Mexico’s Cartels Are More Depraved, Dangerous than ISIL

Q&A: Comparing and Contrasting ISIL and the Cartels

My latest Al-Jazeera America article, “Mexican Drug Cartels are Worse than ISIL” generated enormous response from readers–overwhelmingly positive, with more than 70k shares on social media across the Al-Jazeera platforms, and the piece enjoying wide circulation and syndication, both in English and Spanish.

But there were also dozens of negative evaluations directed at me in the comments and on social media. Many of these were vacuous trolling by people who clearly hated Islam. Other responses seemed to indicate that my interlocutor had read the title, but then either failed to read, or to understand, the content of the essay–as their concerns were straightforwardly addressed therein. But there were also some well-formed and well-articulated criticisms. Below are a sample of the most common and/or poignant challenges to my arguments, along with my responses.


One reason the public should be more terrified of ISIS is because the cartel threat is easily manageable: just legalize drugs.


If we begin with the premise that the cartels do virtually everything ISIS does, but on a bigger scale and right along the American border—and if on top of that, this graver and closer threat is far more tractable, then it actually makes even less sense to be focusing on ISIS. Because while the ISIS problem is ultimately manageable by the local regional actors, most of the options for direct American involvement will only make the situation worse. If U.S. actions can have a much bigger impact on the cartels, then they should definitely be the priority, even if we set aside questions of scale or proximity.

But legalization is not a panacea for the cartel problem. Consider marijuana:

About 60% of the cartel drug trade is from marijuana. But drug sales, themselves, typically amount to less than half of the cartels’ total revenues. So even if the cartels lost literally all of their marijuana revenue overnight, it would only amount to about a third of their income.

Losing these funds would hurt. It would be a big blow in the short-to-medium term. But ultimately, legalizing marijuana will not drive the cartels out of business, not by a longshot.

But Americans should want to end the war on drugs anyway because the current policy regime has basically hollowed out poor and minority communities, trapping millions in cycles of violence and desperation. Legalizing marijuana, and generally reforming drug laws to emphasize treatment over punishment (ditto with prostitution), would radically improve the lives of countless Americans. And then there are the economic benefits of above-board legal marijuana sales and taxes.

Reforming gun laws would be another useful strategy. The cartels get most of their arms from the United States, generally trafficked into Mexico by people who purchased them legally at gun shows and gun fairs. This is another example of how taking an action to harm the cartels (in this case, gun control) may also have a lot of additional benefits for reducing violence in the United States.

So there are things which can and should be done to adversely impact the cartels, but there is nothing close to a “magic bullet.”

For the reference, my suggestion that America assemble 50 nations to purge the cartels was somewhat facetious—a ham-fisted military campaign in Mexico would be just as counterproductive as they have been in the Middle East. But the U.S. should immediately cease all of its actions in support of the Sinaloa and other non-state actors in Mexico, the Mideast, and around the world. That would make a big difference, no bombs required.


The cartels and ISIS are both horrible. What does it matter which is worse?


It matters because public willpower and other critical resources are finite. And so, America should prioritize the group that poses the biggest threat. In terms of depravity, scale, and risk posed to Americans, the cartels should clearly be the bigger priority.

Again, this goes beyond the killings. The mass incarceration of America’s poor and minorities resultant from the drug trade and the ill-formed “war on drugs” (rather than on the cartels) has had an incredibly corrosive effect on American society. Again, ISIS could never hope to impact America as adversely and profoundly.

So it matters in the practical sense.

But it also matters which is worse because if the cartels should clearly be the bigger concern, the question is begged: why are people so concerned with ISIS and nearly oblivious to the cartels? The answer is an intersection of prejudices, only one of which I could fit into the piece.

The first leg of discrimination is that, post-9/11, Americans have a ridiculous sensitivity to crimes committed by Muslims and in the name of Islam. Even though other groups have actually committed more domestic terror acts in the U.S. (especially native-born White men) over virtually any extended span of time (to include the post 9/11 era)—Americans still think the threat is primarily from Muslims. In part because terrorism by others, especially Whites, is underreported and/or framed much differently. The same holds true for other atrocities, such as beheadings, human trafficking, sexual violence, etc.

But in addition to the hierarchy of attention for culprits, for which Muslims are at the apex–there’s also a hierarchy of victims. The death of a handful of White bourgeois matters much more than others. And since most of the victims of cartel crime in Mexico are…well…Mexicans (whom Americans also discriminate against widely and at times institutionally)—and the victims on the American side of the border are also disproportionately poor and minorities, the cartel murders and atrocities are not really *newsworthy* in the same way that the killings of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, or the white Europeans who were executed. If the cartels killed more middle-to-upper class white Americans, they would suddenly become a much bigger priority.

(The argument that perhaps the media was more obsessed with the death of these men is because they are fellow journalists–this is also a fallacious argument, in part because the deaths of Iraqi, Syrian and other Arab journalists, to include at ISIS’ hands, receive absolutely no coverage in the press–even when they work on behalf of major Western media outlets. In short, the profession of Foley et al. had nothing to do with it.)

So the problem isn’t just that the mainstream institutions have a fetish with Muslims, they also don’t particularly care about the lives of the poor and minorities (especially Mexicans, blacks, and Native Americans—in descending order of value in the popular culture).


The focus on ISIS over the cartels has nothing to do with racism—it’s because ISIS wants to wipe out America while the cartels are primarily concerned with money.


There are two errors here. The first is thinking that cartels have no ideologies or ambitions beyond money. As I articulated in the article, they have geopolitical aspirations, viewing themselves as challenging an international order which exploits Latinos, as making up for failures in governance, etc. In addition to their violence, the cartels invest a good deal in many of the communities they operate in—many of these contributions cannot be easily reduced to a quest for profits. Instead, they are competing with the Mexican government for sovereignty, legitimacy and territory. There is also an eschatological dimension to the struggle for many cartel members.

But one must also push back on the idea that ISIS has the will or ability to “conquer the world.”

Even if we start with the (questionable) premise that ISIS wants to overthrow America, it has no means of doing so. ISIS doesn’t even stand a realistic chance of overcoming the governments of Syria or Iraq, much less taking over the region or large swaths of the world—still less having the ability to transcend the oceans separating America from the Mideast to make such a conquest possible. It is just ludicrous to even entertain thoughts like these.

Moreover, aside from occasional exhortations from ISIS leadership to carry out attacks in America, ISIS is primarily concerned with seizing and holding territory in the Mideast. This is largely because most of ISIS’ recruits are indigenous to Iraq and Syria, and have no interest in any global or cosmic struggle—they have domestic political ambitions and little more. Most Westerners who are sympathetic to ISIS are going abroad to carry out operations, not trying to commit acts of domestic terror. Again, the few Americans ISIS has killed were captured and executed in the Middle East, not America. From this it stands to reason that the easiest way to avoid American deaths would actually be to disengage from ISIS and the regions it occupies.

As a result of these and myriad other factors which could take up the space of several essays, U.S. intelligence agencies have repeatedly declared that ISIS poses no credible threat to the U.S. homeland.

So even if we take their ideology at face value, their aspirations are irrelevant because they do not have the means to realize them—now or in any foreseeable future, regardless of whether or not America intervenes in Iraq or Syria. In fact, they will probably be less able to reach beyond the Middle East without American intervention than with, for reasons I have explained throughout my series on the Islamic State.

In contrast to ISIS’ relative inability to strike the U.S., the cartels have widely infiltrated America. They can and do kill Americans, directly and indirectly, domestically and abroad. And they destabilize American society via their various illicit networks on a scale which is rarely appreciated. So again, the cartels should be the focus if people were being animated by realistic assessments of the relative threats and risks posed by the groups. It’s a pretty straightforward matter.


Regarding the casualty statistics you cite: When you claim 16k people were killed in Mexico in 2013, the hyperlinked article underscores that many of them may not have been killed directly by the cartels, that parsing out responsibility is difficult. The comparison seems unfair.


Actually, my comparison was more-than-fair. First, these complications also hold regarding my quoted ISIS casualties. The UN report says that many of these 9k who died in Iraq were not directly killed by ISIL. Some by the army or other militias, some collateral damage in the struggle with no clear attribution of blame, some in random acts of violence. So the number was equally “raw” on both sides.

If one wants to claim the numbers directly attributable to the cartels are likely lower than the number quoted, they would have to make a similar concession with regards to ISIS. So it does no good in undermining my point.

But in fact, while the numbers killed by ISIS are likely lower for the aforementioned reasons, the numbers killed by the cartels are likely higher. This is because the Mexican government deflates their stats by as much as 50%–so perhaps 32k were killed in Mexico—and even if the cartels were only responsible for half of that (likely, far more), then the 16k number would be roughly unchanged. It is probably a good, conservative estimate for cartel deaths, while my estimate for ISIS was probably over-generous.


Regarding the casualty statistics you cite: The population of Mexico is far larger than that of Iraq or Syria. So while there may be many more deaths caused by the cartels than by ISIS, they may amount to a smaller percentage of the relative populations. By that standard, ISIS would be worse than the cartels, despite the raw number of casualties.


Basically, the claim underlying this objection is that, because there are more people in Mexico than in Iraq or Syria, the death of a Mexican matters less than the death of an Iraqi or Syrian. I think most people in Mexico, and perhaps most people in general, would vehemently disagree with that premise.

If we start with the position that all people have essentially the same dignity (an axiom which basically serves as the cornerstone for international law and liberal ethics), then individual deaths are equally tragic, individual lives equally important.

And so 16k deaths in Mexico would be worse than 9k deaths in Iraq, and the relative size of the populations would be totally irrelevant to this consideration–just as would be their race, religion, gender, economic wealth, etc.

The number of deaths relative to the size of the population (as well as the other factors listed above) may matter in determining how destabilizing the casualties are on the societies in question, but even this is a fraught exercise—in part because the destabilizing power of these groups is determined by far more than deaths relative to total population. Again, the relative scale and penetration of the cartels in Mexico is much more pronounced than ISIS in Iraq or Syria—they are far more destabilizing. They pose an existential threat to the state of Mexico in a way that ISIS does not to Iraq or Syria. In fact, the drug trade (controlled 80% by the cartels), sex-trafficking and other cartel industries also exert a profoundly destabilizing effect on many communities even in America—particularly inner-cities, with these enterprises fueling a good deal of violence in the United States.

ISIS does not exert a similar influence. In fact, the only influence they really have in America is that which is granted to them by Western media outlets, almost entirely within the control of said institutions. If they started talking about ISIS more responsibly, or just stopped talking about them altogether, ISIS would have virtually no sway beyond the Mideast–even their social media outreach piggybacks largely on the mainstream media obsession. The media does not have a similar ability to marginalize the cartels. As was mentioned, the influence they exert is despite a virtual blackout of these organizations in the mainstream American consciousness.


Regarding Santa Muerte: Most of those who worship SM are not violent, or even cartel-affiliated. You seem to be doing violence to a diverse religious tradition that predates the cartels.


If the concern is that I am somehow equating the SM religious tradition in general with ISIS, let me assure the reader that this is not the case. Just as Islam is a broad and deep religious system expressed in a variety of contexts and in myriad ways with a proud history that predates ISIS, one can make a similar argument about the SM cult vis a vis the cartels. Most SM adherent neither extreme nor violent: it is a religious expression that resonates most profoundly with people trying to navigate through terrible circumstances and morally complex situations. Often this includes criminals, but also immigrants, laborers, and generally the poor and marginalized.

Comparing SM homogenously to ISIS would be just as ill-formed as comparing mainstream contemporary Muslims to the Knights Templar.

I did not bring up Santa Muerte to slander the cult—merely to show that contrary to many popular narratives, the cartels are not devoid of ideology. On the more extreme end of the spectrum, the cult of death motivates and justifies their atrocities—they view themselves as being engaged in a cosmological struggle. In virtue of this, their opponents are more easily viewed as subhuman, which facilitates committing these heinous acts which, to their minds, are divinely mandated or sanctioned. Others simply hope for blessing or protection when facing danger, such as when carrying out criminal acts. Still others revere Santa Muerte simply because she welcomes all without judgment. In any case, SM is an integral part of narcoculture.

This was the comparison I was making: between the range of interpretations and applications of SM deployed by the cartels v. the ways ISIS exploits Islam.


Regarding Santa Muerte: Your portrayal suggests that most cartels are intrinsically religious organizations a la ISIS—this seems incorrect.


I would argue that the cartels, individually and collectively, are united around a rather common set of ideologies, in which Santa Muerte plays an important role.

Virtually everyone is the hero in their own narrative; and so cartels, like any institution, have a set of ideologies and principles which animate and sanction their enterprises—principles that far transcend “get as much money as possible.”

Some cartels like La Familia and the Knights Templar are overtly and zealously religious. The Sinaloa cartel doesn’t explicitly justify their actions via religion, but they have their own patron saint, Jesus Malverde, who is supposed to protect them and represents a “Robin Hood” ideology of stealing from the rich and corrupt and giving those resources back to the people (Malverde is also closely associated with Santa Muerte in Sinaloan eschatology). Other cartels are not institutionally religious, but their leadership and individual members are widely pious. When cartel hideouts are busted, or leaders and members are arrested, they often have SM paraphernalia on their persons, in their homes, etc. Santa Muerte is extremely popular in prisons. For those who are killed from among the cartels, there is the widespread notion of martyrdom across the board, complete with the mausoleums to commemorate the fallen. Cartel leaders regularly use their ill-gotten gains to fund the construction of churches. In short, regardless as to whether or not the cartel defines itself in religious terms—this doesn’t preclude individuals from being guided, and their actions informed, by their religious beliefs.

I would flatly reject any suggestion that SM is unpopular among the cartels. By the available evidence, it enjoys an extremely wide, in fact disproportionate, following from among the cartels. Santa Muerte is ingrained in nacro culture at the fundamental level.

Again, the cartels’ idiosyncratic expressions of this religious tradition should not define Santa Muerte anymore than ISIS’ beliefs and practices should be held as representative of Islam—but at the same time, it would be disingenuous to deny that these extremists are religiously motivated.

But for the sake of argument, let’s just concede that perhaps the level to which religion informs the cartels is oversold. Incidentally, that same critique would apply to ISIS as well. Any careful exploration of who is joining ISIS (and why) reveals that local political and economic concerns seem to be the primary driver of recruitment—while many, perhaps most, of ISIS’ members don’t actually subscribe to the ideologies espoused by al-Baghdadi or circulated in Western media. So the criticism basically washes out and the comparison stands. In either case, even if a good number of members aren’t motivated primarily by religion, this does not remove the religious dimension from the organizations more broadly.

Moreover, just as with ISIS, the ideological appeal of the cartels is not strictly religious. As I pointed out in the article—there are ideologies of stealing from the rich and giving to the people. There are notions of resisting an exploitative world order and the spineless governments in Latin America which enable it. There is the idea of serving as a replacement for the inept and corrupt state—providing critical services and infrastructure for the people under their domain. One sees similar trends with ISIS—again, it is their primary source of appeal.

So yes, the cartels are ideological, and that ideology is spread across the wide spectrum of narco cultura—from music and other art, to religion, to political expressions. It is an ideology which enjoys wide appeal on both sides of the border, and one whose express purpose is to subvert the prevailing world order—of which America is the primary defender and enforcer.

I should add that by the FBI’s reckoning, in the last 30 years there have been far more terrorist incidents committed by Latinos than Muslims (7 times as many), largely by people motivated by the very ideologies espoused by the cartels. So the idea that people inspired by the cartel ideology could be driven to acts of terror is hardly far-fetched (especially if the cartels did find themselves under serious assault by the U.S. or the Mexican government). Instead, there is a strong precedent—to include the cartels’ increasing the use of public car bombs in response to government clampdowns (e.g.

I should add that this is not an argument for profiling Latinos instead of Muslims–it is an argument for why profiling is stupid.

8 thoughts on “Mexico’s Cartels Are More Depraved, Dangerous than ISIL

  1. I really enjoyed your article because it put things into perspective. I was actually searching on information about the cartels as compared to ISIS, due to a discussion I was having the other day in which I said it was strange that ISIS gets so much attention but the cartels right next door do not. I wasn’t sure on how the actual numbers compared (and obviously sources for hard numbers on either cartel violence or ISIS are intrinsically not impossible to get with 100% accuracy) but your article did a good job of laying everything out there comparatively.

    My only quibble with your conclusions would be that there are geopolitical and diplomatic issues at play in America’s response to the separate matters. With Mexico which is a NAFTA partner and a country we have deep diplomatic ties with we could not conduct any military activities there without approval and wide acceptance from the Mexican political establishment. In Syria we can essentially act however we please, because it is a state riven by civil war in which there is no recognized legal authority. In Iraq we have a long standing military association with that country. We enforced a no-fly zone to insulate northern Iraq’s Kurdish population after the Gulf War and of course we had a large occupation force in Iraq for many years during the 2000s.

    I think also in the “court of international opinion” America is held responsible for Iraq’s military since we essentially trained it and built it from nothing after disbanding Saddam’s military. So in essence there is some amount of “American prestige” on the line in Iraq where there is none in Mexico. The Iraqi government has asked for some amount of military help with ISIS, I don’t believe Mexico has asked for similar with the cartels, but I could be wrong on that count.

    I don’t think any of this justifies our current media craze over ISIS versus almost disinterest in what happens in Mexico, but I think it at least makes it understandable as to how the government has behaved. While I don’t like seeing our President utilize military force solely to protect “prestige” I understand that all leaders try to protect against their country looking bad to different degrees. You can see that everywhere from Angela Merkel to Putin to Erdogan to Obama.

    What concerns me most about our current campaign against ISIS is we are essentially taking sides in a sectarian conflict in which neither side is really “right” or “wrong.” When it spills over into sectarian violence between different branches of Islam there is no “right” or “wrong”, and being on either side I think hurts the United States. I have read many reports that since our air strikes against ISIS, we are now largely viewed negatively by anti-Assad Syrians, because attacking ISIS associates us in their minds with the regime or makes it seem that America is siding with Iran-backed Shia fighters over the Sunni rebel factions in Syria.

    Note when I speak of factions here I am just speaking generally, I know that ISIS certainly doesn’t represent the Sunni “norm” nor do the atrocities committed by Iranian backed Shia groups represent the norm by Shia either. I am just using the terms the same way I would use the term “Catholic” or “Protestant” forces to describe different groups fighting in the Thirty Years War.

  2. I didn’t see my response in your list of reasonable questions. Perhaps that’s because I’m an incurable bigot. Or perhaps you address it in one of the long responses. I’ll read those later (i.e. not at work :) ). Anyway here’s my reason why ISIL perhaps should get more attention than the cartels.

    ISIL is just getting started. Given its proximity to enormous oil reserves, its effectiveness on the ground to this point, and its demonstrated ability to recruit from all over the world they pose the greater long term threat. Get them now while they’re relatively small and we could save ourselves (and the rest of the world) a huge problem later.

    The cartels, on the other hand, have been with us for decades. They’ve already grown beyond the point where they cannot be easily controlled. At this point (unless you hold that ISIL has considerable appeal to Muslims as Muslims) they are more entwined with Mexican and Central American society than ISIL is with societies in its neighborhood. Taking them on now would be a greater undertaking than is taking on ISIL.

    Thus we’ve concluded that the cartels are a large problem that can only be managed. ISIL, on the other hand, is a smaller problem that could be stopped now, but could if not stopped soon grow into a massive problem that we will at best only be able to manage.

  3. ISIS is far more dangerous. ISIS, like many jihadist, often uses suicide bombings where as Cartels wouldn’t dare use them and why would they given that cartels fight for money/power not god. There ISIS is less fearful of dying than the cartels. ISIS is also a much bigger organization with more people than anyone cartel. ISIS has bigger and more lethal arms(tanks and heavier weapons) and their leadership has much more extensive military background. They also are more media frenzy and are able to recruit people throughout the world.

  4. when you read about the cartels in america, its often with people who are involved in the drug trade form the start. i think the cartels truly show their beastly nature when they return home to mexico with guns, money, and government protection.

  5. No doubt the cartels are despicable, but ISIS wants to slaughter entire ethnic groups and cultures. I’ve heard of them shooting infants, decapitating toddlers, and crucifying young adolescents.

    ISIS has actually killed way more people than your statistics show. The IBC project showed that in 2014, ISIS killed 18,000 civilians, and the IBC acknowledges themselves that they probably undercount.

    Remember that’s just in Iraq though, they’ve killed way more people in Syria. ISIS one time killed 1,000 civilians in a single day.

    1. As it relates to those killed by ISIS, it should be remembered that this article was published roughly a year ago–and at least a few months prior to any report that could summarize all of 2014. So we were working with the best numbers we had at the time. That number could be correct–although it should be noted that most stats on ISIS’ casualties include any who were killed in the context of their war, regardless of by whom. And also, considering the asymmetrical nature of the warfare in question, “civilian” does not necessarily mean “non-combatant” (I explain this in greater depth here).

      But in terms of American deaths, there is really no comparison. Two U.S. soldiers have died in the campaign so far, one by accident. And a few Western hostages have been killed in that context–although in the case of Kayla Mueller, she was apparently killed by a coalition airstrike rather than by ISIS. Cartels, meanwhile, directly killed hundreds of Americans over the periods cited in the study. And cartel-fueled drug violence continues to kill thousands of Americans every year. So even if ISIS has come to match or even exceed the killing of the cartels–the fact that the latter kills so many American citizens and operates right on our southern border should prioritize them far more. After all, the primary responsibility of the government is to serve and protect American citizens.

      The cartels also do truly horrific things with infants, toddlers and young people…really, any depraved thing ISIS does, there is a cartel analog.

      But again, ultimately, the question isn’t so much which group is worse–but which one should be a more significant national security priority for the United States. And by that measure, the cartels clearly should “win.”

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