Essay: Al Capone or Al Qaeda?: Organized Crime and Counterterrorism as Law Enforcement Priorities

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[. . .] The impossibility of the fight in Mexico, combined with the high potential for profit in the trade, made this defection happen. It is important to note, however, that Los Zetas have technically only been their own cartel since 2010: from 1999 to 2010, they were essentially the paramilitary enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel. But by 2010, Los Zetas split off from the Gulf Cartel, and became a rival: they are currently better-organized and quite possibly more profitable than either of the two older rivals, the Gulf and Sinaloa Cartels. However, their origins as military commandos are the most noteworthy fact about them -- it would be as if the Navy Seals took over the crystal meth trade in the American Midwest, or if an elite wing of the CIA handled all crack cocaine concessions in U.S. cities. The crucial thing to note is that, while Los Zetas may not be based in America, nor are their criminal activities restricted to America, America provides the financial basis for their existence. A June 12, 2012 investigation in the New York Times revealed that Los Zetas had been laundering money for several years through the purchase of race-horses in America, eventually prompting a federal raid on the Oklahoma horse-ranch where this laundering enterprise centered. What is astonishing is not that such a large drug-trafficking organization would need to launder money but the fact that they were so brazen in the way that the did it: the Times reports that their activity began with buying "an estimated $3 million in quarter horses, including one named Number One Cartel" and eventually attained a level where "the Zetas funneled about $1 million a month into buying quarter horses in the United States." (Thompson 2012). The fact that the Zetas would actually buy and name a racehorse "Number One Cartel" indicates not only the level of wealth but also the level of impunity they enjoy. This activity also highlights one of the most salient aims of a criminal enterprise engaged in large-scale money laundering -- the laundering ultimately makes a return on its investment, just as the Times records that the racehorses would win "prizes totaling some $2.5 million" in additional profit from a legal activity funded by illegal means. This very fact should indicate that Daniel Bell's "queer ladder of social mobility" is alive and well, and give us a vibrant contemporary example of how it operates. It is possible that such large sums of money could eventually be used to start thriving legal business concerns in the fashion of a Joe Kennedy or a Moses Annenberg. However the Mexican cartels had previously been careful to avoid any obvious money-laundering schemes -- largely based on the 1986 legislation that had been instituted precisely to go after the laundered profits of drug cartels -- largely by dealing in cash only: the Washington Post reported on August 26, 2010 the Mexican "drug traffickers and their Colombian suppliers smuggle $20 billion to $25 billion in U.S. bank notes across the southwest border annually as they seek to circumvent banking regulations and the suspicions aroused by large cash deposits, studies by federal officials, regulators and academics show." (Booth and Miroff, 2010). Richards (1999) demonstrates however that financial analysis of large scale crime targets is very difficult unless it becomes as obvious and crass as this: "There are two main financial investigation tools used to determine if the target's spending habits reflect an 'honest living'. The first is known as a 'net worth analysis,' generally used where the target has conspicuous assets, and a 'source and application of funds analysis,' generally used where the target has conspicuous spending habits." (Richards 1999, 215). As long as the Zetas effectively hide assets and do not indulge in conspicuous spending, financial analysis is a weak tool to attempt to prosecute them. And of course Los Zetas take advantage of the international dimensions of operating criminal enterprises in America from the safe side of the Mexican border: this is something that Phil Williams (1997) has emphasized about the more general conditions of economic globalization, which have basically made things easier for organized crime: "the increase in transnational economic activity has made it easier to hide illicit transactions, products and movements because law enforcement agencies and customs officers are unable to inspect more than a small proportion of the cargoes and people coming into their territories. As a result, national borders have become increasingly porous." (Williams 1997, 318). Moreover there has been a total failure of law enforcement on the Mexican side: Los Zetas basically are the law enforcement, as we have seen. In point of fact, the American and Mexican governmental attempts to contain Los Zetas have been miserable failures, but the most significant threat to the organization may have come from an otherwise unrelated group, one which indeed blurs the lines between organized criminal activity and terrorist activity, namely the "hacktivist collective" referred to as "Anonymous." The Guardian on November 2, 2011, reported that the loose affiliation of computer hackers had obtained substantial records that could be used to "expose collaborators with [the] cartel," which resulted in Los Zetas "hiring its own security experts to track the hackers down" (Arthur 2011). In other words, perhaps indeed it does take a predator to catch a predator, as the old saying goes.

Given the unusual novelties in how Los Zetas operate as an American organized crime enterprise -- for a start they are technically not American but transnational, but they also display state-of-the-art military-style organization and secrecy -- it is quite natural to see a blurring of definitions between this type of organized crime and the bigger priority in American law enforcement today, which is counter-terrorism. The purpose of terrorism is, of course, to have a political and social effect (terror) that is felt well in excess to the actual numbers of people who perpetrate and support the acts performed. As a result, some of the best known events in American history that could qualify as terrorist actions -- John Brown's 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry, the Haymarket bombing in the late nineteenth century, or Timothy McVeigh's 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building -- occurred in a context where there was hardly widespread or well-armed support for the actions taken. They were essentially ultraviolent publicity stunts. Although may Americans supported John Brown's abolitionist aims, there was hardly support for his attempt to kickstart widespread bloodshed, neither when he had earlier engaged in it during the "Bleeding Kansas" incidents nor when he perpetrated the abortive attack on Harper's Ferry. The Haymarket bombing may or may not have been perpetrated by anarchists, but even if it was the ideological threat posed by anarchism was more frightening to law and order as an ideology than as a political reality. Likewise McVeigh's deranged motives -- as far-right libertarian revenge attack on the idea of governmental overreach, as vengeance for Federal raids gone wrong at Waco and at Ruby Ridge in the early nineteen-nineties -- were not shared by anyone on the American right, even if he might have been seen as a direct inheritor of anti-government rhetoric from the political right wing in America (Serrano 1998, 73). The three noteworthy examples of domestic terrorism perpetrated on Americans by Americans all demonstrate their status as ideologically motivated terrorism, and also as far-flung outliers. But in each of these three incidents we can at least understand the motivation as being ideological and therefore solidly within a definition of what terrorism is -- even the Haymarket bombing, which may not have been perpetrated by anarchists but "likely as not a Pinkerton agent provocateur," would have had an ideological motivation of discrediting the anarchist movement (as a "false flag" operation of sorts) if it was not an anarchist-perpetrated act of terror (Green 2007, 230).

But the definition of what constitutes terrorism then becomes somewhat fuzzy outside clear-cut cases like this. For example, the Oregon "Rajneeshpuram" incident from the nineteen-eighties -- in which members of a religious cult deliberately introduced salmonella bacteria into salad bars at local Oregon restaurants, effectively poisoning over 750 individuals -- has been termed a "bioterror attack," whose purpose was to affect local elections. This would seem to have all the signs of a terrorist attack -- the use of unconventional weapons and means, the strong (indeed fanatical) ideological motivation, the explicit political goal -- except for fatalities. It is also unclear what sort of police work could prevent an incident like this, apart from heavy profiling of religious minorities or armed guards and CCTV coverage at salad bars. Likewise many of the most terror-inducing incidents of recent years had seemingly no terrorist goal in mind whatsoever: attempts to find some kind of ideological motivation in the Columbine… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Al Capone or Al Qaeda?: Organized Crime and Counterterrorism as Law Enforcement Priorities.  (2014, March 16).  Retrieved June 19, 2019, from

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"Al Capone or Al Qaeda?: Organized Crime and Counterterrorism as Law Enforcement Priorities."  16 March 2014.  Web.  19 June 2019. <>.

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"Al Capone or Al Qaeda?: Organized Crime and Counterterrorism as Law Enforcement Priorities."  March 16, 2014.  Accessed June 19, 2019.