US Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi

US Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi

Sgt. Tahmooressi Remains Imprisoned in Mexico Three Weeks after the USHR Subcommittee Hearing. What Went Wrong?

On October 1, 2014, a US House of Representatives Subcommittee Hearing was held with regard to US Marine Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi,[i] who was arrested in March 2014 after crossing into the Mexico with firearms in his possession. Although the weapons were legally registered to him according to US law, bringing them into Mexico was in violation of Mexican law.

During the hearing, optimism was expressed that Sgt. Tahmooressi would soon be released. As of October 21, 2014, he remains imprisoned. The hearing did not result in his release, and observers are questioning why. The reasons for this are multiple and go beyond strategic communication, but nonetheless, an important error of the hearing was an over-emphasis upon talking points that were compelling to a US audience, but would not be compelling to the Mexican authorities that have imprisoned Tahmooressi since March 2014. Talking points that would have caught the attention of Mexican authorities were not sufficiently emphasized.


The Relevance of Crafting Communications for Mexican Authorities versus US Authorities

The case has drawn the attention of Americans and Mexicans for very different reasons. Most US observers would have found most of the talking points moving, and it is likely that US observers overestimate the extent to which Mexican authorities share their personal reactions. Understanding why some of the talking points were of minimal interest to Mexican authorities begins with understanding the underlying reasons for Tahmooressi’s imprisonment from the perspective of Mexican power brokers.


Understanding The Symbolic Value of US Marine Sgt. Tahmooressi to Mexico’s Authorities

The most significant geopolitical challenge facing Mexico’s authorities remains the cartel war that has raged within that nation since 2006. The emergence of transnational criminal organizations (i.e., cartels) that rival or surpass the power of elected state authorities erodes the confidence of Mexico’s public in them, as well as in the electoral processes through which they supposedly ascend into power. Cartel influence also reflects the pervasive corruption that characterizes Mexico’s political culture.

Mexicans are aware their leaders are corrupt. They expect corruption and ineptitude from them. Mexicans are outraged over the violence and degeneracy unleashed by the cartel war, and the manner in which it continually erodes Mexico’s public life. Yet Mexicans prefer to remain fiercely proud of their nation and optimistic about its fundamental character. This results in a dynamic whereby the Mexican public is exceptionally receptive to their leadership’s efforts to scapegoat external agents with regard to the cartel war’s causes, and the reasons it has sustained its intensity to the present.

Mexico’s authorities understand the sentiments of their public very well, and know that certain strategic communication strategies yield reliable results in terms of managing the damaged public trust. Toward that end, there is no scapegoat more valuable to Mexico’s authorities than the US, including (but not limited to) its leadership, public, and culture. Mexicans prefer to see the cartel war in their midst as an exported proxy war for the US war against its own drug culture, and more specifically, the drug appetites of millions of Americans who feel it is their inalienable right to have drugs as part and parcel of their pursuit of happiness. Furthermore, Mexicans tend to believe most of the military grade weaponry used by cartels comes from the US and its poorly regulated gun culture. These suspicions are buttressed by vague but powerful sentiments of resentment and inferiority with regard to US economic and military power. The US-Mexico border is where it is because the US successfully competed against Mexico for a great deal of territory. Within Mexico’s public consciousness, the border remains a painful reminder of that defeat.

Sgt. Tahmooressi is being held by Mexico’s authorities because he is an exceptionally compelling symbol to Mexico’s public. Being a US Marine, he would seem to personify the US military. Being a gun owner, Mexicans see US gun culture reflected in him. Crossing into Mexico with his guns, he becomes more symbolic of the folk-theorized American whose guns have armed all parties within the cartel war. The act of arresting a gun-running US Marine at the border is immediately compelling to a Mexican audience not only because it is an act of control over that border (and therefore, an act of defiance against the US victory and vitality it represents), but also because it seems to strike at so many of the key issues through which Mexicans prefer to understand the cartel war. Mexicans really don’t want to consider that he might not be a gun runner, don’t want to hear about his humanity, and don’t care about what his fellow US soldiers thought of his service in Afghanistan (a conflict that has nothing to do with Mexico). As long as Tahmooressi’s persona is managed symbolically, his imprisonment will remain compelling to the audience of Mexico’s public. By retaining him against the wishes of US authorities, Mexico’s authorities appear all the more defiant against what Mexico’s public perceives as the underlying causes of Mexico’s cartel war, which are largely attributed to the US.


Subcommittee Hearing Talking points of little or no relevance to Mexico’s authorities

Although emotionally compelling, Mrs. Tahmooressi's testimony contained little content likely to persuade Mexico's authorities to release her son.

Although emotionally compelling to a US audience, Mrs. Tahmooressi’s testimony contained little content likely to persuade Mexico’s authorities to release her son.

Of the talking points emphasized most during the Tahmooressi hearing, the following would have been compelling for a US audience, but not for Mexico’s authorities:

The Irony of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl

Earlier in 2014, the White House may have broken federal laws in facilitating the release of five suspected terrorists from Guantanamo Bay to the Taliban in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has been accused by others in the US military of being captured after intentionally abandoning his post. It was observed that despite Tahmooressi’s honorable service in Afghanistan, similar measures were not being taken to secure his release.

Testimony pointed to the fact that the US military is watching, as is the US public. At issue is whether the US still respects its military, and that Tahmooressi’s treatment does not represent how the US should treat Americans who have helped their nation through honorable service. It was argued that America should stand up for its soldiers and marines.

But Mexico has no direct conflict against the Taliban. Mexico’s army does not participate in foreign conflicts, and is not involved in Afghanistan. Mexico’s authorities don’t care whether his service was honorable, whether Bergdahl was dishonorable, or whether the White House should have facilitated Bergdahl’s release. Loss of US government credibility in the eyes of US military personnel is even less a concern for Mexico’s leadership.

The Diagnosis of PTSD and the Need for Specialized Psychiatric Care Mexico Cannot Provide

Lieutenant Commander Montel Williams passionately argued on the importance of respecting the US military, reciprocating honorable service, and treating his PTSD. While very compelling for a US audience, this content will not be considered by Mexico's authorities as within their concern.

Lieutenant Commander Montel Williams passionately testified on the importance of respecting the US military, reciprocating honorable service, and releasing Tahmooressi to treat his PTSD. While very compelling for a US audience, this content is unlikely to be interpreted by Mexico’s authorities as relevant to their concerns.

Perhaps the most repeated talking point was that Sgt. Tahmooressi was diagnosed with PTSD prior to his imprisonment in Mexico, and that those symptoms resulted directly from experiences as a warfighter in Afghanistan.

It was argued that bringing Tahmooressi home for treatment of PTSD would be in the interest of justice. The point was also raised that Tahmooressi’s imprisonment experience in Mexico was worse than his warfare experiences in Afghanistan and would probably result in more severe PTSD.

While compelling to a US audience, these arguments mean little to Mexican authorities. They are only tangentially related to what Mexico’s public considers as justice for someone who is perceived as a gun-runner. Additionally, although Mexicans can appreciate how warfare can leave a soldier with psychological damage, psychiatric illness is understood differently within Mexican society. It remains more stigmatized, yet less differentiated from dominant conceptions of criminality, in comparison to thought trends in the US. Psychiatric illness can and often does precipitate the loss of freedoms, and sometimes even leads to legal processes resulting in the loss of property, in modern day Mexico. Many of Mexico’s most depraved imprisoned criminals are believed to have psychiatric problems. Mexico faces more immediate problems than the challenge of sorting out its prison population into those who are psychologically damaged versus those who are psychologically normal. A common sentiment among Mexicans is that the gringo Marine with PTSD should have thought about whether he wanted treatment for his illness in the US before attempting to smuggle weapons into Mexico.

Challenging President Obama to Stop Playing Golf, Pick up the Phone, and Bring Tahmooressi Home

US Rep. Chris Smith was among those who challenged President Obama to effect Tahmooressi's release. Although compelling, the subcommittee hearing placed little additional political pressure upon Obama and is unlikely to result in additional action on his behalf.

US Rep. Chris Smith was among those who challenged President Obama to effect Tahmooressi’s release. Although compelling to a US audience, the subcommittee hearing placed little additional political pressure upon Obama and is unlikely to result in additional action on his behalf.

The talking point least likely to produce a desired result in Tahmooressi’s favor were the efforts to pressure President Obama to do something – such as picking up his phone and making a call – to facilitate his release. Another observation was made that it set a low bar to expect a US president to merely make a phone call, and that Obama should do whatever it takes to bring the Marine home. The phone references alluded to Obama’s now infamous vow to circumvent political opposition in US congress by using his phone and pen. While the president certainly could do a great deal with those tools to incentivize Mexico to release Tahmooressi, Obama is not likely to spend political capital for the benefit of the US military, with which he is perpetually at odds. President Obama has been criticized in some US popular media for playing golf while the nation struggles with serious problems, and this criticism also arose during the hearing with the sarcastic suggestion that he should play some rounds of golf on Mexico’s courses for a Marine who has been left behind. While these criticisms may have merit, the fact remains that none of it places any real pressure on President Obama to do more than he already has (which critics suspect isn’t very much) in facilitating Tahmooressi’s release.

The Human Interest Angle

Although emotionally compelling, Mrs. Tahmooressi's testimony contained little content likely to persuade Mexico's authorities to release her son.

Although emotionally compelling, Mrs. Tahmooressi’s testimony contained little content likely to persuade Mexico’s authorities to release her son.

A significant amount of the testimony was devoted to the human interest angle – that is, managing Tahmooressi’s persona in a fashion that emphasized not only his status as an honorable US veteran, but also a beloved son who is enduring unspeakable horrors at the hands of Mexican authorities, and prisoners who threatened to rape and murder him. Sgt. Tahmooressi’s mother gave very moving testimony in which she reconciled the image of a good son, an honorable US Marine, and a tormented and unjustly imprisoned captive, by reading a series of quotations from her son, each from a different period of his life. His mother claimed that he had no evil intentions and did not willfully break Mexican law when he made a wrong turn into Mexico with weapons in his car, and that the sentiment was echoed by a Mexican ambassador. She also described her frustration dealing with her son’s isolation, how she was not allowed to sit in Mexico’s legal hearings, and how her son’s previous attorney attempted to extort them.

While outrageous to a US audience, none of this is very noteworthy to a Mexican audience who is all too familiar with the inefficient, opaque, and shamelessly corrupt legal system of their nation, which in some ways remains similar to the system used by the Spanish at the time of the Inquisition. Mexicans already know how terrible their prisons are, and they will weigh her words knowing that a loving mother will say whatever it takes – including misrepresenting her son, or even lying – to bring about his release. While admirable on a basic human level, this talking point would not compel Mexico’s public to desire his release.


Talking Points that were directly related to the interests of Mexico’s authorities

The following Subcommittee Hearing talking points were not only compelling to a US audience, they also touched upon issues that are more important for Mexico’s authorities. They should have been emphasized more prominently during the hearing:

The Implausibility of Tahmooressi as a Weapons-Smuggler

As previously discussed, much of the value of Tahmooressi to Mexican leadership depends upon the plausibility of him being guilty of smuggling weapons into Mexico for the purpose of arming cartels.

During the hearing, the sarcastic observation was made that if Tahmooressi was a gun-runner, he was terrible at it, since he was bringing guns registered in his name, and he volunteered the information they were in his possession.

If Mexico’s public were to perceive Tahmooressi as a scapegoat being framed by Mexico’s authorities to divert attention from their own ineptitude and corruption, instead of perceiving him as a bona-fide criminal, it would incentivize the authorities to release him before the local (i.e., Mexican) PR blowback turns against them.

Damaged US-Mexico Political and Economic Relations

Any realistic prospect of economic fallout in retaliation for Tahmooressi's imprisonment probably would have effected Tahmooressi's release.

Any realistic prospect of economic fallout in retaliation for Tahmooressi’s imprisonment probably would have effected Tahmooressi’s release.

Regardless of what Mexican authorities think of Sgt. Tahmooressi, they know that Mexico’s most important political relationship is the one it shares with the US. Mexico cannot compare to the US in economic or military might. It depends heavily upon millions of its citizens illegally entering into the US, obtaining employment, and sending money back into Mexico. Implicitly, it depends upon the US to ignore the unemployment problems of its own populace, and neglect to enforce its own immigration and labor laws to allow the widespread illegal employment to continue.

While the US certainly trades a great deal with Mexico, the relationship is asymmetrical. Nonetheless, Mexicans like to envision what they feel US-Mexico relations ought to be in terms of a partnership, or perhaps even a friendship.

Therefore, it catches the attention of Mexico’s leadership when persons testify at the USHR subcommittee hearing that The US’ commercial and diplomatic relationship with Mexico is based on cooperation, but that Mexico has not lived up to its end of the deal. The observation was made that Mexicans illegally violate the US border regularly, and Mexico’s government asks for ‘compassion’ and ‘amnesty’ from US authorities in allowing them to remain within the US…. but that compassion goes both ways.

The anger which was expressed by some of the Americans will also be noted. For example, while discussing the relationship between the US and Mexico, the facetious question was posed: With friends like Mexico, who needs enemies? The description of Mexico’s government as not being so great also would have been very unpleasant, but prominently noticed, by Mexican leadership who place a premium on international prestige and respect.

The Possibility of Mexico Losing US Foreign Aid

Among the most feared of possible consequences from deteriorating US-Mexico relations is the loss of funding. During the hearing, the topic arose regarding the US giving 300 million dollars of foreign aid every year. The sight of Americans questioning exactly what that money is buying is implicitly threatening to Mexican authorities who have come to expect these subsidies as a given.

The Allusion of Invasion

During his testimony, Lieutenant Commander Montel Williams tactfully alluded to the fact that some within the US support the prospect of invading Mexico to remove Tahmooressi by force when he declared that he was not going to call for that measure. To be sure, the prospect of forceful US extraction of Tahmooressi from Mexican imprisonment would have been judged by Mexican authorities as unlikely. Nonetheless, the allusion is very unpalatable to Mexican sensibilities, as it highlights Mexico’s geopolitical inferiority, as well as the likelihood that a hostile exchange between the US and Mexico would have long-lasting implications that would not work out in Mexico’s favor.

A Possible Face-Saving Alternative for Mexico: Making a Humanitarian Gesture by Releasing Tahmooressi for PTSD Treatment

During the hearing, it was discussed that Mexico’s attorney general has authority to dismiss the case when he has expert testimony documenting PTSD, and that a Mexican psychologist has already submitted a report affirming this diagnosis. Releasing him could therefore be seen as a humanitarian gesture by Mexico – without that nation’s leadership losing face by appearing to cave under political pressure from the US.

As previously explained, the PTSD diagnosis is of little concern to Mexican authorities or the Mexican public. However, Mexico’s public generally appreciates humanitarianism, and his release could be facilitated if framed as a humanitarian gesture – a gift, really – insofar as it is being done contrary to Mexican demands for justice in the form of his imprisonment, and despite US perceptions that justice would seem to demand the release.

A challenging aspect of this strategy is to associate the PTSD and humanitarianism angles in a way that makes it convincing to Mexico’s leadership that it would be preferable to releasing him under greater political duress from the US, and yet, without being so heavy handed that it would appear to be a veiled threat from the US. However, the PTSD/humanitarianism angle will not be seriously considered until other implicit threats become reconsidered as more credible, including the prospects of damaged political/economic relations, and the loss of foreign aid from the US.



Although the Tahmooressi hearing was compelling to a US audience, it emphasized several issues that were not interpreted as important for the Mexican leadership figures responsible for his continued imprisonment. Messages aimed at US leadership not already clamoring for Tahmooressi’s release fell upon an unreceptive audience, particularly in the case of President Obama. In fact, US leadership in general has made it clear they will do little to free Tahmooressi. Tailoring communications to compel a US audience was a significant mistake in the planning of this hearing.

It wasn’t a total loss. They did touch upon some issues that would catch the attention of Mexico’s leadership, which certainly did monitor the hearings to gauge the determination of US leadership to press for Tahmooressi’s release. The hearing provided some food for thought, but concrete actions against Mexico appeared to be unlikely. In fact, the hearing served to advertise that some US politicians were outraged that US federal authorities were unwilling to do anything about his imprisonment. This observation may have resulted in Mexican leadership remaining satisfied with retaining Tahmooressi as a compelling symbol of its commitment against the “real” (i.e., US-born) causes of the cartel war.


If the subcommittee hearing had emphasized certain issues that were more relevant to the interests and worldviews of Mexico’s leadership, it might have produced a quicker release of Sgt. Tahmooressi.

The talking points that should have been minimized or omitted from future efforts include:

1 – The human interest angle

2 – PTSD as a reason to excuse or explain his possession of guns, and to justify his release

3- Credibility and respect issues between the US military, its public, and its leadership

4- The irony of swapping terrorists for Sgt. Bergdahl

5- Challenges for President Obama to do something about the situation


The talking points that should be centralized in further strategic communications with Mexico’s leadership in the effort to secure Tahmooressi’s release include:

6 – The implausibility of Tahmooressi being a gun-smuggler

7 – The observation that the imprisonment has already damaged US-Mexico political and economic relations

8 – The likelihood of Mexico losing hundreds of millions of dollars in US foreign assistance every year

9 – Tactful allusion of the US being willing and capable of rescuing a captured Marine against the will of the Mexican state (i.e., by force if necessary)

10 – The PTSD/humanitarian face-saving alternative as being preferable to the undesirable consequences above (items 6-9).


[i] http://foreignaffairs.house.gov/hearing/subcommittee-hearing-sergeant-andrew-tahmooressi-our-marine-mexican-custody




The US Southern Border and Vulnerability to Attack from #ISIS / #ISIL / #Islamic State

A recent DHS report allegedly stated that four individuals with terror links were arrested on September 10, 2014 as they attempted to cross into the US from Mexico at two different locations on the Texas-Mexico border.[i] DHS continues to anticipate ISIS interest in entering the US via its southern border.[ii]

This article will discuss common perceptions circulated by US media involving crime-terror nexus on the US southern border, and will explain why the most likely scenario is the following:

ISIS would require entry from a cartel that controls a border crossing point, and would pay to receive it, while the cartel providing the service probably would be unaware they were assisting terrorists into the US.


Would Mexico’s cartels be willing to work with, or for, ISIS?

The upper echelons of Mexico’s most powerful cartels are generally averse to involvement with ideologically or religiously oriented terror movements such as ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State. Connection to such trouble makers would result in greater repression within Mexico, and more vigilant US control of the US-Mexico border, and more enforcement of current criminal and immigration law within the US. These consequences would present short term problems for cartel operations, but nothing that would permanently challenge their cross-border profit generation activities. However, government repression represents mortal danger to specific cartel leaders who could be killed, arrested, and/or extradited by authorities as symbols of success against those organizations. At this time, leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel, the Zetas, and the Gulf Cartel would be especially averse to provoking more repression from the governments of Mexico or the US. The Gulf Cartel is currently smoldering from an internal war over the summer with regard to a leadership succession dispute, and is beginning to re-consolidate to more effectively face the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel’s primary enemy in Tamaulipas. The Zetas are currently led by Omar Trevino (alias Z42), brother of the former leader, Miguel Trevino (alias Z40). Miguel’s leadership ended when he was captured by Mexican authorities and he remains imprisoned in Mexico. Omar will not unnecessarily provoke the US to increase its diplomatic pressure on the Mexican government to extradite his brother. The Sinaloa Cartel is currently led by Mayo Zambada, following the capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who also remains imprisoned in Mexico. Similarly, El Mayo does not want to be perceived as provoking the US into anger at the Sinaloa Cartel that might be appeased by extraditing Guzman, which might be seen as treachery by those within the Sinaloa Cartel who are related to Guzman or remain loyal to him. Such an event could greatly destabilize the Sinaloa Cartel. Additionally, Zambada has a son who is currently imprisoned in the US, and he would not want to antagonize US authorities in a way that could adversely influence that imprisonment. Therefore, the cartel leaders with the greatest influence over the US-Mexico border region do not want the repressive response from the US and Mexican governments that would be expected from knowingly collaborating with ISIS operatives.

Despite the impressive power wielded by those cartel leaders, basic facts of cartel organization make it difficult for them to micromanage everyone in their organization. They can tell their subordinates to ensure everyone understands they should stay away from Islamic terrorists, or report them to police who cooperate with the cartels, and threats for violating their wishes will be believed by all concerned. However, cartels are loosely organized networks of networks, and smaller groups of individuals with more loyalty to their immediate commanders may venture for independent profit-generation if they believe they can do so without upper echelon leadership finding out. While sensibility would suggest it isn’t worth it to work with such types, greed and a sense of danger will compel some to take risks, particularly if the potential profit is substantial. However, reporting suspicious individuals to higher level criminals and/or police could preserve stability at key border crossings, preserving reliable income sources and increasing their social capital in Mexico’s criminal underworld.

The more likely scenario would be ISIS operatives simply paying cartels for illegal entry into the US. These cartels regularly transport migrants from a variety of backgrounds across the US-Mexico border. It is common for cartel representatives to conduct straightforward service-oriented interactions with customers who appear to be Islamic or of Middle Eastern origin. Unless an ISIS/ISIL operative were to intimate their organizational affiliation, or give outward indications of intent to commit acts of terror, there would be no reason for alarm on behalf of the cartels that would sell them illegal entry into the US.


In summary, the issue of cartel-ISIS interaction at the US southern border breaks down into several distinct possibilities with varying degrees of likelihood:


Highly Unlikely – Cartel leadership knowingly assisting or collaborating with ISIS.

Unlikely – Ambitious, lower-ranked cartel operatives knowingly assisting or collaborating with ISIS.

Possibly but not Probably – Individuals or groups who accept cartel contracts but are not formal members of a cartel knowingly assisting/collaborating with ISIS.

Most Likely – Cartel provision of illegal entry into the US (a common service) without awareness of the clientele’s ISIS affiliation.


Implications for Strategic Communications to Increase US Control Over its Southern Border

    1. American citizenry is becoming more interested in ISIS and security at the US-Mexico border, but many remain uninformed about how the issues interrelate, if at all.
    2. American political leadership has avoided securing the border, but has demonstrated willingness to respond aggressively against ISIS. Linking these issues within public awareness will result in increased political pressure to control the US southern border.
    3. Myriad stories have been disseminated in US media over recent weeks with regard to lax border security in terms of US vulnerability to ISIS. These stories stoke fears that will quickly fade in the absence of terror attacks, resulting in loss of credibility for news sources and decreased public receptivity even for more realistic theories of a cartel-terror nexus at the US southern border.
    4. To minimize the risk of credibility loss, investigations concerning suspected terrorists caught crossing the US southern border should be especially careful not to lead the media toward unlikely scenarios (as indicated in the previous section) without verifiable evidence.
    5. Maximum impact upon US media consumers beyond the short term will require credibility. To preserve credibility, investigators should be prepared to assess cartel-ISIS interactions in the most likely scenario, in which cartel operatives may have accepted payment in exchange for transport over the US border, but were probably unaware their clientele was affiliated with a terror organization such as ISIS.
    6. Repeated and prolonged public dissemination of reliable evidence of any cartel-ISIS interaction, should evidence exist, will produce unprecedented pressure upon the US federal government to secure the US southern border.





[i] The story was covered by Fox News at the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7g-nkjPQOQ

[ii] http://threepercenternation.com/2014/09/dhs-confirms-that-isis-planning-infiltration-of-us-southern-border/



Information and Imagery in the Illegal Migration Crisis at the US-Mexico Border

In recent weeks, thousands of illegal migrants, many from Central America, have been flooding into the US across the US-Mexico border. The issue became widely publicized by US popular media when it was reported that ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) was actually facilitating the transportation of these illegal migrants from Texas into other parts of the US, including California, Arizona, and the Washington DC area. While some have been transported directly to Border Patrol sites, such as in Murrieta, California,[i] other migrants reportedly have been dropped off at public bus terminals, apparently unimpeded from entry into the US as illegal residents.

This turn of events is becoming a focal point in US immigration policy reform. Ominously, state and federal authorities who have visited to inspect the facilities firsthand were not allowed to photograph the migrants or their living conditions. The images that have been released by those authorities administrating the shelters have been tightly controlled and calculated to serve the narrative of the US political left – images of wholesome, blameless family members huddling together, mothers changing their baby’s diapers, and so on, none of which would seem to justify the deportation of these migrants (or millions of others who live in the US illegally).

An family-oriented image of illegal migrants dropped off at a bus station in the US

An family-oriented image of illegal migrants dropped off at a bus station in the US

A family-oriented image of illegal migrants sleeping together - women with children

A family-oriented image of illegal migrants sleeping together – women with children

A recent social media meme using imagery to marginalize US opposition to illegal migration

A recent social media meme using imagery drawing upon perennial themes – such as American gluttony, hostility to foreign children, religiosity, and national symbolism – to marginalize US opposition to illegal migration

With diminished access to images that credibly challenge that depiction of who is crossing the US-Mexico border illegally, the US political right has struggled to find an angle to compel its constituents into action. This began to change over the past week, when reports circulated through public media claiming that MS-13 gang members were among the illegal Central American migrants. Attorney General Greg Abbott appeared on Fox News to express his concerns about such criminals entering the country, and his frustration over the inaction of federal authorities to secure the US border.[ii] Other reports have claimed that MS-13 is actively attempting to recruit new members at the migrant shelters.

A social media meme that draws upon MS-13-related imagery to galvanize political opposition. At best, this theme will achieve transitory effects upon audience viewpoints.

A recent social media meme that draws upon MS-13-related imagery to galvanize political opposition. At best, this theme will achieve transitory effects upon American perspectives.

This meme dated from 2008. It has not affect MS-13's spread within the US.

This meme dated from 2008. It has not prevented MS-13’s spread within the US, and neither will the current media coverage on MS-13 in US migrant shelters.

MS-13 is a notoriously brutal international criminal organization. It is known for ultra-violence, and the extensively-tattooed appearance of its members. Its infamy can provide a degree of impetus for the US political right to marshal citizens and politicians to support a more vigilant enforcement of current immigration law. Crime scene photos, as well as those of snarling MS-13 members, are plentiful, and have the potential to provide a temporary counter-balance against the family-oriented migrant images disseminated by the Obama administration and others on the US political left. However, this issue has surfaced in US public media before, and it has not affected decisive response from US leadership. It will not compel US leadership here either, and it will not compel US citizenry to oppose the illegal migration surge beyond the immediate short term future.

The MS-13 angle is incidental and temporary, and will not result in long-term, comprehensive political opposition to the Central American migrants entering the US

MS-13 is well established in Central America, where many of these immigrants originate. It so happens that MS-13 members are among the current migrants awaiting entry into the US. Even if screening procedures are introduced, a few persons with highly visible tattoos can be removed and deported without returning the thousands of other migrants hoping to gain entry. But some younger MS-13 members are not extensively tattooed. In fact, their affiliation with MS-13 may not be indicated by any visual evidence available to US authorities. Screening for MS-13 members in such a fashion would not provide much protection for the American public and does not address the substance of the immigration debate.

Those who wish to deport the illegal migrants were wise to seize upon the MS-13 angle, but the story will soon be spent, and the US political right will need to find another angle to engage US citizens and certain government agencies to become involved in the enforcement of existing immigration laws. What is needed to continue to galvanize US citizens and government agencies is an angle that is less incidental than the presence of MS-13 members among the illegal migrants.

Tying the Central American Migrant Surge to Mexican Cartel activity will more reliably galvanize political support in favor of immigration law enforcement than will the MS-13 angle

One alternative to the ephemeral effects from the MS-13 angle is to widely disseminate knowledge to the US public that ties the immigration crisis on the US-Mexico border to well-known profit-generating activities of Mexican Cartels, whereby Central Americans pay cartel representatives for transportation through Mexico and illegal entry into the US.

Mexico's cartels generate revenue by facilitating illegal transportation of migrants from Central America (such as those seen here) into the US

Mexico’s cartels generate revenue by facilitating illegal transportation of migrants from Central America (such as those seen here) into the US

Central American migrants, many of whom aspiring to enter the US via the human pipeline supported by Mexico's cartels

Central American migrants aspiring to enter the US via the trans-Mexican pipeline dominated by Mexico’s cartels

The well-documented role of Mexican cartels in the transportation of Central American migrants and others illegally across the US-Mexico border is not incidental. Within Mexico’s underworld it is practically systemic. The organizations most directly associated with the transportation of Central American migrants into the US are those that control plazas on the US-Mexico border, including the Sinaloa Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, Juarez Cartel, Gulf Cartel, and the Zetas. Some of these groups, particularly the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, are infamous also for exploiting Central American migrants at their mercy. Both groups have been accused by Mexican authorities of kidnapping, extorting, robbing, raping, and murdering thousands of such migrants since the cartel war intensified in 2006. The activities of these organizations have already yielded a cornucopia of compelling imagery involving violence, exploitation, and illegal immigration that dwarfs that of MS-13.

Sixty-eight Central American migrants who intended to pay the Gulf Cartel for illegal entry into the US, but were kidnapped by the organization instead. They were very fortunate to be freed by Mexican authorities, as cartels ordinarily dispose of such victims quite brutally once all possible revenue has been stolen and extorted. (2011)

Sixty-eight Central American migrants who intended to pay the Gulf Cartel for illegal entry into the US, but were kidnapped by the organization instead. They were very fortunate to be freed by Mexican authorities, as cartels ordinarily dispose of such victims quite brutally once all possible revenue has been stolen and extorted. (2011)

These illegally transported Central American migrants were not so fortunate. Mexican authorities have accused the Zetas of this mass murder at San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico. (Aug 2010)

These illegally transported Central American migrants were not so fortunate. Mexican authorities have accused the Zetas of this mass murder at San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico. (Aug 2010)

Central American migrants allegedly slaughtered by the Zetas (San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico, Aug 2010)

Central American migrants allegedly slaughtered by the Zetas (San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico, Aug 2010)

Central American migrants allegedly slaughtered by the Zetas (San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico, Aug 2010)

Central American migrants allegedly slaughtered by the Zetas (San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Mexico, Aug 2010)

Most Americans do not yet comprehend that Mexico’s cartels wield greater control than the US government over illegal migration across the US-Mexico border. The revelation would not only invoke deep sentiments within the US public, it is readily verifiable through independent sources. The involvement of Mexico’s cartels in migrant smuggling is so widely accepted that widespread public understanding of the role of Mexico’s cartels in the current immigration crisis could result in certain US agencies becoming more directly involved in its resolution, possibly including DEA, ATF, FBI, DOD, and others. As this would mean greater attention to the enforcement of current US immigration law, greater attention from those agencies would not bode well for the Obama administration or the US political left, which ordinarily hamper agencies that aim to enforce federally mandated efforts of border control and immigration regulation.


From a security standpoint, a law enforcement standpoint, and a human rights standpoint, connecting Mexico’s cartels with the ongoing surge of illegal Central American migrants can apply unprecedented political pressure upon those US authorities that have thus far made a concerted effort not to control the US border and not to deport the illegal migrants. The connection can lend itself to a highly compelling body of imagery available through the internet, one that cannot be contained by migrant shelter organizers who may or may not be sheltering MS-13 gang members. While the MS-13 issue can be superficially addressed with spot-check measures to identify such individuals, effectively responding to the cartel connection would necessitate a more comprehensive response from government agencies. While the issue has been touched by some sources [iii] [iv] [v] [vi], it has not been covered with sufficient comprehensiveness or repetition to affect a wide American audience.

Without a more concerted and sustained media push into the relevance of Mexico’s cartels, the MS-13 story will quickly disappear from the headlines and the migrant surge can be expected to continue with marginal political opposition in the US.


[i] http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-protesters-no-buses-murrieta-20140707-story.html

[ii] http://video.foxnews.com/v/3670519203001/texas-ag-on-ms-13-gang-members-illegally-crossing-border/#sp=show-clips

[iii] http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/06/27/immigrant-youth-border-cartels/11423695/

[iv] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/06/23/how-mexico-s-cartels-are-behind-the-border-kid-crisis.html

[v] http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2014/07/03/cartels-exploit-immigration-crisis-to-smuggle-more-drugs-across-border/

[vi] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mexican-cartels-use-migrants-as-dea-decoys/