The image bears a striking resemblance to a scene from Denis Villeneuve’s thriller Sicario. Two vans with tinted-glass windows cruise through the busy streets of a Mexican city, followed closely by a federal police pickup. Two armed officers in full combat gear stand in the cargo area, watching over the convoy.
The passengers inside the vans, however, are not undercover CIA operatives, but a group of Canadian students from the University of Toronto (UofT), on their way to a meeting at the Federal Police’ Tactical Operations Center in Iztapalapa, Mexico City’s most populous borough.
Last month, UofT sent ten criminology students to Mexico City to learn about the intricacies of Mexico’s organized crime conflict. Over ten days, the Canadian students met with Mexican academics, human rights activist, former directors of national intelligence, law enforcement agents, Canadian diplomats involved in bilateral security cooperation and other experts on Mexico’s organized crime challenges. Throughout the meetings, participants often brought up a straightforward question: Why should Canada care about the Mexican cartels?
The election of Donald Trump has produced an unexpected transformation in the structure of Canada’s relationship with Mexico. For the first time in 23 years, authorities in Ottawa and Mexico City cannot rely on the leadership of the U.S. to act as a bridge between the two countries and set the path for future cooperation.
Ever since the U.S. presidential election, Canadian authorities have worked to reassure stakeholders that Canada will not neglect its relationship with Mexico. However, if the current U.S. administration turns its back on its southern neighbour, Canada may be compelled to rethink its relationship with Mexico, including in the sphere of cooperation on security-related issues.
Canada has a vested interest in the political and economic stability of Mexico. According to the Canadian government international’s gateway, “Canada and Mexico are each other’s third largest trading partner, with two-way merchandise trade reaching over $37.8 billion in 2015. Canadian direct investment in Mexico reached over $14.8 billion in 2015, while Mexican direct investment in Canada totaled $1.4 billion.”
Several well-known Canadian firms such as Scotiabank, Bombardier and Blackberry have significant investments in Mexico. However, the stakes of these companies in Mexico pale in comparison to those of Canadian mining firms. According to Deloitte “of the total foreign mining businesses in Mexico, 73 per cent are Canadian, representing 44 per cent of Canada’s total investment in the country.”
These companies are particularly vulnerable to Mexican cartels which have metamorphosed from drug trafficking organizations into sophisticated protection rackets. Canadian firms’ extraction and transportation of minerals in Mexico often take place deep within rural cartel strongholds where crime syndicates tax businesses for the right to operate, often in complicity with local authorities.
View of Canadian Goldcorp-owned gold mine at the Los Filos complex in Carrizalillo, Guerrero State, Mexico, on Nov.19, 2015. (Photo:PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)
From a broader perspective, the Mexican cartels also present a greater menace to security and stability through North America. A simple theorem seemingly ignored by Trump acolytes is that political and economic turmoil in a country tends to spill over into its neighbours.
Dr. Monica Serrano, an expert on security at El Colegio de Mexico, a Mexico City research institution, explains “some problems are intermestic by nature, they are of both international and domestic concern. Countries affected by these issues should have a say in the formulation of strategies meant to address them.”
The rise of Mexican cartels can have ramifications in Canada that exceed drug-related problems commonly associated with them. Cartel activities can have a direct impact on immigration, human trafficking, money laundering and cybercrime in Canada.
In fact, one of the most important areas of cooperation between the RCMP and Mexico’s Federal Police comprises crimes involving online sexual exploitation of children.
Over the past ten years, Mexico has been flooded with illegal weapons smuggled from the U.S.
The cartels also pose a direct threat to the safety of 1.9 million Canadians who visit Mexico every year. Last January, cartel gunmen opened fire at a music festival in Playa del Carmen organized by Torontonians Philip Pulitano and Craig Pettigrew. Five people died in the attack including Canadian bouncer Kirk Wilson. Apparently, the attack happened in retaliation for organizers’ refusal to pay protection money to Los Zetas, one of Mexico’s most brutal cartels.
By observing the impact of organized crime in the Mexico-U.S. border, Canada can also anticipate and come up with solutions for problems at its own border with its Southern neighbor. The evolution of illegal gun trade clearly illustrates this argument.
Over the past ten years, Mexico has been flooded with illegal weapons smuggled from the U.S. The demand for arms by crime syndicates in Mexico, where gun laws make the legal purchase of weapons extremely complicated, has undeniably fueled this trade.
Canada faces a similar problem, albeit, at a much lower scale. In 2005, 70 percent of guns used in homicides in Toronto were automatic weapons smuggled from the US. According to the Canadian Border Services Agency, Canada has experienced a continued increase in gun seizures.
While the number of guns seized by Canadian agents, 316 in 2015, does not compare to the 40,000 weapons seized in Mexico between December 2012 and July 2016, an increase in the demand for firearms in Canada could drive-up gun smuggling through its 5,526-mile Southern border.
Hundreds of firearms are displayed before being destroyed at the Morelos military headquarters in Tijuana, Mexico, on August 12, 2016. (Photo: Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images)
Ultimately, Canadian authorities consider that a long-term solution to Mexico’s organized crime problems requires a significant transformation of the country’s legal institutions. Unlike the militaristic approach of the U.S. to combating the Mexican cartels, Canada has invested in the strengthening of Mexico’s criminal justice system, through initiatives such as the Anti-Crime Capacity Building Program.
The success of this type of projects, however, relies on a strong commitment to cooperation from both countries. As Annie Chen, a fourth-year Criminology student at UofT explains: “The increasingly interdependent and globalized international system favors collaboration, and countries that isolate themselves will suffer politically and economically. Canada cannot afford to ignore pressing security issues in Mexico.”