Iran assassination plot: Terrorists join forces with Mexican drug cartels?

It's doubtful, experts say, despite reports that Iranian plotters tried to hire members of a Mexican drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US in Washington.

Louis Lanzano/AP
Journalists wait outside Manhattan federal court Tuesday, where two people, including a member of Iran's special operations unit known as the Quds Force, were charged in what Justice Department officials say was a plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States.

Looking to carry out an assassination or set off a bomb on US soil? Look no farther than Mexico, where murderous drug traffickers abound, ready and willing to take money for brazen acts of violence.

That may be the takeaway for those in the US increasingly wary of the security threat posed by its southern neighbor, after news that the agents tied to Iran sought the help of a Mexican drug trafficking group to carry out a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US.

Already, presidential hopeful Gov. Rick Perry (R) of Texas had said he would consider sending troops to Mexico to contain drug violence.

But are Mexican cartels really linking up with terrorists?

Mexicans, fiercely opposed to any type of US military intervention despite its growing violence, say the connection between terrorism and drug traffickers is already being overblown, and this will just add to the fodder.

“For a long time the US security apparatus … has been trying to see if there is any connection between organized crime in Mexico and terrorist organizations,” says Alejandro Schtulmann, head of research at the Emerging Markets Political Risk Analysis consulting firm in Mexico City. “Mexican criminal groups have no interest in upsetting the US.”

Plot foiled

US officials say the two agents contacted the drug trafficker in northern Mexico, offering $1.5 million for the assassination. But that trafficker turned out to be an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency, foiling a plot that FBI director Robert Mueller said today could have cost many lives.

One of the agents reportedly met twice with the trafficker during the summer in the violence-ridden northern city of Reynosa. The accused plotter was unaware that he was actually dealing with an informant.

Little information is known about the informant. ABC News reports that he was a member, or posing as a member, of the Zetas cartel.

Cartels don't want US heat

Those who study the dynamics of drug trafficking in Mexico say that participating in any terrorist action is highly out of character for Mexican criminals, whose interests are not in terrorizing the US but increasing their profits in any way possible – even if that means that they terrorize fellow Mexicans to do so.

“The major cartels generally refrain from antagonizing the US because they do not want US boots on the ground,” says George Grayson, author
of "Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?"

The threat of a terrorist crossing the US- Mexican border has been debated since 9/11. “Mexico is already a first tier country for the US from a national security standpoint,” says Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, senior associate and Mexico expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If anything [this news] is only going to reinforce how important Mexico is for the US."

In the context of the spiraling violence in Mexico, that relationship between both nations has grown stronger. But Mexican President Felipe Calderón has to balance national sentiment that the US not intervene in domestic affairs with Mexico’s real need for cooperation, and aid, from the US.

US debates how to handle Mexico violence

As the US has debated whether to label the violence in Mexico, which has taken over 40,000 lives, an insurgency or terrorism, Mexico has balked. Many see it as a justification to build a stronger, longer, and higher border fence or meddle in its affairs at home.

This news could raise the decibel on that debate. But Mr. Schtulmann says that drug traffickers are not colluding with terrorists. This case is that of a group hiring a hitman, and the Zetas are the perfect hitmen: they are former elite special forces and they have gained international notoriety for their willingness to carry out the most vicious attacks.

“They are mercenaries,” he says. “You can hire mercenaries here in Mexico or Brazil. I think the link with drug trafficking is overstated.”

And in fact, although little information is known about the informant – whether he was a drug trafficker who turned into an informant or an agent posing as a drug trafficker – Mr. Peschard-Sverdrup says it could underline how unwilling drug traffickers are to become involved in cases of terrorism because, in the end, the informant blew the whistle.

“It goes to the point that ultimately they are not willing to do anything that could disrupt their overarching business interest,” he says.

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