Small Wars Journal

Power Imbalances and Drugs: Some Transferrable Lessons Between Counterinsurgents and Law Enforcement

Fri, 04/12/2019 - 4:12am

Power Imbalances and Drugs: Some Transferrable Lessons Between Counterinsurgents and Law Enforcement

Patrick Burke

“Jim Roussell and the Marines he works with broke the Abu Ali cell of the Iraqi insurgency in much the same way he caught gang leaders on Chicago's West Side,” according to a 2007 article from the Chicago Tribune.

“In the so-called Triangle of Death, where insurgents kidnap and kill along the highways that connect Baghdad to the south, the Marine reservist and Chicago police sergeant is using the investigative skills he honed over years of pursuing street gangs such as the Four Corner Hustlers, the Conservative Vice Lords and the New Breeds,” it adds.

The article goes on to describe the tactics Sgt. Russell used to take down the cells: recruiting informants, gaining information from the community, and protecting witnesses.

Sgt. Russel’s success illustrates that counterinsurgents can learn from U.S. law enforcement, and vice-versa. This article examines which lessons can be transferred between the two, and which cannot.

In short, the mechanisms causing a sharp and sudden increases in violence in counterinsurgency and counter-drug operations are comparable. The reasons insurgents and drug gangs carry out sudden violence are related to rational mechanisms. Here I focus on discussing how lessons related to insurgent violence due to power imbalances, and gang violence emanating resource shocks can be transferred between the two.

Lessons related to intelligence gathering are not transferrable between to the two types of organized violence. Or at the very least the lessons are superficial. This is because the level of intelligence needed by counterinsurgents is mainly related to locating insurgents. Drug gangs in the U.S. don’t try to hide. Instead, law enforcement need intelligence that can withstand the scrutiny of a U.S. courtroom.  

The Intelligence Problem

“Intelligence gathering” probably comes to mind when practitioners and academics think of the transferrable lessons between counterinsurgency and counter-drug operations. Research on Brazil’s moderate success in clear and hold operations in favelas occupied by drug gangs draw a convincing parallel to the lessons of counterinsurgency.

However, as Benjamin Lessing points out, this parallel “attributes too much agency to favela residents, and too little to the [gangs].” My three years of researching and reporting on Chicago’s gang violence leads me to agree with Lessing.

Residents uninvolved in the drug trade usually cannot offer evidence to police that could rise to withstand cross examination by defense lawyers. And the overwhelming majority of the community is uninvolved with the gangs.

Yes, most residents have some idea which gang, or even which gang member was responsible for the most recent murder on their block. But so do the police.

It’s unknown how much information the community provides to the CPD. But the “hearts and minds” approach to law enforcement is strong in Chicago. The “rift” between the CPD and communities wracked by violence is overblown in my experience.

If anyone doubts this, head to one of the many packed community events at the 15th District Police station (covering Chicago’s most violent neighborhood) and ask around. There you’ll find CPD officers volunteering their time to help community members with everything from gaining employment to finding a free prom dress. The 10th, 11th, and 15th Districts are even facilitating a free cross-community baseball league for and estimated 700 children on the West Side this summer.

However, Chicago’s violence persists because neither the community nor the police usually have the level of evidence necessary to make an arrest.

This is a good segue to my next point.

As in Sgt. Russel’s case, the main difficulty of counterinsurgency is finding the enemy. Guerillas hide among the population and mainly conduct hit-and-run attacks against counterinsurgent troops and their supply lines.

Street gangs, on the other hand, operate in the open.

For instance, finding open air markets along the stretch of the I-290 expressway that runs through Chicago’s West Side is not difficult. This stretch has become known as the “heroin highway.” And for good reason. Groups of young men stand near most of the exists blatantly deal drugs to pedestrians and passing cars. I’ve even had a young man flash a tiny baggy filled with powder at me.  

Chicago’s gang members also openly advertise their affiliations on social media, what drugs they sell, and sometimes who they intend to kill. Gangs have become so flagrant about their activities that the CPD has tasked staff to specifically monitor social media feeds.

The CPD even maintains a controversial database of who they are and where they live. Some CPD officers in the elite gang units know individual gang members quite well. One officer’s description of his relationship with the gangs sounded more like that of a social worker than a cop.

In short, there really is not a comparable “information problem” between counterinsurgency and counter-drug operations. If the CPD could suddenly play by the same rules as most counterinsurgents they could simply kill or capture most of the significant gang members in a few days.

Chicago’s gangs almost certainly could not withstand such an onslaught. Yes, the gangs in Rio’s Favelas have more-or-less successfully resisted this level of repression by police. However, Chicago’s gangs do not have near the armaments or training.

Again, law enforcement officers are required to gather evidence able to withstand the scrutiny of the justice system. While the bar may be relatively low in some countries, significant prosecutions of the most violent street gangs in the U.S. takes months or even years of investigations, according to a 2017 Drug Enforcement Agency report.

Spikes in Violence

In this article I focus instead on the question of why sudden spikes in violence occur during conflicts.

This is an extremely important question, not just for academics, but for the policy world as well.

For instance, Chicago’s West and South sides saw a massive increase in shootings and murders in 2016. The majority of this violence was gang related.

This uptick in violence caused unprecedented policy changes within the CPD and the municipal government more generally. This included heavily investing in sophisticated technology for monitoring crime, a massive increase in hiring of new officers, and the implementation of intelligence centers in high-violence districts.

The city also began increasing funding to non-profits focused on mediating gang conflicts and providing social services to high-risk gang members.

There is a similar pattern for counterinsurgency wars. The “surge,” in Iraq and the implementation of Petraeus’ friendly-centric counterinsurgency constituted a massive policy shift. Of course, this was done in reaction to a significant increase in sectarian violence shortly after the U.S. occupation of Iraq began.

So, what lessons are transferrable?

In short, counterinsurgency scholarship does an outstanding job measuring how power dynamics between insurgent groups, and intra-organizational power struggles between competitors, impact violence outcomes on the battlefield.

Such an understanding is lacking in counter-drug scholarship. However, counterinsurgency scholarship lacks in a nuanced understanding of how fluctuations in combatants’ revenue streams impact violence spikes in violence. This area is counter-drug literatures’ strong suit.

I do cite literature on counter-drug operations focusing on the oft-studied drug war in Mexico. However, counterinsurgency practitioners and scholars in the U.S. can learn valuable lessons on resource impact on violence in their own backyards. I illustrate this point by presenting case evidence from Chicago’s gang violence.

Power and Violence

Fotini Christia’s book Alliance Formation in Civil Wars provides a good example for why understanding power dynamics is important is an important mechanism for any study of organized armed violence. In analyzing the Afghan and Bosnian civil wars she finds that insurgent groups ally with others based on whether they believe they will be able to wield significant power in the government at the end of the war.

Thus, a group will break off from a winning alliance if their allies are too powerful to credibly commit to sharing power. The case studies in her book demonstrate that these sudden shifts in power usually lead to a sudden increase in violence.

For instance, in the early 1990s during the fighting over the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, the allied Tajik and Uzbek insurgent groups were clearly on the path to defeating the alliance between Pashtun and Hazara insurgents.

However, the Tajik army was significantly more powerful than the Uzbek’s, and so the latter switched sides because the Tajik’s could not credibly commit to sharing power. In fact, the Uzbek’s leader was not being considered for any significant position in the Tajik-dominated government.

The Pashtun-Hazara-Uzbek alliance kept the Tajik’s from winning outright, but intensified the combat in Kabul and lead to a stalemate.

In short, violence is in fact politics by other means. And in the Afghan case, dominating the battlefield by the Tajiks revealed that the main aim of the Uzbek’s would not be able to survive as a significant political force in the government at the end of the war.  

Resources and Violence

Scholars of counter-drug operations are largely focused on understanding how the economics of the drug trade impact violence outcomes. This is one area counterinsurgency practitioners and scholars can learn from.

It is true that counterinsurgency scholars try to understand how conflict severity is impacted by combatant’s type of funding. However, these studies usually ignore intra-conflict fluctuations, and often look at cross-national trends of the impact of insurgents’ source of income on violence.

Counter-drug scholars dig more deeply into the micro-variations of resource fluctuation on violence outcomes.

Wars Cost Money

Any discussion of with gang members about their wars should turn into a business lesson. At least with gangs operating in Chicago’s lucrative drug market.

So, why did the violence in Chicago spike in 2016? In line with the economic model of gang wars, the answer seems to be a sudden rise in profits from the influx of fentanyl-lace heroin into Chicago’s drug market.

From 2015 to 2016 shootings in Chicago’s most violent West and South Side neighborhoods rose by 74%, according to data from the Chicago Police Department. During the same period overdose deaths went up 100% in those same neighborhoods.

Fentanyl-laced heroin is usually deadly. This was especially true when it was first introduced into Chicago’s drug market. Thus, opioid-related overdose deaths are a good indirect measure of the profitability of the drug market.

Several gang members who fought the wars at that time remember their profits rising significantly during that period. They all pointed to this shock to the drug market as a significant driver of the violence spike in 2016. “We could buy more guns,” one source exclaimed.

Evidence from the academic literature on drug wars backs this theory.

One influential study statistically demonstrates that as drug seizures by the Columbian government increase so does the violence between drug cartels in Mexico. This is because drug seizures increase the profitability of cocaine, thereby incentivizing cartels to fight over drug shipping routes to the U.S. boarder.

A review of fifteen peer-reviewed articles on drug violence in North America and Australia finds that all studies agree that narcotics seizures increase violence between gangs for similar reasons to the cartels.

My findings here are likely to raise some eyebrows, especially for those familiar with the Chicago case.

Unfortunately, in recent years scholars and journalists have begun to argue that violence between gang members is mostly personal and caused by fractured and disorganized gangs fighting over social media feuds and other petty personal conflicts. The most popular explanation for the spike in violence seems to be the fracturing of gangs after the arrests of most of the significant gang leaders in the mid-1990s.

The larger and more organized an armed organization, the more violence it produces, according to prominent studies from political science and sociology. Increased drug revenue allows gangs to increase their strength and organization. But let’s place these well-founded lessons aside for a moment.

Fracturing among Chicago’s street gangs is real. However, it didn’t suddenly come to fruition in 2016. The breakup of Chicago’s gangs began in the mid-1990s when many significant leaders were convicted and sent to far off federal prisons. This led to an almost immediate decline in violence, and the slow breakup of the gangs. Again, the fracturing did not occur suddenly in 2016.

Further, the heat map in figure 1 below clearly shows the shootings pooling around the stretch of the I-290’s heroin highway in 2016. Gangs do not just happen to fight wars over social media at the location of Chicago’s most profitable drug market. A sudden fracturing of gangs did not occur there in 2016. And there is not a high concentration of fractured gangs in that area relative to others.

They are fighting over drugs.


Figure 1: I-290 “Heroin Highway”

These scholars and journalist also forget one critical point: wars cost money. I once asked a young gang member from Chicago why he doesn’t go out and hunt his rivals every day. After all, he knows exactly where they live, work, and have fun. He looked at me funny and asked if I knew the cost of a gun.

He went on to explain that every time a gun is shot the gang must sell it for a net loss. The wars also bring police pressure and drive down drug profits.

Most significantly, the gangs have to bond out arrested members so that they don’t become informants or come after the gang once they get out. This is the riskiest part of gang wars—fiscally speaking, of course.

Transferring Knowledge

Counter-drug scholars can gain a great deal from counterinsurgency literature, and vice-versa.

For instance, do fluctuations in the profitability of the drug lead gangs to seek alliances? Do these alliance shifts increase of decrease violence? Does weakening one gang through arrests actually create more violence by pitting neighboring gangs against one another in a struggle to win new turf?

Do attacks against insurgent resources increase or decrease contestation between rival militias, or armed gangs in the country? Are more opportunistic rebel groups—those who are made up of soldiers looking to loot—more vulnerable to resource reductions than rebels staffed by ideologs?

These are important questions and suggest a path forward for both practitioners and academics.


About the Author(s)

Patrick Burke is a freelance journalist and a former researcher at the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. Contact him at