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Mexico: A Mosaic Cartel War

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Mexico: A Mosaic Cartel War


by Paul Rexton Kan

Download the Full Article: Mexico: A Mosaic Cartel War

A situation of high-intensity crime does not mean that a war is not occurring in Mexico. But it is a war of a different kind. In fact, there are several conflicts occurring at once that blend into each other. There is the conflict of cartels among each other, the conflict within cartels, cartels against the Mexican state, cartels and gangs against the Mexican people and gangs versus gangs. When combined, they form a mosaic cartel war that creates an atmosphere "somewhere between Al Capone's Chicago and an outright war". It is not an irregular or regular war; neither is it a small war nor a general war, nor a limited war, nor a total war, nor any of the familiar appellations given to armed conflicts fought by conventional militaries. And, finally it is not "a war about nothing." It is a multidimensional, multiparty and multi-location armed conflict fought among criminal groups over what are essentially criminal goals; the groups are resisted by the state while their goals are rejected by it, making the state a party to the conflict.

Download the Full Article: Mexico: A Mosaic Cartel War

Paul Rexton Kan is currently an Associate Professor of National Security Studies and the Henry L. Stimson Chair of Military Studies at the US Army War College. He is also the author of the book Drugs and Contemporary Warfare (Potomac Books 2009) and was recently the Visiting Senior Counternarcotics Advisor for CJIATF-Shafafiyat (Transparency) at ISAF Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. He recently completed field research along the US-Mexico border for his forthcoming book, Cartels at War: Mexico's Drug Fueled Violence and the Threat to US National Security (Potomac Books).


Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)


Outlaw 09

Tue, 12/03/2013 - 3:07pm

This article is great reread of something that is timely and so to the point especially in light of the RPG 29s that are in the hands of the cartels and their abilities to purchase 60M US in the most current of comms and comms monitoring equipment when we cannot even stop the flow of ultra lights.

Mexican TCOs are currently kind of like an AFG on steroids-COIN simply will not work and unless the US is willing to totally decriminalize all drugs thus taking the profit out of the drug trade nothing will work---even if the TCOs no longer push drugs north they control literally the economy of Mexico via their extortion business.

motorfirebox (not verified)

Fri, 06/24/2011 - 12:31pm

It's sorta a start. In Paul's case he's leaned so far right he's spun completely around and gone a little left--the bill is intended to move the legalization/decriminalization issue down to the states.

I did like this quote by the Office of National Drug Control Policy: "The facts are that marijuana potency has tripled in the past 20 years and teens are using the drug at earlier ages." MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!

slapout9 (not verified)

Fri, 06/24/2011 - 8:57am

Congressman Ron Paul and Senator Barney Frank just introduced legislation to legalize marijuana(have not read the bill yet so I don't know details). Probably want go anywhere but the trend is towards that direction IMO.

John (not verified)

Fri, 06/24/2011 - 4:27am

motorfirebox, I hope not as well.

motorfirebox (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 11:56pm

"But a couple of IED's well I think the American people will call for action."

God, I hope not. There will be no fixing anything, then.

I wrote long and intelligent text, pressed send and my computer at work crashed. Ho hum. But to try again, the main point is to take the moneyflow where it emerges in the gray to white zone. Make certain channels not kosher, and super-arrest some white collar people now and then. I do not accept the premise that we are not "allowed to go" in certain areas, thats just wrong.

On decrim., there are some European models that are quite effective, channeling the money for the heroin/opiate folks into treatment, while giving subutex etc. Demands a communal healthcare, though, wich you folks aint got. In Oslo we have a communal shoting gallery, cause its a disease, not a crime really. With nurses in case of OD. On weed, its more of a cost benefit, but punishment should be light, not heavy, seriously. Its less bad than liqour.

slapout9 (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 4:26pm

Here is a great line from "No Coutry For Old Men" one of the best drug/criminal movies I have seen......." If the Rule you followed brought you to this.....of what use is the rule?"

John (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 3:56pm

Mexico is a failing state and a war exists and has for several years. What type of war, there are several different kinds it can fit into. What are the reasons? As many as a feild of grass has blades. What can be done? Short of intervention. The ATF and media can stop lying about where they get their weapons. We can and should track the money and grab it when we can. And we can hold the line at the border. I think Americans will think differently when we have an IED on the US side. Murders are already happening, mostly to cartel members on our side of the border. But a couple of IED's well I think the American people will call for action.

Paul Rexton Kan (not verified)

Thu, 06/23/2011 - 3:31pm

Hi, Fnord,

Tracing drug money is exceptionally difficult for precisely the reason you identified--there's so much of it. There's a great line by a fictional detective in the TV series "The Wire": "If you follow the drugs, it'll just take you to one of two places--the user or the dealer. If you follow the money, it'll take you to all sorts of places you probably don't want to go." A few years ago, Colombian authorities discovered that the national drug store chain--Drogas de Rebajo--was owned by a cartel member. It would be the equivalent of finding out that all the RiteAids in the US were owned by the mob. Colombia still had trouble finding all the profits related to that scheme.

Decriminalization is also a complex issue. Again, I think there is room for discussion and debate. It may be worth keeping in mind that decriminalization may create more use and, with supply being illegal, the price will still create societal costs such as criminal acts to support an addict's habit. By one estimate, a heroin user commits 200 crimes a year in order to supply his or her habit. According to another study, meth abusers regularly commit identity theft to acquire funds to pay for their addiction. I'm certainly not making the argument that addicts or recreational users all need to be chucked in jail, but the second and third order effects of decriminalization should also be considered.

Okay, thank God caffeine is legal. I need my afternoon boost.


On the topic of the war in Mexico, I always wonder to what extent there are serious military efforts to track drug-money. Its not rocketscience, money flows and is always traceable, especially in the lump sums that Afghanistan/Colombia/Laos must generate. I know its Tom Clancy, but a really sharp JAG dep. focused on that would be real telegenic, and cost like half a wing of a F-35.

On the subject of decriminalization: Do a cost benefit analysis, how many kids are rotting on 10 year sentences for two pounds of weed in your good ole USA? How much does that cost the state and the system? I rest my case. Its just plain stupid, if the hippys want to giggle instead of drink, so?

Paul Rexton Kan (not verified)

Tue, 06/21/2011 - 6:05pm

The Man from UNCLE is very cool. This leads me to something completely unrelated to our discussion--which TV crime/spy show had/has the best theme music?

My vote is Hawaii Five-0.


slapout9 (not verified)

Mon, 06/20/2011 - 1:47pm

At the risk of sounding like a broken record. Stop thinking about fighting Countries and recognize you are fighting a system. We are fighting a Trans-National Organization. That requires a Counter Trans-National law Enforcement Organization. But I would not hold my breath that it will come about. We need the Man from U.N.C.L.E. The first world wide law enforcement agency.

motorefirebox (not verified)

Sun, 06/19/2011 - 12:56pm

Yeah, the war on drugs has exacerbated the cartel issue into a problem that our great-grandchildren will have to deal with. It's really prohibition all over again, only the violence in this case is largely exported, making a change of heart like the one after the Valentine's Day Massacre less likely.

The rise of violence with regards to illegality of supply has, I think, a lot to do with demand and a lot to do with how illegal the supply is. Legality/illegality isn't really a binary division; as I said, drugs and drug use are still illegal in Portugal, it's just that they're not prosecuted in the same way we prosecute them. The same principle can be applied to supply. We can make it illegal to grow marijuana but stop short of paying local police stations extra money for making pot busts, for instance. To some degree, reducing violence related to illegal substances means reducing the prosecution of illegal substance production/sales/abuse--if we stop paying cops to make pot busts, there will be fewer pot busts but probably no fewer pot growers.

Paul Rexton Kan (not verified)

Sun, 06/19/2011 - 8:51am

The decriminalization and legalization issue is a fascinating one; I could talk about it all day (as some of my poor students have discovered).

The Cato Institute had an interesting report on Portugal's decriminalization--the findings were that usage didn't change and the fear of "drug tourists" showing up in throngs in Lisbon didn't materialize. I don't remember if the report included anything on how much money the government is saving by focusing on treatment over incarceration. On the other end of the spectrum, The Netherlands and Sweden have recently tightened their drug use laws.

I think the link (if any) that drug control policy has to reducing the power of Mexican cartels is the more specific issue. RAND did a study looking at how legalization of marijuana in California would affect the cartels. The findings were surprising. Although it is estimated that 70% of cartel profits come from trafficking pot, eliminating this profit would likely create MORE violence in the short term as cartel "employees" who were let go would likely fight over diminishing spoils. Additionally, the main issue of contention amongst the cartels is territory in the form of smuggling routes (plazas) into the US rather than fighting over product. (Of course, there are also turf battles over ports that receive Colombian cocaine and precursor chemicals and retail markets in places like Acapulco.) The RAND study also recognized that members of cartels and gangs are not exactly prime examples of long-term, rational strategic thinkers.

Another question that I have is whether the existence of an illegal market necessarily means violence will follow. Mexico (and Canada) have helped supply Americans insatiable appetite for illicit substances, yet the violence in Mexico has spiked in the early 1990s and now in the 2000s. Is it possible to lower the levels of violence while still keeping drug supply illegal? I don't know.

More questions on a Sunday morning as the coffee brews.

Thanks again for the discussion,


motorefirebox (not verified)

Sun, 06/19/2011 - 12:36am

Crap, forgot to fill in the fields. The above was me.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 06/18/2011 - 11:44pm

Well, hold up a sec. Like I said, decriminalization and legalization are different things. There are some wacky hippies seriously crusading for legalization--the actual writing into law that the substances are legal--but it's not a serious movement, possibly because people recognize it's just not all that likely to happen.

What is more popular is decriminalization. The best available model for this is Portugal, which decriminalized drug use in 2001. Drug use is still illegal, it's still against the law, and if you get caught doing it you'll be arrested. But you won't go to jail. You'll be brought before a council that will either let you go with a warning, make you pay a small fine, or ask (or possibly mandate, not sure) that you complete a rehab program.

Drug traffickers and dealers are still subject to fines and jail times, though I believe those punishments are significantly less than sentences for equivalent crimes in the states.

And decriminalizing or even legalization isn't necessarily an across-the-board measure. Say we jump in with both feet and legalize marijuana on terms similar to alcohol. That doesn't mean we would also legalize, or even decriminalize, cocaine use.

I'm trying to stop myself from writing a novel here, but we could even start with steps short of decriminalization. There is <a href="… funding available</a> for local police departments that make pot busts. I can't help but think reallocating that funding to more severe crimes, like maybe jaywalking, would vastly improve lives and cut into cartel profits.

Anymouse (not verified)

Sat, 06/18/2011 - 9:14pm

This is a fascinating discussion. I too have been torn concerning the legalization of "drugs". I had not thought about the issues Paul Kan posted concerning "legalization of supply". Not that it helps convince me one way or another, in fact it makes an informed opinion even more complicated, but it does point out yet more considerations concerning legalization that one should be aware of concerning the "debate".

Paul Rexton Kan (not verified)

Sat, 06/18/2011 - 8:55pm

Hi, mototfirebox,

To be honest, I'm really torn. I think there is room for decriminalization of usage, rather than just throwing users in jail. This has been an utter failure as usage rates have not fallen since the declaration of the "war on drugs". Some suggest we need to fight the "war" even harder. But in places like Singapore and Malaysia where they will kill you for possession over a certain amount, drug use still happens.

The tricky part is the legalization of supply. So far, no country has gone that totally in that direction. Does "legalization" mean "commercialization" in the same way as cigarettes and alcohol? Companies are in the business of getting their product in as many hands as possible, not in as few hands as possible. Plus, look at the various laws that circumscribe the smoking of cigarettes....something that is completely legal. Would we freely legalize the use of meth, but constrain the rights of smokers?

Honestly, I don't know what the right balance is. But I'm open to hearing all sides of the debate.

Thanks again for making me think more deeply about the issue.


motorfirebox (not verified)

Sat, 06/18/2011 - 5:32pm

Your point about the lasting power of organized crime groups is well-taken, Mr. Kan. I don't see the cartels collapsing the day after, say, marijuana is decriminalized or even legalized (I'll point out that legalization and decriminalization are very different creatures, and that there's a wide range of possible gradations within each, but the specifics are a discussion for elsewhere). But I think such action would make the war in Mexico winnable. I'm not sure there can be a strategy that makes Mexico winnable--by Mexico or anyone else--that doesn't include some sort of reduction in the prosecution of drug offenses.

Paul Rexton Kan (not verified)

Sat, 06/18/2011 - 4:26pm


Your skepticism about starting with a better trained police force is rightly placed. However, I think the point is to END with a better trained police force, especially in light of the continued illegal (rather than "legal") status of narcotics. I don't foresee that status changing any time soon. In fact, I haven't met a legalization advocate who wants the first legal crackhouse next to their home.

In addition, even after the end of Prohibition in the US, organized crime didn't go away or become less violent. They merely shifted their proficiency in using violence to muscle into other schemes--prostitution, gambling, cigarettes, concrete, toxic waste, etc.

Just more food for thought on a hot Saturday afternoon...


motorefirebox (not verified)

Sat, 06/18/2011 - 2:56pm

I don't think a better-trained force in Mexico can possibly be considered a good starting place. Granted, having a better force is always handy, but the problems in Mexico have nothing to do with training and everything to do with money. Mexico already has a very highly-trained counterterrorism force which has been used to great effect against the cartels. What they're a little more famous for, though, is for 40 or so of them switching sides and becoming those lovable, huggable Zetas we hear about in the news so often.

The reason Los Zetas exist is because the cartels have money. The cartels' money comes from the value of the illegal substances they pedal. The high prices for cartel drugs springs pretty directly from their legal status in the US and the world at large. It seems as likely to me that troops can "fix" Mexico as that they could "fix" Wall Street.

Bob's World

Sat, 06/18/2011 - 9:14am


I did not say that Mexico is causing the US problems (which is what people are using to rationalize and promote a much more aggressive program of US engagement in Mexico).

What I did say is that US policies are promoting much of the problems that are most often held up by those who think we need to intervene. Our drug policie and our immigrant/integration policies are hard broke, and they are just as disruptive on our side of the border as they are down south, though many are hid away in our vast prison system (for now).

The US needs to refocus, and be it Mexico or the Middle East, the solutions of much of what frustrates us most rest primarily at home. Not calling for a military intervention in Washington, but that is where the problems are, and over several administarations. We have lost our path in both our domestic and foreign policies. Incrementally over time, much of it rationalized by Cold War perspectives that have little relevance today. Others by puritanical perspectives that still infuse US domestic policies on issues of vice. This requires some comprehensive changes, but as I say, those changes are primarily policy and ours to make.


Paul Rexton Kan (not verified)

Sat, 06/18/2011 - 8:08am

Perhaps, Ryan Brim, author of This is Your Country on Drugs, puts it best:

"in reality, there is no such thing as drug policy. As currently understood and implemented, drug policy attempts to isolate a phenomenon that cant be taken in isolation. Economic policy is drug policy. Healthcare is drug policy. Foreign policy, too, is drug policy. When approached in isolation, drug policy almost always backfires because it doesnt take into account powerful economic, social and cultural forces."


Bill M.

Fri, 06/17/2011 - 11:56pm


I don't think any rational people are blaming Mexico on "our" social ills (a few politicians in an attempt to appeal to six pack Joe). The issue we're discussing (I think) is Mexico's problem with a very serious criminal threat. The U.S. demand for illegal drugs is "helping" to fuel it, but since we are NOT going to solve that problem anytime soon, what other options can Mexico employ to fight this threat? What should the U.S. do to assist?

Bob's World

Fri, 06/17/2011 - 8:12am

How will better trained and equipped Mexican police solve the problem in Mexico? It could perhaps solve Mexico's problem by making the problem migrate to an easier location to operate in though.

That space could be within the United States itself.

This problem is like a rubber ball criminal drug activity connected by an elastic srting of demand to an American paddle. We can keep slapping it away, but it will always come back to the source. Mexico is not a US problem to be solved in Mexico by the US; Mexico is a blaring alarm claxon that the US problem is getting bigger, and closer, and that if we do not address it soon it will soon erupt out of control.

Currently we have the problem suppressed, but barely. Prison populations are off the chart. Statistics vary, but I see reports of up to 25% of US prisoners being for drug crimes. As a former prosecutor I know for a fact that the majority of property crimes (shoplifting to identity theft) are also drug-related; and many violent crimes as well. Our prision population was under 500,000 in 1980; and is nearing 3.5 million today. What changed in 1980 under Reagan? Even more disturbing (as a guy who studies insurgency) is the racial disparity, with nearly 5% of African American males in the system, 2% of hispanic males, and about .7% of whites. Is there room in those numbers for a reasonable perception of injustice under the law? Definitely.

Pile on top of bad drug laws our bad education policy as well. When I first heard of "no child left behind" I thought they meant they would continue to advance stuggling students with their peers while providing them with remedial training on reading, writing and math until they graduated. I was so wrong. Instead kids are routinely getting flunked multiple times in elementary school until they can either pass the standardized test or they quit. My wife teaches 3rd grade in an inner-city school in St Petersburg, FL and to have been retained once by then is "normal", with twice not seen as abnormal. What are the odds that a kid who shows up to high school as a 18yo freshman is going to graduate?

None of this is Mexico's fault, but we are sure making it Mexico's problem. The US, like most aging rich people, is afflicted with all kinds of diseases of the affluent. Now our lifestyle is catching up with us and it is killing us. It is time to stop blaming others for our problems and to get serious about fixing ourselves.

Paul Rexton Kan (not verified)

Fri, 06/17/2011 - 7:29am

Bill M. and JC--

These are good points about the nature of US law enforcement--we don't have a national police force. Mexico does have the Federal Police and I think there are other nations that have police forces that could help Mexico's reforms. For example, Canada's RCMP is excellent at tackling money laundering; Italy's military and carabinieri train together (could be a good model for the Mexican military and Federal Police); Brits had some policing successes in Northern Ireland during some very violent years. From what I understand, Mexican police departments in high violence cities and towns do not even use aggregate software such as ComStat techniques (as controversial as they are) to track crimes. I hear that the Federal level may develop a national data base, but I'm not sure how this helps the local cops.

In short, I think the situation in Mexico needs an "all hands on deck" approach.


Bill M.

Thu, 06/16/2011 - 11:18pm

JC988, although I have no experience in Mexico beyond being an occassional tourist (actual enjoyed traveling there and really liked the people), your comments ring true to me. The U.S. is probably (almost certainly) the wrong nation to provide advice and training to Mexico's police for the reasons you stated (and more). Columbia has relevant experience and they'll discuss what works/what doesn't, while we would attempt to establish a large non-functional bureaucracy. I think our contributions in this fight should be limited to financing and intelligence support at this time.

Part of what I was addressing with my questions in my post above was the capacity issue. That doesn't necessarily mean large number of people trained (we tried that in Iraq and Afghanistan with lukewarm results), but developing a culturally appropriate and efficient force and supporting systems. If we can't do it ourselves, I doubt that we should be the ones training others to do it. No doubt our investigators, cops, etc. are skilled and capable at the tactical level, the training/assistance program needs to address the structure from top to bottom and ensure it all nests effectively.

JC988 (not verified)

Thu, 06/16/2011 - 7:31pm

Speaking of Mexicos Police and its "disorganized" nature with a Federal/State/Municipal structure one of the few places in the world that youll find a similar structure is here in the US, except of course for our multitude of agencies at the Federal level (85-125 depending on whos count youre using).

Hate to say it when one considers our own law enforcement structure and the "success" weve had at creating policing organizations overseas we might be better off contracting out the job to the Columbian Policía Nacional or the Spanish Guardia Civil.

When talking about "reforming the police" it should be noted that Mexico has approximately 310,000 public security officers at all of the various levels and our (US) usual "blow in on the cheap" with an 6 week initial training program and no field training and evaluation program type assistance could wind up doing more harm than good. (Some of the initial members of Los Zetas were US trained before they deserted and went over to the other side.)

With the high intensity nature of the situation Mexico is probably going to need unified structure at the state level like the police in Germany or Australia and at the Federal level a gendarmerie, an investigative agency, and a domestic security intelligence organization.

Paul Rexton Kan (not verified)

Thu, 06/16/2011 - 2:57pm

HI-LE is more about re-orienting Mexico's approach than designing a specific, new type of organization. Mexico is undergoing significant reforms to its judiciary and its federal police force. These reforms are by no means perfect and are still subject to reversal by Mexico's politicians.

I might add that HI-LE is not an argument to turn Mexico into a police state or to turn it into a state full of police. Calderons strategy of using the military as a substitute for federal police which, when trained in the right numbers, will take on core policing responsibilities in the most violence prone states and localities is logical. However, local police forces constitute 90% of Mexicos law enforcement personnel and have been viciously targeted. Local police forces also have low educational standards. Most municipal police have elementary level education. Of the 58 police academies throughout Mexico, only 25 have started to implement educational standards for applicants.

The number of police in Mexico is also not a problem; their distribution is. With 366 officers per 100,000 people, Mexico is better supplied than the US, Britain, France and Italy. However, their distribution is uneven and provides significant gaps in law enforcement. With over 2,000 municipalities, Mexicos municipal police exist in only 335 municipalities. Of these 335 municipalities, 87 utilize 69% of the resources and manpower, leaving the remaining municipalities with only 30% of resources.

Perhaps re-organizing is more the issue than re-financing the effort.


slapout9 (not verified)

Thu, 06/16/2011 - 12:59pm

Who is going to pay for such a HI-LE force?

Paul Rexton Kan (not verified)

Thu, 06/16/2011 - 8:29am

Hi, everyone,

I'm thrilled at how this discussion has bloomed; it certainly has made me plow more deeply into my own thinking about the situation in Mexico. So, I very thank you for all the comments.

Robert, thanks so much for your thoughts. You've raised some important points for me to consider in constructing "high intensity law enforcement". I describe it broadly as providing multifaceted, multilayered and focused public safety in a complex environment of law and order while doing so within strong constitutional boundaries. Rather than a military strategy that focuses on killing or capturing the enemy or a population-centric counterinsurgency campaign to secure the population from irregular fighters, the focus of high-intensity law enforcement is to bring criminal offenders to justice and prevent crime in the future. Your description of what that might entail or what it should avoid fills in some needed gaps for me. (By the way, I assign your article on the five views of Mexican drug violence that you published here to my elective students. They dig it!)

An important portion of high-intensity law enforcement (or any approach) is a renewed look at Mexico's strategy. I suggest three possible adjustments: a mosaic strategy that deals with each major cartel with a different goal; a heartland strategy that focuses on the six northern Mexican states; or a Zeta-first strategy to go sequentially against the cartels, starting with the most serious challenger.

As John said, we need something like COIN, but that can somehow avoid what Robert describes as hunter-killer teams of police. I think there are some dangers in turning police into what Bayley and Perito term "little soldiers". We do need a place to "game" this out or to flesh out all of our ideas more thoroughly.

I agree that high intensity law enforcement may be sugar coating, but I think policy makers may need some sugar to swallow what might be a very bitter pill. I really think 2012 will be a pivotal year (not just because of that pesky Mayan prediction) because of our presidential election and Mexico's. Depending on who wins here and there, things might break badly.

Bill M., I'll be submitting another piece to SWJ that addresses US policy in the face of what appears to be, at the very least, a stalemate in the Mexican cartel war(s). Hopefully, it will be published here and we can keep the conversation going.

Let's keep this ball rolling,


John Sullivan,

I have always learned from your articles and commentary. I don't disagree with any of your recommendations, but would like to know your recommendation for how Mexico would develop local/community police capacity in an environment where police leaders are regularly assassinated? Should they employ an oil spot strategy? Do they have the capability to rapidly and effectively prosecute the large numbers of criminals (or establish emergency laws where they can hold them without trial and accept the risks that come with it)? It seems the scale of the problem is well beyond the ability of law enforcement to respond effectively to it. Finally, what do you think the correct role for the U.S. Government is in this conflict?

John P. Sullivan (not verified)

Thu, 06/16/2011 - 1:51am

Paul, Rober, et al:

I believe the proper force structure for addressing the "cartel wars: is "full-spectrum policing." That would involve the range of police capacity from community policing, through counter-gang operations, through counter-insurgency (criminal or otherwise). The gendarmerie (or constabulary) model would augment traditional urban or civil police (CIVPOL). I have described this as "Expol" or expeditionary policing in prior articles here at SWJ. This would address the "intra-conflict" policing requirements needed for "high intensity crime" or "criminal insurgency." (For the record, as you both already know, I believe both are present in Mexico's inter-locking conflicts (i.e., "Mosaic wars"). Building such a capacity will take a great deal of effort.

The Mexican Federal Police are effectively operating as a "gendarmerie" (i.e., formed police force), but without an effective community force to transition day-to-day capacity that is not enough. There is a need to build capacity at neighborhood (colonias), municipal, state, and federal levels--not-to-mention building effective transnational or cross-border capacity North and South!

There is a need for a serious wargame or conference on this need. Perhaps we can generate some interest! COIN (per se) is close, but not complete. some of the COIN-like capacities currently employed in Brazil's favelas are germane, but I suspect we really need to develop counter-violence, beat policing capacities that can be augmented by formed-forces capable of operational level synchronization.

More research and debate is needed in these areas! let's keep the ball rolling!



Thu, 06/16/2011 - 1:00am

....while the french national gendarmerie is highly spoken of as well.

During my travels in Latin America I have found success with paying attention to time, place, surroundings, and using bodyguards for some of the tougher places. It is not my intent to minimize the risks however Latin America pales in comparison to my experiences in Iraq. I do not advocate exclusively militarizing our responses to our concerns in Mexico. Continuing to support Mexicos efforts to strengthen the rule of law while focusing upon the areas where we can improve within our own borders is challenge enough.




Thu, 06/16/2011 - 12:47am

Paul, Robert,

The gendarmerie is an interesting business model and can fill the gap between police and Army functions. The Turks have had one since the time of the seljuks (prior to the ottomans),the Wikipedia entry for the jandarma genel is worth the read. The Italian Carabinieri were tough back in the day,and from what I hear still are. Latin America has various Gendarmerie forces

Dr. Robert J. Bunker (not verified)

Wed, 06/15/2011 - 9:02pm


I'm wondering what "high-intensity law enforcement" would look like in Mexico. I don't
think it exists in the US-- even a city like Los Angeles with its well developed SWAT capabilities would have a rough time taking on a company sized Narco Commando unit of armored SUVs/Cars/RPGs/50 cals/Assault Rifles/Tube Launched Grenades-- though LA SWAT/LE would prevail by sheer numbers (with lots of losses).

We seem to be in that gray area with "low-intensity military" operations vs "high-intensity law enforcement" operations. Police arrest criminals, engage in community policing, etc., do we want police engaging in firefights and meeting engagements in Mexico and basically going in as "hunter-killer" teams?

Now of course we could be talking about utilizing "militarized-police" in Mexico-- maybe that is where you are going re this. I'd think they are operating in that fully blurred "crime-war operational environment"-- but calling it "high-intensity law enforcement" is sugar coating it I think. Should Mexico use/develop military-police brigades?

As it stands right now the local, state and federal police on their own have "0" chance vs the cartels/gangs (note also the LE corruptions issues compound this)-- take the Mexican military out of this and it is game over. I'm looking forward to your thoughts Paul-- as you know I greatly respect your scholarship/works-- and also the insights of the other SWJ readers.

Well Mr Kan if you ever write about Hugo Chavez and Hezbollah and maybe the growing influence of Islam in Latin America I would like to hear what you have to say. Do you have a mailing list, if so how do I get on it.

I do try to keep up with politics in Mexico, July 2012 is coming fast and there election will impact the U S. Mexico is our third largest trading partner, what happens in Mexico is in our national interest.


Paul Rexton Kan (not verified)

Wed, 06/15/2011 - 10:12am

Hi, JC and Pokey,

Thanks for your comments. JC, I do generally take the view that the situation in Mexico is a crisis of law and order and not an irregular war. Organized criminal syndicates and gangs can fight wars though, but these are not the sorts of wars that have familiar contours. Although many who work in law enforcement tackle wars over turf, leadership and product all the time. In my book, I describe the need for "high-intensity law enforcement" rather than COIN or CT. A large part of the COIN and CT approach is linked to reconciliation and even re-integration of the irregulars. As you correctly point out, absent the political/ideological context, I'm not sure how that could be done in Mexico. Would Los Zetas be welcomed back into the Mexican armed forces; would the drug thugs be granted amnesty for their homicides? What would be the shape of any "deal" between the government and the cartels?

Pokey, I'll need to read more about Hezbollah and Chavez. I do know that certain alien smuggling organizations (ASO) have separate routes for taking Mexicans and for taking those who are from "countries of concern" into the US. I've heard quite a bit about Somalis getting arrested along the border. I'm not sure what that's all about. Chavez is an interesting cat. He supports criminals all over the region, especially in the Caribbean, and then gives loans and grants to those governments who need the cash to fight the criminals he is supporting! He's building quite the constuency. However, if I'm not mistaken, Caracas has the highest violent crime rate in the world.

Thanks again for your comments,


Thanks Paul, my understanding of the situation in Mexico is somewhat elementary and can be quit confusing. I know from my own experience's how some reports about the border and Mexico can be way over blown making a clear understandable picture of the situation in Mexico very difficult for the average man to obtain. I would like to see a essay on the impact, if any, that Hugo Chavez and Hezbollah are having on Mexico.
I have read "Hezbollah, Radical but Rational" from STRATFOR.


JC988 (not verified)

Tue, 06/14/2011 - 7:47pm

Mr. Kan,

Coming from a law enforcement background I believe you hit the nail on the head with your description of the current situation in Mexico as a "mosaic." It fits most of the organized, semi-organized, and disorganized crime that we see simultaneously occurring on a daily basis in the same geographical area here in the US.

Unfortunately most pundits try to frame the discussion what is going on in Mexico using military terminology such as insurgency or irregular war, which does not accurately describe what is occurring and the motivations of the various players involved. (Its going to be tough to seek a traditional political solution to the conflict when the other side isnt ideologically motivated and generally could care less about politics.) Your term "High-Intensity Crime" is a more appropriate term for what is occurring.

Keep up the research and looking forward to the new book.


Paul Rexton Kan (not verified)

Tue, 06/14/2011 - 10:16am

Hi, Mr. Lairsey,

The debate over root cause or source of Mexico's mosaic drug war is the subject of deep debate.

My take is that the issue is not uni-directional, but dialectic. There is a mutually reinforcing dynamic that is fueling the violence in Mexico which is spilling over into the US. The limited amount of economic opportunity in Mexico and the compromised nature of its political system have created a ripe environment for the cartels to take advantage of Americans longstanding desire for illicit narcotics. Americans spend between $18 billion and $39 billion annually on narcotics coming northward. Meanwhile, the power of the clandestine economy has undermined Mexican governmental institutions. Only five percent of crimes in Mexico are solved while only one to two percent lead to conviction or jail time.

The question of what to do about breaking this dialectic is exceptionally thorny. Many have argued that legalization of drugs is the answer. I'm deeply skeptical of that approach and will likely lay out my skepticism in a future piece.

You've touched on one of the key questions in the debate over policies and strategies regarding drug violence in Mexico and the spillover into the US--namely, how do we break the mutually reinforcing dynamic before an issue of public safety becomes a concern for national security?

Thanks for your question.


Johnny Lairsey (not verified)

Tue, 06/14/2011 - 9:42am

Paul do you believe there is a source or root cause that is perpetuating the existing conditions in Mexico?

Paul Rexton Kan (not verified)

Mon, 06/13/2011 - 5:47pm

Hey, John,

My manuscript is due to the publisher on 1 October, but I'll send it to Potomac books by the end of this month. I'm already contracted with them so I'm guessing that it'll be out in a year or so.

I can send you an advance copy of the chapter on geo-criminality for your perusal. If you send me your email address at, I'll send it along.

Take care,


John P. Sullivan (not verified)

Mon, 06/13/2011 - 4:45pm

Thanks Paul, Looking forward to your book! it will help my research, especially the chapter on "geo-criminality." When will it be released? John

Paul Rexton Kan (not verified)

Mon, 06/13/2011 - 10:47am

Hey, folks,

Thanks for the kind comments on my piece. This is a slice of what I discuss in my forthcoming book, but I wanted to join the conversation on the importance of drug violence in Mexico and what it means to the US.

Thanks especially to John Sullivan and Robert Bunker who have been at the forefront of the issue. My work owes a huge debt to them and their thinking. John, I hope our paths cross again soon.

Mr. Lairsey, I think narco-culture incorporates many aspects of Mexican culture already; I don't see them as necessarily distinct. For example, Santa Muerte (Holy Death) is venerated by traffickers and gangs, but this appears to have been co-opted from the practice of many ordinary Mexicans. There was an initial push to remove Santa Muerte shrines in an effort to combat narco-trafficking. But as one writer commented, "it's a bit like outlawing tattoo parlors in order to stamp out the Hell's Angels." Pamela Bunker and a few others wrote a very good article on narco-culture in a special edition of the journal Small Wars and Insurgencies (can I mention the competition without getting banished from SWJ?)

Steve, that is a great idea about a stakeholder map. I know that David Danelo wrote a great piece on the political/criminal geography of Mexico in Orbis. The article is called "The Many Faces of Mexico". I have a chapter in my book in "geo-criminality" which explores how criminal power is derived from territory.

Thanks again for the comments. Let's keep the conversation going!

Warm regards,


John P. Sullivan (not verified)

Sun, 06/12/2011 - 6:13pm


Very elegant essay! I agree this is something new and agree with much of your characterization. This type of conflict, which I term "criminal insurgency," has the potential to have a profound impact on the nature of states. ("Insurgency" not because it simply seeks to overthrow the political leadership or state, but because it has the potential to profoundly alter the nature of state relations, power and social relationships.) You are absolutely right to emphasize the central role "networks" play in this conflict scenario. Thanks for a solid contribution to the discussion.

John P. Sullivan


Sun, 06/12/2011 - 12:51pm

Paul, Johnny,

Drafting stakeholder maps is a common activity in business school and makes for an interesting exercise.  Geography, demography, and financial interests (expressed as return on investment, sales growth, etc)  are potential starting points for filtering stakeholders.  Thinking about how stakeholders can impact one's strategy as well as how one's strategy impacts stakeholders is part of the exercise as well.

So, if we were to agree upon a figure for employed illegal immigrants in the US could we agree upon a figure of  5 million?   Could we further agree to a per capita annual salary of 40,000 USD for US citizens and one of 20,000 USD for illegal immigrants to make the math easy?  In aggregate, how much in salary does 'business' save per year using these figures?  Over the course of election cycles what impact would growth and compound interest have upon this aggregate figure?  Where does the figure resulting from our calculation lie in comparison to that of drugs, human trafficking, or counterfeiting?  Is rent seeking behavior restricted to only certain parts of the world?

In short, both of your papers provide interesting descriptions of portions of  what is occurring.  


Johnny Lairsey (not verified)

Sun, 06/12/2011 - 11:14am

Mr. Kan what are your thoughts on a fourth front in the conflict in Mexico that places the traditional Mexican culture against the narco culture?