Weighing Evils: Mexican Drug Cartels v. ISIL

Not long ago, Al Jazeera America ran an opinion piece by Musa al-Gharbi. His thesis was that the Mexican drug cartels on the United States’ southern border are more evil and dangerous than ISIL, the Islamist thugs occupying parts of Syria and Iraq. Yet America’s reaction to that more existential threat from Mexico was less than our reaction to ISIL.

Now WC isn’t certain that his personal scales for measuring evil are sufficiently refined to weigh and compare true evils. At some point, blackness is just blackness. Both the Mexican cartels and the Islamist group calling itself ISIL are truly evil. Both are led by amoral monsters. Is there a really a difference?

al-Gharbi argues that the Mexican cartels are more violent. He states a recent United Nations report estimated nearly 9,000 civilians have been killed and 17,386 wounded in Iraq in 2014, more than half since ISIL fighters seized extensive areas in northern Iraq in June. It is likely that the group is responsible another several thousand deaths in Syria. To be sure, these numbers are staggering. But in 2013 alone, he points out the drug cartels murdered more than 16,000 people in Mexico. That in addition to another 60,000 between 2006 and 2012. Those numbers are estimates from the Mexican government, which is suspected to have deflated the actual death toll by as much as 50 percent.

al-Gharbi points out that while the Islamic militants have killed some 8-10 journalists, the cartels murdered as many as 57 since 2006 for reporting on cartel crimes or exposing government complicity with the criminals. Many of Mexico’s media have been effectively silenced by intimidation or bribes. He states these censorship activities extend beyond professional media, with narcos tracking down and murdering ordinary citizens who criticize them on the Internet, leaving their naked and disemboweled corpses hanging in public squares. 

Mexican Drug Cartel, Photographer Unknown

Mexican Drug Cartel, Photographer Unknown

On the other hand, so far as WC knows, the Mexican cartels haven’t videotaped themselves cutting off the heads of Americans, and then posted the videos on the Internet. The Mexican cartels cultivate a romantic-religious image, even commissioning ballads, but they mostly seem to perform their horrors in private. They are Mafiaesque, but so far haven’t posted videos of their atrocities.

al-Gharbi claims that the anti-ISIL campaign is not driven by that group’s relative threat to the United States or the scale or inhumane nature of their atrocities. He believes that if those were the primary considerations, the public would be more terrified of and outraged by the narcos.

But there are other issues that al-Gharbi overlooks. The Mexican cartels are constantly at each others’s throats; indeed, much of the horrific casualty count arises from inter-cartel warfare. By contrast, ISIL presents to the world a face of unified ideology, a religious ideology that is unified and not divided by greed. Then, too, he fails to acknowledge that the U.S. has lived with violent, criminal capitalism for decades; an ultra-violent, religious, intolerant ideology is fairly new in our national experience. And the cartels threaten the U.S. and Mexico, not, as ISIL espouses, Western Civilization in general.

And looking a little further back, the Mexican cartels haven’t flown hijacked jet airliners into skyscrapers and the Pentagon. True, neither has ISIL, but its spritual forefathers did, and, had it the means, ISIL certainly wants us to believe it would, too.

But as WC noted earlier, when you reach a certain level of evil, only God and Dante can sort out the degrees of evil involved. Whether your God is Allah or Mammon, atrocities committed in your God’s name are still evil and despicable.

WC rejects al-Gahrbi’s thesis that the U.S. directing more effort to ISIL because the U.S. is anti-Islam. The U.S. War on Drugs is hardly inconsequential: Since the 1970s, the U.S. has spent more than a trillion dollars attempting to dismantle drug cartels in Latin America. Mexico is reportedly spending 9.4% of its GDP, amounting to $1,430 per person, fighting the cartels. Mexico’s violence containment costs are not only monetarily much higher than those incurred by Syria, Iraq and Libya, but among the highest in the world. 

So WC disagrees with al-Gahrbi’s conclusion:

Unfortunately, the U.S. government cannot formulate an effective response to these much more severe threats because the American public is far too busy disparaging Islam while the U.S. military kills Arabs and Muslims abroad. One thing is certain: America’s obsession with ISIL is fueled by Islamophobia rather than any empirical realities.

The United States undeniably has its share of Islamophobes. But, at least to this date, they don’t drive our foreign policy.