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The War Correspondent: Sylvia Longmire

Beheading, bribery, torture, kidnapping—former intelligence officer Sylvia Longmire analyzes Mexico's drug war.

November 09, 2011  |  by

Photo: Sylvia Longmire.
Photo: Sylvia Longmire.

Author Sylvia Longmire has been studying Mexico's drug and human smuggling operations for much of her life. Her blog "Mexico's Drug War" is a must read for anyone who wants to know what is really happening on the U.S.-Mexico border, and her first book, "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars," was published in September to much acclaim. Publishing trade magazine Kirkus Reviews called the book: "One stop shopping for basic knowledge about U.S.-Mexican narcotics diplomacy."

Longmire's knowledge of Mexico's drug war is hard earned. She holds a master's degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from the University of South Florida. After graduating from USF, she served as a special agent with the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI). She rose to captain and was assigned as AFOSI's Latin America desk officer where she worked for eight years. From 2005 to 2009, Longmire was a senior intelligence analyst for the California state fusion center and the California Emergency Management Agency's Situational Awareness Unit. Today, she blogs on border violence and contributes articles to a wide variety of intelligence and security journals. She also serves as an expert witness in Mexican immigration and asylum cases.

POLICE Magazine/ Web Editor Paul Clinton spoke with Longmire by phone several weeks before the publication of "Cartel" for a podcast. The following is an edited version of that conversation. Listen to the complete podcast at or download it via iTunes.

POLICE: How many drug trafficking organizations are actually involved in Mexico's drug war?

LONGMIRE: Just a few years ago there were only four, and then it went up to seven. In the last six months we've seen some major kingpins getting taken out, and a couple of the smaller cartels have now fractured. I would say right now there are five major cartels and at least a dozen smaller ones.

POLICE: The oldest Drug Trafficking Organization is the Sinaloa Cartel run by Chapo Guzman. Is it still the biggest trafficker of narcotics into the U.S.?

LONGMIRE: Absolutely. Not only do they have the biggest share of the drug pie, they also control probably the largest swath of territory in Mexico right now.

POLICE: What drugs are they moving?

LONGMIRE: Every cartel has its own specialty and its own mix of drugs. Sinaloa is involved in heroin, cocaine, and marijuana. Overall, the cartels get their largest chunk of the pie from marijuana.

POLICE: Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels in 2006. Do you feel that was kind of the trigger point for this period of extreme violence in Mexico?

LONGMIRE: It really wasn't. In 2000, Mexico went from a tradition of looking the other way when PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, Institutional Revolutionary Party) was in office to all of a sudden a real democracy being in power. Then we saw the rise of the paramilitary organizations working as enforcement arms for the cartels-namely Los Zetas. They were former special forces troops in the Mexican military, and they went to work for the Gulf Cartel.

POLICE: Los Zetas was the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel. How did that relationship begin?

LONGMIRE: They were originally recruited by Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, who has been sitting in a U.S. prison since the late 1990s. In roughly 2003 to 2004, things started to blow up in Ciudad Juarez, right across the border from El Paso. And that is when the beheading started, when the dismemberment started, and when those tactics and the violence really came to full force. Now it's not enough in the Mexican drug world for just one cartel to engage in that kind of activity. It's like keeping up with the Joneses-if one cartel is doing that kind of enforcement activity to intimidate and to send messages, everybody else kind of has to keep up.

POLICE: Beheading is something we've seen from Islamist terrorists. Did the cartels learn this from the Islamist terrorists?

LONGMIRE: There's really no way to know. I've never seen any report where a cartel has said, "Yeah, we decided to start doing it because we saw al-Qaeda doing it."

POLICE: I think the greatest concern to American law enforcement officers is whether cartel violence is coming across the border. What is your opinion?

LONGMIRE: It definitely is. The cartels are getting crunched in many places by both U.S. law enforcement and Mexican law enforcement. In order to keep that drug money coming in, they are getting more desperate, which means they're more willing to engage in high-risk behavior. We've seen engagements where shots have been fired across the border. Back in 2008, we saw an incident in Phoenix where Mexican cartel members dressed up in Phoenix Police Department uniforms and raided a safe house in a very SWAT-like operation. They sprayed down the entire place with bullets, they killed the lone occupant, and then were out of there before anyone could catch them. Phoenix PD happened to be in the area. They heard the shots fired, but they were never able to really catch anybody and point the finger and say, "Yes, this particular cartel was responsible for this."

POLICE: There was also a beheading in Chandler, Ariz., last year. Was that a cartel hit?

LONGMIRE: The guy essentially owed a cartel money. I don't think it was even that much money. They went in and severed his head in an apartment in Chandler. And that's the long and short of it. What concerns me is the fact that most people in America still don't even know about that. It's the first cartel beheading we've had on this side of the border. And just the fact that it has started...should make you ask, "When is it going to happen again?"

POLICE: In our reporting we've found that a lot of the more grisly killings tend to target individuals who were moving narcotics for the cartel and potentially lost a drug load seized by law enforcement. Do you find that these grisly killings are sending a message to other cartel operators?

LONGMIRE: It's about intimidation...with a capital "I." They're saying, "We're in charge" or "We're superior to you" or "If you do this to us, this is how we're going to respond."

POLICE: Who are the U.S. victims? Are they all involved in the narco business?

LONGMIRE: The vast majority of people being kidnapped here in the U.S. or being killed in the U.S. in connection to the drug war are involved in the drug business somehow. But we are seeing exceptions to that rule. In October 2008, a six-year-old boy was kidnapped from his home in Las Vegas by Mexican cartel members because his grandfather owed a cartel one million dollars. Fortunately, that boy was released unharmed three days later. But it bothers me that an innocent six-year-old child was taken from his home in Las Vegas. 

POLICE: You have a chapter in your book: "The Second Biggest Money Maker for Cartels: Kidnapping." How does the cartel make that much profit from kidnapping?

LONGMIRE: It used to be that their kidnapping targets were rivals or just somebody who owed them something, but now migrants are one of their top targets because they have realized that the migrants have paid smugglers a certain amount of money in order to bring them across the border. They have realized there's got to be some money somewhere if the migrants can afford to pay smugglers $3,000 each to take them into the United States. Plus, migrants generally have family already living in the U.S.

Comments (5)

Displaying 1 - 5 of 5

Ozzy Amaro @ 11/14/2011 6:37 AM

As a retire DEA Supervisory Special Agent and the South West Border HIDTA Initiative Commander (2000/2004) in El Paso, I found this interview with Mrs. Longmire outstanding and I concurred 100% with her assessment on all of the questions that Police Mag asked. Specifically that the Federal government is disconnected with the border Drug Enforcement issues is true and sad. And her analogy between the Colombian and Mexican Drug cartels is on the money, well done.


James Kelley @ 11/14/2011 6:16 PM

I would check with the School of the Americas at Ft Benning for more information on the special forces training of the former Mexican miltary special forces and now Los Zetas enforcers. The beheading wasn't taught to them as an intimidation but they did learn of the techniques there from sources that included former KGB, and various Arab and Pan African terrorist organizations.

Rick @ 11/15/2011 9:02 AM

To me it sounds like we need to pass national reciprocity for CCW so law abiding citizens can defend themselves from violence whether it be cartel-gang related or ordinary thugs.

James @ 1/13/2012 5:09 AM

Working as LEO, I am aware of the dangers we face in completing our job. I agree that there is a real problem with the war on drugs. There are so many people who do not or rufuse to understand what is happening to our country when drugs are being brought into the U.S.


G. Marshall @ 9/25/2012 9:03 PM

Not only is the Federal government disconnected from this problem, the national media broadcast companies omit any news on cartel violence in TV programming. Legalizing and controlling marijuana in the US would be a start and would impact the cartel's revenue. This wouldnt fix everything but would be a strategy that would lead the US and Mexico down the road of fragmenting the cartel's business framework.

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