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The Mexican Cartel Debate: As Viewed Through Five Divergent Fields of Security Studies

By Robert J. Bunker for Small War Journal. The Mexican cartel debate is becoming increasingly more important to U.S. national security, however, it is also becoming ever more confused, heated, and at times downright nasty, with little agreement about what is taking place in Mexico or in other regions of the Americas, such as Guatemala, Honduras, and even this side of the U.S. border. To shed some light on this critical debate—a debate we need to have now and not later— it is the contention of this author that, since the Mexican cartel phenomena is being looked at by scholars from divergent fields of security studies and since each field of study brings with it its own key assumptions and concerns, preferred responses, terminology, works, and authors, those analyzing the problem are often talking at cross-purposes which is unproductive. Additionally, dissention among those within each individual field of study about the threat the cartels represent—the divergences among those who study insurgencies as but one important example— adds another layer of confusion to this debate.

It can be argued that an ordinal threat continuum exists, differentiated by field of security study, of the danger that cartels represent to the Mexican state and, in turn, those states bordering it. Taken together, these threat assessments are helping to actively influence U.S. public and governmental perceptions of the conflict now taking place in Mexico and, ultimately, help shape U.S. policy. While it is accepted that other major factors and biases are in play—U.S. federal and state governments and administrations, political parties and action committees, citizens groups, and the ideological leanings of the individual media outlets all attempt to influence this debate—academics and professionals aligned within recognized fields of security studies have a disproportionate impact due to their propensity to actively publish as well as get their messages out via other media. The debate benefits from each field’s unique insights, unfortunately, these come with the baggage of having its own biases and their own interests at heart. Accordingly, some attempt will be made to mitigate the deleterious effects of this fact while seeking potential areas for cooperation between the fields.
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