Over Christmas week, it was reported that members of Mexican Crime Cartels illegally entered five different truck yards in northern Mexico by threatening security officers. These criminals did not steal cash or cargo. Instead, they compromised sensitive corporate information – information that plays a role in the security and well-being of the United States. The information they obtained was routing information for U.S.-bound commercial truck shipments. Once they obtained this information, they sent it electronically to their counter-parts for exploitation. Exploitation opportunities are numerous, in that on a typical day Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspectors process over 47,293 truck, rail and sea containers. This daily process is a part of the $2 trillion in legitimate trade that crosses our borders annually, making finding illegal cargo embedded within legal cargo in a very limited number of containers a search for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Criminal organizations the world over, especially along the land border of Mexico and the United States, use commercial trucks to move contraband. Along the U.S.-Mexico border, large quantities of contraband and illegal aliens are shipped north across the border while bulk currency from illegal profits are returned south across the border. These items are concealed among the legitimate cargo and smugglers rely on the sheer volume of legitimate traffic to blend in with their surroundings to get past the CBP inspectors. Each corporate entity in possession of the container or trailer has security responsibilities while cargo is entrusted to them, whether the cargo is at rest, at a node or moving between nodes. The entire corporation has a responsibility and role to play in cargo security, resiliency and business continuity to protect their brand and everyone’s security/safety.

Because of the huge amount of trade that crosses our borders and the limited number of personnel to inspect and process this trade, two methods were created to ease the cargo delays and help the CBP inspectors target suspect trucks. The first method is the Customs–Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) Program. C-TPAT has over 10,000 partners of which more than 2,800 are commercial carriers. C-TPAT is a voluntary government-business initiative to build cooperative partnerships to strengthen and improve the security of the international supply chain and our borders. CBP recognizes that C-TPAT can provide the highest level of cargo security only through the close cooperation with the ultimate owners of the international supply chain such as importers, carriers, consolidators, licensed customs brokers, and manufacturers. CBP requires businesses to ensure the integrity of their security practices and communicate and verify the security guidelines of their business partners within the supply chain.

The second prong of the CBP strategy is the Free and Secure Trade (FAST) Program. The FAST program is a commercial clearance program for known low-risk shipments entering the United States from Mexico and Canada. FAST allows for expedited processing of more than 87,000 commercial drivers to enter the United States through FAST lanes which reduces the number of inspections and delays at the border. This helps reduce wait times and costs for corporations and consumers and assists CBP inspectors in targeting suspect shipments.

Both of these programs facilitate the rapid movement of free trade to help ensure border integrity and our national security by allowing the few inspectors to concentrate on high-risk carriers and shipments. However, now that that these transnational criminal cartels have blatantly corrupted at least five truck yards along the U.S.-Mexico border, they can infiltrate and exploit legitimate carriers and drivers to slink through the C-TPAT and FAST programs with their concealed contraband. Because of this compromise, the inspectors will now have to concentrate their limited resources towards C-TPAT and FAST members to target suspected compromised shipments. This reallocation of resources away from the non-C-TPAT and FAST lanes may allow for smuggling organizations to “run” contraband through these lanes since inspectors are paying extra attention to the “trusted” lanes. This is a perfect case of a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t’” scenario in attempts to stop transnational contraband.

Everyone must understand that a supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link. It is for this reason that governments and corporations must take a holistic approach and review the entire supply chain system to ensure all areas are assessed and secured. They should aim to identify and prioritize risk and vulnerabilities to help establish mechanisms to facilitate continuous improvement and effective security management. Once implemented, a company should be able to independently and efficiently manage the security of their supply operations.

There are a lot of moving parts in securing the international supply chain, and companies need to protect their brand by knowing and securing their Personnel, their Capital, their Mechanisms, and their Material from manipulation by criminal elements. In addition to protecting their brand, this security awareness also provides protection to our borders and the security of the United States. It is everyone’s duty to help ensure our safety. By everyone, I mean corporate personnel, law enforcement, consumers and politicians to ensure that our borders and the trade programs that we have in place are not abused by criminal and/or terrorist elements to our detriment.

  • DaveD

    Great article, Tony.
    I have long believed that the US needs to treat the Mexican cartels as foreign terrorist groups. They are capable of doing just as much damage to the US as Al Qaeda; we lose more people to drug use every year than we did on 911.
    The sophistication of the cartels is evident in this occurrence and just reaffirms my belief. Until we consider this a military issue rather than a law enforcement issue (which is unlikely to happen) we will continue to have to fight the cartels.

    • wts

      What would military “treatment” against cartels look like? How would it be different or more effective than the various civilian agencies working on it? Mexico has a warranted suspicion of US and other nations who have intervened with military force in that nation. It’s much like the fight against terrorism in other countries; the US can easily turn the population against us if we use counterproductive strategies. 

  • I enjoyed reading your article.  Good reading.  As Dave mentioned, I also was a participant with LinkeDin these recent Months engaged in discussions with fellow security professionals with ASIS International and CSIS in relabeling drug cartels as terrorist groups and to bring a change to the way Governments and law enforcement deals with its fight by incorporating a Military angle which would help bring new technologies and weapons to law enforcement agents having to use limited resources for so long or bringing Military consultants to the table.

  • Alice

    I agree with DaveD that the Cartel should be considered Terrorists as dangerous as Al Qaeda.  As a member of C-TPAT, we hope we’re doing our little part of keeping the supply chain legal.  I wish our government provided more money for heavier security at the borders.

  • DaveD

    Keep in mind that military action against the cartels would have to occur against the will of the Mexican government. The cartels bring entirely too much money into Mexico (and the Mexican political machine).

    While I doubt the Mexican military is a match for even one US carrier group, the political reality is that it just is not going to happen.  

  • Mario

    Dave.  It is surely a reality that the Cartel enterprises have a stronghold on local and federal Government, and that Mexico is also a trading partner to both U.S. and Canada, so any action or initiatives would have to be planned quite carefuly.
    I would suggest either a consortium of professionals, federal politicians and military brass participation from all 3 sources and open a dialogue with the goal to remove the cartel presence from their backyard with a permanent ending.  If a level of guarantee if placed on the table perhaps Mexico’s leadership may be open to plan and efforts offered by their trading partners and the one with the most military weight and resources, the U.S..  I would even believe in a joint task force comprised of U.S. Canadian and Mexican numbers, working together, just to remove any negative tempers or arguments from the Mexican Government feeling exempt or blocked out. 

  • Sonarco

    I am not a full believer on conspiracy theories and other extra-official elaborated schemes in national security matters in particular and geo-politics in general. However, there is an evident level of skepticism rises by AM’s commentary as well as by the readers in regards to that desired and necessary motion for an official action plan initiatiave to combat the cartels. For instance, one must noticed the quite radical difference in the intel approach by the pertinent intel agencies, LE organizations and military components on assessing, analizing, infiltrating, extracting and stricking terrorist organizations and the “traditional” intel approach putting in motin against the cartels. This consideration must go along the political agenda and resources allocation


    It’s very difficult to remove an enemy within when the threats are real and aganist your family members. Once inside, it’s them or you that will be taken out.