Small Wars Journal

Militarised Criminal Networks in Mexico and the Challenges They Present to the Military and Police

Fri, 07/10/2020 - 3:43pm

Militarised Criminal Networks in Mexico and the Challenges They Present to the Military and Police

Lieutenant Alexander ElfesPlatoon Commander, 1st Military Police Battalion

The Background

Last year, in discussing Australian Army’s contribution to Defence Strategy as a part of Accelerated Warfare, the Chief of Army Lieutenant General Rick Burr stated, “Army must contribute to managing or resolving contests before conflict starts. This includes understanding that everything Army does and who Army is – people, culture, training, regional partnerships, and joint and interagency contributions – all contribute to success in competition.” Military Police, as the expeditionary provider of land based policing effects in support of Australian Defence Force (ADF) operations, are uniquely placed to provide a strategic effect through regional partnerships and interagency capacity building to support the types of resolutions Lieutenant General Burr speaks to above. 

The 1st Military Police Battalion’s May edition of the Warrant Officer Class One Ken Bullman OAM lecture  series discussed militarised criminal networks, presented by Dr John P Sullivan. Dr Sullivan, a career Police Officer and former Lieutenant in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department also specialises in emergency operations, counter-terrorism and intelligence. He is an instructor at the Safe Communities Institute as a part of the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, a Senior El Centro Fellow at the Small Wars Journal and a Member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Global Observatory of Transnational Criminal Networks. Dr Sullivan discussed the criminal threat in the context of the ongoing Mexican drug wars, and the challenges presented to both the military and civilian police.

The history, intricacies and specifics of the Mexican drug war are complex; much study and writing has been devoted to this topic. The reader should acknowledge that this topic cannot be summarised entirely into a single paper or one hour talk, but note that a multitude of further readings are provided at the end of this document for those interested in this dynamic situation.

The What

Mexico is a contemporary depiction of what is being defined as a ‘criminal insurgency’ which has plagued the country since late 2005. Authorities in the region estimate that upwards of 40% of the country suffer chronic insecurity, characterised by homicidal violence, kidnappings, a significant death rate and high levels of population displacement. While Mexico is not widely considered a failed state, there are clear examples of sub-state failure with a multitude of non-permissive areas that are not under control of the legitimate state and have been contested for many years. The evolution of organised criminal networks, otherwise known as the cartels in this context, in Mexico can be described in a three generational model focusing on three metrics: the degree of political activity undertaken, the internationalisation or level of global reach, and level of sophistication in the establishment of alliances, conduct and the use of high-end technology. The motivation for criminal activity, regardless of its complexity, still remains as profit and power.

Cartels have evolved over time through three phases of evolution. The first-phase cartels, exemplified by the Medellín cartel, began in Colombia during the 1980s and arose as an outcome of increasing demand for cocaine. The first in Mexico however was the Guadalajara cartel, founded by Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, a former federal police officer who worked for drug traffickers brokering the corruption of state officials. The Cali group, a second-phase cartel that emerged in the late 1980s, is a more subtle group with a distributed network organisation and decentralised leadership. The lack of a distinct figurehead or chain of command creates organisational clusters that are difficult to identify and target, similar to non-state actors observed in counter insurgency operations. These types of criminal groups are sophisticated in their illicit activities as they rely on corruption, rather than violence, to achieve their end state.  A third-phase cartel type exemplified by global connections and criminal enclaves is confronting the state in Mexico.  These cartels interact with a range of gangs and criminal enterprises, including street gangs, global mafias, and prison-street gang complexes.  Like cartels, gangs can evolve over time from local turf gangs in the first generation to market gangs in the second. The third generation gangs, which rose to prominence in the 1990s, are cross-border or transnational mercenary gangs with the power and financial acquisition aspirations to act as a shadow criminal state. A third-generation gang has evolved political aims to secure its position and operates at the global end of the spectrum, using its sophistication and network to garner power and financial resources, and engage in military-type activities.

Ultimately, these cartels and gangs will always have a relationship with the state that will vary with time, place and severity. In the first instance, cartels will seek to avoid the state for a variety of reasons, including to avoid imprisonment; however they will use the prison system to recruit and train members. When avoidance tactics do not work, they attempt to co-opt or corrupt the state. One such example is Félix Gallardo, who, as a former federal police officer, was known to bribe and extort government officials. When these avenues fail, cartels will challenge and confront the state with military-like force, as is the case in Mexico now. Such brazen challenges to order have created failed communities by straining government capacity, overwhelming both police and the legal systems and perhaps most critically, challenged the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the local population.

As the country has increased its efforts to combat the war on drugs since 2006, conflict between the Mexican police, military, cartels and various criminal elements has resulted in the deaths of 200,000 people and have challenged the state’s authority and legitimacy. This situation shows no signs of slowing down. The month of April 2020 has been the deadliest yet, despite the ongoing pandemic, with 105 homicides recorded on 19 April 2020 alone.

When the state cannot provide goods and services to the community due to the actions of the gangs and cartels, the cartels act as surrogate governments. They will extract resources, charge street taxes and dominate the economic sector. They achieve this by establishing small businesses and using violence and corruption to compete with legitimate businesses, thus achieving their goal of dominating the region both economically and eventually politically.

So What?

Clashes between the cartels and the state leads to insecurity in the country and the region. Corruption fuels the insecurity and is exacerbated by the violence. In many areas, the cartels operate with multifaceted violence that creates such a drain on state resources that the legitimacy of the state is threatened. The cartels employ conventional and unconventional military tactics including: armed assaults; targeted assassinations; ambushes; raids; blockades; combined arms assaults; and the use of crude car bombs. These actions are amplified with brutal messaging techniques including hangings from bridges, beheadings and dismemberment. Messaging is often affixed to corpses left in public places as a way of shaping the population towards their political goal. The cartels show adaptation and drive their own innovation in tactics, techniques, and procedures. Thus, criminal insurgent behaviour poses major strategic challenges for those attempting to bring stability to the region. The biggest difference between what military forces train to defeat and the criminal insurgency is a strategic one: the criminal insurgents’ sole political motive is to gain autonomy and economic control over their territory in what becomes a ‘Narco State’.

Policing in such situations is complex. As counterinsurgency teachings illustrate, the military establishes the conditions for stability and order to then transition social control to civil police or transitional gendarmerie or police forces. The level of corruption and militarisation in Mexico makes this impossible as the country is in a state of on-going, high intensity criminal violence: police and the military are equally challenged by criminals and gangsters who operate with near impunity. This is compounded by the challenge of operating within a failed and compromised community, led by corrupt officials and a multitude of security leaks. To effectively operate in this environment, both police and military forces need to rapidly evolve and employ new skills across the tactical, operational, and strategic levels.

Now What?

The requirement to conduct Law Enforcement operations to counter criminal activity is present in all theatres of operations; however if a criminal insurgency presents itself, the ADF needs to be able to pivot to take a greater role in Law Enforcement and adjust between permissive community patrols and non-permissive combat. The ability for soldiers on the ground to operate at opposite ends of the force continuum and transition immediately as the situation presents itself is vital in order to be truly effective. Supplemental investigations would prove effective in feeding the intelligence cycle in a full-spectrum policing effect. This skill set is largely absent among civil police in Mexico, but is essential for countering the level and intricate threat presented in the region.

As the ADF’s expeditionary policing capability, the 1st Military Police Battalion is uniquely positioned to contribute to such a mission. At the tactical level, due to the inherent combat survivability, the 1st Military Police Battalion has the capacity and the capability to integrate with combat force elements to provide law enforcement effects and to contribute to host nation police capacity building. The 1st Military Police Battalion also has an existing and developing network with organisations such as the Australian Federal Police, thus enabling the ability to contribute to a Whole of Government approach at the national strategic level. Military Police are able to support the political legitimacy of the host nation in the context of the three generational model’s metrics as discussed above through the existing legal framework; however should be empowered through other legal instruments such as Memorandums of Understanding and Status of Force Agreements.

Mexico as a case study is an excellent opportunity to explore criminality in the battlespace and how criminal activities, when not addressed effectively, can become strategic wicked problems. It also provides the opportunity, as Military Police, to explore the potential to adapt, modernise, and prepare for an often underestimated consequence of warfare, the security vacuum.

Dr Sullivan’s lecture “Criminal Insurgency in Mexico” is available at the Warrant Officer Class 1 Ken Bullman OAM lecture series (KBLS) on The Cove, May 2020,

Further Readings

For readers interested in further readings on this issue there is a multitude of resources written by Dr Sullivan:

John P. Sullivan, The Missing Mission: Expeditionary Police for Peacekeeping and Transnational Stability, Small Wars Journal, 9 May 2007,

John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, Red Teaming Criminal Insurgency, Red Team Journal, 30 Jan, 2009,

John P. Sullivan, From Drug Wars to Criminal Insurgency: Mexican Cartels, Criminal Enclaves and Criminal Insurgency in Mexico and Central America. Implications for Global Security, Working Paper No9, FMSH, 2011/2012,

Robert Muggah and John P. Sullivan, The Coming Crime Wars, Foreign Policy, 21 Sep. 2018,

John P. Sullivan, The Challenges of Territorial Gangs: Civil Strife, Criminal Insurgencies and Crime Wars, Revista Do Ministério Público Militar, Nov. 2019,

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Alexander Elfes was appointed into the Australian Army in July 2016 and is currently posted as the Tactical Support Team Commander to B Coy 1st Military Police Battalion located in Darwin, Australia. Recent international experience includes hosting and coordinating bilateral international engagement activities with Indonesia on behalf of the Australian Army’s 1st Brigade. He holds a Bachelor of Business and is currently studying a Masters of Criminology.



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 9:49am

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