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.
In an article appearing in the Summer 2011 issue of Parameters Magazine, Paul Rexton Kan argues that the distinction in aims between political terror and criminal violence remains the determinative feature strategists must consider when formulating political and security policies to combat them. The first, Kan calls low-intensity conflict, where ideology, political grievance and altering the political system power the conflict. Sheer greed empowers the widespread criminal violence like that afflicting Mexico, which he calls high-intensity crime waged by violent entrepreneurs.
"For violent entrepreneurs," Kan writes, "the use of force is simply an extension of the profit, rather than the extension of the political agenda."
Kan says distinguishing between low-intensity conflict and high-intensity crime helps policymakers avoid pitfalls presented by employing counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism strategies. That is useful political advice -- we do not face a military problem generated by a violent political opponent, we have an internal police and judiciary reliability problem linked to political corruption. Kan points out that if "high-intensity law enforcement" (the counter to high-intensity crime) is to succeed in Mexico, Mexicans must "break the links between (drug) traffickers and politicians."
Calderon has recognized this problem, hence his attempts to reform the judiciary and the police. The drug cartels, however, are killing honest politicians and pumping millions into the campaign coffers of the corrupted -- trying to defeat the reforms with ballots, not bullets. In an ironic way, the cartelistas do have political goals. The irony, however, reinforces Kan's point. The decisive battles in the Cartel War won't be a shootouts between Mexican marines and Zetas, with the gunmens' corpses stacked high and their organization eliminated. Rather, the battlefield will be the Mexican presidential elections of 2012, 2018 and 2024, with Calderon-type reformers winning each campaign and building on the current president's anti-corruption programs.