Small Wars Journal

Criminal Insurgency in the Americas

Sat, 02/13/2010 - 11:09am

Criminal Insurgency in the Americas


by John P. Sullivan

Download the full article: Criminal Insurgency in the Americas

Transnational criminal organizations and gangs are threatening state institutions throughout the Americas. In extreme circumstances, cartels, gangs or maras, drug trafficking organizations, and their paramilitary enforcers are waging de facto criminal insurgencies to free themselves from the influence of the state.

A wide variety of criminal gangs are waging war amongst themselves and against the state. Rampant criminal violence enabled by corruption and weak state institutions has allowed some criminal enterprises to develop virtual or parallel states. These contested or "temporary autonomous" zones create what theorist John Robb calls "hollow states" with areas where the legitimacy of the state is severely challenged. These fragile, sometimes lawless zones (or criminal enclaves) cover territory ranging from individual neighborhoods, favelas or colonias to entire cities—such as Ciudad Juaréz—to large segments of exurban terrain in Guatemala's Petén province, and sparsely policed areas on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua.

As a consequence, the Americas are increasingly besieged by the violence and corrupting influences of criminal actors exploiting stateless territories (criminal enclaves and mafia-dominated municipalities) linked to the global criminal economy to build economic muscle and, potentially, political might.

Download the full article: Criminal Insurgency in the Americas

John P. Sullivan is a career police officer. He currently serves as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism (CAST). He is co-editor of Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a Global Counter-Terrorism Network (Routledge, 2006) and Global Biosecurity: Threats and Responses (Routledge, 2010).

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)


Why only 10 years? As long as there's big money to be made smuggling drugs into the US, criminal gangs on both sides of the border will fight over over control of the business. They will bribe or avoid law enforcement when they can, intimidate and fight when they must. I don't see any reason why it would only last 10 years.

This situation is not a product of Mexican action or inaction. It's a product of US policy. For decades, the US has focused its "war on drugs" on supply,essentially ignoring demand. This is not done because it makes sense or is effective. It's done because demand is dominated by light skinned people of middle to upper income, while supply is dominated by darker skinned people of (initially at least) lower income. Supply is thus a politically acceptable target for our "war", while demand is not.

What that's gotten us, predictably, is rampant demand and supply that is constrained just enough to keep prices high and profits astronomical. Given the dimensions of the incentive created by our policies, it's a bit absurd to expect the Mexican government to take control of the situation. We may be able to suppress the response to the incentive by armed force, but as long as the incentive exists, somebody will be willing to fight to control and conduct the business.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 10/31/2010 - 10:28pm


If it is then all about the money and with the billions flowing back in from the US then I am safe to assume you believe that the war and it is a war south of the border is bound to continue for what another 10 years?

And it is bound to spead and in fact it has spead north (gang activity) to the point that US police forces will be overrun ie Atlanta.

It's certainly not about nothing. It's about money. What else do you need? There's nothing even remotely new about it.

People fight over spoils, over territory, over power, over money and the means by which money is acquired. They always have.

Anonymous (not verified)

Thu, 10/28/2010 - 7:00pm

random items of interest:

•Amexica. An excellent new book on the open source war in Mexico. Shlok has a solid review. Vanity Fair has an excerpt.

The Mexican narco-war may be the first real 21st-century war--a war that is, in the end, about nothing. Yes, there are regional and clan identities involved--loyalties of a sort to Tamaulipas, to Michoacan, to Sinaloa--but they are too fluid, too subject to betrayal, for the war to be defined as tribal. Yes, the Mexicans are torturing and killing one another over money and the smuggling routes that provide it, but much of the savagery, as noted, is over the smaller profits of the domestic market, the street corner, the sprawling colonia--savagery perpetrated for little real reward, and mainly for its own sake. Mexicos war has no single propelling cause, no single objective, and certainly no grand ideology. It is a conflict of a post-political era.

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 10/26/2010 - 7:59pm

Whether gang criminals in the US or Salafists in the in ME it still is all about "conflict ecosystems".

Now if we could only get concensus on that in the IC and finally crank out the necessary quantum research I think we might be mildly

The first really serious attempt at looking at the "operational environment" from a holistic approach similar to Kilcullen's conflict ecosystem and tied to MG Flynn's MI critique are the Stability Operations Information Centers which could in fact be applied to gang/criminal activities here in the US.

All the same pieces of the puzzle that lead to the creation of the SOIC concept are present in the US especially when it comes to vast amounts of gang information.

Rosamaria (not verified)

Tue, 10/26/2010 - 12:52pm

This conceptualization "crimial insurgency" is new to me, but it describes just what is happening in Mexico. Today we citizens are in shock by a recent video showing the brother of Chihuahua ´s ex attorney general being interrogated by some criminals and stating that his sister while in office term used to represent the Juarez Cartel interests. In my oppionion, the interrogators want to send a message to the Juarez Cartel's supporters pointing out that it is the Sinaloa Cartel which "ought" to be in control of the City. So these criinals are using any means to conduct their internal war among themseves: corrupting high rank officials and using youtube and the press to intimidae their enemies, namely other cartels and the government. I have one question ¿How do the drug dealers get the drug from Mexico's border to the streets of New York, Washington or Chicago? Wouldn't they also be using some US authorities to achieve this smugling?

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 02/13/2010 - 9:43pm


I'm glad that others have the ability to read our conversation. You stated:

"I think the era of domestic stability is fleeting. Our small wars are coming home. One of the reasons I am actively researching criminal insurgencies, and high intensity crime is to get a handle on what we are beginning to face here. I believe the potential for endemic crime and gangs conflict to spread is real. gang conflicts can be a type of 'local insurgency.'"

I know, and I have the same concerns. You have done an admirable job of describing the problem (as I thanked you in my initial post). The problem-solving process and ultimate coping mechanisms will probably come from my generation. You should not worry about that. We are strong. Just some of us have not been asked to sacrifice yet. If we're ever asked to mobilize for a great cause, then we'll show up. We'll be okay. We might just have to suffer a bit in the interm, and that might be just what we need.

I've done the math enough to refuse to succomb to the pursuit of property. The founders struggled over that term for a bit until they accepted that happiness was mutually exclusive to wealth. These days, as I re-engage into the world's intractable problems, I maintain this hope:

"As I celebrated what was right with the world, I began to build a vision of possibility, not scarcity. Possibility... always another right answer." -Dewitt Jones


John P. Sullivan (not verified)

Sat, 02/13/2010 - 8:24pm


I think the era of domestic stability is fleeting. Our small wars are coming home. One of the reasons I am actively researching criminal insurgencies, and high intensity crime is to get a handle on what we are beginning to face here. I believe the potential for endemic crime and gangs conflict to spread is real. gang conflicts can be a type of "local insurgency." The key is to contain them and keep them as a low-level criminal irritant. In Mexico, and increasingly elsewhere around the globe that is becoming harder to do.

I strongly believe the military and police service have a lot to learn from each other. We do indeed address "two sides of the COIN." I have been focusing on developing "operational art for policing," as well as an understanding of "intraconflict policing," and "full spectrum policing" as tools to address complex criminal threats (high intensity crime, criminal insurgency, and terrorism). All of these areas would benefit from interdisciplinary discussion.

I think there are many more Salinas-type pockets of instability to consider, here and abroad, but do think the gang situation/local insurgency problem is harder in mega-cities, or mega-slums, due to the larger number of actors, inter-relationships, and community variables. I'd be glad to look at your work up on Zaganiyah.

v/r John


Sir, I took the time today to comment b/c what you're working on is much closer to an existential threat to our country than my work fighting the Global War on Terror (or whatever we call it these days). Going back to the medical analogy, I'd rather have some bruised ribs and a black eye than develop cancer.

You stated/asked:

"Salinas is avery interesting case study. I wonder how unique it is. I suspect we are aware of the situation because knowledgeable observers (familiar with the dynamics of COIN and conflict) live nearby. This begs the question, how many other pockets of instability exist."

I don't know. Salinas is my equivalent to Zaganiyah in Iraq. Is Salinas as bad as what you dealt with in LA? Certainly not just as Zag is only a village and not Baghdad. As with Iraq and Guatemala, I continue to ask myself, "Is it different today? Is it actually worse? Or, do I just see the world differently?" No easy answers. We (in the US) have had a long period of peace and prosperity, and we've become numb to indifferent on certain measures of the human condition that others understand intuitively.

You (and others like Slapout) have devoted your lives to law enforcement. I (and many others in SWJ) have spent our 20's abroad to serve in the nation's collective defense. You actually do COIN everyday; we do something else. I don't know if we should call it FID, SFA, or occupation. Regardless, we have a lot to learn from each other as we share our various experiences.

Eventually, hopefully soon, I'll publish my piece on how we cleared Zag during the Surge. If you have time, you're critique would be well appreciated.

One day, when I lay down my gun, and I'm done playing army, I'm gonna focus on helping young men like the moving packer that I met in Monterey. I wished that I had met him when he was younger. As I've learned in my short life, none of these problems are strictly police or military problems.


John P. Sullivan (not verified)

Sat, 02/13/2010 - 4:23pm

Mike, Thanks for you comments. Salinas is avery interesting case study. I wonder how unique it is. I suspect we are aware of the situation because knowledgeable observers (familiar with the dynamics of COIN and conflict) live nearby. This begs the question, how many other pockets of instability exist. (Certainly they exist in major cities--I've worked in a few, but there is little data on ex-urban areas.) Interviews with gangsters are often valuable, thanks for sharing. v/r John

Here's one more antecdote that I wanted to share reference the evolution of La Familia in Salinas, CA that maybe helpful for your research. As I was preparing to move from Monterey, one of my packers told me that his father was a retired 1SGT and he grew up in Eastern Salinas. For quick background, Eastern Salinas is a "denied area" where the gov't has less control than the gangs. This dude was wicked smart- one of those kids that under different circumstances might have gone on to Yale under full scholarship. His understanding of math and science was phenomenal. Instead, he grew up in a broken home, surrounded by the gang environment, had some trouble with the law, and got his girlfriend pregnant at age 17. Now, he's meeting his obligations to his family, and he's working starting his own business and bettering himself. Instead of PhDs, he learned street smarts.

Knowing that I was military, he asked if I had been deployed. I explained that I had spent some time in Iraq. After some question and answer period followed with some exaggerated war stories :), I also explained that I spent some time studying the gangs in Salinas and how they were similar to what I saw in Iraq. His eyes brightened, and he went into a 30 minute dissertation on what was really going on in his neighborhood. I just listened and absorbed knowing that I was going to learn more from this engagement than from any book that I'd read. I simply intervened several times to ask questions. Here's a short summary...

On Policing

Me: "When there's a problem in the neighborhood, do you call the police."

Him, "The police? You mean the guys that come down once a week dressed like Navy Seals raiding Bin Laden's home and harrass my grandma and my younger brothers. Hell no. We don't trust them. We handle our own business."

Me: "How do you handle your own business?"

Him: "Let me give you an example. Some newbies, 14 yr old punks going through gang initiation, showed up in my area waving guns and talking smack. I walked outside and told them, "I don't care what you're doing, but you can't do it here. I have a six-year old daughter that plays here." They threatened me. Afterwards, I called their boss. He's a buddy of mine from middle school. I explained the situation, and he put the word out. Now, no punks come around a block from my house. We police our own sh*t."

Me: "I feel you on the police, but you should not have to police yourselves. What do you think would happen if the Police Department put a station in your neighborhood and actually walked around and got to know everybody. Do you think that'd make a difference?"

Him: "Dude, I never thought about that. Damn, it might just work."

On Fractures within La Familia

Me: "Here's one thing that I don't understand. The levels of violence have escalated the last couple of years now. It's no longer just brown-on-brown killings. White folks are getting smoked, and the gangs are getting a lot of attention from the press and the politicians. I just assumed that the leaders of the gangs wouldn't like that. They're just trying to make money, and it's much easier to do that without a lot of exposure or pressure from the Feds. So, WTF is going on?"

Him: "Dude, you have no idea. It's these kids. I know some senior bosses, and they don't know what to do. Before, there was a code. There was a way about these things, but this new generation has no limits. They want to kill and blow sh*t up likes it is some video game. The bosses are concerned b/c they're losing control."

On Al Qaeda

Him, "Mike, why the hell have y'all not gotten Bin Ladin? You realize it looks like you're getting punked everyday that he pops up on tv."

Me, "Dude, I don't know."



Mr. Sullivan,

Sir, another great article. Your writings continue to help me reinforce and decipher my own understanding of the complex similarities and differences between traditional insurgencies that seek to overthrow governments and criminal networks that coerce or control portions of the government for power or profit. So, thanks.

I spent a short amount of time in Guatemala back in 98-99. At the time, I didn't understand the lessons in small wars that I was taught by an army general. I was a cadet travelling outside the US for the first time who was still trying to comprehend how to use a map and compass to find my way around. Anyways, during that time, even though the insurgency was quelled, we still carried small arms in the trunk of our car during travel. My buddy's dad was a contentious figure during the counter-insurgency fight, and a concern for kidnapping a high value target was always a threat. At certain points along the roads, gangs set up checkpoints, and we were forced to pay tolls- areas outside the cities that the government could not control. Contrastingly, going out for a drink downtown, the bar was stormed by regular army soldiers conducting cordon and searches. I learned spanish very quickly as a sergeant pointed an M16 at my chest.

I also realized that I was not in North Carolina anymore. I walked away from that experience wondering why the military had to do the job of the police and why could the government not have influence outside the major cities and resorts. Additionally, I just accepted that this part of the world has a higher level of violence and chaos than we allow. That is normal for what Dr. Kilcullen would call their conflict ecosystem.

Since that time, the government has taken tremedous steps towards conflict resolution with the rebels- former guerillas were integrated into high-level government and military positions and reparations were paid in areas where the military's approach was deemed too harsh. Still, as you described, we're seeing an increase of lawlessness, criminal insurgencies, and levels of violence as disenfranchised members of both the military and insurgencies form their own groups.

This increase has the potential to spread as a bad case of cancer (if it's not already doing so). It will continue to disrupt any incremental reforms and progress internal to Guatemala, and it has the potential to further bleed over to Mexico and the US.

Can the government of Guatemala solve this problem? Can we help? I don't know the answers. Maybe that's the wrong questions. Maybe we should relook the problem and ask,

-Is the government making the problem worse?

-Did past US intervention make the problem worse?

From my vantage point, I hope they find some resolution. I thoroughly enjoyed my time down there. The people were warm and hospitable, and I hope that they can work this out for the sake of their children.



RamadiNights (not verified)

Sat, 02/13/2010 - 11:50am

"Criminal insurgency is different from classic terrorism and insurgency because the criminal insurgents overarching political motive is to gain autonomous economic control over territory. As Professor Steven Metz noted in his monograph Rethinking Insurgency, 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."

As soon as we recognize that this is exactly what we face in the form of the Haqqani Network, et al, in Afghanistan, the better. In the south it's a narcoinsurgency. In the east, it's an attempt to re-establish a personal, criminal emirate. We should consider that the post-Maoist techniques we all love talking about so much do not necessarily apply. This insurgency is not driven by the grievances of "the people," and the global Islamist association is merely one of convenience.