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Cyberspace and intelligence: Threats to intelligence, business and personal data will increase in 2022

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In 2021 cyberthreat actors around the world increased the pressure on security issues, and it is no exaggeration to say that 2022 could be the most challenging year ever. With a view to helping security teams better face challenges, security vendor ZeroFox has recently released the 2022 Threat Intelligence Forecast report, which provides predictive analysis of the increasing threats in cyberspace.

Ransomware – a type of malware that restricts access to the device it infects, requiring a ransom to be paid to remove the restriction – will continue to accelerate in 2022. Organisations in the financial, manufacturing, retail and healthcare sectors will continue to face increased risks. Ransomware developers can focus on persistent and sustainable campaigns, including targeting threats to known individuals.

The year 2022 will see a wave of “data kidnapping” attacks (extortion due to the lack of encryption of the victim’s data). “Data kidnapping” means that in the big data era, while people proactively or passively enjoy the benefits and advantages brought by big data, they have to endure the digitisation of every aspect of their lives and the impact on their social lives will entail severe negative effects.

Attacks on the third-party intelligence chains will keep on increasing in frequency, scale and sophistication. In 2022 threat actors are likely to target small third-party vendors and critical events in large supply chains.

Competition among developers of infostealer software – i.e. malware that seeks to steal information – is expected to intensify in 2022, which is likely to spur innovation among developers to create “better”, more complex products and easier-to-use services.

Demand for Initial Access Broker (IAB) services – individuals or groups who band together to gain access to a corporate network or system through means that may include credential theft; aggressive attacks and exploitation of 0-day vulnerabilities (any vulnerability in a piece of software not known to its developers or known to them but not managed); or known but unpatched vulnerabilities – will continue to grow in 2022. Given the low risk of being discovered and the high demand for initial access, an increasing number of IABs or individual actors  are trying to sell access to sensitive data to third parties.

Cybercriminals are expected to continue to use automation to foster growth in their sales and licensing of sophisticated phishing-as-a-service suites – an inclusive form of cybercrime that potentially opens the door to everyone – and more cybercriminals will switch from Bitcoin to Monero as their cryptocurrency of choice in the coming year.

It is very likely that ransomware will continue to accelerate in 2022. Without significant changes to security measures to prevent intrusions and possible legal provisions, including international ones, to prevent threat actors from operating in judicial “immunity zones”, it is easy for the ransomware industry to keep on thriving, heading towards organisations of all sizes and across all sectors. Among these, the ransomware threat will severely challenge the financial, manufacturing, retail and healthcare sectors.

Although threat actors will probably continue to focus on SME targets in early 2022, we expect the “big hunt” to reappear in the months ahead. This may take the form of campaigns targeting Managed Security Service Providers and other third-party services as they provide privileged access to multiple customer systems, thus enabling threat actors to infect numerous downstream organisations with a single intrusion.

On the other hand, law enforcement agencies’ crackdowns are unlikely to have a lasting impact on ransomware campaigns. Since the groups targeted by such crackdowns can suspend operations or rename themselves and reopen, and the cycle goes on forever, as there will be new targets (“protected” software) to hit. The threat actors behind the most popular ransomware families of 2021 – DarkSide, Conti, REvil, LockBit and BlackMatter – could come back in 2022 with new identities and improved robbery software.

Considering the trends that emerged in the second half of 2021, threat actors will pay increasing attention to search, encryption and data exfiltration activities. This will entail running search strings to identify and disclose sensitive business data, including industrial espionage; and the “affected” organisations cannot mitigate the impact of such threats with simple security measures, such as creating offline backups or relying on in-house “experts” employed with a fixed salary.

Intelligence about the target may include legal or insurance documents, commercial and financial information, intellectual property or market-sensitive data (such as details of acquisitions or mergers), not to mention the intelligence of some recently pilloried States.

Threat actors can use this intelligence to demand higher ransom payments and put more pressure on victims to give in. Ransomware developers can also focus more on persistent attack campaigns, in which threat actors are able to attack victims again even after the security team believes the initial threat has been removed. Just an illusion or a figment of imagination.

Aggressive law enforcement action against ransomware groups in 2021 pushed some of them to relinquish attacks in favour of data kidnapping schemes that these groups consider less risky. In a data kidnapping operation, attackers/groups obtain data, via phishing, downloading a misconfigured server or other means, and then threatening the victim companies with disclosure of data if they do not pay. This is different from a ransomware attack because victims’ files are not encrypted and victims have full control over their servers and operations, but they may want to avoid reputational damage or fines associated with data breaches.

As threat actors seek more effective means for forcing victims to pay ransom, their extortion tactics may also evolve. Besides disclosing and exploiting sensitive corporate data, threat actors may turn to individuals known to organised crime to push victims to pay. Threats to senior executives and their families, or the executives’ involvement in illegal activities, are possible options. What advice can be given to at least mitigate threats?

1. From an in-depth defence strategy to a zero-trust security strategy. The zero-trust model is based on the principle of “never trust, always check” and relies on other network security methodologies, such as network segmentation and strict access controls. It is an approach to security that assumes the absence of a trusted network perimeter, whereby every network transaction must be authenticated before it can materialise.

2. Segregation of important assets and administrative accounts, also going back to the method of keeping hard copy documents in a safe: a “primitive” method, but immune to malicious attackers who have neither combination nor explosives.

3. Implement multi-factor authentication for remote access and administrative accounts.

4. Monitor threat actors’ communication channels for compromised credentials.

5. Use threat intelligence to focus management on vulnerabilities that the attacker will exploit, provided that intelligence is not – in turn – monitored by the attacker.

6. Disable administration tools for users who do not need them to prevent threat actors from abusing and taking advantage of classic naivety.

7. Disable unnecessary or obsolete Windows and Linux components.

8. Remove remote access solutions that are no longer needed.

9. Prepare for breaches by constantly building and maintaining relations with law enforcement agencies.

It is likely that the use of TCP – the transmission control protocol, which is part of the Internet protocol suite dealing with transmission control, i.e. making online data communication between sender and receiver reliable – as a vehicle for ransomware distribution is increasing, because it lowers barriers to entry for threat actors, and puts malware in multiple operators’ hands. Ransomware attacks, however, can generate much media coverage, which could be a mitigating factor, as threat actors do not want to attract authorities’ attention.

The continued expansion of the software supply chain could also lead to an increase in TCP attacks. Small third-party vendors in large supply chains will be seen as weak links through which threat actors can target high-value, security-conscious organisations. Therefore, organisations cannot focus only on strengthening their own defences, but must also protect their supply chains. Threat actors are also likely to increase attacks on vulnerabilities in teleworking and cloud infrastructure.

“Non-State” hackers – i.e. those operating across national borders – could also increase. These attackers could target key media events in 2022, such as the World Championship in Qatar, etc., causing disruptions and reputational damage to event organisers and sponsors. Moreover, as was the case with the 2020 US presidential election, the 2022 mid-term elections could further highlight the risks associated with third-party vendors.

Throughout 2022, the underground crime market will continue to provide a lucrative channel for all types of cybercriminals to peddle credentials stolen from an organisation’s network. The surge in the use of intelligence thieves – such as RedLine, Vidar, Azorult, Raccoon, Grand Stealer, Vikro Stealer, or even open source products such as Sorano and AdamantiumThief – will continue to drive and well pay its developers and the community.

Moreover, given the effectiveness and prevalence of their attacks, the multi-dimensional capabilities that these infostealing software already possess are likely to expand and grow further. Competition among developers of infostealing software will intensify, which is bound to spur innovation among developers to create “better”, more complex products and easier-to-use services, with personal and “employer” profits far beyond any imagination.

Infostealing software significantly lowers the barriers to entry for low-level threat actors by providing botnet logs that help attackers gain additional access to other services by collecting credentials, obtaining confidential information or assisting in the distribution of other payloads.

Botnet is a network of computers, usually PCs, controlled by a botmaster and composed of devices infected with specialised malware, called bots or zombies. Zombie is a computer or mobile device connected to the Internet that, without the user’s knowledge, has been compromised by a cracker or infected with a virus in such a way as to enable unauthorised people to take partial or full control of it.

The versatility of infostealing software and its ability to steal large amounts of sensitive data make it a threat to every organisations in all sectors. The growing “symbiotic relationship” between access brokers and ransomware operators will see the demand for IAB services continue to grow. This will exacerbate physical attacks across multiple sectors to simplify the cyber intrusion process, enabling threat actors to operate more quickly and effectively. Considering the low risk and high demand for initial access, more groups or threat actors will engage and attempt to sell access to various organisations.

Based on the trends observed in 2021, it is believed that vulnerabilities in packages bundled and imported into various applications will continue to attract threat actors seeking to maximise the effectiveness of their attacks. They may invest time finding consistent inputs from various applications that eventually lead to the same vulnerable functionality in commonly used computer libraries. This could enable attackers to develop effective exploit tools for various applications, increasing the number of potential targets and reducing the workload. Furthermore, threat actors gaining access from the breach will further compromise systems, extract personal identification data and implement data extortion schemes. As early as January 2022, threat actors have begun advertising access to hundreds of thousands of servers.

Cybercriminals will continue to use sophisticated and automated phishing kits in 2022 to take cybercrime to the next level. These types of kits may vary in sophistication and be purchased through clandestine criminal networks, covert channels and sometimes even transparent online platforms operating on the dark and deep web.

The operators purchasing kits from these platforms usually have most – if not all – of the necessary resources provided by the kit creator. These include tools to quickly distribute and deploy landing pages, detection evasion tools and even interfaces to generate obfuscated HTML templates that bypass anti-spam or phishing email controls and successfully reach recipients’ mailboxes.

It has been found that threat actors involved in distributing phishing kits can advertise their products through underground criminal networks and covert channels, and even automate transactions using bots to sell the leaked data. As security technologies designed to detect phishing kits and websites continue to improve and evolve, threat actors are constantly changing their tactics, methods and procedures to avoid detection and maintain their operations.

“Remittance-intensive” economies will switch to digital currencies at a faster pace in 2022, especially in the Middle East and Central Europe. The threat posed by cryptocurrencies to “long-lived” currencies such as the dollar and euro could increase regulation of the sector.

As cryptocurrencies are known to avoid sanctions, launder money and disrupt dollar-based economic systems, further regulation of the sector could come from traditional economic powers, such as the United States last year, which introduced new tax return requirements. The EU is also exploring a digital euro to compete with cryptocurrencies in the coming years.

Besides causing financial losses to victims, threat actors may also look for opportunities to expose user data, as these companies collect large amounts of data from customers for security purposes.

As cybercriminals find new ways to steal investors’ financial resources, and attacks on cryptocurrencies become more targeted, the opportunity to exploit digital currencies will not only attract cybercriminals, but in 2022 State hackers will probably continue to carry out ever more high-speed attacks in the cryptocurrency sector as a way to raise funds for governments to circumvent various international controls.

Furthermore, as mentioned above, cybercriminals may accelerate the transition from Bitcoin to Monero as the cryptocurrency of choice to facilitate transactions and respond to more aggressive actions by the law enforcement agencies, as well as controls by governments and various related intelligence. The use of Monero in the threat actor community is estimated to increase significantly by the end of 2022, as observed on the darknet markets, namely Silk Road, AlphaBay and White House Market.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Mounting Cyber Espionage and Hacking Threat from China

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Earlier this month a ransomware attack on America’s Prospect Medical Holdings, which operates dozens of hospitals and hundreds of clinics and outpatient centres across the states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Southern California was forced to shut off its centres in several locations as the healthcare system experienced software disruptions. In June India’s premier hospital, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) faced a malware attack on its systems which was thwarted by its cyber-security systems. This is not the first time that the premier hospital’s data was breached. In November 2022, AIIMS had experienced a cyberattack within weeks of announcing that from January 2023, it would operate on a completely paperless mechanism. The cyber attack which involved ransomware, designed to deny a user or organisation access to files, lasted for nearly a month affecting the profile of almost 4 crore patients – affecting registration, appointments, billing, laboratory report generation, among other operations of the hospital. Regarding the quantum of data that was compromised, the government revealed that “five servers of AIIMS were affected and approximately 1.3 terabytes of data was encrypted.”

Till June this year, Indian Government organisations faced over one lakh cyber security incidents and financial institutions saw over four lakh incidents. Data presented by the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), which has the mandate of tracking and monitoring cybersecurity incidents in India, indicates rising Cyberattacks to government organisations.  or systems year on year. From 70798 in 2018, to 112474 in 2023 (up to June) incidents of cyber attacks have been on the rise, on a year on year basis. Presenting this data at the Parliament, Minister for electronics and IT Ashwini Vaishnaw said, “With innovation in technology and rise in usage of the cyberspace and digital infrastructure for businesses and services, cyber-attacks pose a threat to confidentiality, integrity and availability of data and services, which may have direct or indirect impact on the organisation.”

A lot of the hacking activity points towards China.  Western intelligence agencies are becoming increasingly wary of digital intrusion by hacking teams that they believe are being backed by China’s government. Almost a decade ago, American computer security firm Mandiant had made the startling claim that these hacking groups are operated by units of China’s army. The firm was able to trace an overwhelming percentage of the attacks on American corporations, organisations and government agencies to a building on the outskirts of Shanghai. Mandiant made the case that the building was one of the bases of the People’s Liberation Army’s corps of cyberwarriors. US intelligence analysts have detected that a central element of Chinese computer espionage is Unit 61398 which targets American and Canadian government sites. Mandiant, which was hired by The New York Times, found that hacker groups like “Comment Crew” or “Shanghai Group” were behind hundreds of attacks on U.S. companies, focusing “on companies involved in the critical infrastructure of the United States — its electrical power grid, gas lines and waterworks” thereafter bringing that information to the military unit 61398.

In their defence the China’s authorities simply denied any form of state-sponsored hacking, and have in turn dubbed the US National Security Agency (NSA) as “the world’s largest hacker organisation.”

Nonetheless, since the 2013 revelations, Chinese hacking teams have generated a lot of interest and Western cybersecurity companies and intelligence agencies have accused them of global digital incursion. They allege that Chinese government-backed hackers attempt to target everything from government and military organisations to corporations and media organisations.

Most recently in the footsteps of the incident involving the Chinese spy balloon Microsoft claimed that in an ongoing effort Chinese state-sponsored hackers group ‘Storm-0558’ was forging digital authentication tokens to gain unauthorised access to Microsoft’s Outlook accounts  and urged users  “close or change credentials for all compromised accounts”. On May 24, Microsoft and US intelligence state-sponsored hackers of ‘Volt Typhoon’ were engaged in ongoing spying of critical US infrastructure organisations ranging from telecommunications to transportation hubs, using an unnamed vulnerability in a popular cybersecurity suite called FortiGuard, and had been active since mid-2021.

According to US cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks cyber espionage threat group ‘BackdoorDiplomacy’ has links to the Chinese hacking group called ‘APT15’and they are all involved in cyber intrusions and financially motivated data breaches for the Chinese government. During the visit by then-US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taipei, APT27 initiated a range of cyber attacks targeting Taiwan’s presidential office, foreign and defence ministries as well as infrastructure such as screens at railway stations. Television screens at 7-11 convenience stores in Taiwan Began to display the words: “Warmonger Pelosi, get out of Taiwan!”

Mara Hvistendahl’s article in Foreign Policy, 2017 ‘China’s Hacker Army’ estimated China’s “hacker army” anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 individuals, but rejected the belief that it was a monolithic cyber army. Mara contends that Chinese hackers are for the most part dangerous ‘freelancers’ whose ‘causes neatly overlap with the interests of the Chinese government’ and these hackers are left alone as long as they target foreign sites and companies.

Although cyber attacks have gone up globally, data by Check Point, an American-Israeli software company, reveals that weekly cyber attacks in India have gone up by 18 per cent this year, which is  2.5 times more than the global increase. Furthermore the  cyber attacks are becoming more sophisticated as hackers try to weaponize legitimate tools for malicious gains. For instance the use of ChatGPT for code generation, enables hackers to effortlessly launch cyberattacks.

Last year in a massive case of cyber espionage, Chinese-linked hackers broke into mail servers operated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in February 2022 and stole sensitive data. At the recent ‘Conference on Crime & Security on the theme of ‘NFTs, AI and the Metaverse’, current G20 President India, has highlighted the need for cooperation to build cyber-resilience in an increasingly connected world. Both cyber attacks and cyber crimes have national security implications.

In India, investigations into the cyberattack, which had crippled the functioning of India premier health institution AIIMS, revealed that “the IP addresses of two emails, which were identified from the headers of files that were encrypted by the hackers, originated from Hong Kong and China’s Henan province”.

Earlier this year, US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray had an alarming metric, – that Chinese hackers outnumber FBI cyber staff 50 to one. Addressing a Congressional panel he said, China has “a bigger hacking programme than every other major nation combined and has stolen more of our personal and corporate data than all other nations — big or small — combined.”

China is today home to some of the most sophisticated hackers, whose capabilities have only improved with time. Their motivations and actions might be independent but are conveniently entwined. However, much more needs to be understood about the hacker culture from China in recent years, if the menace of cybercrime and ransomware is to be mitigated successfully .

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Whistleblowers: the Unsung Heroes

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Whistleblowing is a bribery and corruption prevention strategy that does not receive the credit it deserves. In fact, rather than relying exclusively on laws, regulations, and resolutions, whistleblowing can be considered a highly effective method to combat bribery and corruption in any field, including government or corporate settings. Whistleblowing often leads to sustainable solutions, as it involves voices from various levels, ranging from grassroots to top-tier management. However, there are plethora of challenges whistleblowers face when they blow the whistle. Nonetheless, whistleblowers play a crucial role in preventing bribery and corruption, and this pivotal role enables preserving the security of any nation.

As stated by the National Center for Whistleblowing (2021), at its core, a whistleblower is an individual who discloses instances of wastefulness, fraudulent activities, misconduct, corruption, or hazards to public well-being, with the intention of prompting corrective actions. While whistleblowers are often affiliated with the organization where the wrongdoing occurs, it is not a prerequisite; anyone can assume the role of a whistleblower as long as they reveal information about the wrongdoing that would otherwise remain concealed. In simple terms, a whistleblower is a person who acts responsibly on behalf of themselves as well as others. Whistleblowers play an extremely imperative role in any society, as they stand for justice, promote accountability, and advocate transparency.

When looking at its link to national security, whistleblowers play a crucial role. One prominent action is whistleblowers exposing imminent and occurred security threats. They are capable of disclosing breaches of security, illegal surveillance, and in situations where individuals or entities are attempting to divulge material information. Whistleblowers uncover injustices, misconduct, and beyond-the-scope activities of decision-makers within government or private entities. If individuals engage in unethical practices, illegal actions, or actions jeopardizing integrity, whistleblowers blow the whistle. One such example, as reported by St. Francis School of Law in 2022, is whistleblower Frank Serpico’s case. He was the first police officer who openly testified about corruption within the New York Police Department, reporting instances of police corruption, including bribes and payoffs, despite facing numerous obstacles. His revelations contributed to a 1970 New York Times story on systemic corruption in the NYPD, leading to the formation of the Knapp Commission. In 1971, he survived a suspicious shooting during an arrest, raising concerns about potential attempts to harm him. Serpico’s bravery emphasized the importance of accountability and transparency in law enforcement.

Whistleblowers also contribute by facilitating accountability by bringing into light corrupt practices such as mismanagement of money. An example is, in 1968 when A. Ernest Fitzgerald, known as the “godfather of the defense movement,” exposed a staggering $2.3 billion cost overrun related to the Lockheed C-5 transport aircraft. His courageous testimony before Congress shed light on issues in defense contracting and resulted in substantial government savings. Fitzgerald’s contributions went beyond the immediate case, playing a crucial role in the passage of the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989. This results in a culture of accountability where representatives of the public are answerable to their actions. Whistleblowers uphold the rule of law and promote justice by defending the rights of the citizens. It fosters democracy.

However, whistleblowers are often subjected to criticism for standing up against injustice. They fear retaliation, as guilty parties may try to silence them out of revenge. Additionally, companies or institutions may not take whistleblowers seriously, leading them to avoid addressing the reported issues. In many cases, this happens because governments or authorities in power might be involved in bribery and corruption. Public recognition and appreciation of whistleblowers’ contributions to society are vital and should not be perceived as excessive. In addition, there are situations where groups of individuals create sub cultures within organisation and act against rules and protocols jeopardising inclusive culture. In such situations, reporting to a superior will be seen as favoritism or being overly devoted to the institution. This toxic environment demotivates valuable employees or those willing to stand against injustice. The lack of adequate legal protection further compounds the challenges faced by whistleblowers. Moreover, the courage to stand against bribery and corruption is in dire need, as many individuals may lack the moral fortitude to do so.

Whistleblowers are internationally and domestically protected, primarily through the adoption of the United Nations Convention against Corruption. Other international agreements, such as the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption and the Organization of American States Inter-American Convention against Corruption, also demonstrate a commitment to whistleblower protection. Various influential international organizations, including the G20, OECD, and APEC, have played a role in promoting whistleblower laws and best practices worldwide. On the domestic front, countries like Sri Lanka have specific laws dealing with corruption, while OECD findings highlight countries with comprehensive whistleblower laws such as the United States, Canada, Japan, and others.

Despite these efforts, there are still some ambiguities and gaps in provisions that hinder effective whistleblowing. For instance, the proposed anti-corruption bill in Sri Lanka allows public officers to accept gratifications authorized by written law or employment terms, which undermines the core objectives of the bill and enables influential individuals to evade accountability for corrupt gains. In Russia, whistleblower protection is limited, with unsuccessful attempts to establish protective measures in 2017. This puts Russia behind the EU, which has implemented robust whistleblower protection through the Whistleblowing Directive.

It is evident that whistleblowers play an indispensable role in combatting bribery and corruption, acting as a highly effective strategy to preserve the security of any nation. Despite facing numerous challenges, these individuals contribute significantly by uncovering wrongdoing, promoting accountability, and upholding transparency. By exposing imminent security threats and holding corrupt practices accountable, whistleblowers safeguard the rule of law and foster democracy. However, to harness the full potential of whistleblowing, it is crucial to address barriers to reporting and remedy afore mentioned legal hurdles. Encouraging a whistleblowing culture and recognizing their contributions will enable society to effectively mitigate and combat bribery and corruption, by creating a more just and transparent environment. To accomplish this, organizations can embrace a culture of whistleblowing, by conducting awareness campaigns, implementing training programs, and fostering a safe and supportive environment for whistleblowers to come forward. In addition, implementing technical measures and policies to ensure whistleblower protection, authorities can demonstrate their commitment to supporting those who expose wrongdoing. These collective actions will strengthen the pivotal role of whistleblowers in preserving security by combating bribery and corruption, fostering a safer and more ethical society for the future.

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Breaking the Grip: Comprehensive Policy Recommendations to Defeat Drug Cartels

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In 2022, drug overdoses claimed the lives of over 100,000 Americans. The primary sources of illegal drugs flooding into the United States are the Mexican drug cartels, who exploit a network of corrupt politicians, police officers, and military personnel in Mexico. Within Mexico itself, these cartels are responsible for a staggering level of violence, including tens of thousands of homicides each year. Within the United States, the cartels establish distribution cells, collaborating with either Mexican gangs or affiliated criminal organizations.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) considers the Mexican drug cartels to be the number-one threat to the United States. Among them, the Sinaloa Cartel and Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) are the richest and most powerful. Their exceptional earnings allow them to invest in soldiers and weapons, as well as payoffs and bribes, enabling them to expand their territorial control.

To effectively address the challenge posed by the cartels, the United States should adopt a comprehensive set of policy measures. These include securing the southern border, fostering enhanced cooperation with the Mexican government, implementing immigration reforms, bolstering drug enforcement efforts domestically, designating the cartels as terrorist organizations, imposing targeted financial and economic sanctions, and considering if limited military intervention is necessary.

While these measures hold significant potential, there exist political barriers that hinder their implementation.

Secure the Southern Border

Since January 2020, over five million people have illegally crossed the southern border. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) identifies protecting the border from illegal movements of people and drugs as being essential to homeland security. Transnational criminal organizations, such as the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG, are responsible for most of the drugs entering the country. On an average day, CBP seizes 1,797 pounds of illegal narcotics. In 2022, CBP seized a total of “more than 1.8 million pounds of narcotics and 14,700 pounds of fentanyl.” Preventing the cartels from being able to transport drugs into the United States would take away their income, causing their soldiers and friendly politicians to stop cooperating with them.

In order to better secure the border, CBP has created a preparedness plan which consists of a number of crucial elements, such as increasing the number of personnel, while improving technology and infrastructure. In addition to new hires, the number of personnel can be augmented through increased cooperation with other branches of law enforcement and the military. In May, President Biden, in response to a request from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees CBP, ordered an additional 1,500 troops to the border for a 90-day deployment. This was on top of the 2,500 already in place. Texas Governor Ron Abbot deployed his national guard and the new Texas Tactical Border Force to the border. North Dakota and Tennessee, as well as other states, also sent members of their national guard to Texas. In addition to national guard troops, the state of Florida sent a mix of state law-enforcement officers from varying branches. To effectively control the border, however, and have a major impact on illegal immigration, the number of troops will have to be drastically increased and the deployment would have to be permanent.

The technological improvements called for by the DHS include increased use of high-tech assets for aerial surveillance such as drones and manned aircraft. They also want sensors on border barriers, land sensors, cameras, radar, and autonomous surveillance towers. This technology will allow the DHS to better detect, monitor, and track unauthorized border crossings. Additionally, improved data analytics and artificial intelligence would help with screening and processing of legal entrants as well as illegals who have been apprehended.

The DHS has called for improved infrastructure towers, as well as facility expansion and upgrades. Some U.S. lawmakers would also like to see the border wall completed, particularly along vulnerable areas. A wall would impede illegal entry to the country, while making it easier for officials to spot illegal crossings.

Plans to secure the border have been rejected on a number of grounds. First, it would be expensive to station the necessary number of personnel at the border. Increased infrastructure, particularly the wall, would also be very costly and would not provide a 100-percent solution. Even more, it would be seen as racist, with Bloomberg calling the border wall a monument to White Supremacy.

Increased Cooperation with Mexican Government

One part of the cooperation with Mexico has to include Mexico’s willingness to help staunch the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States. Mexican President López Obrador formed a national guard tasked with this purpose, but the group has been condemned by human rights activists. Furthermore, the national guard, like other elements of Mexico’s law enforcement and military, suffers from corruption. 

If migrants were turned away by the U.S. in large numbers, Mexico would have to stand ready to accept them. Mexico would also have to form agreements with other countries in the chain of drug transit, from Colombia, through Central America, to the U.S. border. These countries will have to similarly agree to help prevent migrants from entering Mexico and they will have to stand ready to receive those migrants returned by Mexico.

Inside of Mexico, the Mexican government must actively fight the cartels, disarming them, disbanding them, and loosening their hold over both territory and people. This includes targeting high-profile cartel leaders. This will create command and control vacuums which historically have caused in-fighting among cartel members. Large cartels would then splinter into independent and warring groups with considerably less power. Changes within Mexico, however, would be dependent on reducing corruption, and these policies would be very unpopular among politicians, police, and military officers who benefit from the status quo.

Because of the massive corruption and the influence the cartels have over the Mexican authorities, U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) has abandoned any hope of cooperating with the Mexican government, calling the country “a failed narco-state.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has similarly given up on the Mexican government, saying that the U.S. should notify Mexico that the cartels will soon be designated as terrorist organizations.

Immigration Reform

The screening process for legal immigrants must be strengthened, while backdoor avenues, such as illegal entry and asylum-seeking, must be curtailed. Under the Biden administration, anyone arriving at the southern border can claim to be seeking asylum. This allows them to remain in the United States awaiting their asylum hearing. Republicans see this as an enticement for people wishing to enter the country, bypassing normal immigration procedures. Rights groups, on the other hand, complain that Washington should not curtail its acceptance of asylum seekers. In this case, asylum seekers should be returned to Mexico to await their court date. Knowing that they cannot get a free pass into the U.S. would reduce the number of people seeking to exploit the system. This change in immigration procedure would have to be coordinated with Mexico, however, as the undocumented would be entering Mexican territory.

Increased Drug Enforcement in the U.S.

Drug laws in the U.S. must be rigorously enforced in order to reduce the demand for drugs. Law enforcement must be strengthened, including additional training, and increased investigation and prosecution of drug-related crimes. Intelligence gathering must be enhanced through the creation of specialized units and task forces. The DEA reported that drug cartels are exploiting social media to sell fentanyl and methamphetamine. The authorities should closely monitor these social media in order to identify and arrest buyers and sellers. Furthermore, the DEA must coordinate with federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies to increase arrests of people selling or buying illegal drugs.

Beyond law enforcement and prosecution, there must be comprehensive drug prevention and treatment programs, education campaigns, addiction treatment, and rehabilitation programs. Opponents of strict enforcement claim that enforcement does not work because drug use has increased during the 50 years that the U.S. war on drugs has been going on. The war on drugs has cost $1 trillion, and roughly one in five incarcerated people were arrested on drug charges. Opponents also complain that prisoners are disproportionately Black and Latino. Although only 13.4 percent of the population is African American, about 25 percent of all persons arrested for drugs are African American adults.

Identify Cartels as International Terrorist Organization

The cartels are known to cooperate with international terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, Taliban, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and al-Qaeda, in order to sell their drugs in other parts of the world. They also aid terrorism by smuggling terrorists into the United States. To launder their illicit income, they employ the services of Chinese criminal organizations which pose their own threat to the United States. U.S. lawmakers have proposed designating the cartels as terrorist organizations, because they use violence and threats of violence to influence and control judges, politicians, and lawmakers. Designating the cartels as terrorist organizations would facilitate U.S. government seizure of cartel assets. It would make it easier for the U.S. to arrest cartel members inside of the United States, and possibly inside of Mexico. The U.S. could deport or bar from entry persons associated with the cartels. A terrorism designation would also enable the U.S. to deploy the military, even inside of Mexico.

However, there would be a number of disadvantages. First, violence would most likely increase, particularly if the U.S. military became involved. Next, it would effectively destroy U.S.-Mexico relations. The U.S. would be able to sanction or arrest high-ranking members of the Mexican government and security forces, which might be perceived as an act of war. These types of purges might destabilize the Mexican government and would, at the very least, cause a breakdown in cooperation between the two nations. Furthermore, bilateral trade, valued at $800 billion and accounting for millions of jobs on both sides of the border, would dry up. Increased violence, a destabilized government, and a loss of jobs would increase the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States.

Military Intervention

Rep. Dan Crenshaw and other U.S. lawmakers have called for an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to target Mexican drug cartels, saying “We must start treating them like ISIS – because that is who they are.” Those who back an AUMF point to the fact that the cartels are responsible for more American deaths each year than the entire Vietnam War. An AUMF would provide the president with the sophisticated hardware and expert personnel of the U.S. military, more powerful assets than those possessed by law enforcement or the DHS. Supporters of an AUMF also make the point that the soldiers would be engaging foreign hostiles in a foreign nation and, therefore, would not be infringing on the civil rights of U.S. citizens. 

In addition to arresting or killing key cartel members, military intervention could disrupt drug supply chains by destroying growing fields and drug labs. The government of Mexico has protested discussions of U.S. military operations in his country, calling it an offense to the Mexican people. Mexico’s President Lopez Obrador said that he would not “permit any foreign government to intervene in our territory, much less that a government’s armed forces intervene”.

Another disadvantage of U.S. military operations in Mexico would be an increase in violence. Inevitably, civilians would suffer, and the U.S. would be portrayed as the villain in the international and liberal press. The threat of cartel violence against Americans would also increase. Historically, the cartels have tried to avoid killing Americans, for fear of provoking Washington’s wrath. If the U.S. military began engaging in cross-border operations, the cartels would most likely declare all-out-war on Americans. Cartel violence within the U.S. would also accelerate as the cartels would be risking nothing by upping the ante.

Increased Financial and Economic Sanctions

Financial and economic sanctions can be powerful tools to break the cartels and to punish those who assist them. This includes enforcement of anti-money laundering laws, as well as targeting financial institutions that handle cartel money. Cartel assets held in banks around the world could be seized if U.S. allies also participated in the sanctions. If Mexico is legitimately interested in curbing corruption in their own government, this intense scrutiny would also help them to discover which public officials were accepting bribes.

Sanctions have already been used against the cartels: In 2022, the U.S. Treasury Department, in cooperation with their Mexican counterparts, brought sanctions against a cartel member who was trafficking weapons from the United States. Under the sanctions, Obed Christian Sepulveda Portillo had his property in the U.S. seized. U.S. Entities and persons from the U.S. are also prohibited from doing business with him or completing transactions on his behalf. Those who violate these sanctions may face criminal charges or civil lawsuits. In July 2023, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions against ten individuals, including several Sinaloa Cartel members, as well as one Mexico-based company, for their role in the production of illicit fentanyl and the precursor chemicals necessary for fentanyl production. Under the sanctions, all of their properties and interests in the U.S. were seized. Americans were banned from doing business with them. Companies in which they had a direct or indirect stake of 50 percent or more were also prohibited from doing business in the U.S. or with Americans. These are good examples, but to break the cartels, these types of sanctions would have to increase in scope, hitting large numbers of people participating in criminal networks.

From an efficacy standpoint, the above policy recommendations, if taken together, would result in a decrease in the supply side, a decrease in the demand side, and a long-term reduction in drug deaths and violent deaths in both the U.S. and Mexico, eventually leading to the stabilization of Mexico. Breaking the hold the cartels have on the country would allow Mexico to develop economically. This would benefit the entire population and the United States. But this success, which could take painful years to achieve, would come with a political and human cost which politicians may not be willing to pay.

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