Cuéllar, Magaloni on Iranian assassination plot and link to Mexican cartels

As if the alleged Iranian plan to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. wasn’t strange and sinister enough, it offered an outlandish twist: American officials say the Iranian plotters wanted to hire a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the murder.

The charges laid out earlier this week are raising questions about how the United States should respond to Iran, skepticism about the Mexican underworld’s possible involvement and concerns about the growing, borderless network of global terrorism.

Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, a law professor and co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and Beatriz Magaloni, an associate professor of political science and affiliated faculty of FSI’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, discuss the developing events.

President Obama is vowing to impose tougher sanctions on Iran. What good will they do?

Cuéllar: Countries use sanctions to achieve multiple goals. Sanctions often put pressure on the regime and disrupt the regime’s capacity to move money, pay for resources, and offer goods and services on the international market. Even if they are imperfectly enforced, sanctions can affect particular individuals or organizations within states. Separately, sanctions signal the resolve of the nation imposing them, and thus the United States can force discussion among governments and diplomats regarding how the international community will respond to a state violating international norms.

Do Mexican drug cartels have the ability and willingness to be the hired guns in global terrorist operations?

Magaloni: Drug cartels are increasingly diversifying their portfolios of crime. They’re not exclusively engaging in the trading of drugs. They’re also engaged in many other criminal activities, including kidnapping, and extortion. And some have engaged in human trafficking.

Can this extend to acts of terror beyond Mexico? At this moment – with the evidence I see – I find it difficult to believe.

Mexican drug gangs do not seem to have that much capacity to operate in the U.S. There is an implicit agreement between government officials in some states and the cartels, and that’s what allows them to operate, often with impunity. But right now, I don’t think they can orchestrate the same type of terror once they cross the border because they do not have the same networks in the US.

How do you expect the criminal case to play out?

Cuéllar:  The criminal complaint alleges that accused individuals sought the assistance of a Mexican drug cartel. Instead of negotiating with that organization, however, the accused ended up interacting with a confidential informant working for American law enforcement agencies. Prosecutors will nonetheless focus on the motivation of the accused and the possibility that individuals with such goals might succeed in forging alliances with transnational criminal organizations in the future.  

How is the criminal activity in Mexico affecting security in the region?

Cuéllar: Although Mexico is a country that faces considerable challenges involving security and state capacity, it is certainly not Somalia or Afghanistan. And the Attorney General indicated that the Mexican government worked closely with U.S. authorities investigating the alleged criminal conspiracy. Nonetheless, Mexico has become a focal point for the activity of certain large criminal organizations with the ability to operate across large territories and to harness different forms of expertise. 

While these criminal networks certainly affect the security environment in both Mexico and the United States, there is often something of a paradox in the nature of the threat they pose. The organizations with the greatest capacity to engage in complicated operations across borders tend to be the ones with the tightest hold on lucrative pieces of the drug trade. And they are probably the most skeptical of getting involved in something that will draw a massive response from the United States.

What may complicate the situation is that some of the criminal organizations are beginning to fragment in response to changing dynamics in illicit markets and conflict with Mexican authorities. Fragmentation tends to weaken hierarchies, disrupting the ability of leaders to discipline the subordinates capable of engaging in violent activity. Continuing fragmentation may further affect the security context, as individuals and smaller organizations compete for resources and seek new markets for illicit activity.