Most of my regular readers know my professional background, and why I write about the drug war in Mexico the way that I do. But for those of you who would like to know more about how I reach my conclusions, I want to use this post to talk a bit about intelligence analysis and the process I used to write Cartel.
For eight years, I was a Special Agent for the Air Force. I worked criminal investigations, counterintelligence, and counterespionage operations for most of that time. But during the last two and a half years of my time on active duty, I worked as a force protection, or counterterrorism, analyst. This is where I first learned how to take hundreds of bits of information, throw out the garbage and keep the useful nuggets, and make sense of those in a written product. Some of the people who read my work were experts on Latin America, and others were high-ranking commanders who needed to know just the most basic information in a concise fashion. More importantly, they all needed to know what everything meant.
When I went to work for the State of California and started focusing on Mexico and the drug war, it was almost an identical situation. Middle- to executive-level management in the then-Office of Homeland Security and Governor's Office wanted up-to-date, key information about the border situation, and what it meant for California's overall security. I did this by pulling, over the course of four years, hundreds - if not thousands - of federal government reports, law enforcement reports, and open source/media reports. I had to take all this information - some of which was contradictory - and try to figure out ultimately what it meant for California.
There are generally two types of intelligence analysis - tactical and strategic. Tactical intelligence is short-term, on-the-ground information that is used and digested within a very short period of time. Typically, it's used by law enforcement agencies in operations that go after the bad guys. An example of tactical intelligence is where suspected drug traffickers are going to be making a deal at a particular time. That information is acquired on-the-ground from confidential sources, and used within a short period of time by police who want to plan a raid. It's what many in the intelligence community refer to as the view from 1,000 feet.
Strategic intelligence is the "big picture" stuff - the view from 30,000 feet. Information is collected about a subject over a longer period of time, and deeper meaning is extracted from it. More importantly, analysts use the information to detect trends and try to predict what's going to happen in the short term and the long term. We use words like probably, likely and unlikely, and could and would a lot; sometimes that drives people nuts, but it's not an exact science and involves a lot of informed speculation. This is what I've done over the past six years, and what I continue to do now.
Typical intelligence analysts who do this type of work are employed by the military, the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, DHS, and almost any other major US government agency with a stake in national security. They're also employed by state fusion centers and local law enforcement agencies. Strategic analysts normally don't spend much time in the field outside from occasional familiarization trips. The analysts who work for those agencies I just mentioned and look at Mexico, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, China, etc. usually work from the Washington DC area. There are definitely analysts who work in-country, but in many instances, that's not feasible for diplomatic or security reasons - like Syria or Iran.
It also isn't typically part of a strategic analyst's job description. For this blog and for Cartel, I rely(ied) heavily on information from hundreds of sources who are on the ground: journalists in Mexico and along the border; academics at both US and Mexican universities; law enforcement officers and agents in every type of agency there is along the border and beyond; press reports from outlets of every political bias imaginable; and personal accounts from Mexicans living on both sides of the border. I then sort out all those reports, pick the ones I feel are the most solid, reliable, and significant, and explain to you what I believe the latest narco arrest means, or why violence is increasing in certain parts of Mexico.
There are some really amazing books out there written by journalists who have spent a considerable amount of time in Mexico and on the border. I've certainly enjoyed reading them, as well as more academic works by professors and researchers who have been examining Mexican history and politics for decades. I didn't write Cartel from either perspective, which is why I think it's unique. After spending over six years watching and studying almost every major move made by the TCOs, the Mexican government, and US agencies in Washington DC and along the border, I have a good idea of what it all means at the strategic level, and what it's going to mean a year (or five) down the road. Better yet, I have a conduit for sharing my ideas about the drug war with you, and with future readers of Cartel.
This has always been my goal for this blog, and is my goal with Cartel - to use my experience as an analyst and the methodology of strategic intelligence analysis to make sense of the drug war for people who only hear bits and pieces, and don't know what it all means. Of course, not everyone agrees with my conclusions or methods. But that's the beauty of a community of analysts and journalists and academics who follow the drug war! Most of us have at least heard of each other, and many of us regularly share information back and forth to maximize analytical possibilities. I've had some of the best learning experiences through exchanges with people who disagree 100% with what I write. The ultimate benefit is that more people are exposed to the complex tragedy that is the drug war in Mexico.