Takedown: From Capo to ‘Chapo’ – Show Me the Money

Just days ago, the head of the fearsome and staggeringly profitable Sinaloa drug cartel, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, was captured by Mexican and US authorities acting in concert.

Though it took more than a decade to take Guzman into custody after his creative and audacious escape from prison in a laundry truck, law enforcement officials ultimately prevailed and the parties will now have their day in court once again.

But as big a kingpin as Guzman may be — and he is assuredly a very big fish — the Sinaloa Cartel, with its global reach and influence, is much more than just a single man at the apex of the organization.

Indeed, the Sinaloa Cartel is a sprawling multinational enterprise much like the global narcotics trade as a whole. And in order to defeat the cartels, we must go beyond traditional law enforcement and its traditional dossiers by supplementing it with the understanding that the cartels operate as a business — albeit an illicit one.

Deconstructing and analyzing the narcotics industry through a business lens, from product inception all the way through to distribution channels and retail sales, would permit US and international counter-narcotics officials to identify and exploit areas of opportunity.

Granted, the utility of this approach would be primarily restricted to the cartel equivalents of the Fortune 500, and would have limited use in respect of the mom & pop shop equivalents of the underworld. Still, the options for attack on an illicit industry that such a conception could yield are considerable.

Just imagine creating the analogue of a 10-K SEC filing for the cartels, which would incorporate a detailed profile of how they are organized, who is in charge at each level of the business — including the often crucial but relatively understudied and under-targeted mid-levels, how much money the enterprise is bringing in, the routes and vehicles through which these funds flow and are laundered, and so on.

Following the money is an important tactic that has yielded significant success in other contexts.  Measures to track and disrupt terrorist financing, for example, have served as a critical set of instruments within the larger counterterrorism toolkit. These mechanisms to track and disrupt funding sources could be adopted and tailored in order to constrict the cartels’ money supply.  And the transposable lessons learned from US counterterrorism strategy and practices by no means stop there.

A similar track and disrupt approach, based on detailed mapping efforts, could also be applied to the flow of cartel weapons. So, too, could US efforts to thwart terrorist tactics, training and recruitment be examined with an eye to determining how these initiatives might be transferred to the cartel context to weaken their power, profits and influence.

These potential avenues of attack are all the more compelling given the increasing convergence between the forces of crime and terror as drug traffickers adopt terrorist tactics and vice versa.  Consider the October 2013 armed assault on the Mexican power grid, which left 14 towns without electricity (about 10 percent of the state of Michoacan’s population), and which seems to have been the work of the Knights Templar drug cartel.

In short, the architecture and lessons of US counterterrorism — so painstakingly accumulated over the last decade-plus and reflecting such a heavy investment of blood and treasure — should be repurposed and re-invoked.

Yet, while there is no need to reinvent the wheel, some may stand in the way for their own reasons related to bureaucratic competition and the reluctance to yield turf, or even to allow temporary “encroachment” to facilitate the achievement of national security-related goals. Such obstructionism still persists in a range of forms, some much more subtle than others. But solid and sustained leadership from Congress and the White House could certainly help to minimize these obstacles.

Moreover, not all the actions needed to combat the cartels will be cross-disciplinary in character.  Traditional law enforcement techniques, together with mechanisms to protect privacy, remain crucial. For instance, link analysis, which studies who is interacting with whom so as to provide a broad and detailed picture of a network (or of multiple intersecting networks) of illegal activity will remain a mainstay for the counter-narcotics mission — in part because it yields layer after layer of valuable and potentially actionable information. Intelligence, of course, remains the lifeblood of both our counter-crime and counterterrorism efforts.

The bottom line is that strategic and tactical advantages could be derived from conceiving of the cartels as a multinational business whose inputs, outputs and outcomes could be influenced and attacked. Bear in mind that, contrary to terrorists, cartels must seek legitimacy by means of entering the marketplace.

Examining the cartels and their operations as an industry could yield substantial benefits by offering additional and effective tools to disrupt, curb and ultimately destroy their business and the many toxic consequences that follow from it.

Do we need the equivalent of corporate annual reports on these criminal enterprises? The point is that we need to reach an understanding of these illicit actors that extends beyond just knowing who the CEO is, their board of directors and shareholders.

To take down the business, a granular understanding of its makeup and operations, from the top down, is required. To make strategic headway against the global narcotics industry as a whole, such that the Guzman re-arrest is not just a one-off on law enforcement’s side of the ledger, we need to build the equivalent of a business channel for counter-narcotics officials.

And that will serve as a one-stop shop for robust understanding of the cartels, which are some of the wealthiest and most powerful multinational conglomerates in the world.

Frank J. Cilluffo is director of the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute (HSPI). He served as Special Assistant to the President for Homeland Security immediately after 9/11.


Sharon L. Cardash is associate director of HSPI. Prior to joining George Washington University she served as security policy advisor to Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.

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