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GRU team gives virtual talk on cartels for National Security Forum

Geospatial Research Unit (GRU) Director Marcus Boyd and Assistant Research Scientist Samuel Henkin presented on “Changing Dynamics of Mexican Cartel Activity and Violence” for the National Security Forum (NSF) in July.

The NSF began as an informal breakfast discussion led by former National Security Council member Tyrus W. Cobb, and grew into a nonprofit organization which aims to foster balanced and non-partisan discussions on international, politico-military and geo-economic issues.

“An exciting development for our upcoming programs is a new collaboration NSF is building with START, which is the premier organization in the United States conducting research on the drivers for terrorist activities,” NSF Programs and Commentary Director Maureen McCarthy said.

During the event, START Director William Braniff first offered an overview of START research and capabilities for the attendees.

“START is a public good,” Braniff said. “We’re primarily a terrorism research center, but we’re not exclusively a terrorism research center. If you’re studying terrorism, you’re also studying transnational criminality, [and] you’re also studying influence operations and how propaganda – whether that’s state propaganda or terrorist propaganda – can be used to manipulate populations.”

The panel event included START’s latest research from the “Tracking Cartels: Exploiting Open Sources to Identify Trends” project, which released a new infographic series in June.

“Our team is sort of agnostic in where we do our research,” Boyd said. “We’ve done research in Malaysia, Africa, Mexico, Central America – more or less globally. Specifically, with a look at transnational trafficking, where we have been very interested in how we can blend social science methods, particularly geospatial and geographic methods, to better understand how organizations move things around the world, whether it’s people, weapons or drugs.”

The purpose of the Tracking Cartels project is to build a holistic and accurate understanding of transnational criminal organization (TCO) activities in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

“This project comes out of earlier research that we did looking specifically at terrorist organizations,” Boyd said. “Initially, our work was interested in how criminal organizations fund themselves…This led me down a pathway of looking at illicit financing more broadly, and I sort of settled in on cartels.”

Henkin suggested that there are two likely possibilities in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on cartel activity in Mexico.

“The first, I think, will have to focus a lot of attention on cartels’ revenue streams,” Henkin said. “We know that cartels function at their peak when they’re able to exploit legitimate commerce. So as legitimate commerce slows down, as shipping slows down, as trade slows down, we know that cartel activity is going to slow down.”

“The next thing that I think is really important is thinking about COVID-19’s effect on cartel competition and conflict,” Henkin said. “Because cartels have varying liquidity levels, there will be different tolerance levels. So we are already seeing increased competition for drug [turfs] and routes across Mexico.”

Boyd concluded the presentation by discussing potential future directions for the project, including the effect COVID-19 may have on cartel activity.

“We’re still working on this project, and will be throughout the end of January. But we’re always interested in what’s next,” Boyd said. “We’re interested in how cartels are now interacting with human trafficking and human smuggling…We know that cartels are using tunnels to smuggle drugs into the United States and weapons out of the United States, but what we’re seeing is this burgeoning relationship between human smuggling and trafficking and cartels.”

The Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) dataset team will be providing a second talk for NSF in September on “Radicalization and Extremism in the United States.”

A recording of the July event can be found on the NSF website at this link.