Monday, June 24, 2013

Journal Active Measures: Should High-Profile Terrorists and Cartel Leaders Be Eliminated? Targeted Killings in Latin America

Should High-Profile Terrorists and Cartel Leaders Be Eliminated? Targeted Killings in Latin America
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Active Measures
Volume II, Spring 2013
P. 14-20
PDF available:

 In September 2012, the Mexican newspaper Proceso reported that the U.S. government had plans to eliminate Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, without notifying Mexican authorities.1 The revelation, while explosive, did not appear to have damaged bilateral relations. Nevertheless, the prospect of an American military strike team entering Mexican territory to eliminate a high value target such as El Chapo Guzman is comparable to the May 2011 U.S. operation in Pakistan that eliminated Al Qaeda terrorist leader, Osama bin Laden.
The practice of targeted killings is controversial and complicated, not only for operational and legal reasons, but also from a moral standpoint. Arguably, there are a number of “bad guys” in the Western Hemisphere in addition to El Chapo Guzman who could qualify for this treatment, ranging from terrorist leaders to major cartel bosses. Regardless, determining which method is more effective, assassination or imprisonment of high-level criminals, requires a case-by-case study.
Most current analyses on targeted killings focuses on violent movements, such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Hezbollah. This paper analyzes target killing opera- tions from a Latin American perspective due to of current Western Hemispheric security issues.

Targeted Killings in the Western Hemisphere

It is inaccurate to consider terrorists, drug traffickers, transnational gangs, and insurgents as the same class of criminals, in spite of their similarly destructive modus operandi. The motivations, ideology, and objectives, as well as structures, of the numerous Latin American criminal entities are different. There are, however, common threads among organizations such as the Medellin cartel in Colombia, the Shining Path in Peru, and the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, as all have become major security threats inside, and sometimes outside of, their respective nations. As Latin American countries are increasingly confronted with violence and security threats, regional governments may resort more often to targeted killing operations instead of search-and-capture operations. Nevertheless, it is debat- able if the elimination of a group’s leadership may necessarily halt its operations permanently. For example, terrorist movements may react differently than drug cartels when a leader is eliminated. Furthermore, there are cases in which search- and-capture operations have been successful in affecting a criminal organization’s structure, as was the case when Peruvian security forces captured major terrorist leaders.
Eliminated Targets. Among the leaders of violent organizations killed by targeted killing operations in recent years, Osama bin Laden’s assassination stands out in the Western world, but Israel has also employed targeted killings to elimi- nate leaders of Hezbollah and Hamas.2 Such operations are likely to continue, with the missions increasingly carried out by predator drones instead of Special Forces.3
Latin American governments, too, have resorted to targeted killings. Pablo Escobar, head of Colombia’s infamous Medellin cartel, was shot to death in 1993 during a police raid.4 Escobar rose to prominence in Colombia during the 1980s, becoming infamous for acts violence against drug rivals, civilians, and govern- ment officials. In one of his boldest operations, Escobar ordered the death of Colombian presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan in 1989.5
Colombian security forces carried out a targeted killing operation against the leadership of the insurgent movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2008, bombing an Ecuadorian camp where members of FARC’s leadership, including the group’s then-leader Raul Reyes, were suspected of hiding.6 The bombing raid killed Reyes and several other insurgents, but the backlash brought Colombia to the brink of war with Ecuador, which viewed the operation as a violation of its sovereignty. To further complicate matters, the Ven- ezuelan government deployed its army to the Colombian border and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez declared the possibility of going to war with Colombia to protect Ecuador’s sovereignty.7 In recent years, the Colombian military has been successful in eliminating other major FARC leaders: Jorge Briceno (aka Mono Jojoy) in September 2010, and Alfonso Cano in November 2011.
Similarly, the Mexican military has managed to eliminate the leadership of some of Mexico’s major drug cartels. For example, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano (aka El Lazca) of the Zetas Cartel, was shot to death by Mexican marines last October.8
High-Profile Individuals Still Free. In Latin America, numerous lead- ers of violent organizations remain at large and are likely subjects for targeted killings. Some examples of potential targets in Mexico include El Chapo Guzman, the ruthless head of one the most powerful and violent drug cartels in Mexico with significant wealth from drug trafficking;9 Miguel Angel Trevino (aka Z-40), leader of the dreaded Zetas cartel; and Fernando Sanchez Arellano (aka The Engi- neer), head of the Arellano cartel.10
Leaders of hemispheric insurgent movements that could be targets for TK operations include Rodrigo Londono (aka Timochenko), current leader of the FARC; Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista (Gabino), the insurgent group’s second in command; Jose Benito Cabrera (aka Fabian Ramirez),11 current commander of the National Liberation Army (ELN); and the leader of Peru’s Shining Path, Vic- tor Quispe Palomino (aka Jose), who is believed to be operating in the Peruvian highlands.12
High-Profile Individual In Prison. On the other hand, various opera- tions have led to the capture and imprisonment of high-profile targets in Latin America, including Abimael Guzman, the leader of Shining Path, and Victor Polay Campos, the head of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) in Peru. These criminals have been in maximum-security prisons since 1992, under life sentences. Other high-profile criminals include Salvador Alfonso Martinez (The Squirrel), a Zetas leader linked to more than 300 murders, one of which was an American citizen.13 In Brazil, several leaders of the gang known as the First Capi- tal Command (PCC) have been placed under arrest. These examples of successful imprisonments demonstrate that viable options exist that do not involve targeted killings.


Whether targeted killings are more effective than capture and imprisonment in removing high profile criminals from power depends largely on the capacity of a country’s judicial and penal system to conduct fair trials of criminals and to keep them successfully in prison. Peru has been successful in keeping top ter- rorist leaders behind bars, but this hasn’t always been the case. For example, the MRTA’s leader, Polay Campos, was captured in 1989 and escaped from prison, along with 47 other MRTA members in 1990.14 He was finally recaptured two years later. In addition, Pablo Escobar spent little over a year in a Colombian prison (1991–1992) before escaping. He remained on the run until he was shot in 1993.15
Meanwhile, the Mexican penal system’s ability to handle a “big fish” such as El Chapo is questionable. There have been several recent jailbreaks in Mexico and dozens of cartel members have managed to escape.16 Moreover, imprisoned criminal leaders are able to continue communicating with their subordinates out- side of prison—the leadership of the Brazilian PCC, for example, has conducted conference calls from behind prison walls.17 Hence, targeted killings for major criminal leaders may be the only option for some security forces, given the state of many Latin American penal systems that allow jailed criminals to continue giving orders to their henchmen.
The question remains as to whether targeted killing operations are successful in affecting a criminal organization’s leadership structure. Osama bin Laden’s death crippled al-Qaeda, and Escobar’s death dissolved the Medellin cartel. On the other hand, imprisonment of Abimael Guzman and Polay Campos was enough to severely cripple the Shining Path and the MRTA respectively.
As previously mentioned, a critical factor is the leadership structure of criminal movements. FARC’s leadership, unlike that of the Shining Path, does not revolve around one individual. Rather, a secretariat selects a new leader when one is eliminated,18 thereby enabling the group to withstand the loss of major leaders. Furthermore, the structure and lack of political and ideological objectives of drug trafficking groups, such as Mexico’s cartels, make it likely that the Sinaloa cartel could survive if El Chapo Guzman was eliminated. The result would likely be a factionalized Sinaloa cartel and continued drug trafficking operations. A September 14, 2012, blog post in the Houston Chronicle argues that cartels such as the Gulf Cartel and Felix Arellano Organization have survived the arrest of their major leaders by aligning themselves with stronger cartels (such as the Sinaloa or the Zetas). In addition, the Gulf Cartel “has deep connections in the social fabric of northeastern Mexico [and] it boasts of extensive U.S. domestic wholesale transportation networks.”19 With such a history and network, this cartel has survived the fall of its major bosses over the past decade, demonstrating that targeted killings do not always have the intended effects.


Some experts who have written on targeted killing operations against groups such as al-Qaeda argue that Washington and Tel-Aviv have set “a dangerous prec- edent for abusive regimes around the globe to conduct drone attacks or other strikes against persons who they describe in vague or overly broad terms as ter- rorists.”20 In Latin America, this precedent has arguably already been set with the 1993 raid on Pablo Escobar and the 2008 Colombian military raid in Ecuador to eliminate a FARC leader.
In sum, it is not certain that targeted killings have had, or ever can have, a crippling effect on criminal entities in the Western Hemisphere. Arguably, the Sinaloa Federation could survive the elimination of its leader, El Chapo Guzman. Analysts have argued “the Federation is just that—a loosely knit alliance of smaller cartels that owe allegiance to El Chapo and his people. When a kingpin is cap- tured or killed, such alliances tend to fracture as it becomes a case of every man for himself.”21 In other words, while the elimination of El Chapo might weaken or even break apart the Sinaloa cartel, it would probably just lead to a factionalized organization, with little to no effect on drug trafficking itself.
Criminal entities in the Western Hemisphere range from narco-terrorist groups in Peru and Colombia, to expanding drug cartels in Mexico, and powerful gangs in Brazil and Central America. Each entity has its own raison d’etre and leadership structure, which means that some could arguably better withstand the fall of its leader more than others (for instance, the Sinaloa cartel compared to the Shining Path). Thus, specific analyses of each organization are essential to better understand whether a targeted killing of its leader would be successful. So far, the effectiveness of targeted killing operations, as compared to search-and-capture operations, has yet to be proven in the Western Hemisphere.


1. Jorge Carrasco and Jesus Esquivel, “Mision del Pentagono: Atrapar a ‘El Chapo’…. O acabar con el,” Proceso (Mexico), August 11, 2012. Accessed December 10, 2012: http://www.
2 “Israel’s Targeted Assassinations: An Overview Of Militants Killed By Israel (PHOTOS),”Should High-Profile Terrorists and Cartel Leaders Be Eliminated? The Huffington Post, November 14, 2012. Accessed December 22 Also see: Gal Luft, “The Logic of Israel’s Targeted Killing,” The Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2003, Volume X, No. 1, Winter 2003, p.3-13.Accessed December 22, 2012, targeteded-killing
3 Joshua Fost, “Targeted Killing, Pro and Con: What to make of U.S. Drones in Pakistan,” The Atlantic, September 26, 2012. Accessed December 18, 2012 international/archive/2012/09/targeted-killing-pro-and-con-what-to-make-of-us-drone-strikes- in-pakistan/262862/ Also see: Akbar Nasir Khan, “The US’ Policy of Targeted Killings by Drones in Pakistan,” IPRI Journal, XI, no 1, (Winter 2011), p. 21-40
4 Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo, (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).
5 “El sacrificio y la impunidad en el caso Galan,” El Espectador (Colombia), September 13, 2012. Accessed December 22, 2012 el-sacrificio-y-impunidad-el-caso-galan
6 “La muerte de ‘Raul Reyes’ desencadena una crisis diplomatica entre Colombia, Venezuela y Ecuador,” El Pais (Spain), Internacional, March 2, 2008. Accessed December 21, 2012 http://in-
7 Ian James, The Associated Press, “ Chavez Deploys Troops to border with Colombia,” The Spokesman Review, March 3, 2008. Accessed December 21, 2012 stories/2008/mar/03/chavez-deploys-troops-to-border-with-colombia/
8 Silvia Otero and Doris Gomora, “Confirman la muerte de Lazcano, lider de ‘Zetas,’” El Universal (Mexico), October 10, 2012. Accessed December 17, 2012 mx/notas/875733.html
9 “NARCO BLOG: Sinaloa Cartel Welcomes Police Chief with Tortured Body,” El Blog del Narco, Hispanically Speaking News, March 12, 2011. Accessed Decembe20, 2012 http://www. police-chief-with-tortured-body/6033/ . Regarding Guzman’s known wealth see: Erin Carlyle, “Billionaire Druglords: El Chapo Guzman, Pablo Escobar, The Ochoa Brothers,”,  March 3 2012. Accessed January 4, 2013
10 For other cartel bosses see: “De Siete al Inicio del Sexenio, los carteles mexicanos se multiplicaron: Calderon dejara por lo menos 25,” Tiempo Real (Mexico), August 20, 2012. Accessed January 4, 2013
11 “Reaparece importante jefe de las FARC dado por muerto en Colombia,” Univision, July 31, 2012. Accessed December 16, 2012 article/2012-07-31/reaparece-jefe-farc-dado-por-muerto-television-colombia#axzz2Fw5cCurP
12 Hans Huerto Amado, “Quien es el proximo cabecilla de Sendero Luminoso a ser neutral- izado?” El Comercio (Peru), February 13, 2012. Accessed December 18, 2012 http://elcomercio. pe/politica/1373857/noticia-quien-proximo-cabecilla-sendero-luminoso-neutralizado
13 Allison Jackson, “Mexico arrests Los Zetas drug cartel leader ‘The Squirrel’ over migrant massacres, US tourist murder,” The Global Post, October 8, 2012. Accessed December 20, 2012 zetas-drug-cartel-the-squirrel-migrant-massacres-murder-US-tourist
14 Ana Murillo, “Detenido en Peru el jefe del Tupac Amaru,” El Pais (Spain), Febru- ary 5, 1989. Accessed December 12, 2012 cional/602636409_850215.html . Also see: Carlos Castillo, “A 20 anos de la fuga de Victor Polay,” El Comercio (Peru), May 31, 2010. Accessed December 12, 2012 noticia/487763/20-anos-fuga-polay
15 See Bowden’s book for in-depth details of Escobar’s lavish lifestyle behind bars.
16 Oscar Villalba, “Mexico Prison Break: More than 130 Inmates Escape from facility near U.S. border,” Huffington Post, September 17, 2012. Accessed December 15, 2012 http://www. . Mexico also has problems in its judicial system. See: Patrick Corcoran. “Corruption could be undoing of Mexico’s judicial reforms,” MexicoData.Info, March 17, 2008. Accessed January 4, 2013: http://mexidata. info/id1754.html
17 Jack Davis, “Brazil Prison Gang conducted 10-Hour Conference Call,” InSightCrime, De- cember 5, 2012. Accessed December 22, 2012 prison-gang-conducts-10-hour-conference-call
18 “Colombia Peace at last?” International Crisis Group, Latin America, Report N. 45, Sep- tember 25, 2012, p.13.
19 Nathan Jones, “Gulf Cartel will likely survive arrest of high-level leaders,” Houston Chronicle, September 14, 2012. Accessed, December 23, 2012. blog/2012/09/gulf-cartel-will-likely-survive-arrest-of-high-level-leaders/
20 “Letter to Obama on Targeted Killings and Drones,” Human Rights Watch, December 7, 2012. Accessed December 21, 2012 targeted-killings
21 Sylvia Longmire, “Why arresting ‘El Chapo’ might be a bad thing,” Small Wars Journal, October 31, 2012. Accessed December 21, 2012 arresting-%E2%80%9Cel-chapo%E2%80%9D-might-be-a-bad-thing

No comments:

Post a Comment