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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

POLICE: Are people killed during these kidnappings?

LONGMIRE: Once a person is picked up, they're taken to a safe house and they're interrogated.  Cartel members try to find out how much money they have, what their assets are, and basically how much they can bleed them for. Then they make contact with the family. If the family is able to round up money, they'll arrange for some kind of ransom drop. Sometimes if they're able to make the ransom payment, the victim will be let go and that's the end of that; it's just another business transaction. But if they can't make the payment, often that person is tortured and then killed.

POLICE: Last year 72 migrants were killed in San Fernando, Mexico, about 100 miles south of the U.S. border. Was that a mass kidnapping? Why would they do that?

LONGMIRE: That was a mass execution. Some reports say they were asked to pay ransom and some reports say they were being coerced to go and work for Los Zetas as either hit men or drug mules. They either couldn't pay the ransom or they weren't interested in working for the Zetas, so they were all executed. But one guy was able to get away. The details are a little sketchy still, but the fact remains that 72 migrants were executed in cold blood by a cartel.

POLICE: We've talked about a couple examples of this cross-border violence that's driven by the cartels, but it seems our own federal government is not really willing to acknowledge this. President Obama recently said in El Paso, "The border is safer than it has ever been." Why is it that the federal government seems to have trouble recognizing this problem?

LONGMIRE: Well, there's always been a huge disconnect between headquarters and officers in the field. It's like that in every government agency. There's also a disconnect between statistical evidence and anecdotal evidence. The federal government doesn't have a formal definition for spillover violence. The Texas Department of Public Safety has one, and other agencies have them, but they're not all the same, which means that local, state, and federal law enforcement and the federal government are not working off of the same sheet of music. Some sheriffs say they are being overrun with violent criminals. But you have the mayors of El Paso and San Diego saying their cities are some of the safest in the country based on crime statistics. But crime statistics don't tell the whole story. The Border Patrol has erected barriers 70 miles inside of the border so that drug runners will go around some more environmentally sensitive areas because they just don't have the personnel to arrest them and stop them. There are a lot of dangerous incidents, and it's concerning that the U.S. government says, "Well this isn't a problem and we don't have spillover violence because the statistics that the FBI is putting into this database says it's not a problem."

POLICE: Shortly after Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the presidential race, he suggested that we need more National Guard troops on the border and potentially more Border Patrol officers. Do you see a solution for increasing security at the border?

LONGMIRE: It's a complex problem, and it requires a complex solution or combination of solutions. One of the problems I see is that both the Mexican government and the U.S. government continue to regard the drug war in Mexico as a "criminal problem." Now, there's an opposite extreme to that. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) out of Austin recently tried to introduce legislation for the U.S. government to start referring to the cartels as "terrorist organizations." They are really more like hybrid organizations: part criminal, part insurgent, part terrorist. Some people say, well you know, it's just a name, but a name means a lot when it comes to policy and allocation of money. It's like bringing a knife to a gunfight to keep calling these guys just criminals; they have evolved well beyond that.

POLICE: Mexico is generally a very poor country without much economic opportunity for many of its people. Isn't that one of the roots of the cartel violence?

LONGMIRE: Mexico needs to provide some opportunities, particularly for kids. The narco lifestyle is very, very glamorous. Some of these kids are accepting just $300 to go conduct an assassination. They're also getting paid with iPhones, mp3 players, cell phones, and cars.

POLICE: How much does official corruption protect the cartels? What is the extent, in your opinion, of police corruption in Mexico?

LONGMIRE: Corruption is everywhere, and I mean everywhere. You can safely assume that about 90 to 95 percent of police officers in Mexico-particularly at the state and local level-are either working directly for the cartels or helping the cartels.

POLICE: Mexican officers are usually poorly paid; does that drive the corruption?

LONGMIRE: There is an expression in Mexico, "plata o plomo," (silver or lead), which means, "Take the bribe or take the bullet." Corruption and bribery in all of Latin America is a way of life; it's considered socially acceptable. The bribery augments the poor pay of not just police officers, but all public servants. But now the cartels have changed that. Cops now have to take the bribe because if they don't they'll be killed or kidnapped or their families will be killed or kidnapped.

POLICE: Do you see cartel bribery taking effect here in the United States?

LONGMIRE: There is some. There have been officers in Arizona and New Mexico who have been investigated and even prosecuted. There's also been a small rise in the number of Border Patrol agents and customs inspectors who have been investigated or arrested for corruption and for accepting bribes. 

POLICE: In Colombia the army went in and got Pablo Escobar. Is that something you see happening in Mexico?

LONGMIRE: Colombia is dealing with leftist communist guerilla terrorist groups that actually want to take over the government. These groups have now moved beyond that ideology; they're capitalists in the extreme. FARC is making a lot of money from the production and distribution of cocaine in Colombia. Mexico's problems are different; it has different roots. But the way that the cartels are operated is very similar in some cases to the way that the FARC is operating.

POLICE: American troops were also sent into Colombia. Would we do that in Mexico?

LONGMIRE: It was easier for American troops to go help Colombia because the Colombians didn't have to worry about national sovereignty issues. Mexico is panicked at the thought of even one American soldier stepping foot on Mexican soil. But that may be changing. The Pew Research Center conducts a poll on Mexican attitudes toward U.S. involvement in the drug war. Last year it used to be I think only 26 percent of Mexicans approved of U.S. Military intervention in the drug war, but in the most recent poll 38 percent of Mexicans supported U.S. military involvement.

POLICE: The last chapter of your book is titled "Managing a War that Can't Be Won." That sounds pretty bleak. Do you really believe things are that dire?

LONGMIRE: Everybody always asks, "Can this war be won?" This isn't like World War II. There's no way you're going to have a clear victor and a clear loser because you're never going to get rid of drug trafficking and you're never going to get rid of drug-related violence. The issue is being able to bring it down to a manageable level where people in Mexico have the freedom to live their lives and not have to worry about being caught in the crossfire. Our government and the Mexican government have to figure out how to manage the war. It's more about managing the war than winning or losing.

POLICE: You've written a great book and thank you very much for speaking with us. Just a final question: Are there some resources that you'd recommend for local law enforcement officers?

LONGMIRE: Sure, absolutely. My blog can be found at border, and on the front page if you scroll down, I have a blog roll that has links to other blogs and resources for law enforcement and anybody who follows events in the drug war.

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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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