue that the cartels are actually more violent, and have been responsible for more death and terror in Mexico than the putative Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Such critics often point to Islamaphobia to explain the disparity in media coverage between the cartels and ISIS in the U.S.
But the most important question for Americans might be: which group is really more of a threat to us—to “our way of life,” as the common cliché of counter-terror rhetoric would have it?
This seems a fundamental issue, especially in the wake of the Orlando massacre. Omar Mateen, the shooter responsible for the largest single-gunman massacre in U.S. history, does not appear to have had any operative connection to the Islamic State, despite killing in its name.
That lack of official affiliation hasn’t stopped a frenzy of concern over further ISIS attacks on American soil—nor prevented presidential nominee Donald Trump from renewing his call to ban all Muslims from entering the country.
Mateen might have been little more than a jihadi copycat , but ISIS itself has slyly taken advantage of his mayhem, releasing a video which casts him as a heroic martyr, and calling for more terror strikes.
These threats must be taken seriously and investigated, of course, in order to protect against further loss of life. But, at least for now, organized ISIS cells in the U.S. remain purely hypothetical.
The Mexican cartels, by contrast, aren’t an abstract menace. They’re already here in force.
“The DEA has identified the following cartels that operate cells within the United States: the Sinaloa Cartel, Gulf Cartel, Juarez Cartel, Knights Templar, Beltran-Leyva Organization (BLO), Cartel Jalisco New Generation (CJNG), Los Zetas, and Las Moicas,” said Russ Baer, the DEA’s staff coordinator for the Office of Congressional and Public Affairs, in an email to The Daily Beast during an investigation of the CJNG.
These organizations are run by “ruthless, cold blooded murderers” who seek to “perpetuate violence” while also shipping massive amounts of heroin, crystal meth, and cocaine into the U.S., according to Baer.
“Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) pose the greatest criminal … threat to the United States,” Baer told TDB.
And they’re not likely to lose that top-dog status anytime soon:
“Mexican TCOs will continue to dominate,” Baer said. “There are no other organizations at this time with the infrastructure and power to challenge [them] for control.”
By some estimates drug-war related homicides in the U.S. from 2006 to 2010 were responsible for more deaths than the respective wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the same time—and the true number of narcotics-related killings could be much higher, as the U.S. doesn’t officially track those statistics.
The death toll from drug overdoses in 2014, the latest year on record, was 47,055 Americans—or about 125 people per day, according to a report by the New York Times.
Such grim statistics dwarf the scale of all Islamist-related terror actions against the U.S. combined.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that heroin use is sharply on the rise in the U.S., with much of the new, high-quality smack coming from the Mexican states of Guerrero and Michoacan. The cartels have also discovered a way to refine an unprecedentedly pure type of crystal meth—and they now supply about four-fifths of all meth used by Americans.
And that’s not just chisme.
America’s deadliest enemies would seem to be far closer than we think. If that’s the case—unlike what Mr. Trump would have us believe—no wall, no matter how high, will keep them out.