Small Wars Journal

Explosive Escalation?

Wed, 07/21/2010 - 8:58am
Explosive Escalation?

Reflections on the Car Bombing in Ciudad Juarez

by John P. Sullivan

Download the full article: Reflections on the Car Bombing in Ciudad Juarez

In an apparently significant acceleration of tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP), Mexican cartel violence embraced the car bomb in an attack on Federal police in embattled Ciudad Juárez last Thursday, 15 July 2010. Not only did the attack employ a car bomb (apparently a primitive improvised explosive secreted inside a car not the fully-integrated variant found in Iraq, and the AfPak theatres known as a VBIED), but it also was an ambush that directly targeted police. This TTP is a classic insurgent attack method that promises to be part of Mexico's future engagements in its on-going criminal insurgencies.

Download the full article: Reflections on the Car Bombing in Ciudad Juarez

John P. Sullivan is a regular contributor to Small Wars Journal. He is a career police officer and 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). His current research focus is the impact of transnational organized crime on sovereignty, intelligence, terrorism, and criminal insurgencies.

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


slapout9 (not verified)

Fri, 07/23/2010 - 12:34pm

NAFTA is one of the primary drivers of the situation.

There's also the radicalization/religious dimension, with Santa Muerte cult serving as a means of articulating some of the other dynamics we've all reviewed here. And this something of a problem for the younger generation of hitters who are in the front line of the drug war, for whom the gang identity--complete with its totems such as Santa Muerte provides a complete set of identities to use.

As for rationality, another problem is as John, Slapout, and Mike mentioned, the question is "whose rationality?" Warfighers who subscribed to some of history's most bizarre ideologies thought they were rational actors, and if you accepted their bizarre and totally false assumptions, you could see how their actions were consistent with it.


"Now, that raises questions as to whether the cartels/gangs are acting rationally."

This issue, as applied to game theory or small wars, involves challenging the underlying assumptions as they pertain to the gap between theory and practice. Maynard Smith, in his own preface, was skeptical that his work could ever be applied to human behavior for that specific reason. People are people and often act fickle/irrational when you combine hearts, minds, and soul. Additionally, as the social scientists who try to map this find, the exogenous and endogenous factors for one groups dynamics quickly run into the tens of thousands.

Ive been studying this gap for two years. Here are some of my current thoughts.

1. Perfect Communication. The theory assumes perfect communication. In reality, this hardly ever holds true. People are people, and they will often misread anothers intentions. In Smiths game, during posturing, one could mistake a dove for a hawk. That would be a mistake. It could be argued that the Sunnis made a similar mistake in Iraq and the cartels are doing it now.

2. Culture. The Rational Actor Model assumes a Western mindset of norms , values, and beliefs. As we learned in the Middle East, this assumption does not hold true universally. Games must be tailored for the specific METT-TC. Anthropologist and sociologist help us with this dilemma. Marc Tyrell is currently diving deep into it at his blog.*

3. "Some people just like crime," states Slapout. This potential reality is what worries me the most. If the younger generation has radicalized to the point where they encourage, foster, and enjoy violence for the sake of violence rather than the "old ways" of Gang Rules of Engagement and Conflict Resolution, then ultimately, the state will have to respond in force.




slapout9 (not verified)

Fri, 07/23/2010 - 12:55am

Some people just like crime and like being criminals and will do anything to protectthat. Trying to view criminals as rational as opposed to understanding that a lot of them just like it can be a big misatke IMO.

John P. Sullivan (not verified)

Thu, 07/22/2010 - 11:36pm


Thank you for your kind and insightful comments to my paper. As always, there is a lot going on in Mexico, and in the realm of evolving conflict in general and criminal insurgencies in specific. The Mexico case is extremely complicated and perhaps emblematic of the future of war (much like Martin van Creveld, John Robb, and Robert J. Bunker have forecast).

I think the concept of "conflict ecosystem" (posited by "anonymous") has utility in understanding cartel and gang violence. That said, I agree that game theory is an important tool for assessing the role/intentions and potentials of the various actors engaged in multifaceted conflict (as posited by Mike Few in his discussions with Adam Elkus).

Now, that raises questions as to whether the cartels/gangs are acting rationally. I believe they certainly have economic imperatives (market control and profit) that lend themselves to econometric modeling. Such economic imperatives are complicated by political (internal and micro-level politics as well as macro-level politics) and the degenerating impact of endemic violence. Protracted conflicts often yield escalating (and at first glance counterintuitive) violence and barbarism.

Conventional wisdom hold that organized crime groups avoid confrontation with the state to ensure profit generation and maximization. that is usually the case, but there are many glaring exceptions (Al Capone, the Sicilian Mafia, and now cartels/gangs in Mexico and Guatemala). Here I think it is valuable to look at the observations of Louise Shelley:

<i>Longstanding transnational crime groups and their more recently formed counterparts have a very different relationship to the state and to terrorism. The older crime groups, often in long-established states, have developed along with their states and are dependent on existing institutional and financial structures to move their products and invest their profits. With the exception of Colombia, rarely do the large established crime organizations link with terrorist groups, because their long-term financial interests require the preservation of state structures. Through corruption and movement into the lawful economy, these groups minimize the risk of prosecution and therefore do not fear the power of state institutions. In contrast, the <b>newer transnational crime groups, often originating in post-conflict situations, thrive in a state of chaos and ongoing conflict</b>. In these regions where the shadow economy is dominant, the crime groups are dominant actors in the shadow economy.</i> [emphasis added.]

(See Louise Shelly, "The Unholy Trinity: Transnational Crime, Corruption and Terrorism," <i>Brown Journal of World Affairs</i>, Vol. XI, No. II, Winter/Spring 2005, pp. 101-111.)

When considering rational choice, we have to make sure the variables we model are those in our adversaries calculation, not our own!

On the tactical side of the house, I appreciate Chris Flaherty's comments, and look forward to his forthcoming paper on 3D tactics. In addition, Robert Bunker's new edited collection <i>Narcos Across the Border: Gangs, Cartels, and Mercenaries</i> will be a useful contribution to this important area of study! Finally, Adam Elkus is right, Steve Metz made (and continues to make) significant contributions to understanding commercial/criminal insurgencies. <i><b>JPS</b></i>

Dr. Robert J. Bunker (not verified)

Thu, 07/22/2010 - 1:23pm

Well done John.

I attended a Trans-Border Institute (TBI), Univ of San Diego, workshop on Mexican cartel violence last week. They will be coming out with a report on the workshop in the future. That institute has some great documents-- Drug Violence in Mexico (2001-2009) and Police and Public Security in Mexico. These are part of the Justice in Mexico Project (

The edited work, Narcos Over the Border: Gangs, Cartels, and Mercenaries, will be coming out in a few months from Routledge. I was editor of that project with John Sullivan as one of the contributors. The work will provide additional information on the narco-insurgency/on-going criminal insurgencies in Mexico.

Anonymous (or Outlaw 7?)

Conflict Ecosystem- I'm tracking. We're simply trying to apply game theory and political science to the system in order to comprehend it a bit better. In other words, defining the nature of the relationships between the actors in the system.

In technical terms, the specific lose-lose scenario that I'm refering to is the Hawk versus Hawk game invented by Maynard Smith in his Evolutionary Stable Strategy (ESS) found in his text, "Evolution and the Theory of Games." He studied how different groups fight over limited resources.

Anonymous (not verified)

Thu, 07/22/2010 - 12:33pm

Understand the conflict ecosystem involved an one might just find out that drug cartels and insurgent groups have the same goals in mind even though at times it seems totally confusing and makes no sense.

Chart out the ecosystem and you will see great similiarities between the cartels and say AQI and similar trends seen with the IAI including the internal fighting between the groups-similar to internal cartel disputes.

They both want a weakened central state and both want to recreate a "failed state" within their areas of control.

It keeps the counterinsrugent ie state actor in total confusion and out of their business areas/areas of influence-causes as well uncertainty and causes the population in the afflicted areas to go neutral.


As always, an outstanding article. It sparked some debate between Adam Elkus and I. Below, I'm going to copy our conversation and see if it sparks further debate so that we can all gain a better understanding.




The outstanding question remains what is the motive? What does the narco-terrorist want? Traditionally, violence was used as a means of securing profit in the drug trade. Now, it's accelerated to a point that could eventually break the state.


It's hard to speculate about cartel motives because they're not a unified actor--they're fighting amongst each other as well as the state. But I think a lot of people whose research we've cited have basically pointed out that Calderon's crackdown on the cartels in late 06 produced a backlash against the state as well as an intensification of competition over turf. The state, in addition to fighting the cartels themselves, is in some respects actively taking sides in cartel battles as cartels use government influence they have "captured" to settle scores. A lot of reporters have pointed out that gov't is intervening decisively on the side of some cartels. What we're seeing right now, is basically the continuation (and some ways an escalation) of the stalemate that's predominated for a while. It's not clear that the Mexican state will break, but it's clear that intervention has not stopped these challenges so far.


So, we can narrow all of that down to a multi-player game using mixed strategies? The reason that I suggested a Break Point is, IMO, the cartels are not acting rationally. Cartels, as well as many US gangs, were able to survive/thrive precisely because they understood the nature of the game and kept their level of violence down to an acceptable level or below the "detection threshold." The explosion in violence will force an intervention by the gov't. If not, then it loses control.

From what I can forecast, that looks like a lose/lose for everyone.

Dr Chris Flaherty (not verified)

Thu, 07/22/2010 - 4:51am

As the author of the one of the articles referred, in John's paper - interposing tactics in the Red Team Journal, I have been looking at the training gap needs in regards to one essential question: how do we achieve greater situational awareness, and is this really a technological question? The new article will develop an issue I raised in the Journal of Information Warfare (Flaherty, C. (April 2010) Command, Influence and Information in 3D Tactics. Journal of Information Warfare. (9)1: 18-31). This is based on my current work in London, called: 'Current Stewarding Practices in the UK: Towards Security for the 2012 London Olympic Games'. The value of this work, has been the opportunity to gain first hand experience of a community group organising and training a volunteer stewarding force, to provide crowd management for the annual London parade. This has provided a wealth of information about two issues - what will be the realities for the London 2012 Olympics which will require some 70,000 volunteers to reinforce public civil security, through effective crowd management; and helping answer in part, the classic military science problem: how do we achieve greater situational awareness, and is this really a technological question?
As john refers there is a need to develop a greater sense of 3D awareness; however, problematically it has been difficult to articulate what does this mean practically in terms of individual training needs that are different from current practice? I feel this fine article, helps identify these.

Anonymous (not verified)

Thu, 07/22/2010 - 1:30am

"Conflict ecosystem"---even applies to gangs.