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: