Small Wars Journal

Describing Conflict in Central America: “Criminal Insurgency”

Mon, 08/13/2012 - 12:51am

In response to border security legislation passed in a Congressional sub-committee mid-December 2011, Andres Oppenheimer’s op-ed Mexico’s Drug Cartels Are No “Terrorist Insurgency” criticizes the suggestion that Mexican cartels are “terrorists” and that the U.S. should employ “counter-insurgency tactics” to “protect U.S. citizens from external threats.”  While transnational organized crime (TOC) elements operating in Latin America may not be engaged in an ideological “terrorist insurgency,” the observed conflict between TOC elements (to include cartels and gangs) and regional states can be accurately described as a “criminal insurgency.”   According to John P. Sullivan, who has written extensively on this phenomena over the past several years, a “criminal insurgency” occurs when criminal enterprises compete with the state not for traditional political participation, but rather to free themselves from state control in order to maximize profits from illicit economic activity.  In so doing, TOC elements seek to establish zones of “dual sovereignty” within states where they have freedom of movement, perceived legitimacy from the communities they exploit, and the complicity or acceptance of state political actors.  Ultimately, the result is pervasive corruption, evidenced by a reciprocal criminalization of politics and politicization of crime.

Although the tools of criminal insurgents identified by Sullivan are most apparent in Mexico, growing evidence supports concerns that criminal insurgency threatens to undermine weak governance throughout Central America, especially in Guatemala and Honduras.  This insurgency, waged largely on behalf of the lucrative cocaine trade, seeks to secure trafficking corridors for an estimated 95 percent of the cocaine departing South America for the United States.  Following are some of Sullivan’s criminal insurgency tactics with selected examples of their implementation in Central America:

Symbolic and instrumental violence, including attacks on journalists, police, the military, elected and judicial officials

  • In Honduras, rights groups report the murder of at least 20 journalists since the 2009 coup.
  • Criminal elements murdered the former Honduran presidential advisor for anti-drugs in December, 2011.
  • Suspected criminal insurgents ambushed a police convoy in the drug-infested Aguan Valley of Honduras in September 2011.
  • Drug runners exchanged gunfire with Honduran counter-drug police during multiple drug plane interdiction operations between 2011 and 2012.

Exerting control over turf

  • In Guatemala, the government admits it has lost control of the Petén and Alta Verapaz departments to the Mexican cartel, Los Zetas.
  • The remote eastern Honduran department of Gracias a Dios is largely abandoned by the government and serves as a staging zone for TOC elements.
  • In Nicaragua, TOC exploits indigenous communities’ centuries-old reticence to “outside” government presence in the northeastern RAAN department.

Information operations including corpse-messaging, banners, graffiti, demonstrations, blockades and kidnappings

  • Los Zetas massacred 27 peasants in the Guatemalan department of Petén in May 2011, leaving a cautionary message written in blood.
  • Separate raids conducted by Mexican soldiers in November 2011 freed 15 and 23 kidnapped Honduran nationals held for ransom by Los Zetas.

Utilitarian provision of social goods

  • In Guatemala, TOC elements have secured the loyalty of communities by distributing food, providing jobs, medicine and investing in infrastructure.

 Co-opting (and corrupting) government actors

In accordance with the framework of insurgency described by Sullivan, the above examples make it apparent that Central America, like Mexico, faces a criminal insurgency.  While Oppenheimer objects to the U.S. implementation of a terrorist counter-insurgency strategy in Mexico it is clear that the situation in Mexico and Central America requires some type of strategy that will prevent the failure of states in our own backyard.  In Crime Wars: Gangs, Cartels and U.S. National Security, Bob Killebrew and Jennifer Bernal from the Center for New American Security offer various strategic considerations in response to the security threat posed by criminal insurgencies in Latin America:

  • The U.S. must lead a hemisphere-wide effort to confront and defeat the TOC threat to civil society.
  • The huge geographic scope of criminal networks makes this challenge multi-national.
  • Any U.S. strategic effort must include appropriate assistance to Latin American states to strengthen security and law enforcement institutions.
  • The U.S. must focus on cleaning its own house by reducing the use of illegal drugs and the influence of gang culture.
  • Defeating TOC enterprises will take a long time.

To some degree, the U.S. is involved in addressing each of the considerations provided by Killebrew and Bernal.  The U.S. is engaged in bi-lateral and multi-national counter-TOC efforts throughout the Western Hemisphere, exemplified by the efforts of the Merida Initiative and specialized DOD entities such as the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S) and Joint Task Force Bravo (JTFB).  The U.S. plays an active role in the hemispheric Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission, which seeks to address the means by which criminal insurgencies thrive.  Security and law enforcement in the region continues to improve through State Department’s Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), focused on countering the destabilizing actions of TOCs.  While some suggest that demand for drugs in the U.S. is the center of gravity for criminal insurgency in the hemisphere, modest progress continues against reducing the use of illegal drugs as noted in the latest National Drug Control Strategy.  Unfortunately, TOC networks in Latin America, birthed in Mexico and Colombia and now spreading throughout Central America, are not new; their power base has expanded incrementally over decades and will require significant time to undo.

While indicators suggest that criminal insurgency is spreading in Latin America, most recently to Central America, it is unclear whether the current U.S. response will be sufficient to prevent the failure of states in the region.  In accordance with the President’s 2010 National Security Strategy, it is a matter of national security to “invest in the capacity of strong and capable partners.”  Governments that are incapable of meeting their citizens’ basic needs represent unstable regions that may directly threaten the American people.  As the national counter-insurgency effort in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to draw down over the next two years, reallocation of resources within our own backyard deserves serious consideration.   If the status quo prevails, criminal insurgency may create the conditions for the next long war.


Looking at this:

"a “criminal insurgency” occurs when criminal enterprises compete with the state not for traditional political participation, but rather to free themselves from state control in order to maximize profits from illicit economic activity."

I get the unsettling feeling that the definition of "insurgency" is being deliberately expanded to accommodate drug-related violence in Latin America. Certainly the revised definition applies, but why the eagerness to apply the term? I see nothing to be gained, and there is some risk that if we insist on classifying this conflict as "insurgency", somebody may decide that the logical response is COIN, a decision that I suspect would be counterproductive at best.