Small Wars Journal

Criminal Insurgency: Narcocultura, Social Banditry, and Information Operations

Mon, 12/03/2012 - 5:30am

Criminal Insurgency: Narcocultura, Social Banditry, and Information Operations

John P. Sullivan

Drug cartels and gangs are challenging state authority in Mexico and Central America.  This power-counterpower struggle erodes state legitimacy and solvency and confers both economic and political power on the cartels and gangs. As part of this contest, the criminal enterprises seek to remove themselves from state control and act in the manner of "primitive rebels" to sustain a struggle that is essentially a "criminal insurgency."  As part of this contest, the cartels provide utilitarian social goods, form narratives of power and rebellion and act as "post-modern social bandits" to gain support and legitimacy within their own organizations and the geographic areas they control.   Their message is delivered through the use of instrumental and symbolic violence and information operations (including influencing the press, forging a social narrative--narcocultura--where the gangsters are seen as powerful challengers to the corrupt state).  Narcocorridos (folk songs), narcomantas (banners), narcobloqueos (blockades), narcomensages (messages in many forms including "corpse-messages"), and alternative systems of veneration (narco-saints including Jesus Malverde and Santa Muerte) are used to craft these narratives of (counter) power. This essay will examine these dynamics as they are currently unfolding in Latin America and place them in theoretical perspective.

Narco-conflict is an enduring feature of community life in Mexico and Central America (indeed throughout large segments of Latin America).  In Mexico about 99,667 persons have been killed in the struggle for control within the ‘drug war zone.’[1]  The ‘drug war zone’ (Campbell, 2009) is a contested space where narcos (short for narcotraficantes) and the state battle for power, legitimacy and social/cultural supremacy. The resulting Mexican drug war is an internal conflict punctuated by hyper-violence, corruption and impunity as the cartels fight for control of the plazas (lucrative transshipment nodes and routes).  Narratives of violence and power are key elements of this struggle to secure control of the ‘narcoscape’—the political and social landscape of the ‘drug war zone.’

The Drug War Zone

The ‘drug war zone" is the cultural world of drug traffickers (‘narco-culture’ or narcocultura) and security officials who combat drug trafficking. It is a transnational, cultural space where competing forces (states, gangsters, civil society) wage a physical and information war for control of territory, markets, and influence.  Thus the drug war zone or ‘narcoscape’ is a physical and cultural construct where competing actors vie for power.  The battle has kinetic (violent acts) and informational (propaganda and information operations) dimensions.  Both intersect in physical and virtual space (i.e., traditional and new media) where all sides seek to frame political, economic and cultural discourse about the value and control of drugs.

The wars for control of the ‘narcoscape’ are increasingly brutal, with hyper-violence and barbarization shaping discourse within the public sphere.  Characteristics of the conflict (Sullivan, 2012) include:

  • New weaponry (narcotanques or improvised infantry fighting vehicles);
  • Grenade attacks, mass shootings, dismemberments and beheadings;
  • Cartel information operations (including narcomensajes [narcomessages] in the form of narcomantas [narcobanners], narcopintas [narcograffiti], narcobloqueos [narcoblockades], ‘corpse-messaging’--or leaving a message on a mutilated corpse--to shape the operational space);  
  • Kidnappings (levantons), mass graves (narcofosas) and social cleansing (mass targeted murders within cartel zones of influence);
  • Attacks on journalists, mayors, police, and civil society in general;
  • Narcocultura in the form of alternate belief systems such as the cult of La Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde and reinforced by narcocorridos support the narco worldview.

Counterpower and New Media

The onslaught from organized crime (cartels and gangs) challenges and erodes state capacity to govern, negates the rule of law through endemic impunity, and drives humanitarian crises through high-intensity violence and barbarization. New media is central to this quest for power where the interactive impact of violence, corruption and information operations fuels concerted assaults on state solvency (the net result of capacity and legitimacy).  These assaults essentially culminate in ‘criminal insurgency,’ a contemporary form of conflict where crime and politics merge (Sullivan and Bunker, 2012).  As such, cartel information operations and narcocultura are an expression of power-counterpower dynamics (Castells, 2009).  New media helps shape the narcosphere (including drug war and criminal insurgency) by providing narcos and the state/civil society:

  • The ability to communicate in real and/or chosen time, by all parties in the conflict;
  • A means of providing warnings and signaling intent;
  • A means of overcoming narco-censorship;
  • A means of enabling traditional media reportage, as well as an alternative to traditional media;
  • A mechanism to enable civil society and/or narcocultura.

Criminal Insurgency: Violence, Corruption and Information Operations (Info Ops)

It is no surprise that organized crime groups (gangs and cartels) use violence as a tool in the course of business.  Threats, coercion, and instrumental violence punctuate their activities.  That said, these enterprises usually seek to elude detection and prefer co-opting (corrupting) the instruments of state rather than engaging in direct confrontation. Organized crime usually operates in a state of what Sabet (2009) calls ‘collusive corruption’.  Yet as the current crime wars illustrate, these actors can directly confront the state when their interests are challenged (Bailey & Talyor, 2009).  Criminal insurgency is the mechanism of the confrontation with the state that results when relationships between organized crime and the state fall into disequilibrium.

Criminal insurgency presents a challenge to states and communities. Criminal insurgency is different from conventional terrorism and insurgency because the criminal insurgents’ sole political motive is to gain autonomy and economic control over territory.  They do so by hollowing out the state and creating criminal enclaves to secure freedom to maneuver.

The capture, control or disruption of strategic nodes in the global system and the intersections between them by criminal actors can have cascade effects. The result is a state of flux resulting in a structural "hollowing" of many state functions while bolstering the state’s executive branch and its emphasis on internal security.   This hollowing out of state function is accompanied by an extra-national stratification of state function with a variety of structures or fora for allocating territory, authority, and rights (TAR) (Sassen, 2006).   These fora —including border zones —are increasingly contested, with states and criminal enterprises seeking their own ‘market’ share.  As a result, global insurgents, terrorists and networked criminal enterprises can create ‘lawless zones,’ ‘feral cities,’ and ‘parallel states’ characterized by ‘dual sovereignty.’ Criminal insurgencies can exist at several levels (Sullivan, 2012):

  • Local Insurgencies (gangs dominate local turf and political, economic and social life in criminal enclaves or other governed zones);
  • Battle for the Parallel State   (battles for control of the ‘parallel state.’ These occur within the parallel state’s governance space, but also spill over to affect the public at large and the police and military forces that seek to contain the violence and curb the erosion of governmental legitimacy and solvency);
  • Combating the State (criminal enterprise directly engages the state itself to secure or sustain its independent range of action; cartels are active belligerents against the state);
  •  The State Implodes (high intensity criminal violence spirals out of control; the cumulative effect of sustained, unchecked criminal violence and criminal subversion of state legitimacy through endemic corruption and co-option. Here the state simply loses the capacity to respond).

As noted in “Attacks on Journalists and “New Media” in Mexico’s Drug War:  A Power and Counter Power Assessment” (Sullivan, 2011), an increasingly significant component of this violence has been directed against journalists and media outlets in an effort to silence the media so the cartels can operate with impunity. Media outlets have been attacked with grenades, and journalists assassinated, kidnapped or disappeared. Notably, on 18 September 2010, Ciudad Juárez’s newspaper El Diario (currently edited across the international frontier in El Paso) printed an unprecedented editorial ¿Qué quieren de nosotros? In English, simply "What do you want from us?"  Published the day after one of its photographers was murdered, the editorial provides a stark illustration of the intense assault against Mexico’s free press by cartel gangsterism.  The El Diario editorial (translation at Los Angeles Times, La Plaza) read in part:

Gentlemen of the different organizations that are fighting for the Ciudad Juarez plaza, the loss of two reporters of this news organization represents an irreparable breakdown for all of us who work here, and in particular, for our families.

We'd like you to know that we're communicators, not psychics. As such, as information workers, we ask that you explain what it is you want from us, what you'd intend for us to publish or to not publish, so that we know what is expected of us.

You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city because the legal authorities have not been able to stop our colleagues from falling, despite the fact that we've repeatedly demanded it from them. Because of this, before this undeniable reality, we direct ourselves to you with these questions, because the last thing we want is that another one of our colleagues falls victim to your bullets.

Here we see the raw response to cartel info ops and narco-censorship:

An increasingly significant component of this violence has been directed against journalists and media outlets in an effort to silence the media so the cartels can operate with impunity. Television stations (such as Televisa in Tamaulipas and Nuevo León) have been attacked with grenades, and journalists assassinated, kidnapped or disappeared. One of the most visceral artifacts of the cartel counter-power struggle is brutal attacks on journalists.  According to Article 19, in 2011 there were 172 attacks on journalists in Mexico.  These figures include 9 murders of journalists, 2 murders of media workers, 2 disappearances of journalists, and 8 assaults with firearms or explosives against media facilities or installations (Article 19, 2012).  Since 2000, 66 journalists have been killed, 13 journalists have disappeared, and 33 media buildings or facilities have been targets of explosive or firearm attacks (Article 19, 2012).

The cartels don’t seek simple silence and impunity, they notably seek to influence perception, using a type of "narco-propaganda." This strategy employs a range of tools.  These include violent means—beheadings, levantóns (kidnappings), assassinations, bombings and grenade attacks—and informational means—narcomantas (banners), narcobloqueos (blockades), manifestacións (orchestrated demonstrations), and narcocorridos (or folk songs extolling cartel virtues).  Simple physical methods such as graffiti and roadside signs are now amplified with digital media. 

Narcocultura and Social Banditry

Bandits are a longstanding element of Mexican politics (Vanderwood, 1992).  Indeed, bandits form an essential narrative in the power-counterpower discourse of Mexican struggles with the drug lords and narcos.  Hobsbawm characterized this struggle of one of ‘primitive rebels’ challenging the state through ‘social banditry’ (Hobsbawm, 1959, 1969/2000).  Essentially, this discourse stimulates not only political turmoil and insecurity, but also radical social change via ‘criminal insurgency.’  This is ‘social/environmental modification.’ The concept of social/environmental modification is based on research into cartels and ‘narcocultura’ by Robert J. Bunker (Bunker, 1997, Bunker & Bunker, 2010a, 2010b) and reportage on the “Santa Muerte” and “Jesús Malverde” cults by Guillermoprieto (2009) and La Familia Michoacana cartels with its own theological practice by Logan and Sullivan (2009).

Guillermoprieto (2009) defines narcocultura in a broad sense as a “twisted relationship with power” often exemplified by corruption. In a social or cultural context—the one we are examining here—she defines narcocultura in a narrower sense: the production of symbols, rituals and artifacts - slang, religious cults, music, consumer goods - that allow people involved in the drug trade to recognize themselves as part of a community, to establish a hierarchy in which the acts they are required to perform acquire positive value and to absorb the terror inherent in their line of work.

Bunker & Bunker (2010b) define ‘social environmental modification’ as an element of non-state warfare; specifically: “This warfare—manifesting itself in ‘criminal insurgencies’ derived from groups of gang, cartel, and mercenary networks—promotes new forms of state organization drawn from criminally based social and political norms and behaviors.”

Key elements of social/environmental modification include alternative worship or veneration of “narco-saints,” symbolic violence (including beheadings and corpse messaging—i.e., attaching a message to a corpse), the use of narcocorridos (epic folk songs) and social media to spread messages and confer legitimacy on a cartel.[2]  Wormer and Bunker (2010) mention the importance of social media in social environmental modification in the context of gangs and Mexican cartels. A notable example of a band crafting narcocorridos extolling the virtues of cartels is Los Tigres del Norte.  Other forms of messaging conferring potential legitimacy or shaping public perception include narcomensajes (essentially communiqués), narcomantas (placards and banners) and manifestacions (demonstrations).

Together these means can be combined to cast legitimacy on the cartel or gang in a form of post-modern ‘social banditry’ as described by Hobsbawn (2000).

Narcocultura and social banditry are mechanisms for securing cartel and gang legitimacy in the areas they seek to dominate.  They join raw violence and barbarization as tools of social domination and a means of accumulating and solidifying political power (Sullivan & Elkus, 2011). 

This nexus of criminal political economy and criminal insurgency can be viewed as follows (Sullivan & Elkus, 2010):

Relying on a barbarization of conflict that includes beheadings, attacks on police and journalists, and corruption of elected officials and the police.  Increasingly, the cartels have expanded their reach into the state to include the provision of social goods and cast themselves in the mantle of “social bandits” to secure support and legitimacy from the communities and businesses—including Petróleos Mexicanos/PEMEX—from which they extort ‘street taxes.’ The role of police in these conflicts requires an expanded form of policing able to operate in a COIN [counterinsurgency]-like fashion to exert state control over these alternative hierarchies. Conditions similar to those in Mexico are found elsewhere in Latin America—notably in Guatemala—as well as West Africa.  Transnational gangs are altering sovereignty by forging zones of “dual sovereignty” sustained by transnational illicit economic circuits.  The result is a reciprocal criminalization of politics and politicization of crime.

Cartel info ops thus not only seek to silence adversaries and criticism, they become means of extending political reach and reconfiguring the state to a structure that furthers its objectives.  Here cartels both use and are confronted by new media.  As they seek to gain legitimacy—or submission—from the populace on the one hand (also providing utilitarian social goods in furtherance of this objective), civil society seeks to strike back and retain order and security on the other.  Here we see cartels broadcasting their brutal attacks, wearing cartel uniforms, developing and deploying their own encrypted microwave communications networks, exploiting social media, modifying social/environmental space with alternative belief systems, and commissioning narcocorridos to spread or market their words and deeds.

Santitos: Narco-saints and Spiritual Dimension of Narcocultura

The ‘santitos’ or narco-saints are symbols of folk veneration that have become a component of narco culture and ‘primitive rebellion.’ Here narcocultura is directly shaping social belief systems.  This process demonstrates the potentially powerful impact of cartel violence and criminal insurgency on society and its political, cultural, and social institutions (Bunker & Sullivan, 2012).  The narco-saints (Jesús Malverde, Santa Muerte, and the quasi-evangelical constructs of La Familia and the Knights Templar in Michoacán) are part of this cultural/social shaping. Narco-imagery is used to provide justification (or offer solace for committing brutal acts).  It is also used by gang capos to bond gangsters into cohesive bands, and secure legitimacy in the community at large.  The power of this dimension of narcocultura cannot be understated.  As Sullivan and Bunker (2012) noted, criminal and spiritual insurgency are interacting:

Three major threads of social/environmental modification merging with “spiritual insurgency” potentials are found in the Mexican cartel war/criminal insurgency.  These are the cults of Jesús Malverde and Santa Muerte, and the narco-evangelical cartels of Michoacán:  La Familia Michoacana and its splinter-group/successor Los Caballeros Templarios (“The Knights Templar”). The narco-saints are a bottom-up phenomena, while the narco-evangelical cartels are a top-down phenomena.  All engender aspects of social banditry.

La Familia is instructive in this regard. La Familia used symbolic violence as a social statement when it announced itself as an actor in Michoacán’s narco scene.  On 6 September 2006 a group of sicarios (assassins) assaulted the Sol y Sombra nightclub in Uruapan, Michoacán to make a statement.  They threw five human heads onto the dance floor and promulgated a narcomensaje (or communiqué); the message (Logan & Sullivan, 2009):

“The Family doesn’t kill for money; it doesn’t kill for women; it doesn’t kill innocent people; only those who deserve to die, die.  Everyone should know…this is divine justice.”

La Familia still exists and seeks to maintain ‘dual sovereignty,’ but it is joined by a successor/competitor, the Knights Templar, who continue to use spiritual imagery to sustain their faction’s operations.  These two groups draw their example from La Familia’s early leaders “El Chango” and “El Chayo” (respectively José de Jesús Méndez Vargas and Nazario Moreno Gonzáles). While both are out of action, they demonstrated the utility of exploiting spiritual imagery—including their own “bible”—to exert control over their followers.  This imagery was supported by violence and graft. Other narcocults venerate the ‘santitos’ and use symbolic violence and ‘social banditry’ to secure control and influence.   The result is the rise of Mexico’s new narco-religions—the narcocultos—joining the alternative political and economic space.  The Sinaloa factions favor Jesús Malverde and the Zetas favor Santa Muerte.  Indeed, narcocults, narcocultura, narcocorridos, and social banditry are linked (Sullivan & Bunker, 2012).

Narcomúsica and Narcocorridos

Music is a key element of transmitting alternative cultural values in the ‘narcoscape.’  Narcomúsica (narco-music) is an integral component of cartel influence operations (information operations) and is instrumental is defining (redefining) the persona of the outlaw (Simonett, 2006).  The tradition of narcocorridos builds from the ranchera tradition of folk ballads (corridos) that extol heroic deeds. The narcocorrido variant of traditional corridos has extended its reach from the narco subculture to mainstream audiences throughout Mexico and the United States. Narcocorridos extol the virtues of the drug lord and describe, apotheosize, comment upon and lament the deeds of the narcos, projecting the image of ‘folk hero’ and often relating the narcos to Jesús Malverde, Sinaloa’s archetypal social bandit (Simonett, 2006). 

Notable bands and narcocantantes (singers) include Los Tigres del Norte (whose first hit was “Contrabando y traición” or “Contraband and Betrayal’), Los Tucanes de Tijuana, and Banda El Recodo. These notable groups all hail from Sinaloa.  Many of their hits have been subject to local bans making them Corridos Prohibidos (forbidden corridos, also the title of an album by Los Tigres).  The bans haven’t stemmed the mystique and the genre continues to grow in popularity.  Simonett (2006) asserts that the genre began to become popular after the narcos were tolerated and often protected by Mexican officials.

Simonett (2006) observed that narcomúsica is intertwined with images of power: “Beyond the lyrics, narco-music provides the means by which the listeners and practitioners invent, construct, and assert their identities. This music thus cannot be understood properly outside the wider power relations in which it is embedded and that nourish its growth.”

Essentially, the projection of power through narcocultura is at work as narcocorridos frame the activities of the narcos. Narcos enjoy prestige and are viewed as powerful community figures despite their participation in smuggling and other criminal enterprises (including kidnapping and murder).  Many residents view narcotrafficking as an economic activity rather than a criminal enterprise.  Simonett reported that Oscar Loza, president of Sinaloa’s human rights commission, observed that drug-trafficking may be prohibited legally, but not socially.  Indeed, the traffickers view themselves (and are frequently seen as) gallos valientes (brave roosters).

Here the tradition of social banditry comes into play. Bandits have a long history in Mexico.  Indeed, Pancho Villa is often remembered as a ‘trickster’ (a term applied to many current narcos).  Hobsbawm (1969/2000) noted that audacious men who challenged authority (highwaymen, brigands, desperados and other outlaws collectively known as bandits) are often viewed in a positive, romantic light by populations that are excluded from the political and economic mainstream.  This mantle of ‘social bandit’ has been embraced and indeed nurtured by many cartel organizations in Mexico.  The post-modern social bandit (the narco) is viewed as men who not so much right wrongs but serve as avengers who exert power, proving that even the poor and weak can be a terrible force to be reckoned with.  Here the imagery and ethos of the ‘primitive rebel’ (Hobsbawm, 1959) find contemporary resonance.

Edberg (2001) also examines the narrative role of narcos as ‘social bandits’ where the narco persona is in part “constructed, disseminated, and connected with day-to-day practice” via narcocorridos.   For Edberg, it is significant that the corrido form was chosen to transmit this persona.  Edberg notes that a significant number of persons he interviewed understood narcocorridos as traditional corridos.  Others (notably prisoners in the cereso, Juárez’s jail), including youths in the barrios and colonias of the US-Mexico border zone, considered narcocorridos as a reflection of the narcos’ status as ‘big men’ who provide wealth and jobs to the community.  The imagery of the narco (narcocultura) thus is part of their day-to-day reality.  Even the imagery of the AK-47—the cuerno de chivo (goat’s horn)—pervades the ‘atmospheric of the street.’ Edberg also noted that political undertones and overtones were present in many narcocorridos so that many can be viewed as political statements.

Narcocorridos can also be viewed as heroic tales or allegories (Edberg, 2001).  This characterization was especially found in the Sierra where the narcos are viewed as ‘big men,’ political foils, and tricksters who evade US and Mexican authorities while providing (utilitarian) social goods.  The image of ‘trickster’ is one shared by some narcos and El Narcosanto (Jesús Malverde), a santito or narco-saint venerated by many in Sinaloa (and hence tied culturally with the Sinaloa cartel).  Narcocorridos can also be viewed as projecting an image of power—and are thus canciones fuertas or strong songs—that serves as an intoxicant of strength and helps forge group solidarity and identity.

Finally, narcocorridos can be viewed as a marketing tool (much like gangsta rap) to project cartel and gang prowess and power.  Indeed, a recent social trend in Mexico is the Pablo Escobar T-shirt glorifying narco excess and reinforcing the widespread fascination with the symbols of cartel culture among some Mexican youth.[3]   Edberg (2001) noted that “Narco-traffickers themselves, seeing the power of their caricature as a marketing tool in the media, often commission norteño groups to write corridos about them as a kind of advertisement, as a creation of self through the commodified narco-trafficker persona.” This also includes projecting the image of ‘social bandit.’  As such, narcocorridos are a contemporary phenomena that pays homage to transcendent myth where ‘big men,’ reputation (of power and ruthlessness), social banditry and rebellion converge.

Symbolic Violence: Statemaking and Warmaking

Diane E. Davis observed that: “[The] random and targeted violence increasingly perpetrated by ‘irregular’ armed forces pose a direct challenge to state legitimacy and national sovereignty.”[4] According to her analysis, cartels and gangs are “transnational non-state armed actors who use violence to accumulate capital and secure economic dominion, and whose activities reveal alternative networks of commitment, power, authority, and even self-governance.”[5]

Indeed, symbolic violence is an important element in the politics of narco-power.

The sicario (or assassin) is the foot soldier in the cartels’ brutal war against their adversaries—gangs and the state alike. Their brutal tactics, techniques and procedures include social cleansing, assassinations, kidnappings, torture, dismemberment, beheading, persons hung from bridges, rivals boiled in pots to become what is euphemistically called posole (or soup), and at least one recent crucifixion—on Friday, 07 September 2012 Eladio Martinez Cruz was found crucified on a traffic sign in Contepec, Michoacán. Allegedly the 24 year-old was arrested by municipal police for rape and subsequently lynched (taken from their custody) by cartel sicarios, then tortured, castrated, and crucified (other barbaric details scrubbed). The incident was transmitted via social media and the corpse was accompanied by a narcomanta (a case of corpse-messaging).[6]

The result of the interaction of social shaping, symbolic violence and confrontation with the state is the rise of ‘other governed spaces,’ ‘neo-feudal zones’ and ‘criminal enclaves.’  In a report entitled “Drug cartels taking over government roles in parts of Mexico,” journalist Alfredo Corchado explored this cartel intrusion into sovereignty.  He found that: 

The "police" for the Zetas paramilitary cartel are so numerous here — upward of 3,000, according to one estimate — that they far outnumber the official force, and their appearance further sets them apart.  The omnipresent cartel spotters are one aspect of what experts describe as the emergence of virtual parallel governments in places like Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Juarez — criminal groups that levy taxes, gather intelligence, muzzle the media, run businesses and impose a version of order that serves their criminal goals.[7]

As a consequence, “entire regions of Mexico are effectively controlled by non-state actors, i.e., multipurpose criminal organizations," according to Howard Campbell.  "These criminal groups have morphed from being strictly drug cartels into a kind of alternative society and economy. They are the dominant forces of coercion, tax the population, steal from or control utilities such as gasoline, sell their own products and are the ultimate decision-makers in the territories they control."[8]  In a presentation given on 21 May 2010 at the "Conference on Illicit Trafficking Activities in the Western Hemisphere: Possible Strategies and Lessons Learned", Vanda Felbab-Brown, of the Brookings Institution, raised the question:

“The drug trade and other illegal economies generate multiple threats to the United States and other states and societies. At the same time, large populations around the world in areas with minimal state presence, great poverty, and social and political marginalization are dependent on illicit economies, including the drug trade, for economic survival and the satisfaction of other socio-economic needs. It is thus important to stop thinking about crime solely as aberrant social activity to be suppressed, but instead think of crime as a competition in state-making.”[9]

George W. Grayson addresses some of the factors underlying the potential for the formation of conditions conducive to rebellion, social banditry and primitive rebels (Hobsbawm, 1969/2000, 1959) potential.[10]

  • [S]uccess in advancing security, democracy and the rule of law presupposes that the power structure of Mexico fully supports these goals. Although Calderón is a decent man, a large segment of the country’s establishment turns a blind eye to the roots of the turmoil afflicting the Federal District and most of Mexico’s 31 states: the lack of decent education, health care and employment opportunities for the 40 percent of their fellow citizens who eke out a living as rag pickers in fetid slums or subsist on barren postage stamp-sized plots of land.
  • ‘Have-nots’: ignored by elites and exploited by narcos...Lacking other alternatives, these “have-nots” often take jobs as lookouts, couriers, drug growers and hit men for the syndicates. Capos like Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera have developed a cult following highlighted by popular narcocorridos—ballads that venerate the macho courage of the drug lords and the contributions they make to their communities.

Barbarization and narcocultura are complementary activities.  Narcotrafficking is glorified and the “ninis” (youths without jobs or education) and disenfranchised poor seek the refuge of the caudillo or ‘big man’ and his organization.

Conclusion: Social Banditry and the Narcoscape

Mexico’s cartels are evolving distinct political aims.  Narcocultura and ‘social banditry’ are core elements of this evolution.  La Familia (and Los Cabelleros Templarios/the Knights Templar) is exemplary in this regard.  Using social services and infrastructure protection as levers in rural areas and small towns, these non-state actors are building a social base.  In barrios, colonias, towns and cities, they are funding political patron-client relationships to extend their reach.  Reinforced by corruption, propaganda, political marches and demonstrations, as well as social media such as ‘narcocorridos,’ social banditry is a major element of Mexico’s narco-conflict (Logan & Sullivan, 2009 and Sullivan & Elkus, 2009).  See for example the following quotation about a narcocorrido from Guillermoprieto (2009) about “El Chapo” Guzmán, head of the Sinaloa cartel:

“He’s a friend of those who are friends and an enemy of those who are enemies...” The song continues (as paraphrased by Guillermoprieto) “he controls a great deal of territory and it is an all- around good thing!”

Mexico’s new narco-religions—the narcocultas—are helping shape the narcoscape and Mexico’s criminal insurgency.  The cult of Jesús Malverde has ties to elements of the Sinaloa Cartel (not a surprise since the cult originated in Sinaloa) and the Santa Muerte cult has strong influence with members of Los Zetas and the Cartel del Golfo. Guillermoprieto, for example, said the oldest narcocult is the “cult of Jesús Malverde, patron saint of Chapo Guzmán and other Sinaloa traffickers.” She added that the cult of “La Santa Muerte, the Holy Death, Mexico’s newest and fastest growing cult” is associated with the Gulf Coast trafficking group—the Zetas.”  The resulting social/environmental modification is a key component of Mexico’s criminal insurgency.  This is not an insurgency that seeks to overtly run the government, but an insurgency that radically alters power structures, economic access, and cultural life. 

Narco imagery from narcocorridos to narcopintas (graffiti) pervades Mexican life.  The images can’t be avoided on TV, in social media, on the airways, and in the streets on contested, plazas, colonias, cities and states.  The result is narcopolitics.  Certainly market forces are on the rise and marketing narco-imagery is a lucrative adjunct to the drug trade (and likely a viable means of laundering money and sustaining illicit financial flows), but the key impact is political and social.  Cultural artifacts of violence and power (poder) permeate and shape the narcoscape.


Article19. (2012). ”Increases in 2011 Attacks on Journalists, The Authorities Still Do Not Do Their Job,” PRESS RELEASE, Mexico City, 20 March.

Bunker, Robert, (2011). “The Growing Mexican Cartel and Vigilante war in Cyberspace,” Small Wars Journal, 03 November.

Bailey, John and Taylor, Matthew M. (2009). “Evade, Corrupt, or Confront? Organized Crime and the State in Brazil and Mexico. Journal of Politics in Latin America, 1,2, 3-29.

Bunker, Pamela L., Campbell, Lisa J. and Bunker, Robert J. (2010). “Torture, beheadings, and narcocultos,” Small Wars & Insurgencies, 21: 1, March,145-178.

Campbell, Howard (2009).  Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juárez, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Castells, Manuel, (2009) Communication Power, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davis, Diane E., (2010). "Irregular Armed Forces, Shifting Patterns of Commitment, and Fragmented Sovereignty in the Developing World." Forthcoming in: Theory and Society. MIT Open Access Article, 19 April.

Edberg, Mark C. (2001). “Drug Traffickers as Socail Bandits: Culture and Drug Trafficking in Northern Mexico and the Border Region,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 17: 259.

El Diario (2010). ¿Qué quieren de nosotros?, Editorial, September 18 at  Translated at Los Angeles Times, La Plaza, 24 September 2010.

Guillermoprieto, Alma. (2009). “The Narcovirus,” Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies, Spring, pp. 2-9.

Hobsbawm, Eric. (2000, 1969). Bandits, New York, The New Press.

Hobsbawm, Eric. (1959). Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Logan, Samuel and Sullivan, John P. “Mexico’s Divine Justice,” ISN Security Watch, ETH Zurich, 17 August 2009.

Sabet, Daniel. (2009). “Confrontation, Collusion and Tolerance: The Relationship Between Law Enforcement and Organized crime in Tijuana,” Mexican Law Review, Vol. 11, No. 2, September, pp./ 3-29.

Sassen, Saskia. (2006) Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Simonett, Helena (2006). “Los gallos valientes: Examaning Violence in Mexican Popular Music, Trans: Revista Transcultural de Música, 10 at

Sullivan, John P. (2012). “From Drug Wars to Criminal Insurgency: Mexican Cartels, Criminal Enclaves and Criminal Insurgency in Mexico and Central America. Implications for Global Security,” Working Paper N°9, Paris: Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme, FMSH-WP-2012-09, avril.

Sullivan, John P. and Bunker, Robert, J. (2012). Mexico’s Criminal Insurgencies: A Small Wars Journal-El Centro Anthology, Bloomington: iUniverse.

Sullivan, John P. and Bunker, Robert, J. (2011). “Rethinking insurgency: criminality, spirituality, and societal warfare in the Americas,” Small Wars & Insurgencies, 22:5, 742-763

Sullivan, John P. and Elkus, Adam (2011). “Barbarization and Narcocultura: Reading the Evolution of Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency,” Small Wars Journal, 31 August.

Sullivan, John P. and Adam Elkus (2010). ‘Mexican Gangs and Cartels: Evolving Criminal Insurgencies’. Mexidata (30 August) at

Sullivan, John P. and Elkus, Ada (2009). “Mexican Crime Families: Political Aims and Social Plans,” Mexidata, 27 July at

Vanderwood, Paul J., (1992). Disorder and Progress: Bandits, Police, and Mexican Development, Wilmington: SR Books.

Womer, Sarah and Bunker, Robert J. (2010) “Sureños gangs and Mexican cartel use of social networking sites,” Small Wars & Insurgencies, 21: 1, March, 81-94



[1] Molloy, Molly ,(2012). “Mexican Death Toll in Drug War Likely Higher Than Reported,” Phoenix New Times, 26 July at

[2] Narcocorridos are powerful communication tools. Commenting on narcocorridos, Guillermoprieto observes that not only are they linked to traditional epic corridos, but they have a strong association with Mexico’s revolutionary history, especially Pancho Villa, a renowned social bandit.

[3] “Cashing in on cocaine culture? Son of Pablo Escobar sells T-shirts featuring kingpin's image,” NBC News, 03 October 2012 at .

[4] Davis, Diane E., "Irregular Armed Forces, Shifting Patterns of Commitment, and Fragmented Sovereignty in the Developing World." Forthcoming in: Theory and Society. MIT Open Access Article, 19 April 2010.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Robert Bunker (2012), “Mexican Cartel Tactical Note #13: Man Crucified in Michoacán, Mexico,” Small Wars Journal, 10 September at .

[7] Corchado, Alfredo, "Drug cartels taking over government roles in parts of Mexico," Vancouver Sun, 04 May 2011.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Felbab-Brown, Vanda, "Conceptualizing Crime as Competition in State-Making and Designing an Effective Response," Speech at Conference on Illicit Trafficking Activities in the Western Hemisphere: Possible Strategies and Lessons Learned, Brookings Institution, 21 May 2010.

[10] Grayson, George, W., "Mexico Today and the Fight against Vicious Drug Cartels," Mexidata, 03 May 2010 at


About the Author(s)

Dr. John P. Sullivan was a career police officer. He is an honorably retired lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, specializing in emergency operations, transit policing, counterterrorism, and intelligence. He is currently an Instructor in the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California. Sullivan received a lifetime achievement award from the National Fusion Center Association in November 2018 for his contributions to the national network of intelligence fusion centers. He completed the CREATE Executive Program in Counter-Terrorism at the University of Southern California and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government from the College of William and Mary, a Master of Arts in Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis from the New School for Social Research, and a PhD from the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya). His doctoral thesis was “Mexico’s Drug War: Cartels, Gangs, Sovereignty and the Network State.” He can be reached at


Madhu (not verified)

Sun, 12/08/2013 - 3:31pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

As one of the commenters to that site says, amusingly, "What's amazing is how so much money can find its way into the economy without bankers and lawyers to help. And that's really where the drug war has never gone, into the boardrooms and offices of lawyers, accountants and your friendly neighborhood bank."

Big money in big COIN and the war on drugs, for legal and illegal institutions alike....

Sometimes I think the correct reading to do on Chicago and crime is old Mike Royko columns :)…

Madhu (not verified)

Sun, 12/08/2013 - 3:24pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Agreed about the money part. That was the basic idea between the Foreign Policy article I linked earlier, that disrupting money and profits (because policy takes time to work out in a nation like the US where there are strong opinions on multiple sides, it is not about a politician signing on the dotted line, and, anyway, cartels are branching into legal avenues too. Full fledged business empires, apparently.)

You might be interested in this article in chicagomag:

The main issue isn't a strategy for Mexico but a strategy for the US, its policing and its banking systems, etc, IMO.

<blockquote>But are drug cartels the primary cause of Chicago’s violent crime problem? Some criminologists say—and simple logic suggests—that they’re not. Pressed for a specific example of a direct cartel-to-gang pipeline, Andrew Bryant of the narcotics division of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office concedes: “I can’t give you a chain all the way from the top to the bottom.” The connections between a cartel and street gangs, he says, are very loose.

As one senior member of the Latin Kings puts it: “This is far more complicated than a bunch of Mexicans getting together and bringing drugs into Chicago.” He calls the link between the Flores brothers and the streets the “gray area” of the drug trade.

It appears that no one involved in the Flores brothers’ huge narcotics ring had strong ties, if any at all, to Chicago gangs. The twins employed old friends from the neighborhood, not gang members. Antonio Aguilera, for one, was a boyhood friend of the twins’ older brother. Jorge Llamas rescued Margarito Flores from a beating when they were teenagers. Other crew members were brought in by friends or friends of friends.

Violence is bad for business; it scares away customers. A 2000 study by University of Chicago economics professor Steven Levitt and Columbia University sociology professor Sudhir Venkatesh found that the availability of drugs and their prices fell by 20 to 30 percent during gang conflicts. Which is why the drug trade has actually unified rival gangs, or at least pushed some into an imperfect détente, says Brian Sexton, head of the narcotics unit at the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. “They’ve realized that . . . if I can sell you dope, and you can sell it, and I can keep selling you dope, and I’m making money, what do I care about Folks or Peoples?”</blockquote>

Supposedly, crime overall has dropped throughout the US including Chicago, although there are increased trends in parts of the city. These varying trends complicates analysis.

Outlaw 09

Sun, 12/08/2013 - 2:43pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert---CTF agreed is not a cure all but it does give one a chance to understand and observe the ecosystem called a TCO----especially as the TCOs are branching into legal business ventures, buying companies, and controlling a large number of the means of production in say Mexico.

At what point does say the illegal side get replaced by the legal side as the legal side brings just as large a win as does the illegal side but does not have the negative side effects.

I think in fact Mexico is in the middle of this subtle TCO shift---we can see this in their shift away from say cocaine and more into meth 1) from a margins perspective ie profits and 2) they control the legal businesses doing the production.

Meaning now they control the end to end of a complete business cycle.

Know of no single insurgency past or present that did not need money.

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 12/08/2013 - 1:32pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Organized crime exists because there is so much money to be made through the pursuit of those illegal markets. One must either make the market go away, or make the market legal.

Anything else is only going to mitigate the activity at best.

The US must own the fact that it is our domestic policies in regard to a handful of drugs that creates the massive illicit narco industry that is so disruptive to Mexico. The cure to Mexico's problems lies fully in our hands.

The war on drugs is a failure because we have placed the root cause of the illicit drug market into a "sanctuary" of our own making. We protect the root cause while we attack those who naturally come to exploit the opportunity we have created.

The war on terrorism is failing for much the same reason. The roots, the energy of the system, rests in the nature of the relationships between systems of governance and the people affected by those systems of governance. Illegal and violent challenge of governance is fundamental and natural when these conditions exist and when the affected populations perceive they have no legal recourse to their grievances. Once again, we have been placing the root causes of terrorism into a sanctuary our own making; protecting the drivers of the conditions while we seek to defeat those who rise to challenge the same.

Step one to turning both of these failed approaches around rests in redfining the problem. Attacking threat finance may disrupt a critical enabler for waging such challenges against governance, or may reduce the profits of conducting such illicit businesses, but it is no cure. Often it has little positive effect at all. Interdictions of drug shipments to the US, though often significant, have had no impact on supply or cost. It is a child's game of hide and seek on steroids. Big tactics, small strategy. Attacking threat finance is no way to cure the drivers of terrorism or insurgency either.

Governments, being made up of humans, tend to not take ownership of their causative roles in these types of challenges. After all, the government is by definitions the legal actor and the challenger is the illegal actor. Almost always true, and equally, almost always moot.


Outlaw 09

Sun, 12/08/2013 - 5:38am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert---if one takes this article by Sullivan and combines it with an article in SWJ from 2009 concerning counter threat finance then one sees an analytical tool for Mexico and other countries having TCO difficulties.

Now comes the core discussion taken from the recent SWJ by Dave Maxwell concerning UW and the need for a national strategy---which we do not have for Mexico regardless of what politicians say.

The issue again comes back to the term conflict ecosystem---which has from what I understand a group of supporters inside the CTF world.

This below was taken out of that CTF SWJ article and I think it bridges what the MC and SF learned in VN to the Iraq/AFG events and now to TCOs.

Flip the terms IED in the article and substitute something for Mexico and the article from 2009 is current in 2013 without a lot of effort.

"Targeting and assessing the greater illicit funding mechanism within conflict ecosystems demands the same below-the-waterline tacit knowledge, situational understanding, and intelligence creation that most complex and unconventional operations require while keeping local populations out of the fray.

CTF and other Irregular Warfare efforts need an accurate contextual assessment identifying the nature of specific activity and the culture of the various ethnic groups involved to precisely apply the use of force or countermeasures while gaining (and retaining) legitimacy in the eyes of the civilian population.

This requires understanding and circumstantial application of history, society, economic infrastructure/ecosystems, local/regional politics, tribes and clans or social ties, and legal structures.

Combining typical joint-oriented preparation of the environment/battle-space with CTF doctrine details will require going beyond the capabilities in traditional financing theory and forensic techniques of transactional dates, amounts, sources of transactions, and personalities involved to more accurately identify, detect, predict, target, and actively interdict threat, terrorist, and / or illicit criminal finance activities.

Lessons learned from Vietnam’s Marine Corps Combined Action Program (CAP) irregular warfare mission strategy can be applied to today’s Illicit Finance networks:
Destroy VC [adversary] infrastructure within the [micro/macro-] area of responsibility
Provide public [financial] security and help maintain law and order
Protect friendly [value transfer] infrastructure
Protect bases and communications within the villages and hamlets
Organize indigenous intelligence nets
Participate in civic action and conduct propaganda against the VC [threat finance networks]"

Outlaw 09

Sat, 12/07/2013 - 3:52pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert---then one is really talking about what Kilcullen termed "conflict ecosystem" and who then ditched it after leaving Iraq only to recently using it again in reference to his new book.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 12/07/2013 - 1:34pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

To solve a problem such as these, one must reduce or remove the "energy source" behind the movement's primary purpose. So long as that energy source remains active, someone will come along to exploit it.

So for the current massive scale of organized crime in Mexico to drop to levels that are not so disruptive to life and governance there, one must address the energy source of this massive, illicit market. The market won't likely go away easily, but making the market licit only takes moral courage, the stroke of a pen and a plan for managing the licit market that emerges.

For insurgency, the energy source is in the nature of the relationship between some distinct population (or many such populations) and the systems of governance (formal or informal, domestic or foreign) that affect their lives. Not much about "effectiveness" IMO, at least not directly, but more about how the affected population FEELs about the governance and their ability to legally address the aspects they find intolerable. If no effective legal means for fine-tuning governance exists, then the energy for some form of illegal change will build. It may lay latent for years, until some catalyst moves it to action. We tend to blame the catalyst rather than the causative factors of governance, and to blame and seek to defeat those who act out rather than address the causative factors of governance that created this energy source to begin with.

Outlaw 09

Sat, 12/07/2013 - 12:34pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert---your are right about a lack of a strategy--right now I have seen virtually nothing on a strategy of some sorts.

These following paras from by the way a really good above article as it ties nicely to a recent TED article on the business genius of the cartels---goes to show just how critical a strategy is and right now we are simply reacting at the tactical level when the cartels have moved on to a solid stage three in their strategy.

What concerns me is the fact that one can take the somewhat standard terms from say a nationalist insurgency and layer them over an criminal insurgency and they make sense even in the criminal world. Mao was not that foresighted although the Chinese Communists were definitely into as well the drug business with the early Triads as a financing mechanism and a way to undermine the West.

"The onslaught from organized crime (cartels and gangs) challenges and erodes state capacity to govern, negates the rule of law through endemic impunity, and drives humanitarian crises through high-intensity violence and barbarization. New media is central to this quest for power where the interactive impact of violence, corruption and information operations fuels concerted assaults on state solvency (the net result of capacity and legitimacy). These assaults essentially culminate in ‘criminal insurgency,’ a contemporary form of conflict where crime and politics merge (Sullivan and Bunker, 2012)."

"Criminal insurgency presents a challenge to states and communities."

"Criminal insurgency is different from conventional terrorism and insurgency because the criminal insurgents’ sole political motive is to gain autonomy and economic control over territory. They do so by hollowing out the state and creating criminal enclaves to secure freedom to maneuver."

"Criminal insurgency is the mechanism of the confrontation with the state that results when relationships between organized crime and the state fall into disequilibrium."

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 12/07/2013 - 11:41am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

When we overly focus on superficial factors to categorize a problem, we inevitably end up attacking the symptoms rather than the problems, and invariably make those problems worse.

Examples are our CT approach to go after terrorists and terrorism. These are problematic symptoms of much deeper problems. By overly attacking these symptoms we are racking up tactical victories while at the same time contributing in major ways to our strategic failure.

Lumping organizations by their shared ideology, or shared tactics, or shared campfire also creates easy targeting for tactical success, but horrible conflation of more important factors that leads to strategic setbacks.

I think we need to work very hard to appreciate what a problematic actor's primary purpose for action is, and what is his relationship to the population he works within.

This tells us if he is an illegal drug businessman, or a nationalist insurgent, or a foreign actor (state or non-state) conducting UW, or a foreign fighter. Each demands a different solution to achieve strategic success. Once we begin to bundle, label and engage by primary purpose for action and relationship to the local population, then I believe we will begin to achieve greater strategic success. The problem is that such an approach is much more difficult and will drive tactical scores down.

So far we prioritize keeping our tactical numbers up over getting our strategic numbers up. Somehow we must change that culture of immediate gratification. With these types of populace-based challenges, the sum of tactics rarely adds up to strategy. One must put strategy first, and then design tactics to support that strategy. Otherwise we simply have "the noise before defeat."

Outlaw 09

Sat, 12/07/2013 - 9:26am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert--what if though the criminal organizations initially while not interested in attacking the governance side but as "the business" expanded and the governance piece was standing in the way ----and one has the ability to transform that governance via money, extortion, fear, and direct violence into a cooperative partner via a shadow government of corrupted politicians, polices and laws-are they in fact now a criminal insurgency ie the four following things are in fact now a given in Mexico;

1. internal although I would argue they are now international in scope,
2. illegal although now I would argue they straddle both the illegal and legal side at least in the business world,
3. poluace based which they are and are expanding to all of Mexico
4. political challenge----which is ongoing and has sidelined/inhibited the current government via corruption, extortion, violence, and now legal businesses

Bill C.

Fri, 12/06/2013 - 10:50pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Could we look at these matters in this way:

The primary purpose of action -- for both the legal and the illegal actor -- is power, control and profits.

The distinction between the legal and the illegal actor is to be found in how each actor seeks to obtain power, control and profits.

The legal actor seeking to obtain power, control and profits via legal means (occasionally) while

The illegal actor seeks to obtain power, control and profits via illegal or illegitimate actions/activities.

Thus the distinction between the legal and illegal actor to be found not in what each actor seeks to obtain (in both instances, power, control and profits) but only in how each actor seeks to obtain these items; legally or illegally.

(I had thought to suggest that a difference could also be found in the degree of ambition of each actor. Herein suggesting that the legal actor might have greater ambition than an illegal actor (the legal actor, for example: wishing to rule, control and derive profits from an entire state). But, considering the scope of certain international criminal enterprises, this argument looked like it might not hold water.)

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 12/06/2013 - 9:14pm

I'll just comment on the title.

ALL insurgency is "criminal." After all, the only difference between insurgency and democracy is legality.

An insurgency requires four things, and if any is missing it is not insurgency: internal, illegal, populace-based, political challenge. Change illegal to legal and one has democracy.

If the primary purpose for action is profit rather than political it is NOT "insurgency" regardless of how much the activity grows to challenge governance. A title applied to a problem must suggest a family of solution. The solution for illegal profits is RADICALLY different than the solution for illegal politics.

We will be more successful in our solutions when we become more careful in our labeling.



Sun, 12/08/2013 - 2:39pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

That is an out standing video!!!! Says things I have been saying for years. Mexico is one big Family or group of Families, they all know each other and they know who is doing mystery to solve. I would also add that NAFTA(whose goal is to abolish borders) is loved by these DTO's because it takes control of the Mexican products and shipping Regulations out of US courts and Regulators and places it into the hands of the WTO,etc. which have no idea how they are being exploited by such DTO groups or rather they don't care...just keep the products flowing both legal and otherwise.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 12/06/2013 - 3:14pm

This is an excellent TED discussion on the cartels---Google the following to find the TED link.

Rodrigo Canales: The deadly genius of drug cartels

Outlaw 09

Thu, 12/05/2013 - 3:09pm

Caught this today on borderlandbeat and it reinforces the article and should make some people stop in their tracks and ask the question---when we were off fighting two wars over the last ten years that really had no impact on the homeland---did we really miss the true war that will impact us greatly over the next ten years?

This is the true threat to the US--- not AQ as the last time I checked AQ does not have the sheer number of fighters and the sheer amounts of money that the transnational criminal organizations currently have and they are directly on our border whereas AQ is not the last time I checked.

Between 2012 and 2013, only the Mexican Army detained 473 minors, 61 of them girls, for being part of drug gangs and organized crime. These are the “niño sicarios”, who are capable of killing with a firearm or by cutting them, beheading, transferring drugs and drug money, consuming drugs, and making many women and teens become sex slaves.

According to information from the Network for the Rights of Children in Mexico (Red por los Derechos de la Infancia de Mexico), the average age of the “niños sicarios” is 13 years and the Public Safety Committee of the Chamber of Deputies of the country revealed that there are 30,000 underage children who are engaged in drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, smuggling, piracy, and murder. The kids, according to reports from public and private agencies, can earn between $1-3,000 a month, although some even receive this amount by committing one or more crimes. There are reports that they can be paid between $150 and $200 a week just by collecting information on the movement of the police and the army, and also by delivering data on gangs or rival groups.

Bill C.

Thu, 12/06/2012 - 10:34am

So: How to look at insurgency, terrorism, criminality -- and community, state, societal and global difficulties/instability generally -- in the 21st Century?

As the price that must be paid in order to achieve our goal of transforming states and societies such that they might better benefit from and better provide for the global economy.

"Our" and "their" military, police and intelligence forces needing to be developed, fielded and employed with this initiative -- and its adverse consequences -- fully understood, accepted and planned/provided for.

Thus, as "we" (via diplomacy, development and defense) and "they" move to transition states and societies toward our values, attitudes and beliefs -- and toward our way of life and way of governance -- "we" and "they" must come to fully understand that there will be, logicially, significant periods and diverse types of instability (insurgency, terrorism, criminality, etc.,) associated with such a monumental transition.

The theory that such a epochal transformation/transition could be -- because of the universal appeal of our way of life and our way of governance -- achieved (1) seamlessly, (2) without significant danger and difficulty and (3) without adequate and innovative preparations now being understood to have been grave error.

Thus, should we look to blame narco-terrorism/narco-culture today, for example, not on such things as supply and demand; but, rather, on states and societies who -- via modernization -- have become unhinged from their values, attitudes and beliefs; forces which, in the past, would have kept such problems well in check?

Consumers this is a consequence of relations in society. It could be said that drug users from poverty, but in fact they use all layers of society. The drug is strictly a medical appointment on doctor's orders. Addicts are very dangerous for society


Fri, 12/13/2013 - 4:56pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

By "sits" I meant their opinion, a great portion of which you have accurately captured. Thanks.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 12/12/2013 - 3:46am

In reply to by JohnBertetto

John---the Feds are not really sitting on the fence as they still raid even where there are State Laws in place---the question of WHY is rather simple.

If one really looks at what the DEA earns in a fiscal year from monies taken during raids, confiscations, RICO etc---it goes into literally the hundreds of millions of dollars that flow back into the Fed coffers.

DEA has become a massive transnational law enforcement organization so who would want to give that up?

So if the Fed really wanted to treat the addicted--the money is already there so I never believe for a moment the Fed side wants to treat the issue.

Even if all 50 States passed State level drug laws-Fed law rules---meaning until Congress passes a central Fed law DEA will never back down--they have gotten enormous as an organization and that makes it all about jobs and positions of power.

This was taken from a recent weapons smuggling for drugs deal by a Greek--goes to their transnational form which many Americans do not really understand:

Mr. Bharara praised the outstanding work of the Special Operations Division of the DEA, as well as the DEA Panama Country Office, the DEA Madrid Country Office, and the DEA Copenhagen Country Office. Mr. Bharara also thanked the U.S. Department of Justice Office of International Affairs and National Security Division, the U.S. Department of State, and the Government of the Republic of Panama.


Mon, 12/16/2013 - 8:23pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

I agree Outlaw, the politicians either don't know, don't care or worse both. I agree with your assessment, the last 12 years has got us looking under the wrong rocks. While the events that transpired on 9/11/2001 is something that should be a priority with our national policy makers and leaders, we shouldn't lose focus on the other growing menaces out there; namely our lack of fiscal responsibility that is taking us to the brink economically, a drug "war" that is consuming all and becoming a real threat that is starting to spill over the border into our country and events in Asia that could be the beginning of something real big. What's the saying, you're never ready for the next war that you find yourself in?

Outlaw 09

Sat, 12/14/2013 - 7:23am

In reply to by Condor

Condor---you touch on a area that is sorely lacking---do our politicians really understand what is going on down south---doubt it. Do our politicians really care ---doubt it. Do they understand that the cartels are already operating nicely within their own districts---no. Do our national level decision makers really understand UW-no not really. Do our military decision makers really know what is going on down south and understand really what transnational criminal organizations do and how they---doubt it.

I have seen more open discussions on the problem here in SWJ than in all our newspapers with all of their combined supposed investigative journalists---when a blog like is driven by a few dedicated individuals concerned about the problems tells you where the interest of most Americans lies---unless they are tangated by the drugs or related violence most Americans could not care.

I personally think that our involvement for over 12 years with AQ has pulled our national security in the wrong direction.

Most Americans would be stunned by the sheer hundreds of millions of dollars that the DEA pulls into the Treasury every year from raids, RICO etc.---this money alone could pay for addict rehab if used for that but it flows into funding of the government and now who wants to reduce a cash cow for the government---certainly not the politicians of the current breed.


Fri, 12/13/2013 - 8:50pm

In reply to by JohnBertetto

So we can agree then that the policies of the last 30-40 years have failed? Good. Do I think there are currently worthwhile programs out there, yes. Will there always be a need for good programs, yes. Do I think the demand and policies that only fuel an illicit trade based off human wants/desires/addictions should continue in their current state when it's obviously costing billions of dollars, flooding our prisons and causing wanton death and destruction in its wake, no. Speaking of prisons, its a shame when people go there and become a) bigger junkies than when they were on the outside and b) hardened criminals because they have to in most cases to survive. So I think sending people to prison for drug convictions is ludicrous unless they already committed some sort of violent criminal offense. Do I think we should spend money on prevention, yes. An old saying "an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure". With that being said, we must be realists. There will always be those will commit to destroying themselves, just as there will always be war. What I do want is policies that minimize the damage and don't put innocent people in the crosshairs while bankrupting the state in a losing "war". Human nature is something we can not altar or change, but we can educate and try to make a difference. And I think a stable society where people can be productive citizens may be one of the best policies to help prevent the spread of this stuff. I sometimes wonder if the politician actually get out of their DC offices and go drive around their constituencies towns. What I see is a growing third world county in many parts of the US with small islands of wealth and prosperity. Maybe that's just the breaks with globalization and becoming a service based society. Like I said, I don't have all the answers but I'd sure like to try and find a way to reduce this growing epidemic.

And I forget to mention in my previous comment, my first 14 months out of the Marines I spent taking care of my dad because he had wrecked his body and had become bed bound for almost a year. You've never lived until you've had to give your own father a bed bath because he's crapped all over himself cause he can't control his bowels and is too week to even move. So yes, I know first hand what the consequences are of people who, when they are younger, make poor choices and become addicts.


Fri, 12/13/2013 - 5:05pm

In reply to by Condor

I agree that new strategies must be developed, and I agree that the "War on Drugs" has been less than effective. However, I do not believe that part of the solution is to legalize - and possibly regulate - drugs like heroin.

An interesting comment you made: "rarely can one intercede with an individual who is bent on destroying their lives..." This has wide implications for the perpetuation of DARE programs, GREAT programs, and programs within prisons aimed at "rehabilitation." The follow-up questions to me, if the above statement is factual, are "Do we invest in programs aimed at affecting decision-making if that effort is for naught?" and "How do we determine who has made that decision?"


Wed, 12/11/2013 - 11:41pm

In reply to by JohnBertetto


I respect your sentiments and the direction from which you are approaching this subject. As I stated in a previous comment, I by no means have all the answers to this highly complex issue nor am I an "especially brave man". Here is what I do know. Growing up, I was surrounded by drugs and alcohol and saw first hand their short and long term effects on the human body and mind. Both of my parents liked both and so did their friends. I remember as a young boy seeing people doped out of their gourds. Fortunately, I had grandparents and two uncles (both retired Marines now) who stepped in and raised me to be an accountable and responsible man. Fortunately I was able to break the cycle. I have never done illicit drugs, not once, I drink sparingly and I graduated from college and proceeded on to a career with the Marines eventually earning my wings and flying for 10 years prior to my departure from the Marines.

With that being said, it became painfully obvious to me as a young person that rarely can one intercede with an individual who is bent on destroying their lives, rather it is with legal or illegal "drugs/narcotics/alcohol/paint thinners/etc". Are there exceptions to this rule? Yes, but sadly many who have "addictive" personalities will continue on with whatever bad habits they can lay their hands on. My mother died last year about this time and was in poor health the last 20+ years of her life. My father is still alive but physically his body is wrecked and he's just over 60 years old. Late in life I had an epiphany that I shouldn't (and won't) feel sorry for either of them. They made choices and now have to live with those consequences. Many people over the years tried to intervene and not one time was it ever successful. Thus I had to live a life not ever really getting to know what it was like to have "real parents" like so many of my friends had when I was growing up.

Now, getting back the issue at hand. We as a society only have so many options to deal with this issue. Criminalization can't be seen as a success today or do you differ with that opinion? Lets face it, the demand has only grown over the years and has fueled a tremendous illicit trade that has grown in such great proportion that it is now challenging the authority of nation-states. Countries such as the US have been fortunate that we have had for many years the ability to pour copious amounts of money into the problem and yet the issue has only become larger than life. Ironically it is the demand in this country that has so fueled this devastating issue. So what's the solution?

We've criminalized it only to see billions if not trillions of taxpayer money vanish without any success in this "war". Meanwhile the narco culture has only grown stronger around the world. Now the US has run out of money at the Federal level and many states are also insolvent. Exactly how do you fund a war when one side is profitable and the other is broke? When I lived in California for a few months back in 2011 (my home state by the way), if I remember correctly the state was 12 BILLION in the hole and yet the California state penal system was costing the taxpayer something like 6 BILLION a year to operate. I could be wrong on these numbers but either way it is highly illuminating about where our society seems to be heading. You mentioned that if we "legalized" drugs we would be opening Pandora's Box, I submit to you that was opened years ago.

So our choices are to continue with a failed strategy or choose another course. I think it's becoming obvious that nothing we are currently doing despite tremendous expenditures in wealth are going to change the direction. Thus we can remove the criminal element to this issue by "legalizing" it, but as was mentioned we won't know the full scale affects until such a move is made. Personally, I don't think that by doing so we would "open the flood gates" because I'm not convinced that people would flock to the drugs. Lets face it, those who already do are inclined to do it will now be able to do it but the end result is still roughly the same. We still spend gobs of money treating these issues PLUS we currently have to fund the penal system due to its current "illegal status". If we don't go down the road of legalizing it and if our current strategy isn't working then what's next. Do we declare an "actual war", one that takes it out of LE and hands it over to the military? I'm sure we could unleash the "drones" and SF guys to run wild in the countries where this stuff is grown but I doubt that won't happen as we'd be inciting a full scale riot/war by the rest of the countries in the world who don't already hate us.

My questions to the both of you is this: what is the correct strategy for dealing with this issue? How do we continue to fund it? Is it morally just and right to continue to let out murders, violent felons, rapists and child molesters back into society due to "prison crowding" when about HALF of the people in prison are there for drug convictions? Should we become more draconian with our prison system like some other countries in the world are; in other words, you go to prison and most likely don't survive the first few years due to the environment? Are our priorities as a nation correct when elder citizens who were productive law abiding citizens grow old and become too poor to afford quality health care and/or rest home care all the while we are housing MILLIONS of "criminals" because they did some drugs and on top of that we often are paying for them to get college degrees etc?

In regards to the last point that was illuminated about the Swiss and their refusal to supply narcotics to individual that they knew would be detrimental to the individual, should I feel sorry for someone who is already bent on destroying themselves? What does bother me is when these individuals and their actions and demands cause harm to innocent people by the blossoming violence due to the drug trade or the wanton disregard for people and their property when they rob or murder to support their habits. I mean, this stuff is already happening at a grand scale so how exactly will it be different if the "legalize" option was chosen and tried?

Lastly I don't mean to denigrate those in LE or any other agency that are combating these issues. Many of my friends are AD LE and/or retired. It's just my observation that it seems our past decisions have lead us nowhere near an actual solution because the problem is becoming exponentially worse. So it seems that we are getting to a juncture where something radical has to happen with this issue. I think it's only a short matter of time before this issue becomes a major dilemma within this country otherwise, especially if our inability to control our government budgets cause major cuts and/or holes within the very programs we currently rely on. Prior to departing California, the 3, yes 3, state prisons within 20 miles of my hometown were handing out pink slips to all COs that had less than 10 years with the penal system. That should be cause for concern.


Wed, 12/11/2013 - 4:51pm

In reply to by Condor

I don't believe a prohibition against the the manufacture, sale, possession, and use of a highly addictive narcotic that can cause such levels of addiction that addicts willingly engage in criminal activities (theft, burglary, and robbery) in order to finance not so much the high but the prevention of withdrawal and cause such demonstrably calamitous health effects that often hospitalization is required can be called "puritanism." Given the American penchant for creating both private and public sector commitments to treating the effects of addiction - and those things associated with it such as homelessness, medical needs, clean needle exchanges, treatment centers, job training programs, etc. - I think we would find a great majority of our time and effort as a society working to counter the devastating effects of heroin addiction. Revenue generated through taxation would likely be turned around to fund such programs - and there remains still the issue of having to get past the moral/ethical hurdle of generating revenue based upon American's willingness to destroy themselves. I paints an ugly picture to imagine a new high-speed rail system paid for by - and driven geographically around or over - the homelessness and addiction that funded it.

As far as controlling the purity, I don't see this being a solution either. If the purity levels are low, the demand for higher-grade product perpetuates an illicit market for that high end. If the purity levels are kept high, you create an illicit market for a lower-grade product that those in lower economic brackets can more readily afford - and the potential for "heroin robberies" akin to bank robberies. You could produce or regulate the production and availability of both lower-grade and higher-grade heroin, but this still creates the bizzarro scenario where American government has spent the better part of a century endlessly declaring the evils of drugs suddenly turning an absolute 180 and becoming a heroin quality control inspector. Another issue would be levels of taxation themselves - tax too high and you perpetuate the illicit market; too low and the revenue does not keep pace with the cost to regulate/counter ill affects.

Interestingly, my home state of Illinois will become somewhat of a testing bed for this line of inquiry. The recent Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act will create fairly-unregulated marijuana distribution centers for those whose medical condition and doctor's prescription authorize marijuana use - and the act further specifies "quality control," requiring TCH levels around 40%. We will see how this impacts street-level narcotics sales. Also interesting, the federal government is unwilling to become involved in any of the discussions - let alone operations - relevant to this Act or it's implementation/enforcement. This if nothing else is a barometer of where the fed currently sits on such issues.


Wed, 12/11/2013 - 1:09am

In reply to by Condor


The Sicilian Mafia control heroin production in Pakistan so I suggest it is safe to say they - or their mainland cousins- will do the same in the US. They will ensure that their customers get the very best heroin from the get- go. No one will stop them as they have mountains of the real stuff already. Think of it as an introductory offer.

The mind boggles at the carnage that will unleash. I imagine you are familiar with what happens to the human body when they smoke pure heroin so I won’t bother with what that entails. But one problem you may not have considered is who will you get to hand over the product to the customer? I worked with some folks from the Swiss program and they essentially refused to do the job. Send in the Marines perhaps?

The simple reason was they realized that the Swiss Govt was getting them to exterminate very misguided people.

You make a very brave choice. With all due respect I don’t think you realize how brave you are.




Tue, 12/10/2013 - 9:46pm

In reply to by RantCorp


I've enjoyed your comments and have agreed with many of the things you have said on this site but I think I have to go with the Colonel on this one. Laws based on "Puritanism" have never worked and have often contributed greatly to the problem. You think we would have learned our lesson after the Prohibition debacle. We are talking about human nature here and it's not something that is easily altered. If 5, 10 or 20% of the population want to destroy themselves with drugs no amount of laws prohibiting the production and sale of a product that is in demand will ever solve the issue. To answer your question about the "purity" of the drugs, don't you think that if illicit drugs were made legal that Uncle Sam might then regulate the "purity" levels so as to prevent a drug from being sold that would be immediately addictive? With that being said, how many people are prone to becoming alcoholics after only drinking for a short bit? What about legal narcotics? We already see the issue of "addiction to pain meds" that seems to be ever so prevalent in our society yet that doesn't seem to stop society in its tracks or caused economic malaise. Speaking of the economy, we already have much bigger issues than what the consequences would be if we were to stop the illicit drug trade in its tracks and turn it into a "regulated and taxed" part of society. Considering the Federal governments record debt levels and many of the larger states who have also spent themselves into ruin, I'm not sure how we will continue to be able to afford large government entities to combat a failing "war", not to mention the exploding prison populations in this country. You know what is outrageous to me? That senior citizens who need proper rest home care often can't afford it but we house millions of felons for life on the taxpayer dime because they were involved in "illegal" drug activities. Even more outrageous is the constant release of murders, violent felons, rapists and child molesters because of prison crowding, in large part due to the steady stream of individuals being arrested and sentenced on drug convictions. I'm not saying I have all the answers but sometimes I feel our priorities in this country are radically skewed.


Tue, 12/10/2013 - 4:44pm

In reply to by JohnBertetto

One example of a country that in all but name ‘legalized’ heroin is Pakistan. Under Zia ul Huq Pakistan had a reasonably stern approach to heroin production and a fairly liberal approach to uses. Large fields of poppies grown openly by the roadside where essentially unheard of . When the drug makers got a little too brazen the Pak army used troops supported by MBTs to assault numerous drug labs in the mid 1980’s. After Zia’s death for whatever reason the Pak govt began to openly encourage the Costa Nostra to boost heroin production.

According to the DEA, within the Af/Pak region, 4 million people live in households that rely on growing opium for a livelihood.. I find that a staggering number and it would certainly take a war to ‘unring that bell’ - as John put it . The health implications from what is technically a very backward agricultural sector are now global. It is important to note the 2013 heroin is not the same cut as back in the good ol days. Now almost pure heroin is widely available thru-out the globe. Back in the 1970-80s it took many months to become addicted to the heavily cut heroin available in the West whilst during the same period in Pakistan you were hooked in a week for the simple reason it was cheap enough and pure enough to smoke. The huge amount now produced (without a legal US crop) means everyone can now afford to puff the dragon big time.

Heroin has destroyed the Pakistan economy, it is slowly destroying the country as a nation state . It has played a major role in destroying Afghanistan. The Taliban’s may have been a UW force first but they were/are a narco Army a very close second.

The mind boggles if the US farm sector put its technical power into heroin production. Would they get Federal Crop Subsidies? Would they be allowed to export the inevitable surplus? To whom would they export? How could you stop them? The blowback of class AAA Made in the USA heroin going south thru Mexico would probably force the rest of the Americas to declare war on the US and invade.

A few thousand violent drug dealers (who in the main tend to murder each other) might fade away but we will acquire tens of millions of junkies (currently there are 2 million heroin users in the US) who can very easily turn to serious crime.

IMHO the folly of legalization is best encapsulated by the surreal prospect of Obamacare being utilized to stop misguided people from descending into criminal behavior long enough for them to kill themselves with heroin.

Waiting for the Man,


Robert C. Jones

Fri, 12/06/2013 - 9:25pm

In reply to by Bill M.

To put 1% of drugs in a special category that creates a highly violent, highly and illicitly profitable industry that is impossible to regulate is foolish.

Puritanism has never produced policies or laws that have served this nation well. Laws on prostitution and these 1% drugs are poster children for this.

We need to govern wisely, not radically and ideologically, or we become little different than the Taliban.

Bill M.

Wed, 12/05/2012 - 12:23am

In reply to by JohnBertetto


Fair enough, I don't think anyone that is legally sane would seriously claim to know what the outcome would be if these drugs were illegalized, but on the other hand we know that by criminalizing it we have created a huge black economy that the government can't control at all. Like many things in the real world, the best choice is often the least bad of the choices available.


Tue, 12/04/2012 - 1:28pm

In reply to by Bill M.

The answer to your question is: I don't know - which is precisely why I do not think we should do it. We don't know what unintended or unknown consequences such legalization might have. It may be ok and it may reduce violence, but it might not at all or might not in a way that is of significance to justify that move. So, without that knowledge I have to say no (apologies to Nancy Reagan). Additionally, if we were to approve these drugs and find out we were wrong, that's a difficult bell to unring as prohibition has shown.

You can drink alcohol often and not become addicted to it. Nicotine is addictive and has been practically vilified for it. I do not know any casual crack or heroin users - users become addicts. Government then not only legalizes substances that cause immediate addiction and the commensurate health, social, and financial devastation that result, but government then makes a profit on that addiction and devastation.

Bill M.

Mon, 12/03/2012 - 10:53pm

In reply to by JohnBertetto


While not a fan of drug abuse it obviously happens whether it is legal or not. In all seriousness what do you think would happen if these drugs were legalized? I tend to think people that are committed to damaging their brains to escape reality will do it with whatever chemical is available from glue to crack to cocaine despite laws intended to discourage such use. Making it an illegal activity creates multi-billion, if not trillion, dollar black market that funds a wide range of illicit activities from terrorism to insurgencies.

If we legalized the drugs we may move this money back into legitimate economy that we can somewhat control and perhaps deny terrorists and insurgents from their funding source. I think an argument that our war on drugs is not doing that.

The kids that was to destroy themselves are finding the way to do so anyway, so they're lost either way, at least we may be able to deny terrorists and other bad actors of a key source of funds. What are the pro's and con's of this course of action?


Mon, 12/03/2012 - 10:43am

In reply to by PanseyBard

Are you advocating that cocaine and heroin be made legal and regulated like alcohol?


Mon, 12/03/2012 - 10:05am

I wouldn't begin to debate with you on the facts on the ground. Your experience would make that a lesson in futility for me.
What I would like to point to is the underlying framework that pushes people into these dark corners.
We tried prohibition of alcohol and created a network of organized crime to distribute what the people wanted.
If there was no demand there would be no supplier.
Since there is a demand making it criminal only creates criminals.
If you change the laws governing the distribution you change the organizations involved. You make them legally legitimate, so you can hold them to legal standards. They conform to survive.
I'm not trying to make light of the problem, just point out that the solutions seemingly unpalatable are shown to us in history.