Small Wars Journal

The COIN Approach to Mexican Drug Cartels: Square Peg in a Round Hole

Tue, 12/27/2011 - 6:10am

Despite assertions to the contrary, the violence, drug trafficking and lawlessness that we see in northern Mexico does not constitute an insurgency.  Drug cartels have no ideology beyond profit, no political aspirations other than to be left alone, and no popular support beyond that which can be purchased with money or intimidation.  They are classic criminal organizations.  A counterinsurgency strategy based on the now-famous Field Manual 3-24, written under the auspices of then-LTGs David Petraeus and James Mattis in 2006, is therefore inappropriate for Mexico.  Some COIN principles and practices – what the author calls COIN a la carte – can, however, support the current U.S.-Mexican law-enforcement strategy aimed at weakening or destroying the cartels, much as was done with the Medellin and Cali cartels in Colombia.  The effectiveness of these efforts will depend more on deepening bilateral trust than on applying the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq to Mexico.

The level of violence perpetrated by or on behalf of Mexican drug cartels[1] has reached unprecedented levels, especially in northern Mexico.  Since 2007, nearly 40,000 people have been murdered in cartel-related violence.  Most violence takes place among the cartels, but attacks on the security forces have increased since President Calderon began targeting the DTOs in 2007. Associated crimes such as murder for hire, money laundering, kidnapping, extortion, and human trafficking follow in the wake of the drug trade.  Pockets of northern Mexico lie outside of government control, while the estado of Tamaulipas is arguably becoming a failed state within Mexico.[2]  Judging by homicide statistics alone, neighboring Chihuahua is even worse off.  American citizens on both sides of the border are increasingly among the victims of cartel violence. 

A number of scholars look at the mayhem in northern Mexico and see an insurgency.  Often they use the term as a prelude to advocating a counterinsurgency-based approach to the drug cartels.  Much of this analysis, however, appears to be an attempt to redefine what constitutes an insurgency in order to apply the “lessons” of COIN to Mexico.  Try as they might, many of these observers cannot escape the perception that they are trying to define a problem that will fit their solution.

Mexico, however, is not a failed state.  Those who argue that poverty and deprivation are the root of Mexico’s problems ignore the fact that Mexico is a middle-income country with a per capita GDP 25 times higher than that of Afghanistan and more than five times that of Iraq.[3]  Prior to the current economic downturn, 60 percent of the population was considered middle class.[4]  Mexico has had a stable – if not entirely democratic -- political system since the early 1930s.  Its Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), for all its faults, presided over a relatively benign variety of one-party rule characterized by broad political mobilization, institution-building and economic development.[5]  Unlike most Latin American countries, post-revolutionary Mexico has no history of military rule.   With the election of President Vicente Fox in 2000, 70 years of one-party rule by the PRI came to an end.  While the homicide rate in northern Mexico is appalling, the country as a whole has a murder rate lower than many Central American and Caribbean countries.[6]  Taken together, the four most violent states in northern Mexico have a combined murder rate similar to that of Honduras.[7]  And despite increasing violence, the 2010 state and local elections saw Mexicans rejecting candidates perceived to be backed by the cartels.[8]  Mexico, it seems, is not as bad off as it is sometimes portrayed.

This paper will argue that Mexican drug cartels and associated criminal groups do not constitute an insurgency.  It would therefore be counterproductive for the United States or Mexico to adopt a COIN strategy toward the interrelated problems of drug trafficking, violence and lawlessness in Mexico, as some have argued.

The first section below will examine the claims that the Mexican cartels constitute an insurgency.  The second will examine the shortcomings and risks of applying a population-centric COIN strategy to what is essentially a law-enforcement problem in Mexico.  The final section will highlight elements of COIN a la carte that are or should be part of our current approach. 

I.  Is Mexico Facing an Insurgency?

As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq approach the ten-year mark, discussion of insurgency and counterinsurgency among Americans has gone viral.  No longer are these topics the exclusive domain of Army outcasts wearing green berets or obscure civilian strategists on the fringes of academia.  COIN, in particular, has entered the popular lexicon since the success of the “surge” in Iraq and President Obama’s embrace of the Petraeus/McChrystal brand of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.  Everyone, it seems, has been influenced by what Douglas Lovelace, Jr., the Director of the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College calls “the COIN fever of our time.”[9]  The Kindle version of the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24) is currently #12 on’s list of best sellers in military strategy, just four places behind Tom Clancy’s Carrier.[10]  According to Foreign Affairs magazine, the COIN FM  “has helped make counterinsurgency part of the zeitgeist.”[11]  The manual “has become a coffee-table staple in Washington,” even leading to the appearance of one of its drafters, LTC John Nagl, on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  Given all this hype, is it any wonder that COIN is beginning to be seen as the cure-all for a host of international ills?

Before COIN can be applied to Mexico, however, there needs to be an insurgency.  The “narco-insurgency” paradigm, increasingly common in the literature on Mexican drug cartels, is the route chosen by many advocates of COIN.   Among the scholarly proponents of insurgency in Mexico is Robert Bunker, who argues that “criminal and spiritual insurgencies are now taking place in Mexico,” and foresees these groups attaining “de facto political control” if current trends persist.[12]  Diana Villiers Negroponte, writing for the Brookings Institute, skips over the issue of whether the DTOs constitute an insurgency, but asserts that the cartels “are more powerful than the government” and argues for counterinsurgency in response.[13]  Levant Kiran, writing for the Project on International Security at the College of William and Mary, says Mexico faces a “narco-commercialist insurgency” that seeks to “control territory for economic rather than traditional political reasons.”[14]  Nevertheless, he rejects COIN in favor of a more-or-less traditional law enforcement strategy.  On the military side, Major Terry Hilderbrand, writing at the  U.S. Army Command and Staff College in 2011, makes a detailed argument that Mexico is facing a “narco-insurgency,” quoting in support the assertion that Mexico is facing “violent imposition of radical socioeconomic restructuring of the state and its governance in accordance with criminal values.”[15]  LCDR David Deuel compares the seven major Mexican cartels to “the numerous tribes and clans in Afghanistan;” he then goes on to advocate FM 3-24’s model of  “Clear, Hold and Build” for Mexico.[16]  All of these analyses have one thing in common:  an attempt to pound the square peg of criminal violence into the round hole of insurgency.

Political leaders, such as Congressman Connie Mack (R-FL), Chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the HFAC, use the term “insurgency” to criticize current policy and call for a more robust, whole-of-government approach to the cartels.[17]   Even Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton used the “I-word” in her September 2010 remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations,[18] angering Mexican officials and prompting a rare public correction by the President. 

Among policymakers and scholars alike, the term “insurgency” is sometimes used as synonym for organized violence by a non-state actor.  Insurgency is a useful metaphor because it captures the urgency of the situation, the violence and the threat to the authority of the state.  It is not, however, an accurate description of what is happening in Mexico.  One need look no further than the above-mentioned Counterinsurgency Field Manual, FM 3-24, to find the characteristics of an insurgency:

Joint doctrine defines an insurgency as an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict (JP 1-02).  Stated another way, an insurgency is an organized, protracted political-military struggle designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government, occupying power, or other political authority, while increasing insurgent control. . . .  In all cases, insurgents aim to force political change; any military action is secondary and subordinate.[19]

According to Bard O’Neill, one of the foremost contemporary experts on insurgency and counterinsurgency,

Insurgency may be defined as a struggle between a nonruling group and the ruling authorities in which the nonruling group consciously uses political resources (e.g., organizational expertise, propaganda, and demonstrations) and violence to destroy reformulate or sustain the basis of legitimacy . . . .  (emphasis in the original.)[20]

David Kilcullen, the author of the “Three Pillars” approach to COIN, appears to agree:

An insurgency is a struggle for control over a contested political space, between a state (or group of states or occupying powers) and one or more popularly-based non-state challengers.  Insurgencies are popular uprisings that grow from, and are conducted through pre-existing social networks . . . . (Emphasis added.) [21]

In short, the cartels may be an uber-violent mafia, but they are not an insurgency by any stretch of the imagination.  Their goal is profit, not power.  They neither have nor seek to acquire broad-based popular support.  To do so would require a marketable belief system, whether sincere or merely cynical, to put their violence in political context and attract (or indoctrinate) followers. 

Ideology --whether political, religious or ethnic -- is a defining characteristic of insurgency that is conspicuously lacking from the cartels.  According to Steven Metz and Raymond Millen,

National insurgencies in particular depend on ideology to unify, inspire, [and] explain why the existing system is unjust or illegitimate, and rationalize the use of violence to alter or overthrow the existing system.[22]

The closest scholars have come to identifying a political agenda behind the cartel activity is to posit that they seek to weaken or co-opt local, state, and, to a lesser extent, federal governments in Mexico in order to be able to conduct their criminal activities unhindered;this is the cornerstone of the “narco-insurgency” argument cited above.  Whether it is true or simply a truism that the cartels seek to weaken the ability and will of the Mexican government to enforce the law, this does not amount to an ideology or even a coherent political agenda.  The cartels make no effort to convince the masses that weakening the government or allowing the cartels free reign is a good idea (which would be a tough sell in any society), nor to usurp the functions of government.  Like Al Capone and Pablo Escobar, Mexican cartel leaders feed their egos and protect their flanks by lavishing charity on their hometowns or bases of operation, but this largesse is not able or intended to usurp the role of government.  To the extent that the cartels are pursuing a political agenda, it is simply to be left alone by law enforcement.  This is 1920’s Chicago on steroids, not Afghanistan, Iraq or even Colombia. 

Some scholars point to the religious mysticism of La Familia Michoacana  or Los Caballeros Templarios (The Knights of Templar) arguing that, like the Taliban, they are motivated at least in part by religious fervor.[23]  However, fervent belief in the power of religious icons and patron saints is a staple of Mexican folk religion and has been for centuries.  This cult-like devotion to certain saints, common to varying degrees throughout Latin America, is no more the ideology of Mexican drug traffickers than it is of Mexican bus drivers, who ostentatiously glorify similar religious icons.  Dangerous occupations, not drug trafficking, are the tie that binds, as anyone who has ever ridden a bus in Mexico will attest.  Mexican cartel members are no more fighting for Santa Muerte than Mexican bus drivers are speeding for the Virgin Mary.  Religious beliefs, rituals and even sacrifices are a form of protection, not a casus belli.[24]

Proponents of criminal insurgency, narco-insurgency, “narco-commercialist insurgency,”[25] and other hyphenated insurgencies argue that traditional concepts are outdated.  Since its inception, however, the concept of insurgency has been predicated on a “Clausewitzian” understanding of the insurgents’ motivation (even before Clausewitz, if that makes sense).  Whether their cause was ideological, ethnic or religious, violence has always been “the continuation of politics by different means.”  In other words, the object of insurgency is political power:  seizing it or changing the manner in which it is exercised.  The political objective is an end unto itself.  What delineates the cartels from insurgents is that they see political influence as a means, not an end.  DTOs exist to make money; any political aspirations they might have are distinctly subordinate.  This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it has important implications for understanding and combatting the cartels.

II.  So What?

The reader could be forgiven for asking whether this is just a theological argument about the nature of insurgency.  It is not.  Defining Mexico’s interrelated problems of violence, drug trafficking and lawlessness as an insurgency is not only intellectually flawed, it leads to the mistaken conclusion that COIN should be the response.  However, for political as well as practical reasons, COIN is the wrong approach to Mexico’s current problems.  In the absence of an actual insurgency, COIN will, at best, lead Mexico and the United States to squander their resources by applying them to ineffectual and unnecessary efforts to “win over” the Mexican population.  Moreover, as we have seen, the term “insurgency” is anathema to the Mexican government; for Washington to embrace COIN as the solution to Mexico’s problems would be politically counterproductive, to put it mildly. 

A population-centric COIN approach to the DTOs –- isolating the population from the “insurgents” and winning them over to the government’s cause -- would be a classic example of misdirected effort.  Similarly, repackaging traditional development assistance as counterinsurgency, which COIN advocates seem to want to do in Mexico’s case, is not helpful because it creates a perception that the United States is looking at Mexico through the lens of its recent experience in Afghanistan and Iraq.[26]  This plays into Mexico’s historical neuralgia about U.S. military intervention. 

Some who argue for a COIN strategy in Mexico make explicit reference to the “Clear, Hold and Build” approach applied with varying degrees of success in Iraq and Afghanistan.[27]  Others draw on Colombia’s experience, the writings of French COIN expert David Galula or the “Three Pillars” approach of Dr. David Kilcullen.  While each of these approaches has merit in other contexts, all suffer from the same defect when applied to Mexico:  they are, to a greater or lesser extent, focused on controlling and/or winning over the population.  The problem in Mexico, however, is not the population.  When it comes to fighting the cartels and reestablishing the rule of law in areas of cartel dominance, the overwhelming majority of Mexicans already support the government.  According to a recent Global Attitudes poll by the respected Pew Research Center, the vast majority of Mexicans see crime (80%) or drug-cartel violence (77%) as their country’s number-one problem.  Even larger numbers support the Calderon government’s aggressive efforts against the cartels, with 84% favoring the use of the military against DTOs.[28]

Fear, the other motivating factor employed by the cartels, cannot compel long-term support; at best, it can only enforce neutrality.[29]   Moreover, when it comes to indiscriminate violence, cartels are subject to the same laws of political physics as governments:  harsh treatment, human rights violations and atrocities create more enemies than they eliminate.  In a situation where the absence of a coherent ideology limits the appeal of the cartels to those who benefit directly, the Counterinsurgency Field Manual has limited relevance.  The enemy, in the form of the cartels and their paid enablers, is the sole target.

Moreover, despite protests that COIN is primarily a non-military activity, there are few examples of successful counterinsurgency that did not rely to a significant extent on the deployment of military forces in a combat role.  For this reason, democracies are understandably cautious about employing a COIN strategy against a domestic criminal threat.  This is largely uncharted territory, Colombia’s experience notwithstanding, and governments such as Mexico’s can be forgiven for approaching it with caution.

Among COIN advocates, comparisons with Colombia are many, but the actual parallels with Mexico are few.  The FARC morphed into a true narco-insurgency, but, unlike the Mexican cartels, it started off as a Marxist-Leninist insurgency with an explicitly political agenda. Proponents of hyphenated insurgencies have yet to point to a criminal organization that evolved in the opposite direction, and their efforts to shoehorn Mexico into this role have so far proven unconvincing.

The FARC and the Colombian cartels had a symbiotic relationship, but they are far from synonymous.[30]  Nor were the FARC ever more than one player in Colombia’s multi-faceted drug trade.  Advocates of a COIN strategy in Mexico point to its relatively successful employment against the FARC, but COIN was never adopted as a strategy for fighting the notorious Cali and Medellin cartels, even when these cartels were waging a campaign of violent intimidation against the Colombian government much like the one we see in Mexico today.  The Colombian cartels were effectively dealt with as a law enforcement problem, with the police in the lead, while the military dealt with the FARC using a COIN model. [31]  Those who advocate applying the COIN lessons of Colombia to Mexico tend to gloss over this fact, conflating the FARC and the cartels.  However, none of the oft-cited tenets of COIN -- population control, winning hearts and minds, rural and urban development programs –- were major factors in Colombia’s success against the traditional drug cartels, which the Mexican DTOs resemble far more closely than they resemble the FARC.[32]  Rather, success against the Colombian cartels resulted from taking down their leadership structure. 

III.  COIN a la carte

If we strip COIN of its military (at least in the minds of many people) overtones and its focus on controlling or winning over the population, are there aspects of COIN that can usefully be applied to defeating Mexico’s supercharged TCOs?  The answer is yes, and many of them are already being applied as part of the current approach.  

Law enforcement:  Long before the Colombian government succeeded in fusing intelligence and law enforcement to defeat the infamous Cali and Medellin cartels, counterinsurgency experts were applying this model as part of a successful strategy to defeat uprisings in Malaya and elsewhere.  In fact, the line between COIN and law enforcement is a blurry one.  Just as organized crime and insurgency can be seen as different points on a broad spectrum of low-intensity conflict, police and military forces can be seen as part of a continuum of responses. 

Military operations:  In the short term at least, Mexican military forces will be required to fill the vacuum created by the breakdown of local and, to a lesser extent, federal law enforcement.  This will require a reorientation and retraining of at least some units of the Mexican Army and Navy, away from territorial defense and toward robust domestic law enforcement.  Aspects of U.S. COIN doctrine contained in FM 3-24, particularly the emphasis on positive interaction with the civilian population, avoidance of collateral damage and use of the minimum necessary force to accomplish the mission, are valuable in this regard. 

Intelligence sharing:  Accurate intelligence allows security forces – civilian or military – to find and arrest or kill the enemy while minimizing false arrests or civilian casualties, as the case may be.  All-source U.S. intelligence was a major factor in Colombia’s successful effort to turn the tide against both the FARC and the drug cartels.[33]  The United States has reportedly helped Mexico create and run two intelligence “fusion cells” aimed at tracking down cartel leaders.[34]  If Mexico is to succeed in bringing down the drug cartels, it will be, as in the case of Colombia, the result of this fusion of intelligence and quick-strike, paramilitary capability.

Whole-of-government approach:  The United States has yet to get this right in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it has recognized the need and is moving in the right direction.  In 2009, the State Department, with input from eight other agencies and departments, published the U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide.[35]  While the Guide focuses primarily on defeating higher-order insurgencies rather than TCOs, its “whole-of-government” approach is an essential ingredient for meeting any serious security or foreign-policy challenge.  Critics of the current, Merida Initiative approach to defeating the cartels, prominent among them Congressman Connie Mack (R-FL), call for precisely this whole-of-government approach:  “An all US agency plan . . . to aggressively attack and dismantle the criminal networks in the United States and Mexico.”[36]  Few would disagree with this approach, or with the need to better-coordinate our efforts across bureaucratic and political lines.

“Emergency” extradition procedures:  The Calderon government has sharply increased the number of criminal suspects extradited to the United States.[37]  This is a welcome development not simply because it allows the United States to prosecute those accused of committing crimes that impact the United States or its citizens, but because it compensates for the current weakness of the Mexican criminal justice system by allowing certain accused criminals to be taken out of that system.  Nevertheless, many accused cartel members are still able to avoid extradition by manipulating this same judicial system.  The Calderon government should consider using existing emergency powers and/or new legislation to temporarily suspend some of the procedural impediments to rapid extradition, not to please the United States, but to deal a decisive blow to the cartels and restore order in its northern border states.  Other democracies, including the UK, Spain and Italy have adopted temporary emergency measures to fight terrorism, insurgencies or organized crime.  By temporarily suspending the right of previously-named individuals to appeal their extradition, Mexico would buy itself time as it reforms its own criminal justice system.[38]

IV.  Conclusion:  Rewriting the Bilateral Narrative

Historically, the U.S. approach to Mexico has swung between benign neglect and breathless alarm.  When Mexico’s problems spilled over our borders, we paid attention; when problems receded, Mexico became just another country struggling to get its calls returned by busy Washington policymakers.  Mexico, meanwhile, regarded its northern neighbor with justifiable suspicion.[39]  If Mexico is to be our partner in “the war on drugs” and other important international endeavors, the bilateral paradigm must be updated.  We must demonstrate by our actions that we see Mexico as an equal partner in a bilateral relationship built on trust and better understanding of each other’s societies.  Whether recently-minted terms like criminal insurgency, narco-insurgency and even narco-commercialist insurgency add value or understanding to these efforts is questionable.  One could be forgiven for seeing them instead as just another round of hyperventilation brought on in part by the contemporary obsession with COIN. 

One thing, however, seems clear:  given the still-speculative nature of the narco-insurgency paradigm, neither we nor the Mexican government should be too quick to rush down the path of counterinsurgency, simply (or even partially) because it has become fashionable in recent years.  With the exception of Canada, no country is more important to our core national security than Mexico.  We cannot afford to get it wrong, or to confuse the operational objective of defeating the drug cartels with strategic objective of ensuring a friendly, prosperous, secure, and democratic neighbor to the south.

The contents of this paper reflect the author’s personal views and are not endorsed by the Naval War College, Department of the Navy or the Department of State.

[1] This paper will use the terms drug cartel, DTO (drug-trafficking organization) and TCO (transnational criminal organization) interchangeably when referring to Mexican drug-trafficking organizations.

[2] Gary J. Hale, “A ‘Failed State’ in Mexico:  Tamaulipas Declares Itself Ungovernable,”  James  A. Baker Institute for Public Policy, Rice University (2011).


[3] World Bank, “GDP per capita (current U.S. $),”

[4] Jorge Castañeda,  “Mexico’s Failed Drug War,”  Cato Institute Economic Development Bulletin, No. 13 (6 May 2010).

[5] See, for example, the sections on Mexico in Samuel P. Huntington’s classic Political Order in Changing Societies; or, for a more readable journalistic account, Alan Riding’s Distant Neighbors:  A Portrait of the Mexicans.

[6] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “The 2011 Global Study on Homicide”.

[7] Ibid.

[9] Douglass Lovelace, Jr., in the forward to “David Galula: His Life and Intellectual Context,” by Ann Marlowe.  Carlisle, PA:  Strategic Studies Institute (August 2010).

[10], accessed by the author on 7 October 2011.

[11] Colin H Kahl., “COIN of the Realm:  Is There a Future for Counterinsurgency?” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2007.

[12] Dr. Robert J. Bunker, “Criminal (Cartel & Gang) Insurgencies in Mexico and the Americas:  What you need to know, not what you want to hear.”  Testimony Before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs (13 September 2011).

[13] Diana Villiers Negroponte, “Mexico Denies ‘Insurgency’: Implications for an Appropriate Response,” Brookings Institution (27 October 2010). 

[14] Levant Kiran, “A Different Fight:  Narco-Commercialist Insurgencies in Mexico.”  Project on International Peace and Security, The College of William and Mary (2010).

[15] MAJ Terry Neil Hildebrand, Jr., “Drug Trafficking Within Mexico:  A Law-Enforcement Issue or Insurgency?”  Masters thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (2011), p. 88.

[16] LCDR David S. Deuel, “Drug Cartels and Gangs in Central America:  A View Through the Lens of Counterinsurgency,”  Masters thesis, Joint Forces Staff College, Norfolk, VA (2010).  Like some other writers, Deuel mistakenly asserts that COIN brought down the Colombian drug cartels, when in fact it was only applied to the FARC, not the cartels (see below).

[17] Hon. Connie Mack (R-FL), Chairman, Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, House Foreign Affairs Committee; opening statement for hearing entitled, “Has Mérida Evolved? Part One: The Evolution of Drug Cartels and the Threat to Mexico’s Governance,” 13 September 2011.

[18] Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State, Remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, DC, 8 September 2010.

[19] U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency.  Washington, DC:  Department of the Army (15 December 2006).

[20] Bard O’Neill,  Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse, 2nd edition.  Potomac Books, Inc., 2005.

[21] David J. Kilcullen, “Three Pillars of Counterinsurgency,” remarks delivered to the U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Conference in Washington, DC 28 September 2006.

[22] Steven Metz and Raymond Millen, “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the 21st century:  Reconceptualizing Threat and Response,” p. 6.  Carlisle, PA:  U.S. Army Strategic Studies Institute, 2004.

[23] See, for example, Dr Robert Bunker’s lurid testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Western Hemisphere Affairs on 13 September 2011 or, less sensationally, Ioan Grillo, “Drug-Dealing for Jesus:  Mexico’s Evangelical Narcos.” Time, 19 July 2009.

[24] “'Saint Death' comes to Chicago,” Chicago Tribune, 30 September 2007.  Though it goes beyond the scope of this paper, anthropologists have pointed out the manner in which the practice of the Roman Catholic faith in the Americas has been influenced by pre-Colombian culture, including death cults.  Dia de Los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”), a macabre version of All Saints’ Day celebrated throughout Mexico on November 1, is one of its modern-day manifestations.

[25] Levant Kiran, “A Different Fight:  Narco-Commercialist Insurgencies in Mexico,” Policy Briefs 2009-2010, pp. 17-26.  The College of William and Mary: Project on International Peace and Security (2010).

[26] At least since the author joined the Foreign Service 21 years ago, USAID and the Department of State have been helping countries fight poverty, implement sustainable economic-growth policies, develop effective law-enforcement and judicial systems, and strengthen civil society, all outside the rubric of COIN.

[27] See for example Hillderbrand and Deuel.

[28] Pew Research Center,  “Crime and Drug Cartels Top Concerns in Mexico;”  Global Attitudes Project, 31 August 2011.

[29] The exceptions – e.g., kidnapped Central American migrants forced at gunpoint to do the cartels’ bidding -- are sufficiently rare as to prove the rule.  This type of support is brittle, to put it mildly, and certainly turns far more average Mexicans against the cartels.  Fear-induced passivity on the part of local populations is, however, an undeniably important factor in the cartels’ ability to operate unhindered by law enforcement.

[30] Rafael Pardo, former Colombian Foreign Minister, “Colombia’s Two-Front War,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2000.

[31] Robert C. Bonner, “The New Cocaine Cowboys:  How to Defeat Mexico’s Drug Cartels,”  Foreign Affairs, July/August 2010.

[32] The Mexican cartels are not qualitatively different from the Cali and Medellin cartels in terms of their level of violence or their targeting of government officials.  As former Colombian Foreign Minister Rafael Pardo points out above (Pardo, “Colombia’s Two-Front War), the Medellin and Cali cartels murdered judges, police officers, journalists, and even presidential candidates seemingly at will.

[33] Max Boot and Richard Bennet, “The Colombian Miracle:  How Alvaro Uribe turned the tide against drug lords and Marxist Guerillas,” The Weekly Standard, 14 December 2009.

[34] Mark Mazzetti and Ginger Thompson, “U.S. Widens Role in Mexican Fight,” New York Times, 25 August 2011.

[35] United States Government Interagency Counterinsurgency Initiative, U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Guide.  Washington, DC:  U.S. Department of State (2009).

[36] Mack, “Has Merida Evolved?”

[37] Bonner, “Cocaine Cowboys.”

[38] A court structured along the lines of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) could review and pre-approve extradition of select, high-value cartel leaders or, at a minimum, hold expedited, closed-door extradition hearings for any previously-identified individual brought before the court.  In order to comply with the Mexican constitution, the U.S. would have to agree in advance not to seek the death penalty for these individuals.

[39] See, for example, Riding’s Distant Neighbors or Castañeda and Robert A. Pastor, Limits to Friendship:  The United States and Mexico.


Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Brad Freden has been a Foreign Service Officer for 22 years.  He is currently assigned to the U.S. Naval War College, where he is completing a Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies.  His previous assignments include Deputy Chief of Mission and Charge’ d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Ljubljana, Slovenia; Counselor for Political and Economic Affairs in Sofia, Bulgaria; Political-Military Affairs Officer in Prague, Czech Republic; Political Officer in Colombo, Sri Lanka; and Vice Consul in Merida, Mexico. He also served in Washington in the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs and the State Department Operations Center. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, Mr. Freden served in the U.S. Air Force.  Mr. Freden is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where he received a Master of Arts in International Relations, and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, where he majored in International Politics. He is originally from California.




Mon, 01/09/2012 - 5:24pm

Great article.
Good arguments against that approach re: Mexico.
Citations 20 and 21 alone should make enough sense to anyone who thinks otherwise.
Keep up the good work.


Mon, 01/09/2012 - 10:54am

Brad excellent discussion. Perhaps it is time to establish what is right and wrong about our approach vice forcing it into its appropriate hole.

The Mexican Training Initiative was a TS code word program to train the Grupo Aero movil in the early 1990s. The call sign used by the mexi SF was Zeta, we trained the bastards that are hollowing out the country. Fast and Furious is killing mexi's with guns from the US and the demand for drugs is financing this whole frigging mess.

So what do we do? The USA announces a major effort on all fronts against the cartels like we did with Op Snowcap in the Andean Ridge and we publicly take responsibility for it all, the Zetas the guns and the drug demand that fuels the violence. We do it publicly and in a big way with POTUS announcing and running on it as a plank in his law and order re-election gambit. He fires Holder, sacks the ATF goons, and puts Barry Mccaffrey in charge as the El Jefe of Mexi US counter drug counter trafficking operations and we dedicate 2000 sf guys to the effort also.

THE USG is and was complicit in the genesis of this, but the whole bag isn't DoDs it is mostly the addicts and there enablers. Demand destruction is the long term end of the war on drugs. If you can't say no then be prepared to surrender your freedom to the state and live in a tent camp in pink underwear picking up trash along the road. Hat tip to Sherrif Joe.

NORTHCOM has an amazing opportunity to use every facet of IO in Mexico.

EW against the cartels shadow comms networks, the repeaters, the cell towers, and the IComm traffic that is allowing them to stay up to or ahead of the Mexican military.

CNO against the cartels various business and facilitation assets, anymore and this would be classified

PSYOP and here is the most critical aspect of the problem. we own this, we do and should say so wioth a sincere mea culpa and then crush the cartels with all the finesse of a hammer dropping on fine china. PSY acts speak very loudly to a jaded US and Mexi public.

C2W we strike the leadership of the cartels as terrorists like we did Osama and awlaki in yemen

Why this? Cause it is the right thing to do, it gets Obama past fast and furious and it stops the killing of innocent Mexi's.Fast and Furious was just criminal and ghetto, so Holder has to go. Obama knows this and this gives Holder a way to step aside and the focus is on a positive action going forward and Issa can grind Holder but if this is executed with violence of action and is done heavy with 2000 sf guys and 500 FBI guys in mexi for six months this could break the cartels.

Mexico will be a camapign issue against the Dems and this takes it off the table.

To readdress the insurgency question, when the government declared war on the Cartels it changed the dynamic from a relatively peaceful co-existence with parallel economies (licit and illicit) to one of conflict between the Cartels and government. The Cartels are now effectively waging a "limited" war with the government and a war with each other to protect their economic interests. By default much of their activity will be insurgent like such as conducting attacks on the government, intimiditating the citizens, and conducting acts of subversion where needed to facilitate their business. Calling it a criminal insurgency is probably not inaccurate. The objective is business and limited control (where needed) instead of a imposing a new political system. However, the dynamics of the conflict could result in unintended consequences, up to the worst case of State collapse if the violence isn't reduced. This isn't the normal criminal activity that Dayuhan misleadingly points to. At one it was, that has changed.


Fri, 12/30/2011 - 11:11am



Tue, 01/24/2012 - 1:44am

In reply to by TTURaiders

While I applaud your enthusiasm the point of the above article was that such measure will not work against an organization that is motivated by profit instead of religion, or political idealism.

You really should spend time with the ranchers, border agents, and local law enforcement both at the points of entry and out in the brush. Often times illegal traffic, humans and drugs alike cross the Rio Grande from a ranch on the Mexican side to one on the U.S. a hundred plus miles from anything resembling an official border crossing.

The cartels like the Zetas are already special forces trained. Many of them are deserters or dishonorable discharges who became mercenaries. Civilians, even half trained, would not stand any more chance than they do now. It is not guerillas against villagers. It is EXTREMELY well armed, equipped, and profit motivated groups who use mob tactics (threatening family members in other states and countries, extortion, and bribes) to get what they want.

Will you have a drone kill the house maids, school children, and farmers being taken care of by the cartels simply because they live in the same complex as the narcos? Maybe blow up the school buses full of kids they are using to smuggle dope? Or all of the mules (men forced to carry drugs against their will) just because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time?

There are not enough people in the CIA in tis totality to kill all of the cartels in their entirety. The Taliban has yet to die.

It is politically and economically impossible to reduce the ports of entry

No politician is willing to fight or lose the vote of the interest groups that would call for blood if ALL visa issuances were stopped for more than a week. For any reason.

The consulates are under constant threat, much like most American consulates around the globe.

We do not have the manpower or infrastructure to do 100% vehicle inspections for much longer than a few hours at a time. Also, the economies that depend on legitimate border traffic would not tolerate the subsequent side effects of the enormous back log this would create.

As for the fence, there are very few places where a fence is either economically, or even geologically possible. There are environmental issues to contend with as well. Not to mention the exorbitant cost of upkeep. Oh and are you willing to force the expensive option of imminent domain to seize all the private land along the border just put up the wall?

Brad F

Tue, 01/03/2012 - 6:34pm

In reply to by TTURaiders

I think the technical term for this strategy is called "shooting yourself in the foot."


Fri, 12/30/2011 - 11:11am

In reply to by TTURaiders


As long as you are working the strategy for COIN as phase II of the war on drugs, you might consider exclusively working the demand side of the supply demand equation. By doing so you won't have to bother with the expense of learning about another culture, it's history, or even another language. Title X, Subtitle D, SEC 1031 (a-e) of the NDAA for FY 2012 takes care of the legal issues regarding indefinite detention. Monitoring the wastewater of a showcase city (perhaps a university town) for a spectrum of narcotics could be included in your schedule of MOE's. Reconstruction activities are part of COIN operations and perhaps they could be combined with ARRA projects to really spiff the place up. Good luck with your efforts.


Fri, 12/30/2011 - 9:15am

First, before discussing the strategy to endthe Civil War in Mexico, we must come to grips with three realities. 1. People like drugs and will do anything and pay anything they can to get them. That will never stop. 2. Because of the first fact, the amount of money far outweighs the risk of being caught or killed for the large number of narco controlled forces and leaders. 3. The corruption in Mexico was so bad that these narco armies were allowed to gain tremendous strength to the point where platoon sized engagements with crew served weapons and the sieges of entire towns are common. Therefore, there is only one way to break the back of the narco forces and to bring it back under control - unrelenting violence of action combined with securing the border. This can be done through the following:
1. Deploy small special forces teams into isolated Mexican villages and towns to do what these teams were originally set up to do - train and arm the population to defend themselves.
2. Put the attack drones in the sky to kill the narco forces.
3. Send in the same CIA teams we sent into Iraq and Afghanistan to kill the enemy.
4. Reduce the number of Ports of Entry.
5. Freeze the issuance of visas for 30-90 days to allow all the intel checks to catch up to the number of applicants.
6. Close the all of the Consulates for at least 30 days anytime a threat is detected directed towards any one of them.
7. Finish the fence and fortifications allong the border.
8. Institute 100% North and Southbound vehicle and foot traffic inspections at random but frequent times.

Thanks to everyone for the useful feedback.


Thu, 12/29/2011 - 12:55am

double post

Bill M.

Sat, 12/31/2011 - 11:08pm

In reply to by Surferbeetle

I would prefer to keep the think tanks out of it, I think Terminex and I can manage our own battles. Yes I would be very concerned if Nagle and his merry band of global reformers starting pushing an agenda in my neighborhood that was basically a repeat of clear, hold and build to deal with the persistent, yet manageable problem of termites. His ilk would change the nature of the conflict into something that quickly gets out of hand.

In a way Mexico did that when they declared war on the Cartels, for them the problem was manageable prior to the war (everyone knew the rules and had their turf mapped out). I'm definitely not saying Mexico shouldn't crack down the Cartels, but much as we found in Iraq and Afghanistan, cracking down is usually more challenging than anticipated. Not to get into a legitimacy debate, because I think that concept is overplayed in some cases, but ideally a State is the only actor that can legitimately and effectively wield violence/coercion. Not only could the Cartels match them in the ability to wield violence, they had and have a sufficient level of funding (thanks to the good people in the U.S. of A) to sustain this violence and enable them to bribe/subvert the government's political system and security forces.

You go back to the termite model, if you only kill termites when they attack your house the conflict is contained within acceptable limits. If you're going to do more than this, then buckle your chin strap and hold on.

The Cartel violence in Mexico is very serious. I hardly ever see it presented in the media to be frank, other than a CNN or PBS special here and there. The people effected by it would disagree with your dismisal of it. If you're simply stating that Mexico can manage it without U.S. interference, then that may be true, but I haven't seen evidence of it yet. Perhaps we interfered too much already and poisoned their strategy with great ideas from FM 3-24? Definitely seems to be too much focus on head hunting HVIs instead of dismantling the Cartels in total. The FBI learned long ago how to seriously degrade organized crime, and that simply arresting the leaders accomplished very little. Maybe the Mexicans are just listening to the wrong advisors, or maybe there is more going on than I'm privy to (I hope).

We may disagree on this, but I think the the issue is a national security concern for several reasons. First, we have a number of U.S. businesses in N. Mexico that may be effected. Second, the Cartels are business men who will expand their illicit activites into other activities such as human trafficking, and will be capable of moving terrorists and weapons into the U.S.. A destablized Mexico will impact NAFTA which in turn will further degrade our economy. Last but far from least, the violence will spill over the border. We already have Mexican 3d Generation gangs throughout most of the U.S. that can be leveraged. Just because it is a concern doesn't mean we need to our should send in the military, since that would most likely be very, very counter productive. It does mean watching it (intelligence/law enforcement) and gaining a greater understanding of the problem and then working with the Mexicans to develop intelligent approaches to mitigate the threat to an acceptable level. It is not at an acceptable level currently.


Sat, 12/31/2011 - 6:49pm

In reply to by Bill M.


Interesting model, drugs the termite, the house as a portion of society, and a problem that was here before us and will be here after us. Let's run with it.

Unbeknownst to you, there is a group of policy-wonks who are aware that your house has termites. In fact they have run a spreadsheet model that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt (using just two variables!) that the termites in your house will take out the entire neighborhood! Not to worry though, even though they have never met you or been to your neighborhood, they have jets on the tarmac which they are presently loading with napalm and they are about 15 mikes out from fixing this incredible problem. Fortunately they also have an A&E firm and a Construction firm rolling down the nearest high speed avenue of approach to your location. You are so lucky! You and your neighbors are about to get a new improved neighborhood and it's only gonna cost you double your current mortgage.

Down the hall from the first group of policy-wonks is another group who are also aware that your house has termites. They have a copy of that spreadsheet model and they agree with the projections. They don't know you and they have never been to your neighborhood either. They have a plan to condemn your house, and those of your neighbors, knocking everything down and rebuilding it using just CMU, Steel, and Glass. You will be able to come back at a later date and rent some property from the state at a subsidized price under what you used to pay for a mortgage. This is another great plan and you are so lucky to have been selected!

Then there are some other folks who feel that we could just acknowledge that you are bright and capable guy who is able to work through this problem set with out the 'helpful' plans dreamed up by 'experts' who have never dealt with termites, flown a jet, or built a house of any kind.

I see Mexico as being in your situation; they can stand aside and have the 'experts' solve it for them, or they can work the problem set.

Although things are bad, it's not half as dramatic as presented in the media, and Mexico has the resources, understanding, and inclination to do what needs to be done to keep the termites in check without taking out the whole neighborhood. So do we for that matter. ;-)

Bill M.

Sat, 12/31/2011 - 4:07pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Surfer Beetle, one additional comment on the poverty issue. I think there is general agreement that the only true underlying root cause that we may be able to address is the demand for drugs in our country. That demand is facilitated by people having sufficient discreetionary money to purchase drugs and create the market that is resulting in all the violence. That is the inverse of poverty. It is a wealth enabled conflict. Not much different than Europe's colonial era also being facilitated by wealth and ambition, not poverty.

I also think there are several scenarios where there is no "root cause" to be fixed, but rather that conflict is a natural element within human society. It is no different than me declaring war on termites because they're attacking my house. It doesn't really matter to me if one calls it a war, a battle, a conflict, an insurgency or whatever, what matters is the termites are threatening my house. I call my Army "Terminex" to put a tent over the house and kill the termites. I realize all I have done is won a battle, this conflict will continue forever, but saving the house is a sufficient objective. I'm not going to reform the termites, or offer them incentives to dine elsewhere, and I'm not going to move out of my home or rebuild it with different materials, it is simply more cost effective to kill the termites that invade my property. If I fail to be vigilant and respond my house could be destroyed.

Many security situations are the same, the root causes can't be addressed, and the conflict may continue indefinitely, and that is just the way it is. Failure to fight will result in severe losses, but continuing to fight will not always result in a victory. I know our doctrine tells us to reach an end state, but in real life there may not be an end state. Some problems don't have solutions, but responses are still required to mitigate the damage. Maybe I'll make a termite conflict model to compete with some of the other models we have been discussing. It wouldn't be less realistic or less applicable. :-)

Bill M.

Fri, 12/30/2011 - 3:58am

In reply to by Surferbeetle

Why poverty and injustice is not a primary motivator:
The drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) were in existence in Mexico long before the current (2006 to now) drug wars, and it is important to understand that to begin to understand what led to the wars. The DTOs didn’t exist because there was poverty, they existed because there was and is a market for their goods. As you well know there is substantial illegal activity in wealthy countries that is conducted by the wealthy class. Being poor does not equate to being a criminal, that is a value a judgment and there are people who will refuse to engage in illegal activities regardless of how poor they are, and it is insulting to claim that those with less means are going to be criminals.

Poverty existed long before the gross escalation in drug related violence, and there are numerous areas in the world suffering from greater degrees of poverty than Northern Mexico where drug wars do not exist. That doesn’t mean that a poor kid isn’t susceptible to being recruited as a foot soldier into a Cartel’s ranks, but that shouldn’t be confused with the root cause of the DTO related violence. Don’t forget the Cartel’s also recruited heavily from the Mexican Army’s Special Forces by offering them greater pay than they received in the military. That isn’t recruitment based on poverty any more than the USSR’s KGB recruiting a relatively well paid FBI or CIA agent by offering financial bribes. They simply identified a low life who would sell out his family and country to make more money, which is nothing new in the history of man.

As for root causes, I do not think there was one event that led to the current conflict in parts of Mexico, but rather a confluence of events, of which many of them percolated over time (like NAFTA) and political reform, while others had a more immediate effect, such as Mexican’s President Calderon declaring a drug war against the Cartels in 2006, which led to increasing levels of violence until today, and most likely will continue to into the future. This set off a series of responses that continued to escalate over time, with each year getting increasingly violent. The DTOs in the past, due to extensive government corruption, actually had their turf staked out and government officials bribed, so compared to today the drug business was relatively non-violent. When Mexico went to a multi-party political system, it disrupted the agreements, creating considerable uncertainty and with the declaration of war, great efforts were expended to protect their markets. Since the previous arrangements were now void, the Cartels also went to war with each other.

Other factors that contributed to the current situation include the drug wars in other countries, especially Columbia, which displaced traditional or legacy transportation routes. What is interesting and not discussed as of yet, is the DTO related violence in other Latin American Nations is actually greater than it is in Mexico, but they get little media coverage because they’re not on our border. Honduras is one example.

Solving poverty and injustice isn’t doable in the short term, and regardless it will not stop the drug violence. You can’t really address the root causes either unless we’re capable and willing of killing demand on our end, so it seems the only rational options are to either crush the Cartels or call off the war and attempt to go back to the previous arrangements that existed prior to 2006. You can’t improve their economic condition until you mitigate the threat, so for these reasons and more the poverty argument doesn’t add up.


Thu, 12/29/2011 - 12:55am

In reply to by Bill M.

<blockquote>Here we go again with the old and only partially correct argument that poverty and injustice has led to the sustained increase in narco related violence in Mexico. </blockquote>

Bill M.,

All societies fight poverty and injustice using a variety of methods to include violence when needed. Charles Dickens’ book Oliver Twist is a dramatization of the argument in a western context. In the case of Mexico previous historical examples of the ttp include the struggles of the indigenous Indians who fought the advance of the centralizing and controlling agricultural societal structures embodied in the plantations/estates/haciendas.

<blockquote>Granted that poverty is a factor in the overall context, but it is not the cause of the violence. The poverty existed for decades without the related narco-related violence, so other factors led to the current situation. </blockquote>

Prior to narco-related violence there was coffee, henequen, and vanilla related violence as food crops were displaced by export crops and peasant farmers experienced accompanying societal and economic dislocations (1800’s).

<blockquote>Efforts to address the economic woes will do little or nothing to mitigate the violence, because the violence is not related to poverty but about control of the narcotics market. </blockquote>

Control of the narcotics market can be seen as control of factors of production to produce a ‘good’ (land, labor and capital are used to produce goods and services). Social institutions are arrayed around the production of goods and services and are used to reward, coerce, and punish members of society (impose social control). In Mexico there has been a historical shift from an indigenous lifestyle to a agricultural lifestyle, to a service economy lifestyle; each of these shifts has been accompanied by changes in related social institutions and mores. There are of course resultant winners and losers from each of these shifts. The ‘have not’s’ have historically fought the ‘haves’ for control of factors of production for goods and services which accompany these shifts. Nacrocultura is on the periphery of the most recent shift.

<blockquote>In the future the motivations for the violence may expand or change altogether, but for now it is not about poverty. </blockquote>

As noted above, I disagree with this statement/thesis and have provided examples as to why poverty and injustice is in fact a primary motivator. I am curious as to what you see the primary motivator to be and how this has come to pass in the context of Mexico?

<blockquote>If they’re happy, why do we feel compelled to impose our flawed form of happiness (material wealth) on them? And further why do we assume if they don't have material wealth, then that is the root cause of the violence?

Keeping in mind that Mexico is an approximately 1 trillion USD a year economy (which exports 80% of it’s goods to the US and imports ~ 50% of its goods from the US), I vote to continue to encourage Mexico to continue with it’s democratic traditions (national elections are scheduled for 2012) and not entertain the application of US military ‘solutions’ to civilian/societal problems of poverty and injustice. In short, I agree that it’s not a good idea for us to try and impose anything upon Mexico.

Bill M.

Wed, 12/28/2011 - 6:54pm

In reply to by Surferbeetle

Here we go again with the old and only partially correct argument that poverty and injustice has led to the sustained increase in narco related violence in Mexico. Granted that poverty is a factor in the overall context, but it is not the cause of the violence. The poverty existed for decades without the related narco-related violence, so other factors led to the current situation. Efforts to address the economic woes will do little or nothing to mitigate the violence, because the violence is not related to poverty but about control of the narcotics market. In the future the motivations for the violence may expand or change altogether, but for now it is not about poverty. Not too long ago the Mexican people were rated as one of the happiest nationalities on our little planet, and a lot of that had to do with the family ties and values you mentioned. If they’re happy, why do we feel compelled to impose our flawed form of happiness (material wealth) on them? And further why do we assume if they don't have material wealth, then that is the root cause of the violence?
It is also incorrect to assume that the sustained violence cannot destroy existing social norms. It has happened in other countries, and it can certainly happen in Mexico. Humans/societies survive because they adapt to their environment, and the tragic situation in Northern Mexico continues the society will change.
We need a non-bias (no presuppositions) analysis to determine what factors led to and now sustain the narco-related violence. Some have argued that NAFTA was the key driving force, and provided some supporting evidence. I suspect that may be a part of it, but I am not convinced at this point it is the only underlying cause.
The good news is it appears that most Mexicans based on their values hate the Cartels, but the bad news is that the Narco-gangs are very effective at subverting the Mexican government with coercion and incentive money, which in turn severely undermines the ability of the government to effectively challenge them. In this situation corruption/subversion may turn out to be decisive.


Wed, 12/28/2011 - 2:02am

Brad, thanks for sharing your well written, well footnoted, and thought provoking article.

For what it’s worth, my observations of Mexican society and culture lead me to believe that narcocultura will never supplant the primacy of family and community, nor, for that matter, has the Mexican Government ever been be able to do so. The root ills of poverty and injustice, and those who would use them for social control, are fought with whatever tools come to hand at the time. Nacrocultura, perhaps, may be seen as an available and imperfect tool in this fight albeit with horrific costs.

The US military has a few specialized tactical level skills that may be of interest to the Mexican Government, however the USG does not have the available skill set, nor the political stamina, required to solve Mexico’s historically longstanding and multidimensional problems with poverty and injustice. Simply put, Mexican society does not share the US fixation with the primacy of the State over that of family and community. As a result, any ‘holistic solutions’ proffered by the current paradigm are incomplete, dangerously myopic, and, more importantly, are a tragic diversion of precious capital needed to solve more pressing issues within the US political system.

Bill M.

Tue, 12/27/2011 - 10:27pm

I'll keep my comments brief. In general I both agree and disagree with the author. He argues our COIN doctrine won't work against the Mexican cartels, and on that point I agree. All the supposed lessons related to population centric COIN, development, etc. he mentions didn't work in Afghanistan or Iraq, and clearly won't work against the cartels. He claims the cartels are not an insurgency, yet when you review the list of definitions he chooses to describe an insurgency, the cartels clearly fall into the insurgent category. I agree it is not currently an insurgency, but our lexicon for explaining these situations is lacking. I'll leave it to the academics to argue over terms that are not really relevant, because smart planners won't blindly apply the flawed doctrine in FM 3-24 to begin with, they'll seek to first understand the problem and then develop an appropriate solution based on the problem, so it really doesn't matter if we call them gangs, insurgents, narco-terrorists, or a boy's club. What matters most is understanding the true nature of the problem, not trying to make them fit into a prescribed term or doctrinal template.

The author's claims about the Cartel's in Columbia being defeated by law enforcement the FARC being defeated by the military are questionable. It was combined law enforcement, intelligence and military operations that resulted in decapitating the Cartels, but now more cocaine than ever is flowing out of Columbia, so did the law enforcement centric approach really solve our problem? To my knowledge the FARC have not been defeated, like the Cartels they have been recently decapitated.

Despite several points of disagreement, I think this is an important paper that provides a warning about the potential misuse of our beloved COIN doctrine.

J Reap

Thu, 12/29/2011 - 4:20pm

In reply to by Brad F

ok, thanks. I only ask because it is part of our own domestic border discussion. Lots of legalities both ways that are truly (in accordance with political aims)the real roadblocks to progress along some of the lines of effort.

Thanks, Joe.

Brad F

Thu, 12/29/2011 - 2:32pm

In reply to by J Reap

To the best of my knowledge, there is no Mexican equivalent to our PC law.


When mentioning the military's involvement in the a la carte section, how did Mexico overcome their version of posse comitatus that we have here in the US? Have they formally federalized certain military units in select geographical areas? What have they done for that?

I was thinking they have a similar legal system and may have some of the same obstacles.

Don Bacon

Tue, 12/27/2011 - 8:45pm

Yes, Mexico is another non-insurgency in a series: Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and COIN doesn't apply. Where there have been true insurgencies, as in Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Egypt, the U.S. inclination has been to aid the insurgencies. Perhaps we could prevail upon King David to write a sequel, FM 3-25 PROIN [Pro-insurgency]?


Fri, 12/30/2011 - 2:16am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


I fully concur that joint doctrine (and Service doctrine) is often a mess. The official definition in JP 1-02 limits insurgency to attempts to overthrow a constituted government, which is horrendously old-think and limited to the specific period of history that tends to get the most study in the defense world. The reason I cite JP 3-24, as one of the more recent publications, is because it is markedly improved in recognizing that insurgency can take many forms that do not seek to overthrow a government, but perhaps instead seek to co-opt the government to do its bidding. This is what distinguishes it from organized crime - scope. Organized crime will bribe a police officer or customs official. The cartels and affiliated groups seek to buy or kill entire segments of the government.

As for your comments on ideology and radicalizing populations, I would still suggest (respectfully) that you are missing the most important elements - those which the insurgency thrives on and generally needs to survive - in the quest for a much loftier goal of a government the people can be happy with (a desirable end state to be sure, but one which misses a few very important steps in the meantime). State building, training newly constituted indigenous forces, etc. all take time - time during which the counterinsurgency might already be lost. The first thing most of these populations want is a choice - an alternative to fearing for their life and those of their family if they don't do what the insurgents want and give them what they demand. Everything else, while of significant importance to a lasting solution - comes secondary. Insurgency then, as it plays out at the local levels where it matters most, is about building a base of support - often through infiltration in the population, intimidation, and sheer terror. The goal of the counterinsurgent is to break this hold and end this process so as to isolate the insurgents and capture or kill those who do not give up on their own after becoming exposed. This is what is happening in Mexico. It is no surprise that when the Mexican military sets up outposts near towns and cities that have been overrun by the cartels, residents feel secure enough in the town, those who have fled move back, and the cartels' "hold" there is significantly weakened.

Incidentally, I would not be opposed to your suggestion of getting Fort Bragg involved in the doctrine rewrite, but it is no better entrusted entirely to Bragg than it is entirely to Leavenworth. I've worked with a lot of very smart people at Bragg, and we all know that they have been the repository for this type of information when the rest of the Army chose to forget about it, but I've found in talking to SF and other SOF guys that they are just as much products of their experience as anyone else - as significant as that experience admittedly is. I heard the refrain that our job in Iraq and Afghanistan was to help the government fight their own counterinsurgency effort, even when there were desperate short term requirements for security at the risk of losing their support for good - and a government and its armed forces that were fundamentally incapable at the time of providing it. Essentially trying to fit the square FID peg into the round COIN hole that I mentioned in another thread.

We may end up agreeing to disagree (or maybe not even that, but disagreeing nonetheless). Either way, my argument is we miss the most important elements of insurgency - the process by which it occurs - and in doing so lose conceptual clarity with regards to short and long term requirements when facing an actual insurgency, instead pursuing a whole mess of other objectives that are hugely important, but perhaps not of the most immediate importance.


Robert C. Jones

Thu, 12/29/2011 - 5:09am

In reply to by datroy


You lost me at "if we go by our joint doctrine." Our joint doctrine on insurgency is a hot mess old wives tales collected from the lessons learned from Western Colonialism and US Containment operations; heavily colored by the lessons learned as we perceived them in Iraq as we experienced them. The bias from the first part of that equation needs to be distilled out by careful analysis that appreciates the fact that that bias exists. As to the second part, I recommend we let Iraq stew a generation or so before we commit to heavily to the lessons learned there. I suggest our perception will evolve as the urgency and emotions subside.

I base my position based upon what I understand from my own study and experience, which includes modern US joint doctrine, but is certainly not constrained by it. We are in need of a major overhaul of joint doctrine, and it should take place at Ft Bragg, not Ft Leavenworth. The similarities you offer are very real, they just are not, IMO, the ones that matter.

As to the role of ideology, I am a loud and persistent voice on how ideology does not create such conflicts, but is merely a tool employed by successful insurgents (and UW-waging terrorists such as Bin Laden) to motivate populaces that have already been "radicalized" by their existing discontent with their current sitation of governance and opportunity by their own government (or some foreign government they come to blame for their situation). The base of popular support has nothing to do with any ideology that might be directed at that base to move it in some particular direction. The first attracts the second, the second does not create the first.
As Einstein observed, "Many of the things you can count, don’t count. Many of the things you can’t count, really count."

The US military loves things we can count, put on PowerPoint, and brief to the General every morning. Such things take on an importance based far more on the fact that they can be objectively measured and because they are counted and briefed each day. We delude ourselves far too often in this manner as to what is truly important to what we are doing, and what is merely important because we are doing it.

When it comes to such conflicts, what we understand is far more important than what we know, but the military culture favors the later far over the former. In fact, the former makes the military uncomfortable.




Thu, 12/29/2011 - 1:50am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


I disagree. If we go by our own joint doctrine, Mexico is clearly an insurgency. "An insurgency aims to gain power and influence, win a contest of competing ideologies, or both. The insurgent goal of gaining power, influence, and freedom of action may not extend to overthrowing the HN government, but only to gaining power and influence at a greater rate or extent than other means would peacefully or legally allow."

The idea that insurgency has to come from a groundswell of support (usually ideological) is outdated and based on historical examples in which ideology happened to be present. I think JP 3-24 got it exactly right by saying the movement based on ideology is only one type of insurgency - and even then only part of the picture. It's the result of our tendency to use a very limited historical view of insurgency - often limited to Malaya and anything that came after Vietnam - when ideology did happen to be present. Insurgents may need the population as a shield and a weapon, but there is no reason that this has to come from popular support for the espoused ideology (if there even is one).

What is common to Mexico, Afghanistan, Iraq, and earlier insurgencies that stemmed from something closer to an ideology is the process - the dynamics at the local level in terms of cartel intimidation and terrorizing of the population, government officials, etc. This is also much more widespread and comprehensive within all levels of society and the institutions of government than your average criminal activity - even that from organized crime. Counterinsurgency, meanwhile, at its most basic is about preventing the insurgents from being able to use the population as a weapon and shield in order to isolate and capture/destroy the insurgents. We limit our understanding of the process or practice of insurgency when we limit it to one specific type of group that has used that process in the past.


Wed, 12/28/2011 - 7:07pm

In reply to by Jimbo Monroe

Organized crime is exactly what it is. It looks different from what we're used to calling organized crime, but the difference is simply one of scale. That scale is a consequence of the overwhelming size and convenient proximity of the US market, and, more important, of a perverse and self-defeating US drug policy that does nothing to constrain demand and that constrains supply just enough to make the business obscenely profitable.

Organized criminals have always bribed politicians and cops, always attained illicit influence, always staked out territories, always fought each other and, when necessary, the law. This is nothing new. It's just bigger, and it's bigger because of us.

The danger of calling it "insurgency" is that this encourages and abets the illusion that the fight is between the cartels and the Mexican government and that the fight can be resolved by COIN tactics... in short, that the roots of the problem and the solution lie in Mexico. This is a load of bollocks. Anything done in Mexico is a stopgap band-aid that can only have transitory effects. This problem will be with us in one form or another until we deal with our drug issue, and that means accepting that the problems is demand, not supply.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 12/28/2011 - 7:51pm

In reply to by Dayuhan


I have not advocated "fixing" anything, merely describe what I believe to be the dynamics in play. You disagree with evidence I offer in various posts and assessments I make because they confict with your opinion of these events. That's fine, but put your own evidence on the table to back your own perceptions before you throw down on those of others in that manner.

Long before Arab Spring I stated that AQ recruited from the insurgent populaces of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, and others. Your response was "There is no insurgency in those countries." Certainly it had not gone active, but the fire was laid merely waiting for the match. Saudi too merely waits for the match.

You protest loudly, but without much to back your complaints. Events have provided ample evidence to support mine.




Wed, 12/28/2011 - 7:21pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


Straying from the topic here, but there is very peripheral relevance...

You say this about A'stan:

<i>So I join a revolutionary insurgency with the purpose of forcing the Northern Alliance to change to either include my group, or if unwilling to do so, to replace them completely.</i>

Is there any evidence to suggest that anyone in the Taliban is fighting to force the Northern Alliance to change to include other groups? I think not. This is not about inclusion, it's about power: there will be a winner and a loser; the winner will stomp the loser and yes, will very likely face an insurgency down the line.

<i>Solve the revolutionary issues first</i>

We can't. This is about Afghan political culture and about a long-percolating conflict between various components of the Afghan populace. We can't resolve those issues and it's ridiculous for us to try. We can't wave a wand and change the country, it's history, it's ways. We have to deal with what is.

And you say this of Iraq...

<i>AQ operatives conducting UW and bringing with them their own group of guerrilla fighters recruited from various nationalist insurgent groups from countries around the region (primarily Saudi, Libyan and Egyptian, but many other as well) begin arriving in country as they see Iraq as a convenient place/situation to strike a blow against America for their larger, regional political purpose attempting to get the US to relinquish their policy of protecting the status quo of politics across the region.</i>

Again, I have yet to see a shred of evidence to support this claim. Every interview-based study of foreign fighter motivation that I've seen suggests that foreign fighters went to Iraq for the same reason they fought Russians in Afghanistan: to expel the infidel from the land of the faithful. And in any event, foreign fighters were a minimal part of the Iraq problem... the way to deal with foreign fighters is not to try and resolve political issues in their home countries, which we haven't the power to do in any event. We can manage that problem much more easily by not giving them the opportunity to expel the infidel from the land of the faithful. We can do that by not going to the land of the faithful, especially when we've no good reason to go there or stay there. Don't give them a war to fight in, and they won't fight.

The peripheral relevance to Mexico lies in the illustration of the limitations of models. Even a good model, when applied where it doesn't really fit, can occlude perception and lead to bad decisions.

We also have a tendency to try to do things we can't do (nation building) and fix things we can't fix. Any theories that encourage that need to be critically examined. It's probably true in many places to say we could resolve insurgency and even crime problems if we could "fix the government" or "fix the economy"... but we can't, and trying, especially if we try to fix these things using armed force, is likely to get us in a world of trouble. Fixing a government or an economy is hard enough in any event - I can't think of a case where either was "fixed" by outside intervention - but sending an army to fix either is downright lunacy.


Sun, 01/01/2012 - 4:23pm

In reply to by Bill M.

In the early 1980's in the NWFP there was as sort of 'understanding' that the Mafia would not allow the local populace access to refined heroin. It was basically an export industry. Various religious sensitivities and Martial Law helped restrict the local illicit drug intake to hashish, weed etc. Normal cigarettes, despite being only a few cents each, were more expensive to buy than either hashish or brown sugar (unrefined opium). In other words illicit drugs were basically free. There was little or zero local drug related vilolent crime as basically you could't give it away.

Made sense to a lot of people at the time especially the spooks as it gave them a somewhat ridiculous deniablity when the Soviets pointed the finger as to who was funding the Muj.

My point is that decriminalising (making free) such a powerful narcotic initially seems the lesser of two evils but 30 years down the track it has proved to be an unmitigated catastrophe not only for the region but the whole world.

Very much a case of be careful what you wish for.


Bill M.

Sun, 01/01/2012 - 1:10pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Rep Mack's proposal is dangerous, and the Mexicans should look hard at Iraq and Afghanistan and JUST SAY NO to U.S. COIN. It is a failed concept, and as Steve pointed out they're probably capable of developing their own strategy, but may need help implementing it. In that case we get back to FID, a mission that we're more than capable of doing. We offer a helping hand, not a hostile take over. I recommend we leave the State Department in the lead, otherwise certain voices from CNAS will dominate the strategy development. In other words a strategy based on doctrine, instead of reality.

Rep Mack's website did accurately address the fact that the Cartels are involved in more than drug smuggling though, and two other illicit activities are human smuggling and natural resources exploitation (they're starting to suck profit out Mexico's Oil business, and sadly some U.S. companies are buying oil from the Cartels). My point is the illicit activities do present a threat to our security interests. That doesn't mean I support the extreme response that Rep Mack is advocating.

Based on the benefits of their illicit activities, I don't think legalizing drugs will solve the problem, and may not even put a dent in it. The violence increased exponentially after Mexico declared war on the Cartels, and legalizing drugs would just be another declaration or way of carrying out the war. It would be a direct challenge to the Cartel's illicit business, and it is unlikely that would result in a peaceful transition from illicit to legal markets where it could be taxed and regulated. Furthermore, much like cigarettes, if the gov applies a sin tax on the narcotics it will result in a huge black market for drugs without the sin tax (just as we have seen with cigarettes), so we're back to ground zero.

I understand where you're coming from, but based on my personal observations (and I know you have more than your fair share from Portland) drugs do destroy people's lives and undermine communities (look what the Brits did to China, or how Meth has seriously degraded several small towns in the U.S.), so I'm not opposed to the argument that these drugs, albeit indirect, are a threat to our national well being. Obviously the drug war has failed, but due to the amount of money and hype associated with the drug war bureaucracy it will be a challenge to get off this road and go down another road that will produce better results.

The drugs, the pushers, and the users are the termites, they'll always exist, the key is to reduce the problem to a manageable level.
The billion dollar question is how?

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 01/01/2012 - 9:19am

In reply to by Jimbo Monroe

It is very important not to confuse purpose for action with effects of action.

Many things can potentially grow to challenge government; this does not make them insurgency. For instance the recent housing bubble in the US grew out of control, and when it burst it threatened government. Does that make it insurgency? No. It was greed driven actions in a system that allowed such actions to grow to the degree they did. Bad laws enabled greed; greed drove actions that grew to threaten government.

Mexican or Afghan/Pakistani illegal drug markets are much more like the US housing fiasco than insurgency. Lumping dissimilar activities by their effects is one of the most dangerous aspects of recent COIN writings and doctrine. Study the symptom, treat the symptom. Counterinsurgent rather than counterinsurgency. Make the insurgent go away and one wins, do not worry about the insurgency itself. Craziness.

Bill Moore talks about US demand for Drugs as a major contributor to the current instability in Mexico. Very true, but it is the illegal nature of the market that is the true culprit. If this were a legal market Mexico would be enjoying a boom of stability and prosperity from this very same product and demand. The most important thing the US can do to help Mexico is admit our 40 year war on drugs is a complete failure of concept and implementation, and to start over with a program of controlling and taxing a legal market rather than attempting to control and prevent such a vastly lucrative illegal market. Sure politicians who push for such change will be viciously attacked by the media and their legal challengers for office. There will be problems with any new approach no matter how smart and how well implemented. But it will be better than what we have now.

Instead there is new a bill being introduced that brands Mexico as a terrorist insurgency and calls for massive US intervention. The "drugs are insurgency" voices are loud. The symptoms are clear. We must attack, attack, attack and defeat the symptoms! Mexican sovereignty be damned, we are the US of A and we have a right pass and defend the dumbest of laws, and if we have to destabilize other countries and then invade and attempt to restabilize with multi-billion dollar programs we will! Hold your copy of the Constitution high! Wave the flag! Crazy indeed.

There truly is only one danger on this earth that threatens the US in any significant way, and that is ourselves. God save us from intelligent fools such as Congressman Connie Mack of Florida District 14.…

I say without reservation, this is some stupid crap here:

"Chairman Mack believes the United States should support a targeted yet comprehensive strategy that works with Mexico to secure one key population center at a time in order to build and support vital infrastructure and social development for lasting results.

The counter insurgency measures must include:

• An all US agency plan, including the Treasury Department, DEA, CIA, ICE, the State Department, to aggressively attack and dismantle the criminal networks in the U.S. and Mexico.

• Doubling border patrol agents- fully funding needed border protection equipment such as additional unmanned aerial vehicles and the completion of double layered security fencing in urban, hard to enforce areas of the border.

• Teaching the culture of lawfulness programs to ensure local populations support the government, and rule of law, over the cartels."

Looks like the Congressman has been having lunch with Barry McCaffrey and gang. We really need a ban on retired generals promoting programs designed to double down on their earlier failed programs as the solution to solve the same.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 12/30/2011 - 5:32pm

In reply to by Jimbo Monroe

Jimbo---am in the process of analyzing and merging the Kilcullen comments from his 2004 article on conflict ecosystem and John Robbs open source warfare writing also starting in the 2004 timeframe.

That is almost finished and now I am looking more intently at John Boyd's OODA but more from the second O=Orient as the start point which would take it out of a linear thought process that some complain does not allow for complex adaptive system analysis.

Mentioning the Venn diagram is interesting in that was going to be the visualization tool for Boyd's OODA loop but using a four circle Venn diagram. Also redoing the 2004 Kilcullen Diagram of an Insurgency to make it easier to merge into the Venn diagram.


Sun, 01/01/2012 - 5:40am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Outlaw 09 - It stands to reason that any successful criminal activity will spread no matter the particular political or cultural differences of the host nation.

However it is important to realise the Mexicans, Lebanese, Somalis etc are overly violent amateurs and very much the Johnny cum Lately. The Mafia in the Af/Pak region represent the gold standard. They have an entrenched presence within the Pak elite ie within the Army, Police and Body Politic which extends back more than 30 years.

In other words on this very day you would be talking to a three star general who the ISI have been brown - bagging Mafia cash for his entire career. And we are talking heroin which moves around in ten tonne loads. I mean axle snapping loads bumping along all over the NWFP - hundreds of tons every day in broad daylight. Negoiating with any senior individual regarding border outposts, tribal sensitivities, female rights, religious fundamentals, NGOs, spares for F-16s , ratl lines etc without factoring in his primary interest is a complete dead end for all involved.

As I mentioned above State and DEA have all the fundamentals as to the scale and the penetration, I dare say they have the brown-bag ledger list of all the great and the good.


Outlaw 09

Fri, 12/30/2011 - 4:43pm

In reply to by RandCorp

RandCorp---you make an interesting comment reference the 'third generational criminality' (TGC) which if one looks at the current evolutionary developments of the world drug cartels I would agree with you on the term.

First we had the Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs), the next term was then the Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) and now the term TGCs---it seems to me that just as the various insurgent groups morph/evolve the drug based communities are in fact now morphing as fast as the insurgent communities morph/evolve.

A recent example of the TGCs sharing the "same battle space" was the DOJ charges against a leading Lebanonese drug trafficker/money launderer---the DTOs in Mexica Los Zetas via the TCOs linked into Hizballah (or vice versa) who while smuggling drugs into Europe make money on the drug sales and then money on the launderering side--- a really good example of win/win in the black economies.

Now we have an "emergence" event across two completely different communities working the same battle space--expanding to a major degree the abilities of each separate community.

And we have on SWJ a constant bickering over the term "conflict ecosystem" and "open source warfare".

Robb's definition of what we are seeing in the emergence of joint ventures between insurgent communities and criminal communities would be the following description;

STANDING ORDER 2: Grow Black Economies
The second standing order of modern insurgencies is to generate economic connectivity in order to manufacture allies and increase the ability of the insurgency to fund itself. It's simple:
...grow black economies...

This requires cooperation with existing criminal organizations within "illegal" economies. Further, broken "legal" economies, generate a plethora of free lancers that populate a self-reinforcing bazaar of violence.

The interesting thing about Robb is ---take the above statement replace the term insurgent with criminal community and it makes sense.

I have for the entire Afghan engagement been 300% surprised as to for some strange reason we the military have completely ignored the Afghan drug trade as a core element of the Taliban and related communities' being.


Best wishes for all in the coming year.


Fri, 12/30/2011 - 3:49pm

In reply to by Bill C.

I think it is fair to suggest that no one believes Af can be westernised. Perhaps a misguided few believed this to be possible many moons ago but that idea is long dead. Modernisation though more feasible is so unlikely within the next decade that it too can be discounted.

The challenge is to enable Afghans to play the leading role in preventing their country becoming a failed state so that they may modernise at a sustainable rate.

The self-interest for the West in the short-term is to stop Af becoming a terrorist and drug trading Mecca. The West's long-term objectives have nothing to do with modernisation let alone westernisation - in fact they have nothing to do with the poor ol' Afghans. It's the day''s drive from a region crippled by TGC to the world's most insecure nukes which needs to shape useful discussion regarding this region.

Bill C.

Fri, 12/30/2011 - 11:01am

In reply to by RandCorp

RandCorp, et. al:

But, in this analysis, do we forget a very important and critical factor, to wit: What is OUR PURPOSE for intervening in these matters; regardless of the cause of the state or societal difficulty presented, and/or why the enemy fights (political/religious reasons, TGC, or other)?

OUR PURPOSE would seem to be to (1) use the opportunity presented by various such difficulties to (2) fundamentally transform the subject state and society (its political, economic and social structure).

Herein, re: the AF/PAK region and other places, our desire would seem to be to modernize/Westernize these states and societies; and we simply see such difficulties as those presented in this region today as providing an opening, an opportunity, to pursue said objectives.

Understanding this, to wit: that OUR OBJECTIVE (modernization/Westernization of various states and societies) is what drives this train; then does this help explain why we chose Big Army, WOG, etc., to pursue our desired ends, and why we do not/did not choose means/methods that might -- more directly and more efficiently -- address the specific problems themselves?

(The difference/distinction with Mexico being that we have no similar and significant state and societal transformation requirements to accomplish; as Mexico is already ordered, organized and configured [modernized/Westernized] much as we desire.)


Fri, 12/30/2011 - 7:34am

In reply to by Jimbo Monroe


Give the man a cigar!

If you are attempting to get a grip on the    mindset that drives both the Pak elite and the Taliban the approach that the Af/Pak border region  is one that has descended into 'third generational criminality'   (TGC)  is the one for me. If you accept that it is a TGC problem  then the argument that a Big Army COIN approach  has little chance of success is not only redundant but - as pointed out by Smokin' Jimbo Monroe - contravenes  "JP 3-24 App A" no less.

If you attempt to template the protagonists within the command and logistical structure located inside Pak  as a political and religious entity the 'fit' will be close enough to draw you in but there will be no 'fix'.  Similarly the notion that the actual combatant who crosses from Pak into Af is politically and religiously motivated  and thus can be appeased (rather than simply killed) if the right political and religious grievances are addressed is very much the square peg in the round hole.

The widely held belief that the Mex problem is a crime problem in which the military might play a minor role in an all-government effort also bodes well for the effort to neutralise the role the Pak safe haven plays vis a vis the Taliban.

As to any evidence that a long-standing criminal element exists in the Af/Pak region the State Department and the DEA have copious amounts of detail extending back to the 1970s. All of the Muj parties were well into the brown sugar trade before the Soviets pulled out. Those leaders who are still around were the ones most heavily into the illicit drugs trade. The ISI provided the link between the Muj and the Sicilians both in  growing opium and processing it into heroin.

Few would dispute the Mafia are without peer when it comes to large scale multi-generational criminality.

For some reason people find it difficult to accept the notion that a man in a shawl kamees carrying small arms and a few kilos of ammo only fights for religious and political reasons and very little else. After what for some is their twentieth tour the allure of the dogma barking REMF dressed in all his air-conditioned finery has long lost its sparkle. 

Someone described it as dangerous farm labouring with guns. The seasonal dimension, the scurrying home from work across the border, the Ammonium nitrate, the chit-chat gubshop on enemy comms all juxtaposed over the  surreal spectacle of both sides tip-toeing thru fields of Mafia destined poppies adds much to the picture of a TGC environment.

I am desperately reading JP 3-24.

Best wishes Jimbo


Jimbo Monroe

Wed, 12/28/2011 - 12:14pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Bob, that helps. I'm thinking we could use a Venn diagram taxonomy of conflict.

Not intended as a rebuttal, as I am still pondering the issue, but this morning while looking for something else in JP 3-24, I found this in Appendix A:

"Some criminal organizations develop into sophisticated transnational criminal organizations with ambitious economic and political agendas. These third-generation criminal organizations often begin to control ungoverned territory within a nation-state, acquire political power in poorly-governed space, and eventually vie for HN controlled space. This political action is intended to provide security and freedom of movement for the criminal organization’s activities. As a result, the third-generation criminal organization and its leadership challenge the legitimate state monopoly on the exercise of political control and the use of violence within a given geographical area. In this case, a third-generation criminal organization is an insurgency, although its ends are materially focused and not ideological. In some cases, these criminal organizations may have the objectives to neutralize, control, depose, or replace an incumbent government. In other cases, they may wish to control parts of a targeted country or sub-regions within a country and create autonomous enclaves that are sometimes called 'criminal free-states' or 'parastates.'"

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 12/28/2011 - 4:54am

In reply to by Jimbo Monroe


Good questions, which frankly I wish more would ask. If they did there would be far less conflation of very different activities by similar factors that, while important, do not define the type of activity.

You offer religion and ethnicity as example alternatives to "political purpose." This is pretty common, and I think has contributed much to our past 10 years of wandering in the desert. I see your two examples as being more accurately "motivations FOR action", rather than being "proposes OF action."

Example 1. I am ethnic Pashtun of the large Noorzai tribe which held considerable power under the Taliban, but which was displaced by other tribes of much of that power and influence by the Northern Alliance once they were elevated into power by the US. So due to the sole factor of my tribal affiliation I am relegated to a life with little opportunity to compete for political, social or economic opportunity. This is my motivation for action. So I join a revolutionary insurgency with the purpose of forcing the Northern Alliance to change to either include my group, or if unwilling to do so, to replace them completely. This is my Purpose OF action. This is classic revolutionary insurgency. (Poor in a large foreign army, and add classic resistance as well. Solve the revolutionary issues first, as the resistance will end naturally once that foriegn force is removed, but if unaddressed the revolutionary issues will fester regardless of how "defeated" the fighters may become by military action)

Example 2. I am an Iraqi Sunni and following the American invasion of my country I find myself and my fellow Sunnis disempowered and at great risk of domination and retaliation by a Shia majority that we have long held dominion over. AQ operatives conducting UW and bringing with them their own group of guerrilla fighters recruited from various nationalist insurgent groups from countries around the region (primarily Saudi, Libyan and Egyptian, but many other as well) begin arriving in country as they see Iraq as a convenient place/situation to strike a blow against America for their larger, regional political purpose attempting to get the US to relinquish their policy of protecting the status quo of politics across the region. For these men, the status quo is unacceptable and they want to regain control over governance in their respective countries for a wide range of motivations. The common thread linking all is that they are Sunni Muslim, and AQ targets that common thread, twisting it to bind them all together to a common purpose. It is a motivational tool. It does not define the purpose. As an Iraqi Sunni I am happy for any support in this time of crisis. I do not fight for AQ (any more than George Washington fought for France), I fight to resist this foreign invasion and the resultant reversals of fortunes promised by whatever new government emerges (and early rhetoric coming out of American leaders is that Sunnis/Baathists will be largely excluded). This is classic resistance insurgency. My government and regular army are defeated, but we of the populace are not defeated and do not accept this new political situation forced upon us, so we fight on. (Note, prior to the "surge" of additional troops a concerted effort to address these concerns, coupled with massive payoffs of key Sunni leaders, turned the corner on Sunni resistance by conceding the major political points of their purpose OF action). Religion absolutely powerful motivation FOR action, but rarely the purpose OF action. That is largely a fiction born of Western alarmists who would rather condemn an entire religion as evil than concede that not every aspect of US foreign policy in the Middle East is received with joy and thanks giving by those it affects.

Next question is if the end result is political, is that not the same as if the beginning purpose was political? No. It is in understanding the purpose for action at the outset that allows one to derive effective solutions that will address those concerns and resolve the insurgency. If we shift our plan continuously to focus on whatever is threatened at some particular point in time we fall prey to a "strategy of tactics" and crisis management running from issue to issue. We attack the branches rather than the roots. As to Mexico, if the US wants to help most we need to take a hard look at US policies and laws that are the primary sources of nutrition and water to those roots, and focus our efforts there.

Lastly is "what percentage of the populace is required to have an insurgency vs. a coup." Frankly I think this is an immaterial point that many focus on. If one has a "significant and distinct segment of the populace" that shares in both motivation and purpose for such action it is enough. If in a localized region, with localized issues it may well be a small fraction of the national total populace. Look at southern Thailand, or Northern Sri Lanka, or Boston in the 1770s. As to what distinguishes a Coup, I see a Coup as led by some adequately powerful group or organization that may, or may not have any basis of popular support behind it. The common factor is the group they belong to, not the populaces the members come from. Military leaders have followers and capacity to take down a government with a Coup. Often such actions are not based on anything the people want. A Mexican drug cartel is very similar. It has the capacity to conduct a coup, but in no way does that require or indicate an existence of popular support necessary for an insurgency.

Factors overlap, all the more reason to spend far more time seeking to understand insurgency and similar forms of conflict before rushing to print on countless books, doctrine and articles on how to "counter" the same.

Hopefully this helps.



Jimbo Monroe

Tue, 12/27/2011 - 9:37pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Okay, if not an insurgency then what is going on? An insurrection? I'm not wed to the idea that the DTOs represent an insurgency; however, when armed groups are effectively controlling regions of a country at the local level to the point of depopulating towns in areas of key interest, there is something more than mere organized crime.

Some questions come to mind as I try to wrap my head around what is an insurgency or is not...

Is a political purpose a necessary component of an insurgency, or can another ideological foundation be substituted in lieu of a political purpose (e.g. religion or ethnicity)? Or back to my original comment, can profit be a political purpose ala Mercantilism? If the DTOs convert Mexico to a criminal state (narcocracy as a subset of kleptocracy?) would this not be a political purpose?

What is the minimum percentage of popular support necessary for an event to be considered an insurgency, versus say a coup? How much of that support must be genuine and how much can be coerced?

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 12/27/2011 - 2:35pm

In reply to by Jimbo Monroe

De facto or de jure, the challenges the drug cartels present to mexico are no insurgency. They do not grow from a ground swell of popular support nor are they primarily political in purpose. They are for profit operations that may in fact some day convert Mexico to a criminal state, but that is not insurgency.

Certainly there are many superficial aspects that are the same, but it is in the critical aspects whre they differ. We grow up with cats and dogs, and no one is apt to confuse one for the other simply because they share so many characteristics. Thankfully we lack such familiarity with insurgency. Not only do we lack personal familiarity, but also much that has been written about insurgency has been from the extremely biased perspectives of members of colonial armies and their efforts to preserve in power puppet regimes their countries had set up in power in various countries to represent their interests there. Or, more modernly, those who have studied those writings to help them better understand Cold War operations such as Vietnam, or War on Terrorism operatoins such as Iraq. Equally biased for different reasons both.

Mexico has insurgency, but it is not related to the cartels.

Jimbo Monroe

Tue, 12/27/2011 - 12:24pm

Brad, you make a persuasive argument that the drug trafficking organizations do not represent a de juro* insurgency; however, the fact that the actions of the DTOs do not fit the Platonic form of insurgency does not disqualify the DTOs from representing a de facto insurgency. There is a need for a certain precision of language, but in defining insurgency so narrowly, do we risk boxing ourselves into semantic corners? Is it not possible that the Mexican DTOs represent a variant of insurgency where personal profit is the ideology? Additionally, not every insurgency desires to replace the current political infrastructure at the national level; the goal of the Basque separatists is not to replace the Madrid government. In the case of Mexico, the DTOs have not demonstrated any desire in replacing the existing political system at the national level, but they are quite willing to usurp control the existing political systems at the local level via traditional tools of insurgency--threats, intimidation, targeted killings, and payoffs. As to the mafia comparison, the killing of entire police departments and ordered evacuations of towns represent a level of control not normally seen in pure criminal enterprises like the Mafia. Even if the DTOs could be categorized as a type of criminal enterprise of the same vein as the Mafia, this does not preclude the DTOs also representing a de facto insurgency.

All that being said, you are spot on with the need to divorce counterinsurgency from military-centric COIN; not every problem requires a military solution. However, no approach is going to be truly effective until the elephant in the room is addressed, how the United States' prohibitionist policies facilitate the DTOs.

*de juro in the sense of fitting the doctrinal and expert definitions