Criminal Insurgencies, Gangs and Intelligence
by John P. Sullivan, Small Wars Journal
Gangs dominate the intersection between crime and war. Traditionally viewed as criminal enterprises of varying degrees of sophistication and reach, some gangs have evolved into potentially more dangerous and destabilizing actors. In many areas across the world—especially in 'criminal enclaves' or 'lawless zones' where civil governance, traditional security structures, and community or social bonds have eroded—gangs thrive. This essay briefly examines the dynamics of crime and war in these contested regions. Specifically, it provides a framework for understanding 'criminal insurgencies' where acute and endemic crime and gang violence challenge the solvency of state political control.
Criminal gangs come in many forms. They challenge the rule of law and employ violence to dominate local communities. In some cases they are expanding their reach and morphing into a new warmaking entities capable of challenging the legitimacy and even the solvency of nation-states. This potential brings life to the prediction made by Martin van Creveld who noted, "In the future, war will not be waged by armies but by groups whom today we call terrorists, guerrillas, bandits and robbers, but who will undoubtedly hit upon more formal titles to describe themselves."
Some advanced gangs—known as 'third generation gangs' and/or maras—are waging 'wars" and changing the dynamics of crime. In some extreme cases they are waging a de facto criminal insurgency. As Adam Elkus and I recently noted: Criminal insurgency is haunting the police stations and barracks of North America. Powerful criminal networks increasingly challenge the state's monopoly on force, creating new threats to national security." Mexico is currently challenged by extreme criminal violence, but it is by no means the only state in the Americas suffering from criminal insurgency. Transnational criminal organizations ranging from the transnational street collective Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) to the powerful Mexican drug cartels are steadily increasing in both power and reach. Even some American street gangs are evolving into 'third generation' gangs: large, networked, transnational bodies that may yet develop true political consciousness.
Criminal insurgency presents a challenge to national security analysts used to creating simulations and analytical models for terrorism and conventional military operations. Criminal insurgency is different from regular" terrorism and insurgency because the criminal insurgents' sole political motive is to gain autonomy economic control over territory. They do so by hollowing out the state and creating criminal enclaves to maneuver.