Small Wars Journal

The Effectiveness of Counterinsurgency Principles Against Criminal Insurgency

Sat, 02/11/2012 - 10:26am

We have posted Michael L. Burgoyne's excellent thesis as a separate page due to its length, but I hope that readers will click through to the link and comment here to discuss his work.  The thesis can also be downloaded as a PDF by clicking here.  The opening portion is included below:


Powerful criminal groups are developing into serious threats to nation states. Increasingly intense violence in Mexico is of particular interest to the United States.  Coming on the heels of insurgency experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is predisposed to apply its tested counterinsurgency doctrine to the problem. This study addresses the effectiveness of counterinsurgency principles against criminal insurgencies through a case study analysis of Colombia’s fight against the Medellin and Cali Cartels and Rio de Janeiro’s efforts against favela gangs. U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine proved to be highly effective against Rio’s gangs, however, the campaign against the Medellin and Cali Cartels indicates that an enemy focused approach may be more appropriate against a drug trafficking organization. The results of this study show that while much of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine is applicable to criminal threats, several adjustments to campaign planning and threat analysis tools will be required to ensure its effectiveness against emerging criminal national security threats.

Mexico is currently engulfed by rampant violence that has taken over 40,000 lives since 2006.[1] Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to the drug fueled violence as an “insurgency,” while others have called it a “criminal insurgency.”[2] Criminal threats to state stability are becoming more common; Japanese Yakuza, Chinese Triads, Italian mafia, Russian mafia, and Colombian Bandas Criminales all represent dangerous evolving criminal organizations.[3] These unique apolitical security threats are not a new phenomenon, but they are rapidly developing into one of the most dangerous challenges in the globalized world. One of the greatest national security threats facing the United States today is the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Mexico where Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTO)[4] and enforcer gangs have ignited a countrywide war.[5]

Mexican criminal organizations have evolved into existential threats to the Mexican state and are now growing in the United States.[6] Initially transportation elements subordinate to the powerful Colombian cartels, Mexican DTOs capitalized on effective interdiction in the Caribbean and the demise of the Medellin and Cali Cartels to increase their control of the drug trade. This increase in criminal power coincided with an equally important political upheaval in Mexico.

The election of President Vicente Fox of the PAN party in 2000 effectively ended the one party system throwing long standing arrangements between PRI leaders and DTOs into chaos. Institutionalized corruption and government control of the illicit economy collapsed into violence as DTOs went to war with each other and the state to increase their control of territory and lucrative drug routes.[7] Following his election in 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón embarked upon a campaign against organized crime employing the “full force of the state in order to safeguard the liberty and security of its citizens.”[8] However, there remains no end to the violence in sight; 2010 was the most violent year yet with 15,273 homicides.[9] Calderon’s strategy has been applauded and criticized in both Mexico and the United States. Equally, the U.S. response to the crisis has been the subject of intense policy debate. Much of the frustration with the government response stems from confusion regarding the nature of the conflict.

Carl Von Clausewitz warns that “the first, the supreme, the most far reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.”[10] Coming on the heels of the development of a robust counterinsurgency doctrine, many U.S. defense and law enforcement scholars have designated the Mexican conflict an insurgency.[11] Accordingly, counterinsurgency methodologies have been recommended as the proper response.[12] Conversely, other scholars like David Shirk and former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration Robert Bonner have called for a law enforcement response.[13] Far more than a mere academic semantic debate, the term insurgency impacts which agencies and methodologies government forces employ against the problem. These types of “wicked problems” are defined by “one’s idea for solving it.”[14] An incorrect diagnosis of the problem and its solution can have far reaching repercussions.

Whatever its nature, the United States has vital interests in Mexico. The United States has spent 90 billion dollars on border security since 2001[15] and spends over 15 billion dollars annually on drug control.[16] Mexico is the United States’ third largest trading partner with 393 billion dollars in trade in 2010.[17] The United States appropriated 1.5 billion dollars to support the Mérida Initiative, a multinational security agreement that focuses on operational support to law enforcement and institutional professionalization.[18] Given the importance of Mexico to the United States and the scope of the conflict, it is imperative that the U.S. strategy fit the problem.

Before the United States embarks on an expensive counterinsurgency campaign or advises foreign governments on their own campaigns, the efficacy of counterinsurgency principles against economic or criminal groups should be evaluated. Criminal insurgency is a unique type of threat.  This study addresses the question to what extent counterinsurgency principles, as outlined in Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency, are effective against criminal insurgencies; specifically, in Colombia’s fight against the Medellin and Cali Cartels and Rio de Janeiro’s efforts against favela gangs?  

This study argues that the analysis of powerful criminal organizations using an insurgency framework is useful and that the Colombian cartels and Rio’s favela gangs can be appropriately described as criminal insurgencies. Several counterinsurgency principles listed in FM 3-24 were effective in both case studies including understanding the environment, intelligence driven operations, long term commitment, small unit empowerment, learning and adapting, and supporting the host nation. In addition, counterinsurgency methodologies, as found in U.S. doctrine, were highly effective against Rio’s favela gangs. However, the methodology employed in the case of the Medellin and Cali Cartels indicates that an enemy focused approach can be effective against a DTO. Furthermore, a DTO’s financial center of gravity seriously degrades the effectiveness of some of the principles found in COIN doctrine. Finally, several factors and techniques not specifically referenced in COIN doctrine can be critical in the case of a criminal insurgency, such as vetted units, anticorruption measures, financial targeting, divide and conquer approaches, and social and cultural root causes. This study will briefly review the evolution of the concept of criminal insurgency. The study will then examine the Medellin and Cali Cartels followed by Rio’s favela gangs. Each case will include a brief historical summary, an analysis using an insurgency lens, and an examination of the government response based on COIN principles. Finally, implications for security policy and recommendations will be provided.

This study is “policy-evaluative” and will examine the implicit theoretical assumption that criminal insurgencies can be defeated by current counterinsurgency doctrine.[19] Given the importance of the security threats involved, it is important to ask “will the policy produce the results that its proponents promise?”[20] Investigations such as RAND’s recent counterinsurgency report[21] and the Fishel-Manwaring SWORD model have scientifically evaluated the effectiveness of counterinsurgency strategies; however, current literature has not adequately addressed the use of counterinsurgency doctrine against criminal threats.[22]

This project uses a structured comparison of case studies with the goal of identifying the value of current counterinsurgency principles in the unique circumstances of a criminal insurgency.[23] Political scientist, Stephen Van Evra notes that when working with policy prescriptive studies, researchers should study cases whose background characteristics parallel the characteristics of the current or future policy problems.”[24] As such, two cases were selected that closely resemble current security concerns in Mexico: the Colombian defeat of the Cali and Medellin Cartels and the Brazilian fight against favela gangs.

Both of these cases were considered government victories because the threats to national security were defeated. This study assumes that both of these cases are government victories and focuses on the methodologies utilized. In Colombia, the powerful Medellin and Cali Cartels were dismantled leaving residual criminal groups. This study does not expand its time horizon to include efforts at community policing in Colombia after the fall of the Medellin and Cali Cartels. Expanding the case to include these initiatives would result in difficulty managing the distinction between criminal insurgency and crime as well as between counterinsurgency and normal governance. Furthermore, the security problems in Cali and Medellin after the fall of the major DTOs closely resemble the characteristics of the Rio case study.

The Rio case study, however, is a more defined phenomenon with less possibility of intervening variables arising from traditional insurgent groups like the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army) present in Colombia. In Rio, gangs that had successfully succeeded from government control were displaced and control was reestablished.[25] Since 2008, the government has cleared some 25 communities and reasserted state control over 280,000 citizens.[26]

To maintain a disciplined configurative approach the cases are evaluated using an insurgency analysis framework outlined by insurgency expert Bard O’Neill and the 13 principles and imperatives of counterinsurgency as found in Field Manual 3-24. One of the strengths of utilizing a case study methodology is that it serves “the heuristic purpose of inductively identifying additional variables and generating hypotheses.”[27] The detailed case study approach allows this study to go beyond O’Neill’s framework and the 13 principles to identify other factors that are important to the problem.


[1] BBC, “Mexico’s Drug Related Violence,” August 26, 2011, Also see Los Angeles Times, “Mexico Under Siege Website”,

[2] Hillary Clinton, Speech to Council on Foreign Relations, (Washington, DC, September 8, 2010),; and John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “State of Siege: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency,” Small Wars Journal, 2008,

[3] Max Manwaring, Gangs, Pseudo-Militaries, and other Modern Mercenaries, (Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 2010), 21-22.

[4] The term Drug Trafficking Organization of DTO will be used to denote organizations who have a primary business model based on drug trafficking. Although most DTOs also engage in extortion, protection, prostitution, and human trafficking this study will use DTO to differentiate between smuggling organizations and mafia type organizations.

[5] Robert J. Bunker, “El Imperativo Estratégico de Estados Unidos Debe Cambiar de Irak-Afganistán a México-Las Américas y la Estabilización de Europa,” Small Wars Journal, 2011.

[6] U.S. Department of Justice, National Drug Threat Assessment, (National Drug Intelligence Center, August, 2011), 8,

[7] George Grayson, Mexico: Narco Violence and a Failed State?,(New Brunswick: Transaction, 2010), 39-52.

[8] Gobierno Federal, “Modelo de Operación Estratégica y Táctica Frente a la Delincuencia Organizada,” April 30, 2009,

[9] Sara Miller Llana, “Mexico drug war death toll up 60 percent in 2010. Why?” Christian Science Monitor, January 13, 2011.

[10] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, trans Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1997), 88.

[11] Matthew D. LaPlante, “Army official suggests U.S. troops might be needed in Mexico,” Salt Lake Tribune, March 22, 2011; John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “State of Siege: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency,” Small Wars Journal, 2008; Sullivan and Elkus “Cartel vs. Cartel: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency,” Small Wars Journal, 2009; Sullivan and Robert Bunker, “Cartel Evolution Revisited,” Small Wars and Insurgencies 21, (March 23, 2010).

[12] Bob Killebrew and Jennifer Bernal, Crime Wars: Gangs, Cartels and U.S. National Security, (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, 2010). Also see Representative Connie Mack, Prepared Remarks before House Foreign Affairs Committee, “Merida Part Two: Insurgency and Terrorism in Mexico,” October 4, 2011.

[13] Woodrow Wilson Center Mexico Institute Presentation, Shared Responsibility, (Washington, DC, October 22, 2010). Robert Bonner, “The New Cocaine Cowboys,” Foreign Affairs 89, (2010).

[14] Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4, (1973), 161.

[15] Martha Mendoza, “$90b spent on border security, with mixed results,” Associated Press, June 26, 2011.

[16] Executive Office of the President, Office of National Drug Control Policy, National Drug Control Strategy FY 2011 Budget Summary, (Washington, DC: 2010).

[17] U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Trade Statistics 2010,,

[18] U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, The Merida Initiative: Expanding the U.S./Mexico Partnership, March 3, 2011.,

[19] Stephen Van Evra, Guide to Methods for Students of Political Science, (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1997), 91.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Christopher Paul, Colin P. Clarke, and Beth Grill, Victory has a Thousand Fathers, (Santa Monica: RAND, 2010).

[22] John T. Fishel, and Max G. Manwaring, Uncomfortable Wars Revisited, (Norman:University of Oklahoma Press, 2006) and “The SWORD Model of Counterinsurgency: A Summary and Update” Small Wars Journal, 2008 also “Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency: Toward a New Analytical Approach,” Small Wars and Insurgencies 3, (Winter, 1992), 272.

[23] Alexander L. George and Andrew Bennett, Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005), 75.

[24] Van Evra, 85.

[25] Security operations in Rio are ongoing. This study focused on favelas that had already been occupied under the UPP program.

[26] UPP Website.

[27] George and Bennett, 45.



Train wreck

Sun, 12/02/2012 - 8:40am

hitman 483,

In a conflict country outside of North America, it does not matter who does the "policing". If it is the Army in country X, then so be it, if it fits their culture. As long as they are seen as legitimate.


Wed, 11/28/2012 - 9:00am

The military has the idea they can fight a criminal element with a military strategy. This is incorrect. You must fight a criminal element with a law enforcement strategy. The military is not meant to fight criminal elements. That's why there is the police. The military can't train civilian police from other countries because they are two different skill sets. The military does not have the expertise on conducting long term penetration operation to deter, disupt and dismantle the criminal element,or basic law enforcement skills,that is a police function, period. You can apply the basic law enforcement skill sets and penetration operations anywhere there is an insurgency or terrorism because this is based upon a social science. It has nothing to do with culture,
just basic interactions with people.

The author is a former US Advisor to the Afghan National Police assigned to Special Operation Task Force South. He spent two years training, mentoring and advising the ANP on Rule of Law, Criminal Intelligence and Tactical Training. He has 16 years of law enforcement experience and came from the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington DC. He is also a Masters candidate in a National Security Studies Program.


Tue, 04/03/2012 - 12:03pm

In reply to by Bill M.

"at the operational and tactical level there is a lot of good knowledge in it, and if one actually analyzes the operational environment and applies it wisely based on the environment instead of blindly templating it then it is useful."


"but the real argument needs to be over strategy."

Agreed in its aplicability to LE.

I do not see COIN - in partucular the FM or the works by authors such as Kilcullen - as a 'drop in' fix for domestic LE use. Rather, I see COIN as pop-centric(community policing) efforts aimed at defeating insurgencies(criminal organizations/street gangs) who are embedded in the population. Yes, I understand that the parallel between insurgents in AGN and Iraq and criminal street gangs in our city are tenuous, but the quest for LE legitimacy in certain communities becomes more and more contested as gang violence rises and police response rises to meet it. Community policing gets a short treatment in this country, mainly because its a) viewed as a non-operational feel-good endeavor cooked up by academics who have never chased a gun down an alley abd b) used more as a political football and public belly-rub to make everyone feel better. Nevertheless, LE must and should work with the community to combat criminal activity. I will not engage in the tired hyperbole of gangsters as 'domestic terrorists;" while this may be true to some degree - especially from the perspective of the residents causght between their action - it does not help us better define the problem, better understand the complex systems they comprise and operate within, or formulate a strategy that destroys their organizations and maintains/wins the public trust. Current COIN has been so pop-centered against these violent actors 'hidden' inside the population that it allows us to look at how that effort has fared and see what we can learn from it. Elements of the FM and lessons learned through its implementation, as well as understanding and implementing aspects of design thinking and adaptive campaigning, I believe can help us do this.

Bill M.

Tue, 04/03/2012 - 10:54am


I'm not as bitterly opposed to FM 3-24 as I come across, I just get concerned when officers hold it up as the bible for COIN based on our "success" in Iraq and Afghanistan. Agree wholeheartedly at the operational and tactical level there is a lot of good knowledge in it, and if one actually analyzes the operational environment and applies it wisely based on the environment instead of blindly templating it then it is useful.

Your comment about authorities is one I agree with strongly, and we still haven't completely emerged from our Cold War legacy set of authorities and organizations. It is too late to be proactive in recognizing how serious the threat from these DTOs and gangs are (I think we get it now), I just wonder what the catalyst will be that will drive change in the future regarding roles and authorities. We have too many in our ranks who argue over definitions (COIN, criminal insurgency, UW, etc.), which is useful to a point, but the real argument needs to be over strategy.

Mike Burgoyne

Mon, 04/02/2012 - 9:34pm

In reply to by JohnBertetto


If your office can swing it I highly recommend taking a look at Rio. Either a trip down there or having a Brazilian officer visit Chicago. They are doing some very important and innovative work. This is mainly by the police although in some favelas they have used military units. This is the "high intensity policing" stuff I think you're looking for and it is aimed at gangs rather than DTOs.




Mon, 04/02/2012 - 10:03am

Bill M,

I think, as far as policing is concerned, understanding the environment, intelligence driven operations, small unit empowerment, long term commitment, and learning and adapting have is done, as you suggest, better in some organizations than in others. Like most civic agencies, operations are driven by the budget. The money drives the ops, and when money is tight the ability to dig in and develop intel is often compromised. Time is another factor, one I'm sure you are familiar with. When the crime spikes - particularly violent crime - the pressure to provide immediate relief more often than not results in quick-fix 'solutions' that may provide statistical or surface fixes but usually lack the depth to affect real change. As agencies get larger, there seems to consistently be less small-unit empowerment; the problems are larger and the expediency of quick-fix solutions results in less empowerment to make operational decisions and more direct control and tighter operational parameters. True, the police are always there, but long-term commitments to strategy often is not. Strategy and tactics are often confused, and as a result both are changed at the whims of political desire. Rather than have the strategy adapt as lessons are learned, strategies are often wholly scrapped. The result is ineffective strategies and substandard outcomes. Community Policing, Intelligence Led Policing, Broken Windows Policing, Third Party Policing, etc - these are often implemented as whole systems and, rather than shifting between aspects of each as needed, a single approach is used at the exclusion of the others. In this instance, a 'long term commitment' is believed to be adhered to. Again, the result is too often substandard outcomes.

I have often remarked that the principles of COIN are militarized 'community policing,' and as a result the need to examine what has and has not worked in theater, then adapt it to our own needs, appears rather clear. I think you and I, for obvious professional reasons given our respective employing agencies, are barking up two different limbs of the same tree. The applicability of COIN to counterterror needs or foreign-based criminal organizations (Russian mafia, triads, narcotrafficking cartels)is decidedly different from the civic or municipal application of those principles for criminal activity. In particular, the study conducted by Maj Burgoyne is inconclusive for my use not only for some of my previously listed comments but because they are executed in other countries, where the rule of law and the procedural nature of their criminal justice system is far different than our own. Because of these substantial procedural differences, any study conducted in another country will always be anecdotal only. What is needed is for a large municipal agency with significant and long-existing criminal organizations to sit down with COIN experts and then develop and implement a strategy that coincides with Constitutional protections and American procedural law enforcement methods.

Mike Burgoyne

Mon, 04/02/2012 - 9:30pm

In reply to by Bill M.


Thanks for the comments.

I chose Colombia and Brazil because my language skills and access made for better and more complete research. However, I also looked at the mafia in Sicily and the post soviet Russian mafia. Russia is a really interesting case. Essentially private violent entrepreneurs went from organized crime to private firms to regulated companies. Privatization of violence was a stopgap while the government learned how to regulate and secure a capitalist system. There is a lot to be learned there.

I think DOD authorities for dealing with security assistance and criminal threats make engaging these threats difficult. Quite frankly this is something that needs to be completely reworked. I don't think I should get into specifics on this forum however.

The U.S. military can play an important role in many of the countries with these criminal problems. In numerous countries the threat is so great or the police are so corrupt that the military conducts the police and stability operations. We need to be in a position to advice them how to best to that. Post Iraq and Afghanistan we are better positioned to talk stability and COIN than before. We need to understand that not every country utilizes their armed forces like we do. In some countries the military is a viable option for providing citizen security.

As far as training the police in foreign countries. It just isn't getting done. DEA does the best job but they are drug focused and that drives what they do. There is no large deployable LE capability. Jason Fritz has done some good work on this topic. But if it makes sense the military can do it like in Iraq.

The SWORD model is about at scientific as Political Science and Security Studies is going to get. Equifinality makes COIN studies tough. Without getting into a FM 3-24 argument, I'll say that I found the text useful and I think it has done a great deal of good at least at the operational level and below.




Only read the post above, and will get to your thesis when I have time.
Since you're from SOUTHCOM it is natural that you focus on the serious criminal issues there, but it would be helpful to see if academics and others are seeing this threat in other parts of the world. At one time it was a serious threat to Italy, we have the warlords in Afghanistan, the mafia's in Russia, but would also like to see these studies expanded to cover examples in Africa, Asia, Middle East, etc. I'm especially interested in Asia, but have seen few studies on the Triads, Yakuza, and numerous other groups in the region. Do they co-exist with the state, have they effected state-capture and it is simply the norm there, or is it a growing threat?

I appreciate the seriousness of this threat, and have been watching the evolution of this threat with great interest, but even 10 plus years post 9/11, with a few minor exceptions, we're still mostly stuck in a Cold War paradigm when it comes to authorities for DOD to address emerging security threats. Based on your expertise, I would really be interested in your opinion on what role the military should play (if any). Based on two assumptions, first it is in our interest to support (or worst case intervene), and second we have the necessary authorities, what role should the U.S. military play?

A few points I disagreed with:

I will get a couple of things off my chest before I start. First, our COIN doctrine has failed in both Iraq and Afghanistan (to date), so I get concerned when we try to portray a potential lemon as a Lexus. Second, while the Fishel-Manwarring SWORD model is a great piece of academic work, it has NOT scientifically evaluated the effectiveness of COIN strategies. It has at best demonstrated some correlations between best practices based on the study of a "few" insurgencies. If it was scientific, that would mean (not imply) that the same results would be always be obtainable when those principles were applied. This is not a criticism of the work, simply pointing out it is not scientific. War is still an art.

I think you may have conflated normal law enforcement work with COIN principles when you wrote that understanding the environment, intelligence driven operations, small unit empowerment, long term commitment (police are always there), and learning and adapting have proven effective. I'm not familiar with any major police departments who haven't embraced these principles long before the advent of FM 3-24. I'm sure some do it better than others and the state of the art constantly evolves.


Tue, 04/03/2012 - 8:56am

In reply to by Mike Burgoyne

Understood. My comments were meant to elicit some clarification, which you provided, not to be critical. I agree with your assertion that the elimination of the DTO leadership and financing arms are necessary in eliminating those groups. I wanted to be clear that you had no real info that stated the use of one (enemy-centric) negates the concurrent use of the other (population-centric).

As you are well aware, American municipal LE is firmly entrenched in the various community policing models. While DA against criminal organizations will always be required - and should be actively encouraged, funded, and pursed - we will alsways have the need to remain positively engaged with the community. Like I said earlier, I feel there is enough crossover from the COIN work in theater and the municipal LE work at home that we should mine the COIN "Lessons Learned" and apply them at home.

Mike Burgoyne

Mon, 04/02/2012 - 9:03pm

In reply to by JohnBertetto


Thanks for taking the time to read the study. In the case of Colombia I'm not sure that the Colombians really failed at a population focused approach. I don't think they tried anything like community policing or UPP style approaches until after the Medellin and Cali were dealt with. Again, I don't assert that the defeat of the cartels in Colombia meant that the population was secure. Rather those groups, that were a national level threat, were defeated.

I think that one of the key things I found looking at the two case studies was that the type of criminal organization being targeted is critical. I think DTOs are less dependent on population support because, like insurgencies with massive external funding, they gain resources from outside the country and use the resources to buy the population. I used some polling from Semana but I didn't find any detailed surveys of the population. Escobar's bombing campaigns did alienate him from the population but you don't see that with Cali.

To be fair, and I mention this somewhere in the paper, I do not have a case study that shows a fully resourced population focused approach used against a criminal organization that failed. Colombia only shows that an enemy centric approach is effective against a DTO and I argue should be the first phase in achieving citizen security because it provided a window of opportunity for the government to develop forces capable of conducting a community police or population focused approach.



Mon, 04/02/2012 - 10:10am

Major Burgoyne:
As a police officer, I have made a practice of looking at the overlap where COIN and our LE efforts against criminal street gangs overlap, and am working on a manuscript of my own suggesting we look at lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, then modify these for applicability to criminal street gangs. My efforts are different than your study - which I found compelling - in that I'm focused on domestic criminal street enterprises; your standard 'blood' and 'crip' type street gangs. I do have a question regarding your conclusions with regard to COIN and narcotrafficking organizations.

You noted 6 'successfully' implemented COIN principles, and 3 that, in essence, 'failed.' You noted that intelligence operations and learning and adapting were successful. Could it be that the development of intelligence and the ability to learn and adapt from those findings is what lead to a shift from population-centric focus to an enemy-centric one? In that regard, the employment of the initial COIN principles is more effective than given credit? Additionally, the ability for any criminal enterprise to continue to operate requires, like an insurgency, two things: recruitment of new members and a population that, for any reason, does not assist LE efforts. Without any detailed population survey how can you be certain that the population-centric approach did not affect these two factors in a manner that had impact on the eventual destruction of the cartels? Finally, you indicated that government legitimacy was unsuccessful against the cartels. This is a coin with two sides: the populations view as the insurgent side as legitimate, and the population's view of the law enforcement side as legitimate. As we are continuing to learn in LE, the public's perspective of the LE community as 'legitimate' (through the fair and consistent application of procedural actions) is a prime motivator in their willingness to 'side' with the good guys and get some skin in the game. Were any qualitative population studies done to measure perceptions of legitimacy for both cartels and LE and, absent those, how can we be certain that the government legitimacy principle - and again the population-centric strategy - did not have a more significant effect on the elimination of the cartels than is given credit?

I agree with you, cutting off the organizational and financing heads of these organizations is critical. It is in street gangs too, provided the vacuum of leadership is prepared for so that internal struggles for gang control result in instability and collapse and not overt violence. My primary question is: how can you be certain that the population-focused strategy was not a significant contributing factor in the collapse of these cartels?


Mike Burgoyne

Tue, 02/14/2012 - 5:43pm

In reply to by SUecker


Thanks for the kind words. I hope some of those that disagree take a look at the conclusions section. My goal was to take a thorough look at how COIN would work against criminal groups. I found some important areas that COIN doctrine misses and some key adjustments that would be necessary if we want to apply it.



Maj Burgoyne,

Thank you for your work!

Whether or not readers agree with your conclusions, it is a thesis well developed, articulated and researched.

I wish others were as diligent in the exercise of their own analysis and words.



Sun, 02/12/2012 - 6:30am

Yet again a paper advocates an approach to the drugs trade outside the USA, using 'counterinsurgency principles against criminal insurgencies'.

When will these advocates look at the situation within the USA, where the threat originates? It is in the USA, in this example where the drugs are consumed and paid for.

I doubt that these 'counterinsurgency principles' will apply within, if only due to Americans not wanting to be treated as insurgents.

Mike Burgoyne

Sun, 02/12/2012 - 10:25am

In reply to by Frank Pais


I totally agree about the importance of identifying the structure of the organization being engaged. The business type structure of a DTO makes it very different from a favela type gang. I think the key to this is the center of gravity of the organization. DTOs pull their resources from international trafficking and then use those resources to intimidate and buy the population as necessary. Favela gangs and mafia type organizations use protection or local drug sales to support their operations. So if we are going to use COIN and insurgency as our framework we have to understand that the population is not always the COG for a criminal organization.

The military vs LE problem is a key one. In both of these cases and in current operations in Mexico and Central America the military is being used. This is where LE folks run into problems. If the criminal group is armed like a guerrilla group with crew served weapons and light AT weapons it requires military or paramilitary assets in response. In my analysis of the Colombia case study I actually warn against using troops when a DTO is involved. Broad deployments of troops opens you up to corruption unless the DTO’s international funding has been disrupted.

Colombia is a very complicated case. This is a solid criticism of my study. I did not expand the timeframe to include the efforts after Medellin and Cali. Defining what is and is not a “criminal insurgency” is difficult. I made the call that without Pablo Escobar and his terrorist campaign the state defeated its national security threat. With Cali it dismantled an organization that had corrupted up to the Presidential level. The fall of these groups did not constitute the creation of viable citizens security.


Frank Pais

Sat, 02/11/2012 - 8:16pm

In reply to by Mike Burgoyne


Thanks for your response. On these same points:

1) To clarify, what I'm trying to get at is the actually fluid nature of what popular usage refers to as DTOs or cartels. Defining the limits and structure of a DTO is arbitrary and in many cases is merely used for prosecutorial and LE targeting purposes. A related point is that the structures of such "organizations" have become increasingly horizontal over the years.

2) I think where the lines become blurred, we might want to think about normative standards for whether we choose to go for force-on-force options that endanger civil society, or look for creative law enforcement/intelligence solutions. One rule of thumb for policymakers I find useful: would we advocate this approach if it were our country we were talking about? Granted, military involvement in internal security is obviously more the norm in Latin America, including Mexico. But do we want to foster the militarization of our nearest southern neighbor?

3) The idea that "Medellin and Cali ceased to exist as viable organizations" is, I would argue, tautological. In other words, if we ourselves decide to describe 30 or so guys as constituting the membership of the Cali cartel, say, and then we capture or kill those guys and disrupt those operations, then yes, we have taken down the Cali cartel, as we define it. But ask Chepe Santacruz what cartel he belonged to and he would have answered, huh? These are business alliances, nothing more. Where you have actual group membership, I think you are talking at that point about groups with mafia-like characteristics, who may or may not eventually diversify into narcotics trafficking itself. Los Zetas and La Oficina de Envigado might represent a turn towards this kind of group taking on greater importance. As far as an acceptable steady state is concerned, you'd be hard pressed to convince any Colombian that the breakup of the Cali cartel, rise and fall of North Valle, and now the BACRIM, could in any way be described as an acceptable steady state.

4) Agreed insofar as things appear finally to be looking very bad for these groups. But if it took the US as long as it has taken the Colombians (with our help!) to defeat an insurgency, there is just no way you could argue that we'd been successful.

Frank P.

Mike Burgoyne

Sat, 02/11/2012 - 7:39pm


Thanks for taking the time to take a look at the study. I think perhaps you missed the main point of the exercise. I set out to test COIN doctrine against criminal threats because I wanted to see if it worked, failed, or somewhere in between. I applied a military lens to criminal problems to see if I could find gaps. I initially went in thinking that FM 3-24 COIN principles would be a poor tool. In fact, it depends on the type of criminal group. COIN doctrine requires significant adjustments if applied against a DTO. COIN appears to be more affective against criminal gangs. In both cases there were additional considerations that are not found in the doctrine.

I’ll try to address some of your concerns.
1.I did use “cartel” and “DTO” to simplify the discussion. I do think the Medellin and Cali organizations had enough structure to allow the government to target their leadership and key nodes.

2.I think this is a great point and I totally agree. Thre is overlap between LE and military approaches. I am 100% behind Robert Bunker’s concept of converging fields of study when it comes to these powerful criminal threats. The lines become blurred. Where does “intelligence driven law enforcement” end and counter-terror operations begin? Although I think the Colombia case study shows how FM 3-24 may not be the best/only way to design a campaign plan against a criminal group.

3.Establishing an end state is difficult in COIN but also in war in general. TX Hammes informed me that what you are actually looking for is an acceptable steady state. I believe that because Medellin and Cali ceased to exist as viable organizations that threatened the state, Colombia achieved its desired goal. This was not to end drug trafficking.

4.I think Colombia has been very successful in their fight against the FARC and ELN. We should continue to develop our relationship with them because they can be a key partner when dealing with criminal threats.


Why do we insist on seeing events in Mexico as a threat to our security when in fact it's our own failed and irrational drug policies that are threatening Mexico's security? We aren't going to solve this one by calling the cartels "insurgency" and debating COIN tactics. We have to do something about our side of the mess.

Frank Pais

Sat, 02/11/2012 - 3:36pm

Poor Mexico; so far from God and so close to the US military's COIN apparatchiks. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. You folks in the military who see an insurgency behind every use of semi-organized non-state violence are going to get a lot of people killed using your unproven doctrine.

Specific criticisms here: 1) You are confusing law enforcement nomenclature (i.e. unified hierarchical organizations described by the convenient label of cartel) with reality (i.e. the "cartels" were and continue to be loose, constantly evolving partnerships of individuals). 2) The "COIN principles" which you identify as having been effective in the Colombia case are actually what normal people would describe as standard intelligence-driven law enforcement activity. 3) What is the end state of an insurgency according to COIN doctrine? And in what way would you say that narcotics trafficking activity in Colombia post-Cali/Medellin (a period which you ignore) displays qualities of such a theoretical end state? (Hint: It doesn't.) 4) If COIN doctrine was so successful against the Cali and Medellin cartels, why hasn't it yet been successful against actual insurgencies in Colombia, specifically the FARC and ELN? Why not a case study on the ERPAC, which was more like an insurgency (but wasn't one), but which has all but been decisively defeated--and not by military means alone.

I must plead ignorance on the case of Brazil, and defer to any commenters with expertise on the subject. It seems to me that you're stretching to reinterpreting a multifaceted campaign involving primarily law enforcement and intelligence units as if it had been a military operation. Well written, but for what it's worth, I hope and pray that contributions such as this will continue to be ignored by those making the decisions.

Frank P.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 02/11/2012 - 1:30pm

"Criminal Insurgency" is an oxymoron. 'nuff said.