Austin Bay
On Aug. 25, members of the Zetas drug cartel gang attacked a casino in Monterrey, Mexico, and murdered 52 people.

It was a particularly gruesome act of mass slaughter, even for a nation that has seen 40,000 people killed since the Cartel War began in late December 2006. The gangsters sprayed the casino crowd with automatic weapons fire, then burned the building, igniting the blaze with jury-rigged incendiary bombs. Most of the victims choked to death from smoke and poisonous fumes.

Mexican officials called the casino assault an act of terror. Numerous commentators suggested this was the first time the government had labelled a cartel attack that way. This may be literally true, though a bit misleading. The government has preferred to characterize its struggle with the cartels as crime fighting.

Terror, however, is a tactic. The practical, on-the-ground damage difference between a car bomb detonated in Ciudad Juarez and one detonated in Baghdad is nil -- both car bombs kill, maim and terrorize.

The difference is the intent or goal of the perpetrators. The al-Qaida killer in Baghdad has political aims: overthrow the Iraqi government, establish a global caliphate, defeat the infidel, et cetera. The cartel killer -- well, it's just business ... a very illegal but lucrative business.

Describing a cartel murder spree as an act of terror or as an insurgency blurs the distinction between cartel attacks and violence with overt political objectives that directly challenge the Mexican state. The terrorist wants a failed state so his political organization can take control. The drug lord wants a curtailed state where the government law enforcement bureaus and judiciary are either bribed into acquiescence or frightened into submission.

As the casualty count in Mexico continues to climb, however, it's reasonable to ask if the difference matters. Mexican president Felipe Calderon began to use his armed forces to battle the cartels for two main reasons. The first was the gangs had corrupted many local and state police departments. The second was cartel tactical organization and firepower. The gangs frequently employed military tactics and military-level firepower.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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