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Are Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras Under Insurgent Attack?

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Are Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras Under Insurgent Attack?

Stephen B. Young

Failure of national authorities in Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras pose risks to the well-being of the United States. First, state failure in El Salvador and Honduras creates migrant flows seeking refuge in the United States as a safe-haven for families.  Second, state failure in each of these countries could grow into complete collapse of state authority and the rise to power of authoritarian regimes such as in Cuba and Venezuela which will collaborate with geo-political rivals of the United States in contravention of the Monroe Doctrine.  Third, instability of social orders, economics, and politics in the countries immediately to our south will decrease regional progress towards higher living standards, undermining quality of life in our part of the world.

The Wall Street Journal of Dec 26 carried a story from Mexico on the rise in murders and kidnappings.  That paper on Dec 24 had already published a story that gangs in Mexico run a parallel government as an extortion economy. In 2017 there were 6.6 million cases of extortion of individuals and 525,000 cases of extortion against companies.

The Journal on Dec 19 carried a story that, in El Salvador, when 17-year-old Andrea Guzman refused advances from a gang leader, “he responded by dispatching seven underlings dressed in black to the two-room house she shared with her family in this hamlet amid corn and bean fields. They tied up her parents and older brother, covered Andrea’s mouth and forcibly led her out into the night in her flip-flops. Hours later, one of her abductors fired a shot into her forehead in a field nearby.”

But we don’t call conditions in Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras “insurgencies”. Therein lies a major failure in our thinking about world events and their claim to our attention for protecting a global order favorable to our way of life and future prosperity.

The Latin roots of our word “insurgency” come from the prefix “sub” or below and the verb “regere” or manage or guide. The root of “insurgency” means to lead from below, or to rise up against superior authority.  “Regere” evolved from the Into-European root stem “reg” which indicated movement in a straight line. From the stem “reg” also derived the Latin word “rex” or king and the English words “royal”, “realm”, “right”, “rectify”, “correct”, and “to direct”.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, early uses of the word “insurgency” were:

1765 FALCONER Demagogue 377 “His sanction will dismay, And bid th' insurgents tremble and obey.”
1801 WELLINGTON Mem. Seringapatam in Gurw. Desp. (1837) I. 348 “In regard to the insurgents in Malabar, the war against them cannot be carried on at all without assistance.”
1812 G. CHALMERS Dom. Econ. Gt. Brit. 164 “[Why] it was, that the vast strength of Britain did not beat down the colonial insurgents, not in one campaign, but in three.”
1851 GALLENGA Italy 133 “He acceded to all the immediate demands of the insurgents”.

Underneath our word “insurgency” then is concern for the human phenomenon of governance: who will lead us in a straight line, properly, so that we will be correct?  But the term insurgency points to governance from the bottom up, not from the top down.  The problem of insurgency correctly understood is how does higher authority actually provide effective governance at subordinate levels of society and culture?  In other words, counter insurgency is the challenge of acquiescing to subsidiarity in decision-making while insuring that those holding decentralized power are in alignment on high priority goals and behaviors with the norms and practices legitimated by higher authority.

Accordingly, we should adjust our theories of insurgency and its counter-measure – counter-insurgency away from strictly military interventions using forces and coercion towards understanding which embrace politics, local leadership, community building, and other mechanisms promoting social order.

Thus, brigandage, gangs, and mafia networks as well as political movements seeking to overthrow and replace a governing regime can be sources of insurgency. Each in its own way provides “management” of people from below in defiance of national authorities.

Our Department of Defense definition of insurgency as “An organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through use of subversion and armed conflict"  Is too narrow. Any attempt to disrupt the central government by means considered illegal by that government should be considered an insurgency.

The United States can better protect its interests in Mexico and Central America where gang-based insurgencies thrive and deny citizens the benefits of good government once it redefines those dysfunctional communities as under insurgent attack.  It then remains for the United States to counter such insurgences with cost-effective strategies and tactics.

Consider the case of Mexico. From 2007 to 2014, 164,000 Mexicans died violently, more than the 103,000 civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during those years. In 2016 Mexico surpassed Iraq and Afghanistan to become, after Syria, the world’s second deadliest war zone, according to the Annual Armed Conflict Survey of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

In 2016 there were more than 50,000 lives lost in Syria, 23,000 in Mexico, 17,000 in Afghanistan and 16,000 in Iraq.  IISS director general John Chipman said ““Mexico is a conflict marked by the absence of artillery, tanks or combat aviation.”  Deaths were caused by small arms. The largest number of fatalities occurred in Mexican states that have become “key battlegrounds for control between competing, increasingly fragmented cartels,” Chipman said, with violence flaring as gangs try to clear areas of rivals so they can monopolize drug trafficking routes.

In 2017 some 31,174 persons lost their lives in Mexico More were taken away and their fate not yet known.

El Salvador has the world’s highest homicide rate. The MS-13 gang operates in 248 of the country’s 262 municipalities. In the capital San Salvador, gangs control the local distribution of consumer products, including diapers and Coca-Cola. They extort commuters, call-center employees, restaurant and store owners. In rural villages, gangs threated to burn sugar fields unless the farmers pay up.

Gang violence, a form of war-lord-ism, negates public authority and reduces citizens to a state of nature along the lines described by political philosopher Thomas Hobbes: “the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”  Those circumstances certainly apply to war, declared or un-declared, conventional or limited.  They apply to most of Syria today, to Iraq during the years of sectarian conflict, and today to large parts of Afghanistan. Hobbesian realities also happen in cases where government fails to meet its basic police responsibilities; provide quality of social life, security of persons and property, and economic well-being.

Mexico is not alone in facing collapse of government in many local communities El Salvador and Honduras have exceptionally high murder rates as well, concentrated in some localities.  Gangs in all three countries are more dominant than government police forces in the lives of many citizens. When some 8 years ago Mexico sent its armed forces to suppress drug cartels, the cartels defeated them to maintain control of many communities.

The gangs function as states within the national state, which is such a state in name only.   Gang control of people and territory follows Mao’s dictum that “political power flows from the barrel of a gun.”

We also know that in Afghanistan criminality in the drug trade contributes to the efficacy of the Taliban, blurring any sharp distinction between crime and sectarian dedication. For both Mexican drug cartels and Taliban insurgents, community control for recruitment and sabotage of government deployments of the military, policy, education, economic development, is a common strategic objective.

To defeat either the drug cartels or the Taliban, converting the rural people into front line counterinsurgents is necessary for government success in the struggle for power.

In El Salvador the civil war of the 1980s, a classic ideological insurgency to overthrow a traditional ruling elite, was not won by the government. No counterinsurgency program was brought to the field. Our military advisors worked with the El Salvadoran government on an attrition strategy. The will of the guerillas to fight on just outlasted the Americans and their local partners. Rural villages had 40% unemployment for young men, providing the insurgents with all the recruits they needed to defeat an attrition strategy. Finally, a political compromise was reached. It left the national government weak and inefficient. Gangs then stepped into the power vacuum at local levels in effect sustaining conditions of insurgency under another name.

El Salvador’s gangs earn about $20 million a year from extortion, including $3 million from businesses in the history center of San Salvador, the Capital. The two gangs MS-!3 and Barrio 18 hire 60,000 people as lookouts, collectors, and assassins. In2016 the Central Bank estimated the economic cost of this “insurgency” to be $4 billion a year, or 16% of GDP. El Salvador’s Minister of Justice and Security says, “you don’t know where the state ends and the criminal organizations begin.”

As in political insurgencies, gangs function as mini-police forces and routine local governments.  They form social authorities fragmented and dispersed among the population using their power for private purposes.  Their effect is to deny the people ordinary and salutary public governance under some legitimate rule of law.  Gang based insurgency compromises government not so much by using violence to impose a political program but with corruption to divert government officials from their duties. Gang based insurgencies are more a persistent low-level infection than a mortal, metastasizing cancer. But they can destroy civil order and public happiness just the same.

Gangs in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras now profit from extorting their neighborhoods, not selling drugs to foreigners. They are in effect collecting taxes based on their control of violence. 

As gang-engendered violence proliferates, the middle and upper classes hire protection.  In every central American country private security forces outnumber the police, further fragmenting the power to establish good government for the society.

Politicians choose to work with groups having a mastery of violence in local communities, giving them immunity in exchange for bribes, campaign contributions, assistance in suppressing opposition voters. Corrupt security forces tend to turn criminal. The only law is that of the gun.

The Gene Pitney song “the Man who Shot Liberty Valance” brings forth the reality:

When Liberty Valance rode to town
The women folk would hide, they'd hide
When Liberty Valance walked around
The men would step aside

Because the point of a gun
Was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin' straight and fast
He was mighty good

From out of the East a stranger came
A law book in his hand, a man
The kind of a man the West would need
To tame a troubled land

'Cause the point of a gun
Was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin' straight and fast
He was mighty good

Many a man would face his gun and many a man would fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance
He shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all

Let us consider some maps to see the correspondence between insurgent wars and gang-based insurgency:



Afghanistan:  Who Controlled What – 2009-2010




Syria: Who Controlled What – December 2016



South Vietnam: Who Controlled What

Government control and violence against civilians in third and fourth corps in South Vietnam. Green means full government control, yellow means mixed control, and red means full rebel control. Large dots indicate government officials assassinated, and small dots indicate citizen assassinated.



Mexico:  Who Controlled What – 2015



El Salvador: Who Controlled What – 2003-2016




San Salvador: Who Controlled What – May 2015



Honduras: Who Controlled What

Since 2008, the United States Congress has appropriated over $1 billion to help Central American governments strengthen state institutions, build functional police forces, and take back neighborhoods held by gangs and organized criminals. But there has been no application by our partners of best counterinsurgency practices. No clear, hold and build. No COIN.

Recommendation: Adopt a CORDS Program to Establish Civic Order in Bang-based Insurgencies

CORDS (Civil Operations Rural Development Support) was the unique US civil/military program which partnered with Vietnamese nationalists at village, district, province, region, and national levels to mobilize the people of South Vietnam to defeat the Viet Cong by 1972 starting in 1967.

The strategy of CORDS was to fight a people’s war against communist led insurgents. The tactics of CORDS were to consider the people as the frontline fighters against the insurgents and to support them with decentralized governing authority, self-defense, and self-development programs. The self-interest of rural communities coupled with anti-communist family and personal values were promoted to mobilize the people.

A gang-based mafia or mini-warlord insurgency has its own characteristics which distinguish its strategy and tactics from political/ideological insurgencies. The gang-based insurgency does not seek to become an official ruling authority. It does not want to be a government. It is more a private collaboration seeking money and power in local communities.  In some ways a gang-based insurgency resembles a terrorist network.

A gang-based insurgency focuses on terror and intimidation without recruiting any mass political following. It does not have political cadres, only armed terrorists.  It does not seek to inspire the people, only to intimidate them and so subject them in support of criminal activity.

When dealing with defeat of a gang-based insurgency, we must distinguish the CORDS approach from the COIN approach.  Under COIN principal responsibility for success lies with either foreign forces or forces of the central government. The strategic objective of COIN is to protect the people. Neither foreign forces nor host government forces are capable of providing sufficient protection of the people in gang-based insurgencies.

Unlike COIN approaches and small unit tactics designed for low-intensity armed conflicts, the CORDS strategy for defeating insurgencies puts governance of the local community at the center of the anti-insurgent campaign.

In cases of gang-based insurgency, foreign forces will not be available other than in advisory and support capacities and foreign support is most likely to be civilian – police, economic development and social capital enhancement.  And, central government deployments (police, army, civil officials) will be ineffective or even sustaining of the insurgents due to corruption and insurgent intimidation.

In the CORDS approach, the people are to be the principal source of their own protection, supported by government assets in finding, fixing, fighting, and finishing insurgent cadres to reduce the threat nearby and inside local communities, coming to the immediate assistance of local self-defense teams, gathering necessary intelligence and acting on it promptly, and providing public services.

The best practices of counterinsurgency under the CORDS approach are:

  • Arm the people
  • Provide them with effective local government
  • Give them hope for better lives under their own control
  • Eliminate the insurgents by gathering correct, timely intelligence, arrest, and apprehension
  • Pardon those who abandon gang life and employ them productively

In Mexico and Central America, cultural factors drive gang-based insurgencies. These powerful psycho-social dynamics must be, first, offset, and, second, overcome by countervailing psycho-social dynamics. Fear of the government created by violent repression is most often insufficient to offset cultural aspirations of having personal power, easy money, and being respected by the community for having a certain kind of personal charisma.

In Mexico and Central America, there is a cultural residue of the conquistador life-style where machismo and personal dominance are valued. The Spanish conquistadors used force and violence to become the protecting patron, a “Don” so to speak, having clients who depended on him as “Jefe” or Chief of the social unit for security and economic well-being.  The system was named the encomienda society. Under Spanish rule, a Spanish encomendero was granted a number of native laborers who would pay tributes to him in exchange for his protection. In Mexico after the revolution the system took the form of haciendas or, today, patron/client networks.

From a sociological perspective, gangs today in Mexico and Central America simply carry on illegally the rudiments of this encomienda system of local over-lordship taking care of loyal clients.

In Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras where businesses and the more well-to-do employ their own security guards, such private security forces can be converted into local militias with powers of arrest along the lines of an authorized posse comitatus.

In Common Law, the posse comitatus is all able-bodied males over the age of 15 within a specific county, when mobilized in whole or in part by the conservator of peace – usually the sheriff – to suppress lawlessness or defend the county. The posse comitatus originated in ninth century England simultaneous with the creation of the office of sheriff. Though generally obsolete throughout the world, it remains theoretically, and sometimes practically, part of the United States legal system. In Minnesota where I live, this reserve security force is, under statute, the “unorganized militia”.

Minnesota Statues, Chapter 191.05, provides that:

GOVERNOR MAY CALL MILITIA. Whenever the governor deems it necessary for any purpose authorized by the state constitution or by law, may by public proclamation call out the militia or such part or number thereof as the governor may designate for military duty in the service of the state, and may provide for the enrollment, assembly, and muster into service by voluntary enlistment or by draft, as the governor may determine, of the militia so called out. For that purpose, the governor may make orders and rules and enforce the same, appoint all necessary officers and fix their compensation, and may require all proper public officers to perform such duties as the governor may direct.

Second, In El Salvador and Honduras where gang-based insurgents have adopted a “uniform” of body tattoos to distinguish members of the insurgent force from civilians, the uniform cannot be easily removed when an insurgent seeks to relinquish membership in the gang. Thus, some novel device must be found to give those who have defected from the insurgency and seek to resume the status of a citizen in good standing to be recognized, appreciated and protected.

One possible approach would be to form and fund a national patriotic or social movement for better lives. This movement would have local chapters, sports and educational programs for youth, skill and craft markets for women, continuing education for adults, cultural festivals.  The middle class, civil society organizations, religions would be recruited to participate in and lead such organized activities.  The insurgents would be bit by bit socially and culturally alienated from the mass of the population. Their ability to attract clients would atrophy and the insurgency, in classic fashion, would evaporate.

The principal challenges to successful application of a CORDS approach to gang-based insurgency in Mexico and Central America are: corrupt police forces; failure of national elites to institutionalize rational/legal institutions at the national and provincial levels; military cultures incapable of engaging with local communities in partnerships by intuitively acting as conquistador; politicians who seek only to reward their clients and have little sense of the common good.


About the Author(s)

Stephen B. Young served with the CORDS program in the Republic of Vietnam from 1967 to 1971 as a Deputy District Advisor in Vinh Long province and as Chief, Village Government Branch. Young's service with CORDS was recognized by President Richard Nixon, Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, and CIA Director William Colby. A fluent speaker of Vietnamese he has written on human rights in traditional Vietnam, Vietnamese legal history, Vietnamese nationalism, and with his wife translated Duong Thu Huong's novel The Zenith into English. Young is a graduate with honors of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He is a former Assistant Dean of the Harvard Law School and Dean and Professor of Law at the Hamline University School of Law. He is Global Executive Director of the Caux Round Table and the author of Moral Capitalism and The Road to Moral Capitalism. His most recent book is The Theory and Practice of Associative Power: CORDS in the Villages of Vietnam 1967-1972.


Good analysis, and if I may clarify when stating insurgency, I mean those insurgents and counterinsurgents.  Again the people will ultimately decide who wins, so there it is whoever has the strongest political warfare/mobilization and influence operations.  Thank you! 

Let us consider the question --  Are Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras Under Insurgent Attack (and, indeed, the U.S./the West also, as the Brexit and the election of President Trump would seem to indicate) -- but let us do so from the perspective offered by Kilcullen in his "Counterinsurgency Redux:"  

(Herein to note that -- in his such perspective -- Kilcullen suggests that it is THE GOVERNMENTS that are seen as the insurgents; this, given that it is, indeed,THE GOVERNMENTS that, in all such cases, have been trying to bring about "revolutionary" political, economic, social and value change.  For example: so as to [a] optimally organize, order and orient various countries; this, [b] so as to optimally benefit from globalization/the global economy.)


But, in several modern campaigns — Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya, for example — the government or invading coalition forces initiated the campaign, whereas insurgents are strategically reactive (as in “resistance warfare”). Such patterns are readily recognizable in historical examples of resistance warfare, but less so in classical counterinsurgency theory. Politically, in many cases today, the counterinsurgent represents revolutionary change, while the insurgent fights to preserve the status quo of ungoverned spaces, or to repel an occupier — a political relationship opposite to that envisaged in classical counterinsurgency. Pakistan’s campaign in Waziristan since 2003 exemplifies this. The enemy includes al-Qa’ida (AQ) linked extremists and Taliban, but also local tribesmen fighting to preserve their traditional culture against 21st century encroachment. The problem of weaning these fighters away from extremist sponsors, while simultaneously supporting modernization, does somewhat resemble pacification in traditional counterinsurgency. But it also echoes colonial campaigns, and includes entirely new elements arising from the effects of globalization.


From this perspective also (it is THE GOVERNMENTS that are seen as the insurgents; and, thus, it is those that are resisting the governments that are seen as the counterinsurgents) to understand what Huntington is getting at, in his "Clash of Civilizations," here:


In 1991 a top adviser to President Carlos Salinas de Gortari described at length to me all the changes the Salinas government was making. When he finished, I remarked: "That's most impressive. It seems to me that basically you want to change Mexico from a Latin American country into a North American country." He looked at me with surprise and exclaimed: "Exactly! That's precisely what we are trying to do, but of course we could never say so publicly." As his remark indicates, in Mexico as in Turkey, significant elements in society resist the redefinition of their country's identity."


Bottom Line Thought -- Based on the Above:

Thus, if we consider Dean.Shumate's exceptionally important concluding thought, in his comment below, as correct ("Insurgency is 'only' won through political warfare and influence operations"), then might we say that -- both in the West and in the Rest --

a.  These such political warfare and influence operations were never really undertaken by the governments concerned?  (This given, for example, these such governments' belief that such operations were unnecessary; given such things as "The End of History," "the overwhelming appeal of our way of life" thinking, etc.?).  And/or that:

b.  These such political warfare and influence operations were exceptionally (and, indeed, "universally," given the Brexit and the election of President Trump) deficient? (And, thus, were "universally" rejected?)


Wed, 01/02/2019 - 2:07pm

I appreciate the service of Mr. Young in the CORDS program and found that section to be informative, I am sorry to state that he is flat wrong on his statement(s) that read " El Salvador the civil war of the 1980s, a classic ideological insurgency to overthrow a traditional ruling elite, was not won by the government. No counterinsurgency program was brought to the field." 

I highly encourage you to read Arms of Little Value by G.L. Lamborn to understand how El Salvador is considered a successful model of Counterinsurgency.  In 1979, a junta was created to begin reforms, Right Wing elements in the Salvadoran government continued the human rights abuses.  Many disenfranchised centrists or center-left politicians left government. Extreme Left groups formed the armed insurgent group called FMLN. Worried about the spread of Marxism and Communism from Nicaragua, the United States agreed to deploy a small number (no more than 55) of U.S Serviceman to El Salvador to advise the ESAF. The deployed advisors were contingent upon human rights abuses ceasing and respect for all citizens occurred. The U.S government wanted to fight the FMLN but from a political-military approach, not just through security forces. The ESAF started to build on its COIN capacity not just militarily but politically, socially, and economically. While increasing its tactical skills the ESAF embarked on becoming keen on respect for human rights. The security forces transformed themselves into a kinder and gentler military that sought the campesinos as peers, equals, and friend’s not just outcasts  Military members of the ESAF started to recognize that their actions had consequences, positive or negative. With the U.S government’s stance against death-squads, the free elections of 1984, and genuine reforms, the Government of El Salvador increased its legitimacy at home and aboard, and thwarted the FMLN which looked as though it might take over El Salvador in the early 1980s.

Starting in 1984, the FMLN attacked markets, economic infrastructure, and any other government symbol. The intent was to show the local populace that the Salvadoran and American governments could not address the grievances. After the peace treaty was signed, 39,000 former soldiers and campesinos were given land purchased by the United States government. The economy improved tremendously after the war. A New York Times (1990) article stated that El Salvador had grown from an agriculturally based to an industrialized based society. Workers earned more than the minimum wage and this increase in wages has helped to bridge the disparity in working classes.  In a captured document, the FMLN stated ESAF and the U.S. military had won a psychological victory by ensuring that the population understood the war was against the FLMN and not the citizens of El Salvador. Polling data appear to show that the Salvadoran citizens had grown tired of the leftist violence and damage to the economy and this was evident in the 1990 Presidential elections.

The greatest failure of the FMLN was not gaining the support of the populace.  A poll taken in 1990 showed that 55% of Salvadoran citizens believed that the FMLN were committing the most human rights abuse, compared to 12% believing that the ESAF committed the most. By 1991, the FMLN had lost the hearts and minds of the Salvadoran people. In 1992, the ESAF held a peace rally and an estimated crowd of 200,000 showed up. The FMLN tried a counterdemonstration and could only muster 13,000. 

In the end, El Salvador is a successful model because the government under Jose Napolean Duarte was willing to make changes within the Government of El Salvador to fix grievances.  This helped seperate the insurgents from the population.  With the development of the ESAF NCO core and fixtures of abuses, the ESAF was seen as fighting on behalf of the government.  In any insurgency, the people will ultimately decide who wins and who loses.  With sinking popular support, the FMLN decided that they should put down arms and the way to win was through the political process; whom, the FMLN now controls the majority of the government. 

The CORDS program although a success, can not be listed as a way to counter an insurgency as the United States continued to back a government that was not seen as legitimate to the people and overtime, the loss of will to fight by US citizens coupled with the "people" gains that the North Vietnamese made, Vietnam ended with the Northern insurgents winning.  The CORDS program was a military program, that did not legitimize the South Vietnam government, therefore it must be considered a failure.  Insurgency is "only" won through political warfare and influence operations.