Small Wars Journal

Breaking Illicit Rice Bowls: A Framework for Analyzing Criminal National Security Threats

Mon, 12/17/2012 - 5:30am

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.”[1]  Unfortunately, many modern internal conflicts defy basic definitions. Gangs, drug cartels, and mafia groups challenge analysts attempting to understand the nature of criminal threats that can hold cities hostage and challenge state militaries for the monopoly of force. Violence in Mexico and other nations facing robust criminal groups combines aspects of terrorism, crime, and insurgency as evidenced by beheadings, massacres, car bombs, urban combat, and improvised armored personnel carriers.[2]

Security Scholar Robert Bunker believes that insurgency studies, gang studies, organized crime studies and terrorism studies have collided in an attempt to understand modern criminal threats.[3] Building on Bunker’s work, this descriptive article provides practitioners with explanations of the basic analytical frameworks from these converging fields and proposes a composite framework for evaluating criminal national security threats. This will allow a practitioner with expertise in a single field to apply an unfamiliar perspective and avoid becoming tied to a single approach. This article will briefly discuss the evolution of criminal threats and then review the strengths and weaknesses of insurgency, gang, and organized crime analytical models. Finally, a hybrid framework that integrates the most relevant aspects of the various models will be provided.

The Evolution of Criminal Threats

Criminal threats to national security are not a new phenomenon; but access to powerful weapons and globalized illicit markets has made them more dangerous than ever.[4] Bob Killebrew of the Center for a New American Security believes that the threats of crime, terrorism, and insurgency are merging.[5] Military forces are frequently being employed to contain drug cartels and gangs that have outgunned the regular police. Criminal threats, fueled by widespread extortion and illicit trafficking, now burrow deeper into the state with corruption and challenge security forces for dominance of terrain.

Some observers of the growing power of street gangs believe that they are evolving into “third generation gangs.”[6] Gangs shift from local crime to market based organized crime and finally develop economic, military, and political power that rivals a nation state.[7] Current gang activities support this idea, Mara Salvatrucha shut down El Salvador for three days in 2010 to pressure the government.[8] Jamaica erupted into violence when the government attempted to arrest the powerful criminal boss Christopher Dudas Coke.[9] The gangs of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas regularly engage the police in urban combat and managed to shoot down a police helicopter in 2009.[10] Gangs are now transnational and link themselves with more sophisticated organized crime groups.

Organized crime and narcotrafficking have the potential to become serious national security threats. As security scholar Steve Metz notes, modern internal conflict is often characterized by groups with economic motives.[11] Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel in Colombia and Cosa Nostra in Italy both embraced terrorist tactics against the government.[12] Mexico is currently facing a violent internal conflict with drug trafficking organizations (DTO) that has cost the lives of over 40,000 people since 2006.[13] Illegal groups fed by a global illicit economy that may be 10 percent of global GDP, now threaten to utterly corrupt and capture governments.[14] These criminal groups exhibit characteristics of multiple types of security problems and require thorough analysis from multiple angles.

Insurgency and Terrorism

Insurgency and terrorism offer a valuable perspective from which to evaluate criminal groups. Vladimir Lenin, Mao Tse Tung, and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara established the theoretical foundations of twentieth century insurgency. Lenin embraced a revolutionary movement,[15] Mao a protracted popular war,[16] and Guevara a foco method based on a small cadre; however all of their methods utilized a basis of political motivation.[17] To counter these strategies, counterinsurgency thinkers like David Galula and Robert Thompson developed population focused strategies to defeat communist insurgency.[18]

Expanding on Metz’s ideas, organized crime scholar, John P. Sullivan, created the concept of “criminal insurgency.”

Criminal insurgency is different from classic terrorism and insurgency because the criminal insurgents’ overarching political motive is to gain autonomous economic control over territory…not all insurgencies conform to the classic Leninist or Maoist models. Not all insurgents seek to take over the government or have an ideological foundation. Some seek a free-range to develop parallel structures for profit and power. Nevertheless, they have a political dimension, using political maneuvering and instrumental violence to accomplish their economic goals. As such they are insurgents—albeit of a criminal variety.[19]

If criminal groups are indeed to be treated like an insurgency then an insurgency analysis framework will provide valuable insights into how they function and how to defeat them.

Insurgency scholar Bard O’Neill believes that determining the nature of an insurgency has “vital practical implications.”[20]  O’Neill’s book Insurgency and Terrorism provides a detailed framework for insurgency analysis. O’Neill evaluates six factors that make up the nature of an insurgency or terrorist organization: the type of insurgency, forms of warfare adopted, the strategic approach, popular support, organization, and external support.[21]

O’Neill outlines nine types of insurgencies: anarchist, egalitarian, traditionalist, apocalyptic-utopian, pluralist, secessionist, reformist, preservationist, and commercialist.[22] Criminal insurgencies generally exhibit the qualities of secessionist, reformist, commercialist, or a combination of all three. Rio’s favela gangs are criminal examples of secessionist insurgencies that “renounce and seek to withdraw from the political community (state) of which they are a part.”[23] The gangs control large sections of the city and operate outside of government control, imposing their own rudimentary laws.[24] Reformist insurgencies “target policies that determine distribution of the economic, psychological, and political benefits society has to offer.”[25] Powerful criminal organizations often engage in guerrilla operations and terrorist attacks to affect policies. Pablo Escobar and the “extraditables” engaged in a ruthless campaign of bombings and kidnappings to convince the Colombian government to end the extradition of narcotraffickers to the United States.[26] La Cosa Nostra initiated a similar terrorist campaign attempting to end the government’s anti-mafia efforts.[27] Powerful gangs like the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) lead massive uprisings to challenge government policies.[28] O’Neill’s commercialist insurgencies closely resemble criminal enterprises whose motivation is primarily “the acquisition of material resources.”[29]

O’Neill outlines three insurgent forms of warfare: terrorism, guerrilla war, and conventional war.[30] Criminal groups have been known to employ terrorist attacks to intimidate the population or the government; Escobar’s bombing of Avianca flight 203 being one of the most appalling examples.[31] Guerrilla war requires larger forces that use light infantry tactics against the government to erode its will and capacity.[32] Conventional war is the final phase of Mao’s protracted popular war strategy and is not typically associated with criminal insurgency. However, the presence of narco-tanks and fully submersible submarines indicate that a criminal group hypothetically has the potential to develop a significant conventional force.[33]

O’Neill provides four strategic insurgent approaches: conspiratorial, protracted popular war, military focused, and urban.[34] The conspiratorial method is most closely aligned with a Leninist revolutionary approach where the party captures key institutions and creates a rebellion.[35] The Cali Cartel in Colombia and Cosa Nostra in Italy used similar approaches to corrupt institutions. This corruption however was designed to serve their economic ends rather than to create a rebellion.[36] Mao’s protracted popular war bears some resemblance to gangs occupying complex urban terrain. However, gangs are normally content to dominate their criminal enclaves and do not follow the strategies through. Similarly, urban strategies as outlined by Carlos Marighella[37] and Abraham Guillen[38] match up with criminal terrorist and guerrilla activities but the ultimate goals of the strategy are not pursued.

O’Neill notes that “at least some degree of active popular support is important in all insurgencies.”[39] Mao’s insurgency strategy revolves around the population. He states “it is only undisciplined troops who make the people their enemies and who, like the fish out of its native element, cannot live.”[40] The population plays a role in criminal threats as well. The support of the elites is required to fight criminal organizations because illicit income often flows through legal companies and institutions. Following the assassination of Italian prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, the public turned against the mafia which proved to be important in the government’s campaign against organized crime.[41] However, popular support against DTOs may be less important than in traditional political insurgencies because resources flow from the criminal insurgency to the population rather than from the population to the insurgency.

Organization is also a key aspect of insurgency and the “scope, complexity, and cohesion” of the movement must be examined. O’Neill notes that the insurgent’s strategy will dictate the organization.[42] Guerrilla groups require larger forces than a conspiratorial group. Disunity within the movement is also a critical element to identify. Notably absent from O’Neill’s framework is a structure designed for economic gain which many criminal groups adopt.

O’Neill notes four types of external support for insurgents: moral, political, material, and sanctuary. These various types of support provide the insurgency with the means to challenge the government. Criminal organizations, particularly DTOs, are often primarily supported by external support from international trafficking.

O’Neill’s framework is an excellent starting point for analyzing criminal threats because it establishes a systematic way to observe the phenomenon from a national security perspective. An insurgency framework evaluates criminal groups as serious threats to the state rather than law enforcement issues. This allows the government to identify the support structure and organization of conspiratorial criminal organizations seeking to co-opt the government and large criminal groups pursuing guerrilla operations to displace the state. The insurgency lens also identifies requirements for all elements of national power required to counter the threat and is not confined to a law enforcement response.

Although O’Neill identifies commercialist insurgencies in his typology he does not adequately discuss how an economic goal will alter a traditional insurgency strategy. DTOs and gangs generally do not pursue a conscious strategy to overthrow the government as the strategies selected by O’Neill dictate. Criminal groups engage in terrorist and guerrilla activities in pursuit of limited political or economic goals unlike a Leninist, Maoist, or Foco strategy.  O’Neill also fails to recognize that a criminal group might end up in charge accidently without the use of a coherent strategy.[43]

Gang Studies

Gang studies, like insurgency studies, have evolved over time and are expanding into the spheres of other security studies. Foundational gang studies like Frederic Thrasher’s rigorous study of 1920s gangs in Chicago focused on subcultures and scarcity of opportunity for lower classes.[44] More recent scholarship by Max Manwaring, John Sullivan, Robert Bunker, and Bob Killebrew points to a potential politicization of gangs. Sullivan has posited the concept of a “third generation street gang…a mercenary type group with goals of power or financial acquisition and a set of fully evolved political aims.”[45] Currently the U.S. Department of Justice defines a gang as:

an association of three or more individuals; whose members collectively identify themselves by adopting a group identity which they use to create an atmosphere of fear or intimidation frequently by employing one or more of the following: a common name, slogan, identifying sign, symbol, tattoo or other physical marking, style or color of clothing, hairstyle, hand sign or graffiti; the association's purpose, in part, is to engage in criminal activity and the association uses violence or intimidation to further its criminal objectives;  its members engage in criminal activity, or acts of juvenile delinquency that if committed by an adult would be crimes; with the intent to enhance or preserve the association's power, reputation, or economic resources.[46]

This article derives a framework for gang analysis from the Bureau of Justice Assistance monograph Addressing Community Gang Problems.[47]

Drawing from the work of Carl Taylor, the Bureau of Justice Assistance identifies three gang categories: scavenger, territorial, and corporate.[48] Scavenger gangs are “characterized by impulsive, erratic, chaotic acts.” They are made up of “low-achievers” that are “isolated from mainstream society.”[49] Territorial gangs or turf gangs carve out a defined piece of terrain to control. Control may be limited to the prevention other ethnic gangs from entering or could include the ability to tax the illicit and licit economy. Corporate gangs are motivated by economic profit. These gangs organize to maximize drug sales, human trafficking, or other forms of illicit business. Violence becomes focused on improving profits rather than the senseless acts of scavenger type gangs.[50]

The role of drugs is another critical aspect of gang organization and activities. Gangs can form themselves into corporate type structures that sell drugs efficiently. Other gangs exist with an ad hoc drug distribution system where individual members deal drugs but not in a coordinated manner.[51] Determining the level of support provided by drug sales is an important requirement for identifying the root causes that lead to gang creation.

Gang organization also dictates how a gang will behave and employ violence. Hierarchical gangs especially, corporate types, are less likely to employ violence haphazardly due to high levels of control over members. Horizontal organizations are more likely to employ violence based on low level conflicts. The strength and personality of gang leadership is also a key indicator of how a gang will operate. Leaders that are psychopathic or see violence as a means to increase social status are more likely to engage their groups in aggressive activity.[52] Identification of the organizational type has implications for the development of a successful targeting plan.

The community in which the gang is operating also plays a key role. In well-organized communities with opportunities for illicit gains, corporate gangs are more likely to emerge. In disorganized communities with limited illicit economic prospects, aggressive territorial gangs are more prevalent. Finally, in communities where all opportunities are absent, less powerful scavenger gangs are more common.[53] Access to economic opportunity and social status are also key drivers of gang recruitment. Sociologist Janice Perlman notes the strong incentives for young men to join gangs in the poor favelas of Rio.

At least in the gang, the adolescent boys feel important and powerful. They are armed, they have cash; they wear expensive shoes, shirts, and jewelry; they may have a motorcycle, and they attract the attention of the most desirable young women. It is not hard to imagine a teenager being willing to risk early death for the chance to experience the respect and deference that ordinary people take as their birthright.[54]

Understanding the community and how it interacts with gangs is essential for developing lasting solutions.

The strength of a gang analytical approach is that it highlights the role of cultural and social causes of gang activity as well as economic motivation. A focus on culture is also a critical component of counterinsurgency doctrine but it is often overshadowed by political considerations. Bunker and banker believe that gang culture in Central America is now becoming a generational phenomenon that is displacing western cultural norms.[55] State efforts to reclaim gang territories must include efforts to address social and cultural causes.

Gang studies approaches, however, have difficulty translating to the scale of a gang that is a threat to national security. Gangs like the PCC in Brazil or MS-13 in El Salvador have the potential to challenge the state for control of significant territory. They derive this ability through the use of guerrilla tactics conducted by military style elements with heavy weaponry. These types of attributes require military analysis to develop an appropriate response. Furthermore, as corporate gangs evolve and become transnational organized crime, other methodologies become more relevant.

Organized Crime Studies

Organized crime, like insurgency, is a broad term that has developed several definitions. Currently the Federal Bureau of Investigation defines organized crime as:

Any group having some manner of a formalized structure and whose primary objective is to obtain money through illegal activities. Such groups maintain their position through the use of actual or threatened violence, corrupt public officials, graft, or extortion, and generally have a significant impact on the people of their locales, region, or the country as a whole.[56]

Understandings of organized crime vary considerably. Donald Cressy developed a picture of a highly organized mafia that controlled the illicit economy.[57] In contrast authors like Dwight Smith promote a view of organized crime as an illegal business designed to provide illicit goods and services to the population.[58] Although organized crime and criminal enterprise are often viewed as separate phenomenon they will be treated here as two sub-categories of organized crime. This article extrapolates a framework for analysis from the work of Federico Varese who examined 115 definitions of organized crime. In addition, recent scholarship by Celina Realuyo is integrated into Varese’s discussion of criminal enterprises to provide a more detailed look at illicit business.

Varese outlines possible attributes of organized crime: specialization, hierarchy, enterprise, and network.[59] Specialization separates organized crime from common crime because of the presence of professional criminals. Furthermore, the existence of specific rules and customs required of members establishes a unique culture in the organization. Specialization and professionalism is prevalent in the Japanese Yakuza.[60] The Russian vor v zakone employs an elaborate set of rituals and codes including a system of communication using tattoos.[61] Trafficking organizations however depend less on traditional customs and more on individual competency.  An understanding of member recruitment and training is a component of all three disciplines reviewed in this article. Effective strategies against criminal threats require an understanding of how they attain manpower.

The structure of organized crime is another key area of analysis. Some organized crime groups like Japanese Yakuza[62]  and Cosa Nostra[63] utilize a rigid hierarchical structure. However, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recognizes other formulations. A devolved hierarchy allows for some autonomy for subordinate elements and a hierarchical conglomerate utilizes a governing body to control a diverse group of organizations.[64] The identification of these structures is essential in the development of effective targeting.

Varese also notes the concept of an enterprise structure. Instead of formal hierarchical organizations managed by rules and customs these groups are illegal businesses geared toward making money by providing illegal goods and services.[65] The UNODC calls these groups “organized criminal networks” that are based on the “activities of key individuals” across “shifting alliances.”[66] Under this concept criminal groups are flat organizations that connect with criminal nodes to achieve their goals. This organization is best suited to trafficking groups that use networks to move illicit goods without controlling terrain.

Varese identifies two primary activities of organized crime: monopoly and the provision of illegal goods and services. Criminal groups can attempt to dominate and regulate the illicit economy. Economist Thomas Schelling believes that an organized crime group seeks to establish itself as a “governing authority in the underworld” that constitutes a “hierarchy without competition.”[67] In addition, organized crime groups can move into the legal economy by taxing legal businesses for protection. In post-communist Russia, “violent entrepreneurs” successfully displaced the state as the conveyer of security for the legal economy.[68] If organized crime can effectively usurp the state’s ability to tax the legal economy and threatens the state’s monopoly of force; it becomes a legitimate challenge to the state.

Organized crime alternatively can focus on the provision of illegal goods and services. This model outlined by Dwight Smith better describes trafficking organizations.[69] One of the most effective ways to analyze business oriented organized crime is through a business model. Financial targeting expert Celina Realuyo identifies seven principles for an illicit economy:

1.     Engage in business activities

2.     Maximize profits as main incentive/compensation

3.     Meet demand for goods and services

4.     Secure supply of goods and services

5.     Control supply chains/modes of conveyance

6.     Leverage gaps in local, state, federal, international governance

7.     Use coercion, corruption, and/or violence to maintain power[70]

In addition Realuyo recommends the use of the elements of global supply chain management to analyze a criminal organization: manpower, material, money, and mechanisms. Traffickers and purveyors of illicit services will necessarily adhere to business imperatives to deliver their products. By evaluating a trafficking organization using these business tools, government forces can identify vulnerabilities to target.[71]           

Organized crime models offer several advantages when analyzing criminal national security threats. These models help develop a clear picture of the financial resources of a criminal organization and allow for specific targeting of supply chains and financial assets. Identifying the criminal organizations source of strength allows security forces to effectively attack the group’s main source of income. Organized crime perspectives also emphasize the importance of corruption. A focus on the economic aspects of a criminal group may prevent the government from unnecessarily employing overwhelming numbers of security forces under an insurgency model or ineffectively treating social ills under a gang paradigm.

As with the gang model, an organized crime perspective does not adequately address guerrilla type tactics where a criminal group challenges the government for control of terrain. Furthermore, the model assumes that organized crime is parasitic and is not seeking dominance over a region or government.  Organized crime analysis typically posits that criminal groups prefer stability but in some cases a weak government or no government is better for business.[72]

Additionally, the business model is too purely focused on economic incentives and fails to identify the humans running the organizations. Leaders of criminal organizations are after not only money but power.[73] Pablo Escobar, the quintessential narcotrafficker, sought out government office in a bid to gain political power and recognition.[74] Organized crime is about economic gain but it is also about control, social status, and power.  

Findings and Recommendations

Each of the perspectives reviewed here offer important insights into evolving criminal threats to national security. Separately they fail to develop a comprehensive picture due to changes in the threats they were designed to analyze. Insurgency studies offer important insights into how armed groups challenge the state for political and territorial control. In addition, they provide a detailed understanding of guerrilla and terrorist tactics that have now become a hallmark of powerful criminal organizations. Gang studies have difficulty managing the size and capability of criminal national security threats. However, the acknowledgement of cultural and social causes for criminal violence is invaluable even in cases where gangs have grown to immense size. Although they fail to adequately address political motivations, organized crime models provide an essential focus on the illicit supply chain and business structures of criminal threats. Based on the strengths and weakness of the models discussed here, this article provides a recommended framework that is tailored to address criminal national security threats.


Gang- In a criminal national security crisis, gangs successfully displace the state and control significant territory. Low level corruption is prevalent in government and security forces. Gangs utilize rudimentary guerrilla tactics and formations against government forces and opposing gangs. Gangs receive the majority of their resources through local extortion and retail drug sales.

Mafia- Criminal threats that conform to a mafia typology become a threat to the state by building a powerful web of corruption and parallel governance. Mafia or protection organizations dominate the illicit economy and also tax the legal economy.

Trafficking- Trafficking organizations behave like international corporations and are primarily focused on earning illicit income. These types of organizations engage in drug trafficking, human trafficking, and other movement of illegal goods for economic gain. Violence is used as necessary to manage the enterprise but is limited to avoid government attention. Corruption is also a key attribute required to protect members of the network and move shipments. Trafficking organizations can become a security threat when competition requires them to militarize or attempt to fully co-opt governments.

Hybrid- Hybrid organizations include variants where gangs evolve into mafia or trafficking organizations. In other cases trafficking organizations can hire gangs as enforcers. Additionally, an organization can expand into both trafficking and protection e.g. Los Zetas in Mexico.[75]


Economic gain- criminal organizations that evolve into national security threats may have done so inadvertently. Criminal groups engage in extensive corruption and violence in order to maintain control of their drug routes or prevent government prosecution. An understanding of why increased violence is occurring can be developed by identifying the economic incentives driving their activities.

Political dominance/shadow governance- Although many groups may appear to be economically motivated, often the criminal leadership is also after political power and respect. This was the case with Pablo Escobar who was elected as an alternate congressman and was then removed due to his criminal past.[76] Cosa Nostra operated a shadow government in Sicily up until the 1990s.[77] The desire to be respected and empowered can change the nature of a criminal enterprise and bring it in conflict with the role of the state. Additionally, even if a group remains economically motivated, it can attempt to remove all aspects of state control by fully corrupting the government. For example, the Cali Cartel corrupted the highest levels of the Colombian government, making a critical donation to the campaign of President Ernesto Samper.[78]

Limited or regional autonomy-Criminal groups can also be secessionist and demand territorial autonomy from state control. Gangs in Rio de Janeiro and in Central America control neighborhoods of tens of thousands of citizens. This territorial dominance allows the criminal organizations to establish their own form of rudimentary governance.


Hierarchical- Criminal organizations can utilize a rigid hierarchical structure like the Japanese Yakuza. Trafficking organizations can also be dominated by a single leader like Pablo Escobar or a small group. Other structural options include a devolved hierarchy which allows for sub-unit autonomy or a hierarchical conglomerate where a governing body provides guidance to independent groups.[79]

Hybrid network- The network model is usually employed by trafficking organizations that span the globe to deliver illicit goods. However, gangs, traffickers, and mafia groups can network as a larger underworld. Analysis of a network must focus on the identification of critical individuals and nodes within the network.

Business model- Under the business model, groups form following Realuyo’s seven principles of illicit economies. For transnational trafficking organizations the elements of the global supply chain will also be present.[80] Business structures can be hierarchical or networked but they will be broken into the distinct functions required to conduct illicit business. Analysis should be focused on identifying targetable key individuals and vulnerabilities within the supply chain. 


Coercion- Extortion and the threat of violence are used by criminal groups to maintain control of local terrain and obtain local resources. Analysis should determine the importance of coercion for the group and the physical and personnel requirements involved.

Corruption- Corruption is a vital component of trafficking and mafia organizations. Corruption is used to capture key elements of the state (not unlike a Leninist revolution) and dictate state policies. Identifying and dismantling a the corrupt political network is critical for efforts to defeat powerful criminal groups.[81]

Guerrilla tactics- Gangs use guerrilla type forces armed with military grade weapons to fight other criminal groups and the state. In Mexico, trafficking organizations have developed company sized units equipped with heavy weapons and improvised infantry fighting vehicles.[82] An understanding of military capabilities is critical for campaign planning.

Terrorism- Bombings, kidnappings, and public executions are used to influence government policy and intimidate the population. Analysis should focus on why criminal groups would employ terrorism and how it fits into their goals.

Center of Gravity

Clausewitz describes the center of gravity as “the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed.”[83] Criminal national security threats have three most likely centers of gravity: illicit external income, the local population, and criminal leadership.  Proper identification of the center of gravity will drive the government response.

Illicit external income- trafficking groups draw their power from wealth gained through the transnational shipment of illicit goods. As such their network nodes and finances are the most critical component of the organization. Without these finances corruption and violence cannot be funded or supplied.

Local population- Mafia organizations and gangs rely on extortion, protection, and retail drug sales to fund their operations. In some cases a culture that encourages illegal criminal activity may also actively support criminal groups. For these groups, resources flow from the population and allow them to function.

Personality Driven-Trafficking groups and mafia organizations typically maintain economic goals, content to avoid confrontation and limit violence. However, leaders like Pablo Escobar in Medellin and Toto Riina in Sicily can shift the orientation of a criminal organization from parasitic to insurgent. It may be possible to end the criminal threat to the state by removing confrontational leaders. Decapitation may change the goals and methods of an organization but it will not destroy its capacity, leaving a latent security risk.

Some hybrid organizations incorporate territorial control and local income with illicit trafficking. By diversifying they become more resilient and will likely break into different entities once the primary source of income is destroyed. Analysts should determine where hybrid threats have seams between income sources. Identifying ways to separate the transnational trafficking elements of an organization from its protection elements will simplify a government response.

Root Causes

Cultural/social- Gangs and enforcer groups are often a product of a culture of violence. In underdeveloped regions, young men see gang life as an opportunity to gain respect and economic wealth. Catalysts of violent behavior like shrines to Jesus Malverde in Mexico and gang funded favela funk parties should be identified for government action.

Lack of licit economic opportunity- In many countries there are greater economic opportunities within the illegal economy than in the legal one. The lack of opportunity encourages criminality. In the absence of the legalization of the illicit good being trafficked, alternative opportunities will have to be incentivized.

This example of a composite analytical framework for criminal national security threats provides analysts and practitioners with a starting point for evaluating a criminal threat to national security. As with insurgencies, however, no two criminal groups are alike. One must also take into account the “unique economic, social, and political conditions of the conflict environment” to achieve success.[84]

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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

[2] Bob Killebrew and Jennifer Bernal, Crime Wars: Gangs, Cartels and U.S. National Security, (Washington DC: Center for a New American Security, 2010).

[3] Robert J. Bunker, “The Mexican Cartel Debate: As Viewed Through Five Divergent Fields of Security Studies,” Small Wars Journal, (February 11, 2011),

[4] John T. Fishel, Afterword in Max Manwaring, Gangs, Pseudo-Militaries, and other Modern Mercenaries, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), 167-182.

[5] Killebrew and Bernal, Crime Wars: Gangs, Cartels and U.S. National Security.

[6] John Sullivan, “Third Generation Street Gangs: Turf, Cartels, and Netwarriors,” Transnational Organized Crime 3 (1997).

[7] Ibid.

[8] BBC News, “Gang Strike Paralyses El Salvador,” September 9, 2010.

[9] Guardian, “Jamaica Violence Sees Scores Killed in Hunt for Christopher Dudus Coke,” May 26, 2010.

[10] Tom Phillips, “Twelve Dead and Helicopter Downed as Rio de Janeiro Drug Gangs go to War,” Guardian, October 17, 2009.

[11] Steven Metz, Rethinking Insurgency, (Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute, 2007).

[12] Mark Bowden, Killing Pablo, (New York: Penguin Books, 2001). John Dickie, Cosa Nostra, (New York: Palgrave, 2004), 311-338.

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

[14] Moises Naim, Illicit, (New York: Anchor Books, 2005), 16.

[15] Vladimir Lenin, “The Tasks of the Russian Social Democrats,” The Lenin Anthology, ed. Robert C. Tucker, (New York: WW Norton Co., 1975) 3-12.

[16] Mao Tse-Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare, (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000).

[17] Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare, (Melbourne: Ocean Press, 2006).

[18] David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare, (Westport: Praeger Security International, 2006). Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency, (St. Petersburg: Hailer Publishing, 2005).

[19] Sullivan, “Criminal Insurgency in the Americas,” Small Wars Journal, (2010).

[20] Bard O’Neill, Insurgency and Terrorism, (Washington: Potomac Books, 2005), 31.

[21] Ibid., 15-43.

[22] Ibid., 19-28.

[23] Ibid., 24.

[24] Author observations Rocinha and Villa Canoas favelas, 15 January 2010.

[25] O’Neill, 26.

[26] Bowden, 51-55.

[27] Dickie, 311-338.

[28] Alvaro de Souza Pinheiro, Irregular Warfare: Brazil’s Fight Against Criminal Urban Guerrillas, (Hurlbert Field: Joint Special Operations University Press, 2009), 1-4.

[29] O’Neill, 28.

[30] Ibid., 33.

[31] Semana, “Noticia Bomba,” January 8, 1990,

[32] O’Neill, 35.

[33] John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Narco-Armor in Mexico,” Small Wars Journal, July 14, 2011, El País, “La Tecnología de los submarinos al servicio del narcotráfico,” March 6, 2011,

[34] O’Neill, 45.

[35] Manwaring, 10-33.

[36] Ron Chepesuik, The Bullet or the Bribe, (Westport: Praeger, 2003). Diego Gambetta, The Sicilian Mafia, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1993).

[37] Carlos Marighella, Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla, (Boulder: Paladin, 1985).

[38] Abraham Guillen, Philosophy of the Urban Guerrilla, (New York: William Morrow, 1973).

[39] O’Neill, 96.

[40] Mao, 93

[41] Dickie, 18-19.

[42] O’Neill, 115-135.

[43] John P. Sullivan and Carlos Rosales, “Cuidad Juarez and Mexico’s Narco-Culture Threat,”, Feburary 28, 2011,

[44] Frederic Thrasher, The Gang, (Peotone: New Chicago School Press, 2000).

[45] John Sullivan, “Third Generation Street Gangs: Turf, Cartels, and Netwarriors,” Transnational Organized Crime 3, (1997).

[46] U.S. Department of Justice Website,

[47] Bureau of Justice Assistance, Addressing Community Gang Problems, (Washington DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1999).

[48] Carl C. Taylor, “Gang Imperialism,” in Gangs in America, ed. C. Ronald Huff, (Newbury Park: Sage, 1990).

[49] Ibid., 103-109.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Bureau of Justice Assistance, Addressing Community Gang Problems, 22.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Janice Perlman, Favela, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 323.

[55] Pamela L. Bunker and Robert J. Bunker, “The Spiritual Significance of ?Plato o Plomo?” Small Wars Journal, (2010).

[56] Federal Bureau of Investigation Website,

[57] Task Force Report, Organized Crime, President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, (Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1967).

[58] Dwight Smith, “Paragons, Pariahs, and Pirates: a Spectrum-based Theory of Enterprise,” in Organized Crime Vol 1, ed. Federico Varese, (New York  Routledge, 2010).

[59] Federico Varese, “What is Organized Crime,” Organized Crime Vol 1, ed. Federico Varese, (New York  Routledge, 2010).

[60] Peter Hill, “The Modern Yakuza,” Organized Crime Vol 3.

[61] Vadim Volkov, Violent Entrepreneurs, (Ithica, Cornell University Press, 2002), 54-55.

[62] Hill, “The Modern Yakuza,” Organized Crime Vol 3.

[63] Gambetta, The Sicilian Mafia.

[64] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Results of a Pilot Survey or Forty Selected Organized Criminal Groups in Sixteen Countries, (September 2002).

[65] Varese, 5.

[66] UNODC, Results of a Pilot Survey or Forty Selected Organized Criminal Groups in Sixteen Countries, 19.

[67] Thomas Schelling, “What is the Business of Organized Crime?” in Organized Crime Vol 1, ed. Federico Varese, 261-263.

[68] Volkov, Violent Entrepreneurs.

[69] Smith, in Organized Crime Vol 1,172-199.

[70] Celina Realuyo, Presentation “Illicit Economies and National Security,” Georgetown University, Washington DC, September, 2011.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Paul Collier, “The Market for Civil War,” Foreign Policy, May 1, 2003.

[73] Author interview with Bob Killebrew, Washington DC, 2011.

[74] Bowden, 30-31.

[75] Author interview with Iñigo Guevara, Washington DC, November, 2011.

[76] Bowden, 30-31.

[77] Dickie, Cosa Nostra.

[78] William C. Rempel, At the Devil’s Table, (New York: Random House, 2011), 142-143.

[79] UNODC, Results of a Pilot Survey or Forty Selected Organized Criminal Groups in Sixteen Countries, 19.

[80] Celina Realuyo, Presentation “Illicit Economies and National Security,” Georgetown University, Washington DC, September, 2011.

[81] Author interview with Doug Farah, Washington DC, August 8, 2011.

[82] John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Narco-Armor in Mexico.”

[83] Clausewitz, 596.

[84] TX Hammes, Presentation, Georgetown University, Washington DC July 18, 2011.


About the Author(s)

Michael L. Burgoyne is a former US Army Foreign Area Officer, he served in various policy and security cooperation positions in the Americas including assignments as the Army Attaché in Mexico, the Andean Ridge Desk Officer at U.S. Army South, and the Senior Defense Official in Guatemala. He deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in command and staff positions and served as the Defense Attaché in Kabul, Afghanistan. He is the co-author of The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa, a tactical primer on counterinsurgency. He holds an M.A. in Strategic Studies from the US Army War College and an M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University. He is currently a PhD student at King’s College London.


Outlaw 09

Thu, 12/26/2013 - 2:33pm

In reply to by G. Murphy Donovan

G Murphy--"Calling a wolf a dog doesn't make the wolf a house pet."

So what does one use to analyze the wolf to determine if it is wolf, a wolf derivative, a wolf in sheep's' clothing, a dog, or even none of the above but simply a ground hog?

With the violence levels now being seen in Mexico, Middle and Central America, the building of a parallel governance that is negating the elected governments, with the military now having to use armed copters to pin down vehicles, killing and capturing the cartel leadership which has failed making the follow on leadership generations even more brutal, the expansion into the commercial legal world and now self defense groups taking on both the cartels and the military-heck they are now into the international smuggling of stolen smart phones which is an estimated 40B a year world wide business-----what then is the definition?

Military, criminal, armed commercial operations, insurgency, criminal terrorists, simply just terrorists, armed drug smugglers, or just some angry locals who do not like anyone--what name does one then give it?

In 2008 there were approximately 230 US cities/towns having cartel influence in them ---in 2011 that had risen to 1200, and estimates are now at 1600 US cities/towns having moderate to strong cartel influence.

I have not seen AQ operating in the streets of Tulsa, OK, but the cartels are so what does one use to analyze the so called problem set?

So yes in fact calling a wolf a dog or whatever it is ---is the problem-what one uses to define the wolf is the issue and this article starts the discussion in my eyes.

G. Murphy Donovan

Thu, 12/26/2013 - 6:52am

In reply to by Mike Burgoyne

Your argument, Mike, is a replay of the John Brennan CSIS doctrine with footnotes. If our global involvement in the Ummah is 'crime fighting' then we need to send Arizona state troopers to those Muslim battlefields not soldiers and marines. The Pentagon is not equipped to fight crime. Calling war "crime" is a legacy of Korea, an attempt to put lipstick on a pig. See 'police action.'

The RAND Corporation resurrected this terror as crime nonsense and politically correct analysis parrots the trope ad nauseum. Islamism is a global phenomenon , not necessarily centrally controlled, but global nonetheless. Jihad, among other things, has kinetic dimensions - like terror(a tactic)and war (a strategy). And the motives aren't boodle so much as religious fascism, an ideology no more attractive than the secular variety of yore. And who fights crime with drone strikes anyway?

All the COIN hand wringing is another euphemistic charade. These small Muslin wars are not insurgencies, they are civil or religious wars. The purpose of counterinsurgency is to preserve regimes, not change them. We haven't fought a major counterinsurgency since 1975.

And of course some of the motive of small wars is economic, as are the motives of the Beltway bandits that surround the Pentagon. Even the American Left has broken the code on Islamism. See the Christopher Hitchens' essay on the subject, written for Slate shortly before he died. How do soldiers expect to defeat an enemy when they can't define the threat?

And just because academics like Patraeus redefine warfare in Army manuals, that doesn't mean notions like defeat become moot. We need to get a clue. The Muslim small wars quagmire now goes on longer than Vietnam, in part, because calling war "crime" avoids judgments like defeat - and makes outcomes like victory impossible. Calling a wolf a dog doesn't make the wolf a house pet.

G. Murphy Donovan

Thu, 12/26/2013 - 6:35am

In reply to by Mike Burgoyne

Your argument, Mike, is a replay of the John Brennan CSIS doctrine with footnotes. If our global involvement in the Ummah is 'crime fighting' then we need to send Arizona state troopers to those Muslim battlefields not soldiers and marines. The Pentagon is not equipped to fight crime. Calling war "crime" is a legacy of Korea, an attempt to put lipstick on a pig. See 'police action.'

The RAND Corporation resurrected this terror as crime nonsense and politically correct analysis parrots the trope ad nauseum. Islamism is a global phenomenon , not necessarily centrally controlled, but global nonetheless. Jihad, among other things, has kinetic dimensions - like terror(a tactic)and war (a strategy). And the motives aren't boodle so much religious fascism, an ideology no more attractive than the secular variety of yore. And who fights crime with drone strikes anyway?

All the COIN hand wringing is another euphemistic charade. These small Muslin wars are not insurgencies, they are civil or religious wars. The purpose of counterinsurgency is to preserve regimes, not change them. We haven't fought a major counterinsurgency since 1975.

And of course some of the motive of small wars is economic, as are the motives of the Beltway bandits that surround the Pentagon. Even the American Left has broken the code on Islamism. See the Christopher Hitchens' essay on the subject, written for Slate shortly before he died. How do soldiers expect to defeat an enemy when they can't define the threat?

And just because academics like Patraeus redefine warfare in Army manuals, that doesn't mean notions like defeat become moot. We need to get a clue. The Muslim small wars quagmire now goes on longer than Vietnam, in part, because calling war "crime" avoids judgments like defeat - and makes outcomes like victory impossible. Calling a wolf a dog doesn't make the wolf a house pet.


Sun, 01/06/2013 - 11:39am

In reply to by Mike Burgoyne

Fair enough. My point is, and I think your response confirms it, is that we can draw no bright line between where capabilities surpass "basic criminal" actions, where police do things similar to COIN, and where "standard" LE actions and more specialized "paramilitary" tactics might be used.

I think we can nearly all agree that if a criminal group is using narcotanks and crew-served weapons the "line" between LE and military intervention has been crossed and a military-included response is warranted. However, I cannot process these questions and issue without filtering it through my own, local perspective. With 600 warring gang factions, 500+ homicides, 2700 persons shot, and attacks against police prevalent, Chicago is certainly floating in a very gray area. Though numbers are not as high, other cities face similar threats that render them very "gray."

If the threats we face exist in this gray zone between some form of "standard" criminal activity and a stronger military-capable threat, should not our capabilities and response be similarly "gray" in that we leverage what we can from a military strategy like COIN in order to confront it?

You know me, this is not some hyperbole that demands the police become a militarized force or that we bring out the "black helicopters and vehicle checkpoints." Rather, it's looking to a strategy like COIN and saying "What can we adapt and incorporate into LE to strengthen our capabilities so that we can have a more appropriate response to these threats?"

Mike Burgoyne

Sat, 01/05/2013 - 2:15pm

I'm not sure exactly where the line is but I would say if a criminal group can operate as light infantry (rifles, crew served weapons, anti armor systems, etc) or if they are sporting a fleet of uparmored narco tanks then that would meet the criteria.

I would define COIN as FM 3-24 and its founding docs Galula, Thompson etc. I would say the military and police including the BOPE in Rio are doing something very close to COIN.

Manageable steady state would be criminal groups that can be contained by standard police forces perhaps with occasional use of special paramilitary police units.


Fri, 01/04/2013 - 6:15pm

In reply to by Mike Burgoyne

"If the criminal threat possesses a military capability it may be necessary for police to look at COIN and military methodologies to reduce the threat back down to a manageable level."


In your opinion, what defines "military capability", "COIN methodologies", and "manageable level"?

With your knowledge and experience from Brazil, would you call the approaches of BOPE and UPP two sides of the same COIN (pun intended)?

Mike Burgoyne

Thu, 01/03/2013 - 1:49pm

Great comments and thank you for taking the time to take a look at the article.

I wanted to build on Dr. Bunker's work because I think security professionals are missing some key aspects of growing criminal threats. It becomes easy to say that this threat is a military problem and that threat is a police problem.

In Latin America, you have some states with weak police forces that are forced to deploy their military to counter gang and organized crime threats. They default to counterinsurgency, which I argue may miss some valuable methodologies found in counter OC and counter gang approaches. In other places like in Rio we see "police forces" like the BOPE acting much like a military COIN effort. If the criminal threat possesses a military capability it may be necessary for police to look at COIN and military methodologies to reduce the threat back down to a manageable level.

In the US we have clear roles defined for our very capable police and military. We should acknowledge that other countries don't have that luxury.



Has anyone looked at the work of Canada's RCMP on this subject? Project Sleipnir is the RCMP's OC group capability measurement system. An article on Project Sleipnir was published in Foreknowledge magazine Issue 1, February 2012, page 12, with links on page 13 to related documents. See:

Since Caesar tackled the Cilician pirates criminals and insurgencies have been equitably treated if they are perceived threats to the state. They have no 'rights' as combatants and are subject to military justice at best, or the arbitrary kind of whoever has to deal with them.

While military means have been used to pacify such 'troubles' it is effective only when the subjects are first accessible and, secondly, willing, or foolish enough to stand and fight.

In either situation intelligence is key. The best kind is gleaned from sources internal to the criminal organization, or with access to it. The RUC with its numerous localized posts was able to feed Dublin Castle with enough local intel to enable the British to hold a restive Ireland for almost a thousand years. It was only when this information system was blinded by attacks on the local police that the guerilla war in Ireland began to take on the characteristics with which we are familiar to-day. Rounding up the ring leaders for a mass hanging became almost impossible.
In the Irish model, the turn-coat, coerced or paid informant was also notable - as it is with police investigations of American biker and criminal gangs and terror threats. "Tell us where's the bad guys", still works, sometimes.

The Germans deployed security divisions to tackle 'partisans' in many occupied countries during WW2 with some immediate success but no lasting effects. That was a case where police action was ineffective, but the only game in town. It served no purpose other than to 'protect', and to engender retribution and war crimes charges.

Military solutions to essentially criminal activities are the sledgehammer approach which all too often fail because the skill subset required for effect isn't derived from a military mind, or military training. Best to have a police force first with smarts and moral suasion, and second with the right equipment.


Wed, 12/19/2012 - 10:19pm

This article suggests, to me anyhow, that the best minds of the era are criminal. Could be. An interesting call. I would not advise a youngster against a life of crime.
A high authority, Tom Sawyer, posited that being a pirate was man's highest calling.
In the 19th. century, the lands from the Rio Bravo to Terrra del Fuego were ruled by warlords, termed, "Caudillos." It was 'The Age of Caudillos.' Can you imagine an entire continent teeming with half-wild criminal gangs. Well, it is still pretty much that way.
Since the renaisance, hell, since the beginning, Italy has fearured colorful criminal groupos. Of particular interest, to this self-indulgent scholar anyhow, are the 'Brigands,' early 19th century operators in southern Italy.
The Chinese and Japanese have made contributions, as well...and don't forget India.

Would you rather have your throat slit, or die of boredom?