The horrific rampage of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has captured the world’s attention. Many Western commentators claim that ISIL’s crimes are unique, no longer practiced anywhere else in the civilized world. They argue that the group’s barbarism is intrinsically Islamic, a product of the aggressive and archaic worldview which dominates the Muslim world. The ignorance of these claims is stunning.
Not only are there other organised groups whose depravity and threat to the United States far surpasses that of ISIL, they fail to engender the same kind of collective indignation and hysteria. This raises the question: Are Americans primarily concerned with ISIL’s specific atrocities or with the fact that it is Muslims who are committing these crimes?
For example, even as US media establishments and policymakers radically inflate the threat posed by ISIL to the Middle East and United States, most Americans appear to be unaware of the institutional magnitude of Mexican drug cartels, let alone the scale of their atrocities or the threat they pose to the US.
Cartels versus ISIL
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 large parts of northern Iraq in June. It is likely that the group is responsible for another several thousand deaths in Syria. To be sure, these numbers are staggering. But drug cartels murdered more than 16,000 people in Mexico during 2013 alone, and another 60,000 from 2006 to 2012 – a rate of more than one killing every half hour for the last seven years. Even worse, these casualty estimates are from the Mexican government, which is known to deflate the actual death toll by around 50 percent.
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But the casualties alone do not convey the depravity of the narcos: They carry out hundreds of beheadings every year. Beyond decapitation, they are known to dismember and otherwise mutilate the corpses of their victims – displaying piles of bodies prominently in towns to terrorise the public into compliance.
The cartels routinely target women and children to further intimidate the communities they occupy. And much like ISIL, the cartels use social media to post pornographic images of their crimes.
Like ISIL, narcos recruit child soldiers, molding boys as young as 11 into assassins or sending them on suicide missions during armed confrontations with Mexico’s army. They also kidnap tens of thousands of children every year to use as drug mules or prostitutes, or to simply kill and harvest their organs for sale on the black market.
Those who dare to call for reforms often end up dead. In September, with the apparent assistance of local police, cartels kidnapped and massacred 43 students at a teaching college near the Mexican town of Iguala in response to student protests. A search in the area for the students has uncovered a number of mass graves containing dozens of mutilated bodies burned almost beyond recognition, but none of the remains have been confirmed to be of the students.
While the Islamic militants have killed a handful of journalists, the cartels murdered as many as 57 since 2006 for reporting on cartel crimes; much of Mexico’s media has been effectively silenced by intimidation or bribes. These censorship activities extend beyond professional media, with narcos tracking down and murdering ordinary citizens who criticise them on the Internet, leaving their naked and disemboweled corpses hanging in public venues. Yet intellectuals such as Sam Harris appear to be more outraged when Muslims protest or issue threats in response to blasphemous or anti-Muslim hate speech than when cartels murder dozens of journalists and systematically co-opt the media of an entire country.
Similarly, Westerners across various political spectrums were outraged when ISIL seized 1,500 Yezidi women, committing sexual violence against the captives and using them as slaves. Here again, the cartels’ capture and trafficking of women dwarfs that of ISIL. Additionally, narcos systematically use rape as a weapon of war and hold tens of thousands of Mexican citizens as slaves for their various enterprises.
Threat to homeland security
ISIL beheaded two Americans this summer and has warned about executing a third; additionally, one US soldier has died in efforts to combat the militant group. By contrast, from 2007 to 2010 the cartels have killed 293 Americans in Mexico and have repeatedly attacked US consulates in Mexico. While ISIL’s beheadings are no doubt outrageous, the cartels actually tortured, dismembered and then cooked one of the Americans they captured – possibly eating him or feeding him to dogs.
And the death is not restricted to the Mexican side of the border: from 2006 to 2010 as many as 5,700 Americans were killed in the US by cartel-fueled drug violence. By contrast, 2,937 people were killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks. Over the last decade, some 2,349 Americans were killed in Afghanistan while 4,487 Americansdied during the Iraq war. In four years the cartels have managed to cause the deaths of more Americans than 9/11 or the entire US campaigns in Afghanistan or Iraq.
ISIL beheaded two Americans this summer and has warned about executing a third; additionally, one US soldier has died in efforts to combat the militant group. By contrast, from 2007 to 2010 the cartels have killed 293 Americans in Mexico…
The Obama Administration claims ISIL poses a severe threat to US interests and national security. However, the militants were primarily concerned with seizing and holding territory in Iraq and Syria until the US began targeting them. Even now, while they have called for “lone wolves” to carry out attacks on US targets, so far those arrested in connection to ISIL have been trying to go and fight abroad rather than plotting domestic actions. US intelligence officials have asserted that ISIL poses no credible threat to the United States homeland; the same cannot be said of the cartels.
Narcos have infiltrated at least 3,000 US cities and are recruiting many Americans. Their infrastructure in the US is increasingly sophisticated and robust, with Mexican cartels now controlling more than 80 percent of the total illicit drug trade in the United States, and their top agents deployed to virtually every major metropolitan area. There are no realistic assessments indicating that ISIL could achieve a similar level of penetration within the US.
Explaining the dissonance
It is clear that the campaign against ISIL is not driven by the group’s relative threat to the US or the scale or inhumane nature of their atrocities. If these were the primary considerations, the public would be far more terrified of, and outraged by, the narcos. Perhaps the US would be mobilising 50 nations to purge the Sinaloa cartel rather than shielding them from prosecution, helping them polish off their rivals, or even move drugs into the United States – all the while resisting commonsense drug policy reforms that could dramatically undermine the groups.
Some may attempt to argue that despite the asymmetries, the cartels are less of a threat because ISIL is unified around an ideology which is antithetical to the prevailing international order, while the cartels are concerned primarily with money. This is also false:
A good deal of the cartel violence is perpetrated ritualistically as part of their religion which is centered, quite literally, on the worship of death. The narcos build and support churches all across Mexico to perpetuate their eschatology. One of the cartels, the Knights Templar (whose name obviously evokes religious warfare), even boasts about its leader’ death and resurrection.
When cartel members are killed, they are buried in lavish mausoleums, regarded as “martyrs”, and commemorated in popular songs glorifying their exploits in all their brutality. They are viewed by many as heroes resisting an international order which exploits Latin America, as well as the feckless governments which enable it. Their gospel, derived from Catholicism, is making fast inroads into the United States and Central America. In short, the cartels have ideological and geopolitical motivations and ambitions whose challenge is no less pronounced than that of ISIL; it may even be worse.
But unfortunately, the US cannot formulate an effective response to these much more severe threats because the US public is far too busy disparaging Islam, while its military kills Arabs and Muslims abroad. What is fueling the disproportionate reaction to ISIL is Islamophobia, not any empirical realities.
Musa al-Gharbi is an instructor in the Department of Government and Public Service at the University of Arizona, and an affiliate of the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC).
A version of this article was originally published by Al-Jazeera America