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Column 072709 Sullivan and Elkus


Monday, July 27, 2009

Mexican Crime Families: Political Aims and Social Plans

By John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus

The recent wave of violence in Michoacán is blood proof: Mexico is currently battling a series of interlocking criminal insurgencies. This stark reality challenges the orthodox definitions held by traditional area specialists to whom drug violence is merely a low-level nuisance, and to counterinsurgency specialists who fail to see the evolving political aims of the drug gangs.

Both views are too narrow to capture the novelty of the high-intensity crime and bloodshed that has plagued Mexico for the past three years. While the present violence may not match up to the Maoist template of popular war that many identify with a traditional insurgency, the ever-increasing beheadings, torture, mass graves, and bullet-ridden bodies of civilians, police, and soldiers speak otherwise.

In December 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón accelerated efforts to clamp down on the country’s powerful drug cartels. Unlike other previous cautious and localized attempts, Calderón – recognizing the threats to Mexico’s democratic institutions – decided to go all the way. He deployed the Mexican military in a series of massive raids against cartel safe houses, sending both federal police and Special Forces commandos into battle.

The cartels, though waging wars among themselves, decided to strike back.

They have engaged in a war of attrition against the Mexican government, killing low-ranking officers and high-ranking federal officials alike. Psychological operations and bribery have also been used to induce military and police to desert their posts and reap the benefits of cartel patronage. The goal? Force the Mexican government to cease its crackdown and let the cartels influence the political arena so they can move their drugs in peace.

The early July cartel counterattacks in Michoacán signal a new phase in the conflict.  La Familia Michoacana initiated coordinated attacks against ten cities.  At least 19 security officials (police and soldiers) were killed in La Familia’s counterattack.  The cartel’s actions included six near-simultaneous assaults of federal police stations; a pair of cartel commando raids by nearly 50 gunmen armed with assault rifles and grenades signaled the gang’s resolve.  This action was followed by the torture and assassination of 12 off-duty police intelligence agents – a brutal attack that was allegedly carried out by municipal police.  The federal government responded by surging nearly 5,000 security forces into the state. Michoacán’s governor, Leonel Godoy Rangel, objected, calling the action a federal “occupation.”  (Goday’s half-brother, elected to the lower house of Congress earlier this month, is allegedly a ranking member of La Familia.)

Unlike Pablo Escobar’s Colombian reign of terror in the 1990s, the Mexican cartels are engaged in serious insurgent campaigns.  Armed with military infantry weapons, their gunmen use complex small-unit tactics that differ from the usual “pray and spray” methods beloved by criminals. Cartels run training camps for assassins on the border. They attempt to agitate the populace against the Mexican military through political subversion. And they control towns and neighborhoods that the military tries to retake through force.

Mexico’s cartels are evolving distinct political aims.  La Familia is exemplary in this regard.  Using social services and infrastructure protection as levers in rural areas and small towns, they are building a social base.  In urban areas, they are funding political patron-client relationships to extend their reach.  Reinforced by corruption, propaganda, political marches and demonstrations, as well as social media such as “narcocorridos,” such activity helps to shape the future conflict.

Like Vietnam and Afghanistan, these insurgencies have a cross-border element. The insurgents move guns from the United States in “ant trails” (small smuggling teams), benefit from the corruption of some US border patrol officials, and ultimately finance their operations through the drug trade. The insurgencies’ center of gravity is the “market” which translates to the need for control of the “plazas,” a complex patchwork of lucrative drug-smuggling routes in northern Mexico. It is this region that is the most lawless and violent. The government has “surged” forces to the border to try to destroy the cartel networks, but violence and drug smuggling continue with outbreaks of violence elsewhere along the narco-pipeline.

Military forces have been effective only in the short-term.  After initial success in stabilizing violence in the “plazas” of Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, violence has steadily increased.  The military can set the stage for security, but sustaining it requires civil police. Unfortunately many of Mexico’s local police forces are mostly either corrupt or unfit for duty against the heavily armed cartels. Heavy-handed military actions have alienated ordinary Mexicans and allegations of military brutality and torture erode the rule of law. Additionally, the longer the military involves itself in policing operations the further the likelihood of cartel penetration. There are already indications that lower-level units are being drawn into cartel disputes as paid enforcers.

The cartels themselves are far from unified. Each cartel wages its own separate war against the government – and their rivals. But as Steven Metz, of the Army War College, noted in his US Army War College monograph “Rethinking Insurgency,” Mexico’s fragmented, drug-fueled warfare may be a harbinger of future conflict waged by what John Robb calls “global guerrillas.”  All insurgencies are not unified, mass ideological or religious projects to overthrow governments. Instead, they are also likely to be small, messy, increasingly networked, and fractured affairs fought over resources, the ability to operate with impunity, and drug money.

The cartel’s emerging political attributes and social base – which can be transmitted through client political organizations (which exist in both Mexico and the US), make Mexico’s drug war more than a simple criminal gang issue. Social banditry beyond simple brigandage is a distinct potential – indeed recent developments reinforce the "criminal insurgency" attributes of the current and evolving Mexican security situation.  Law enforcement and security are only one component of limiting the reach and influence of the cartels and criminal gangs.  Effective community institutions and social programs are needed to provide opportunity and reinforce government legitimacy.  Security and human services must be linked at the community level.

The danger to the US lies in the potential spillover effects that the violence may create. So far the violence has been largely contained south of the border. But if the violent competition for the “plazas” continues to ratchet up, border regions on Mexico’s northern and southern frontiers may be caught in the line of fire.

As we write, Mexican drug trafficking organizations are extending their reach throughout Latin America, and gang-related violence is on the rise in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Belize.  Even if the drug war does not come north, the US should seriously contemplate the impact throughout the Western Hemisphere as transnational gangs and cartels extend their reach and undermine sovereignty and the rule of law in multiple states. 

The potential of a neighbor feudalized into a “hollow” state where governments issue decrees but cartel guns negate the weight of law, and “parallel criminal principalities” maintain effective control, demands multilateral regional action.  We must support Mexico as it seeks to combat the gangs, regain stability, and rebuild institutions that sustain stable communities, the rule of law, and growth of democratic institutions.


John P. Sullivan is a career police officer. He currently serves as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department where he is assigned to the Emergency Operations Bureau. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism (CAST). His research focuses on counterinsurgency, intelligence, terrorism, transnational gangs, and urban operations. He is coeditor of Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a Global Counter-Terrorism Network (Routledge, 2006).

Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security. He is currently Associate Editor at Red Team Journal. His articles have been published in Red Team Journal, Small Wars Journal and other publications. Mr. Elkus blogs at Rethinking Security, Dreaming 5GW, and The Huffington Post. He is currently a contributor to the Center for Threat Awareness’ ThreatsWatch project.