Small Wars Journal

Well, They're Not About Taking Over the Government

A few years ago Latin American specialists began warning the defense community at large that the Mexican cartels constituted an insurgency in the actual sense, though one that was strategically different from the ideologically-inspired ones with which we are all familiar. By now, the weakness of the oft-repeated response that "Well, they're not about taking over the government" ought to be plain. Sure they are. The pattern of cartel corruption of local governments in some areas of Mexico makes that plain. They just care about influence and compliance with their wishes, not about traffic law and picking up the garbage at the curb.

Some still think this is only about crime. It is not. Considering the full scope of criminality and terrorism in today's world, on a spectrum ranging from the local gangs inside the United States to the confluence of the cartels, international terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and criminal states like Iran and Venezuela -- there are others -- it seems obvious that what we're seeing is a new wrinkle in warfare itself, consisting of the blending of the huge resources of the black economy (estimated at a fifth or more of the world's GDP) with transnational state and criminal organizations that wage economic, cyber and kinetic warfare outside the bounds of what we have come to think of as "established" rules of warfare.

One ominous and imminent development along this line is the recent move by Iran to collude with the Mexican cartels -- the Zetas, specifically -- to strike targets inside the United States. Given the ongoing issue of Iranian nukes, international sanctions (which will not come fully on line until the summer), Israeli pressure to strike and the covert war inside Iran itself that includes the assassination of four nuclear scientists, the probability of an Iranian terror campaign inside the United States cannot be discounted. There are operational and strategic issues involved in the potential Iranian strategy and the US response that have not been fully -- or even partially -- discussed. Thanks partially to 9/11, we are much better prepared now to deal tactically with events -- remember that when the Quds representative reached out to the Zetas, he hit a DEA informant instead -- but thus far we are only playing defense.

On a larger canvas -- if a "larger canvas" can be found than dealing with attacks inside the US against our government & people -- is the whole issue about the conduct of war in the 21st century. We now have "criminal" nation-states that collude with existing transnational criminal and terrorist groups to make money, corrupt international financial systems and attack other states, all the while maintaining the rights & privileges of traditional states. We have these transnational groups that themselves attack states -- as the Mexican cartels are doing in Mexico, throughout Central America and along the Andean Ridge and we have the international, state-sponsored terrorist groups like Hamas, AQ and Hezbollah. All of these organizations are attacking, in one form or another, legitimate states and their populations. In many ways, Russia is very nearly, if not already, such a criminal state.

Their transnational nature means that they maintain viable "rat lines" across borders around the world, along which they move drugs, traffic in human beings (who are either voluntary refugees or slaves [ see the sex trade out of the Balkans]), arms or money, which moves through the international banking system, including US banks. Eventually, nuclear materiel, either finished weapons or otherwise, will move in those channels as well. And, I might add, one criminal state -- Iran -- is also developing IRBMs and shorter-range missiles at a good clip.

Defense specialists would so well to remember a quote from a nineteenth-century European general who complained about Napoleon that he never fought war according to the rules. We have even a more abrupt shift before us, which I believe is the decay of the old international "way of war" and the emergence of ... something else. What are we going to do about it?


Robert C. Jones

Sun, 04/01/2012 - 11:39am

In reply to by Sthsde1


Excellent post. Spot on assessment and recommendations from where I stand.

I will agree with Bob Killebrew to the point that the growing strength and impact of these criminal organizaitons on the politics and governnce of Mexico is something the US needs to not take lightly, but it must be appreciated for what it is: Crime. Profit-driven crime that feeds on the US Market for illegal drugs.

The part of that eqaution that rests fully within the sovereign control of the US government is the market for illegal drugs. I have heard talk that both parties see much more liberal legalization programs as both necessary and also as a "third rail" that is certain death for a candidate to touch upon during the election process. I expect regardless of who claims the White House, there will be some action on this topic over the next couple of years.

Not much one can do on the Mexican side. It's not like Mexico isn't trying, there is simply too much US money funding this operation for it to go away. George Friedman discussed this in his "The Next Decade," and I forget the exact numbers, but as I recall the actual take home profit from the Mexico-US drug trade far exceeds the take home profit from all other US-Mexico trade combined. That is a Golden Cow no amount of CT or COIN can kill. I suspect even the Mexican government is willing to give up a little sovereignty to the cartel bosses to keep this cash flowing.



Sun, 04/01/2012 - 11:09am

I would urge caution before likening the Mexican Drug Cartels to insurgencies, as the words that we use to identify these organizations often dictate the ways and means that we use to defeat them. Joint doctrine defines an insurgency as an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict (JP 1-02). Political power is the central issue in an insurgency, and each side has this as its aim. The insurgent attempts to overthrow or subvert an established government or authority; the counterinsurgent uses all of the instruments of national power to support the government in restoring and enforcing the rule of law. Counterinsurgency thus involves the controlled application of national power in political, information, economic, social, military, and diplomatic fields and disciplines. Its scale and complexity should never be underestimated by leaders and planners; indeed, the possible scale and complexity must be understood before the beginning of any such operation (FM 3-24). So, while Mexican Drug Cartels and insurgencies are not mutually exclusive entities, the outstanding issue that invalidates the premise that they are synonomous is that the cartel's primary objective is not political change or the attainment of political power. That is simply a way in which they leverage the power of their criminal enterprise in the pursuit of money (their actual end state). For example, would it be accurate to call the five families of New York insurgencies? Did they seek to supplant the United States government with a model more suitable to their own interests? The answer is 'NO'. These were criminal organizations started in 1931 with the intent attain money via criminal enterprise. Did they have international and global reach? Yes. Did they utilize the corruption of government and judicial officials to operate their criminal enterprise unhindered? Yes, they are 'CRIMINALS'. The US government did not use the military to defeat the mafia's vast criminal network in the 20th century. It remained within the domain of the Department of Justice and still does to this day. Finally, let's put to rest the notion that criminal and terrorist organizations will work in concert with each other because there happen to be overlapping cross-sections between criminal networks and terrorist networks. What would prompt Mexican drug cartels to facilitate the transportation of nuclear material through pre-established rat-lines into the US? It isn't money. They already acquire vast sums of money through the drug trade. Why would they risk supporting an action that would almost certainly invoke the wrath of the US government and bring undue attention to their already profitable enterprise. The answer is they wouldn't. Do they share a cultural or religious affinity for one another? No, in fact, 82.7% of Mexico is Roman Catholic, a religion despised by Islamic Jihadists(Censo Nacional de Población y Vivienda 2000). Ultimately, there is no short answer or 'silver bullet' to eliminating the Mexican Drug Cartels. However, the one thing that we should not do is misidentify the nature of the problem, which will only serve to further hinder our ability to mitigate their damage through our foreign policy choices.

Major Jay Bush
US Army Special Forces
Command and General Staff College

Kan Jong-Il

Mon, 03/12/2012 - 5:56pm

First, the Iran-Los Zetas connection was found to be totally bogus: "At some point (the indictment does not say), Arbabsiar met a man he took for a member of the Zetas cartel, who turned out to be a Drug Enforcement Administration informant. The two then met numerous times in Reynosa, according to an ABC news account, where they hatched a plan to kill the Saudi Ambassador to Washington DC for a fee of $1.5 million." URL:…

With the author's assessment of conditions in Mexico and some countries of Central America, one is forced to wonder what is NOT an insurgency. If anything that challenges the authority and legitimacy of a government is an insurgency, this would include such events as protests, riots and simple vandalism.

There have certainly been contacts among Hebollah, AQ, Hamas and criminal groups. Such contacts are more transactional than operational.

Clearly, transnational organized crime is a security threat, but to conflate it with an insurgency is conceptual folly.


Mon, 03/12/2012 - 1:18am

In reply to by Bill M.

I'm not sure that "state capture" is the right term, as criminal organizations are typically not trying to control the state, but to render it unable to interfere with their business. State neutralization more than state capture.

I should perhaps say that my reluctance to classify the cartels as insurgency is not meant to suggest that they aren't a problem or a threat. There are many kinds of problems and threats out there; insurgency is just one. Collusion among criminal organizations, rogue states, and non-state groups is a problem... it just isn't insurgency. If we try to stick it in the insurgency basket and apply remedies on that basis, we'll do ourselves no favors.

Bill M.

Sun, 03/11/2012 - 10:48pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

While I agree with the overall claim that criminal groups today present a much more serious threat for a number of reasons, to include the confluence of crime, terrorism and states, the article does seem to be written with a Nagle like agenda to further promote our COIN doctrine. The sooner that doctrine dies the better, but some will continue to grasp at straws to keep it alive.

The confluence of states and terror are not new. Iran, Syria, Libya, North Korea and others have sponsored non-state terrorist groups to further aid their coercive diplomacy goals. I suspect states have leveraged criminal organizations to help achieve goals also. The U.S. used the mafia during WWII to help secure Italy, and again in the 60s in an attempt to kill Castro. So you have every righ to ask what's new then?

The scale and transnational reach is new. Due to the rapid growth of transnational trade (globalism) and up to 15% of the global market being illicit that equates to billions (if not a trillion) of dollars available to these illicit organizations. This isn't bribing a local street cop or judge with a couple hundred of dollars anymore, but the ability to bribe the highest level officials, the ability to buy and arm more capable foot soldiers than many states can counter, and so forth. It isn't just the Mexican cartels, we have the infamous Indian crime lord Dawood Ibraham that also supports terrorism with his vast wealth. His D-Co is tied into almost all forms of illicit activity.

Africa is facing growing problems from "transnational crime", so now the people no longer just have to worry about their own governments, but the criminal organizations that own them. It is often referred to as state capture (versus insurgency), because as the author stated they don't want to control all state functions, but they do want to control the state functions that will impact their business.


Quote: Peter Gastrow, the author of the report titled “Termites at Work: Transnational Organised Crime and State Erosion in Kenya”, says that rampant corruption within the Police Force, the Judiciary and other State institutions has allowed criminals to penetrate political institutions.

Powerful criminal networks with links to Parliament currently pose a big threat to the creation of laws, policies and regulations that could help curb money laundering and drug trafficking.

Governments that lack the capacity or the political will to counter such penetration, he says, run the risk of becoming “captured states” – that is, states whose government structures have become captives of uncontrolled corruption. Unquote

I can't validate this particular source on W. Africa, but know from many other sources that the Latin American Cartels have successfully penetrated W. Africa (state capture), and then push their drugs north with AQIM's assistance, so it is no exaggeration that criminals and terrorists are merging where there are joint opportunities.…

Guinea Bissau has been labeled the first narco-state by some authorities, see this excellent four page report.…

I agree the author didn't make much of a case for calling the criminal activity in Mexico insurgency, but then again the military's tunnel vision on insurgency is self-limiting and ignores a number of other very real security problems in the world. The Army, and I suspect the other services, tend to think all forms of irregular warfare will conform to their COIN doctrine. They won't.

Dayuhan I sadly have to agree with your last two sentences.

I have to wonder how "insurgency in the actual sense" would be defined. I see nothing here that leads to the conclusion that the Mexican cartels represent an insurgency.

Bribing officials and gaining political influence doesn't turn a criminal organization into an insurgency. That's standard practice for criminal organizations. I don't see why connection to rogue states or terrorist groups would somehow transform a criminal organization into an insurgency either, nor do I see why a criminal cartel would have any incentive to aid an attack that would earn it no money and would increase pressure on its profit-making businesses.

The great danger in classifying the cartels as "insurgency" is that some bright person will inevitably assume that the answer is to have the Mexicans "do COIN" under our tutelage... and if (when) that fails, to do it ourselves. There are real questions over whether COIN tactics are effective even against insurgencies, and there's little or no reason to think they'd be effective against criminals.

This seems IMO a bit hysterical, and the near-simultaneous invocation of cartels, Hezbollah, Iran, Hamas, AQ, nukes, Russia etc seems aimed at looking outward - and everywhere - for a solution that is a direct consequence of US domestic policy. This is not about a situation in Mexico threatening US security, it's about a situation in the US threatening Mexican security, and subsequently US security as well. The problem starts, and can only end, inside the US, with control of drug demand.