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Narcotrafficking: A National Security Threat

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The United States is facing a crisis at its porous southern border, which 2.78 million undocumented aliens crossed in 2022 [1]. At the same time, narcotics are entering the country in unprecedented quantities, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seizing 267,222 pounds of illicit drugs in 2022. This total included 23,248 pounds of fentanyl, a drug which alone accounted for nearly 80 percent of the 110,000 overdose deaths last year [2] [3]. Mexican drug cartels use the border to smuggle drugs and people into the United States.

The cartels manufacture fentanyl and other synthetic drugs using precursor chemicals supplied by China. The drugs are then smuggled across the border by mules, including undocumented aliens. Inside the U.S., the drugs are distributed by transnational gangs, such as MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha). China helps the cartels to launder their money [4]. Due to the sophistication with which the drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) are operating, they can be considered transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) [5]. These cartels are responsible for more American deaths in one year than the entire Vietnam War, which killed 58,000 Americans. For this reason, DTOs should be considered a national security threat [6].

The cartels are earning an estimated $13 billion per year on human trafficking, plus at least another $12 billion from drugs [7] [8]. This money is used by the cartels to purchase larger armies and better weapons. Consequently, violence in Mexico is increasing as gangs have more of an incentive to fight each other for control of this lucrative business. This makes it harder for the Mexican government to eradicate the cartels, while also making it harder for the U.S. government to cooperate with the Mexican government.

The police and politicians in Mexico are, on the one hand, corrupt, as they are willing to accept cartel money to look the other way or actually aid in the manufacture and distribution of drugs. On the other hand, even the honest ones are coerced into working for cartels, who offer “plata o plomo,” money or bullets [9]. And so, the narcotraffickers continue to expand and to kill Mexican and American citizens directly, while also killing Americans indirectly with fentanyl and other illicit drugs. Illegal immigrants are often used as drug mules, or are trafficked into the country to work for street gangs, distributing the drugs.

Part of the threat to the U.S., other than the drugs and violence that comes over the U.S. border, is the possible destabilization of the Mexican government, which could trigger a massive influx of refugees and drugs.

In the 1980s, the Mexican gangs became organized in terms of drug trafficking, controlling territories and distribution markets. This brought them in conflict with one another, as they fought for control of these routes and markets. Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared a war on drugs in 2006, and deployed military force against the cartels. In 2012, President Enrique Peña Nieto altered the Calderon-era strategy, shifting away from confronting the cartels and instead concentrating on law enforcement and public safety. The Sinaloa Cartel’s Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was arrested in 2014, and extradited to the U.S. in 2017, creating a power vacuum which resulted in increased violence both within the Sinaloa Cartel and between Sinaloa and other cartels. There was a short-term decrease in crime after the reforms instituted by Peña Nieto, but corruption remained high, and by 2016, drug-related homicides had increased 22 percent. In 2017, a mass grave in Veracruz state was found to contain 250 bodies of those killed by cartels. Since 2006, an estimated 150,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence [10]

From 1917 through the 1980s, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI) was in control of the state, ruling Mexico’s local, state, and federal governments as an authoritarian regime which was successful in fostering the longest period of peace in the modern history of Mexico. The cartels bribed police and politicians in order to operate their drug businesses. The police were used as protection and as intermediaries between the cartels and the PRI. In 2012, with the election of Enrique Pena Nieto, the PRI returned to the Presidential Mansion. In the leadup to the 2018 presidential election, Mexican cartels killed at least 130 candidates and politicians [10]. Violence in Mexico had been steadily increasing, but has become even worse since the repeal of Trump-era policies. In 2021, drug-related homicides were up 15 percent. Additionally, the repeal of strict immigration policies in the U.S. has increased the appeal of being trafficked into the country, which means more money for the cartels. As the cartels earn more money, violence in Mexico increases.

Attacks on innocent civilians are becoming more and more common [11]. Over the past six years, an estimated 140,000 Mexicans have been murdered, largely by cartels, and the situation is getting worse [12]. In one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities, Celaya, homicides went from 80 in 2010 to 800 in 2020. In 2021, the number dropped somewhat to 640, but the government has dramatically undercounted [13] [14]. Hundreds of those who went missing in Celaya last year were not included in the homicide tally. As cartel violence increases in Mexico, more Mexicans are willing to pay the cartels to have themselves trafficked into the U.S., creating a vicious cycle of amplification. In 2022, Celaya was the site of a massacre, when gunmen killed 11 people in a single incident, including women and children [15]. By December 2022, the overall murder rate in Mexico had declined about 9 percent year-on-year, but this excluded those who were missing. Additionally, other forms of violence remained at record levels [16].

Internationalization of Crime

Initially, Columbian cocaine was shipped by sea and entered the United States through Florida. In the 1980s, the U.S. joined forces with governments in Latin America to combat the drug cartels. At first, these joint efforts enjoyed some success, but they resulted in the unintended consequence of deals being struck between Colombian cartels and Mexican criminal gangs. This resulted in Colombian drugs being trafficked by Mexican gangs into the U.S. through the Southern Border. Seeing the large sums of money the Columbians were earning, the Mexican cartels demanded to be paid in cocaine, which further increased the quantity of drugs hitting American streets. Mexican gangs then created their own distribution networks along the U.S. border, and with the additional money they were able to purchase more soldiers and guns, transforming themselves into sophisticated cartels [13] [17]. Now, through globalization and increased sophistication of the cartel business model, the menu of drug offerings includes fentanyl, cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine, with a certain amount of poppies and heroin.

Over the past few decades, criminal gangs have increasingly internationalized, until even the smallest local gang anywhere in the U.S. could be part of a larger TCO. The threat to U.S. national security posed by the transnational drug gangs increases with cooperation between drug trafficking groups, international terrorist groups, and transnational gangs such as MS-13 [18].

Transnational Drug and Criminal Organizations

The Mexican cartels purchase precursor chemicals from China [19]. In 2019, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission identified China as the number-one source of the fentanyl and fentanyl-related chemicals and products which find their way into the United States. Law enforcement officials have observed a growing trend of Chinese nationals working with drug gangs in both Mexico and the U.S. [20]. Chinese entities are also laundering Mexican drug money through the Chinese financial system. Thomas Overacker, executive director of the CBP Office of Field Operations, stated that most of most of the fentanyl entering the United States does so through the southwestern border [20].

The Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels manufacture most of the fentanyl which ends up in the United States [20]. The U.S. Treasury identified China as a primary threat for money-laundering risk, specifically citing their fentanyl business with Mexican cartels [21]. A 2020 report found that China was the world’s primary money launderer [20]. Once the drugs enter the U.S., the cartels use gangs such as MS-13 to transport and distribute them [4].

Weak Southern Border Policy

In February 2023, The House Committee on Oversight and Accountability held a hearing, in which U.S. Border Patrol chiefs testified about the situation at the southern border. Over the past two years, CBP has set records for seizures of narcotics, as well as the arrest of illegal border crossers and suspected terrorists. The Committee’s findings were that “President Biden and his administration’s policies created the worst border crisis in American history [22]. By removing deterrents, such as punishment for illegal entry into the U.S, the Biden administration has encouraged illegal entrances. Additionally, by providing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, he has increased the attractiveness of sneaking across the border. As the people entering the country in this way are often poor and desperate, cartels can easily force them into gangs or prostitution.


The theory that narcotrafficking is a form of terrorism and that it is a national security threat is well-supported by the evidence. In fact, even President Biden publicly acknowledged the fact that the opioid epidemic is a national security threat. The narcotrafficking organizations match the definition of transnational terrorist organizations. In their home countries, they utilize violence and threats of violence to impede law enforcement or bring about political change. As transnational terrorists, they smuggle drugs, weapons, and terrorists into the United States which kill and injure millions of Americans. Additionally, they coordinate with known U.S. threat countries, such as China. Given the size of the threat, its transitional nature, and coordination with threat countries, it can be said that the narcotrafficking organizations pose a national security threat to the United States.

On the one hand, these drugs kill Americans through overdoses, while destroying millions of lives through addiction. On the other hand, increased drug flow results in more crime in the U.S., owing to street gangs such as MS-13. In Mexico, cartels’ greater income means more soldiers and more violence, which is threatening to destabilize the Mexican government, unleashing an even greater refugee problem in the U.S. Additionally, a portion of the money earned by the cartels flows back to China for the purchase of precursor chemicals and money laundering services.

Since most of the organizations smuggling drugs into the U.S. are entering the country through the Southern border, it seems that the hypothesis is also correct, that a weak southern border policy is exacerbating the problem. Stronger policies would reduce human trafficking into the U.S., while curtailing the flow of illegal drugs.

U.S. government agencies are recognizing the need for stronger policies to protect the Southern border. “The Department of Homeland Security, requesting that the Department of the Defense provide assistance under our 284-authority, which is our drug smuggling authority, which allows the Department of Defense to build fences, roads and lighting along the southwest border” [23]. The U.S. could utilize the Southern Command to secure the southern border and put a moratorium on illegal immigration. This would staunch the flow of drugs into the U.S. and deprive the cartels of the income they earn from human trafficking. Less drug money for the cartels would mean less money for weapons and soldiers [17]. This would make it easier for the government of Mexico to eradicate the cartels.


[1] Ainsley, J. (2022, October 22). “Migrant border crossings in Fiscal Year 2022 topped 2.76 million, breaking previous record.”

[2] The White House (2023, January 11). “Dr. Rahul Gupta Releases Statement on CDC’s New Overdose Death Data.”

[3] Office of Governor Janet T. Mills. (2023). “Administration Statement on January-December 2022 Drug Overdose Report.”

[4] Zemek, A. (2022, May 18). “Murderous Cartels, Illicit Drugs, and Human Trafficking: The Threat and Atrocity of America’s Porous Southern Border.” America First Policy Institute, May 18, 2022.

[5] Congressional Research Service. (2019, August 15). “Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations.”

[6] Barr, W. (2023, March 2). “The U.S. must defeat Mexico’s drug cartels.” Wall Street Journal.

[7] Rogers, Z. (2022). “Cartels making $13 billion a year smuggling migrants across border, report says.” WPDE.

[8] Vallarta Daily News. (2022, March 11). “Mexican drug traffickers launder 25 billion dollars a year.”

[9] Duncan, G. (2022, October 7). “Beyond ‘plata o plomo’: Drugs and State Reconfiguration in Colombia.” Cambridge Core.

[10] Center for Preventive Action (2023, January 6). “Criminal Violence in Mexico.” Council on Foreign Relations

[11] Suárez, K. (2022, September 24). “Outbreak of Mexican cartel violence targeting innocents raises worries of what’s to come.” USA Today.

[12] Blears, J. (2022, December 3). “Violent crime on the rise in Mexico.” Vatican News.

[13]  Rizer, A. 2015. “Hannibal at the Gate: Border Kids, Drugs, and Guns – and the Mexican Cartel War Goes on.” St. Thomas Law Review, March 22, 2015.

[14]  Abi-Habib, M. and O. Lopez (2022, August 31). “‘Absolute Warfare’: Cartels Terrorize Mexico as Security Forces Fall Short.” New York Times.

[15] Buschschlüter, V. (2022, May 24). “Mexico shooting: Gunmen open fire at hotel in Celaya.” BBC.

[16] Resendiz, J. (2022, December 30). “Murders down in Mexico, but violence still at near-record levels.” Fox 5.

[17] Bensman, T. (2022, December 27). “Biden’s Border Crisis Is Fueling Growing Cartel Armies.” Center for Immigration Studies.

[18] Hesterman, J. L. (2013). The Terrorist-Criminal Nexus: An Alliance of International Drug Cartels, Organized Crime, and Terror Groups. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

[19] Standaert, M. (2021, February 28). “China’s fentanyl connection: the suppliers fuelling America’s opioid epidemic.” South China Morning Post.

[20] Greenwood, L., and K. Fashola. (2021, August 24). “Illicit Fentanyl from China: An Evolving Global Operation,” U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

[21]  U.S. Department of the Treasury. (2022, May). “National Strategy for Combating Terrorist and Other Illicit Financing.”

[22] The House Committee on Oversight and Accountability. (2023, February 7). “Border Patrol Chiefs: Biden’s Border Crisis Is ‘Overwhelming.’”

[23] Media Roundtable Background Briefing on DHS Request for DOD Assistance in Blocking Drug-Smuggling Corridors Along the Southern US Border. (2020). In U.S. Department of Defense Information / FIND. Federal Information & News Dispatch, LLC.

Antonio Graceffo, PhD. China-MBA, is a China economic-analyst who has spent over 20 years in Asia, including 7 in China, and 3 in Mongolia, where he teaches economics at the American university. He is a graduate of Shanghai University of Sport and Antai College of Economics & Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Additionally, he conducted three years of post-doctoral studies at School of Economics Shanghai University, focusing on U.S.-China trade, and currently studies national security at the American Military University. He is the author of 5 books about China, including Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion and The Wushu Doctor. His writing has appeared in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Lowy Institute China Brief, Penthouse, and others. He is a frequent guest on various TV shows, providing China commentary on NTD network in the United States.


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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afghanistan terrorism

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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