Criminal Netwarriors in Mexico’s Drug Wars

By • on December 22, 2008

Mexico is imploding in a series of interlocking ‘criminal insurgencies’ culminating in a virtual civil war.

Kidnappings, assassinations, beheadings, shoot-outs:  Mexico is gripped by combat between drug cartels, gangs and the police.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon starkly states: “It’s a War.”

The Drug War in Mexico has killed 6,836 people since January 2007. This year drug-related murders have more than doubled to nearly 5,400.  The Mexican state is fighting for its survival with 45,000 troops and 5,000 Federal police deployed to 18 states.  Barbarization and indiscriminate violence are daily occurrences.  The narcocartel—gang nexus is a serious security threat that has the potential to eclipse global terrorism as a threat to the United States.  Mexico is embroiled in a vicious drug war and gangs threaten states throughout Latin America, but the average viewer of cable TV would never know.  Other issues take precedence.

This hidden national security threat poses an enormous challenge to the new administration.   While the public and media are occupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the potential conflict with Iran, the downward spiral in Pakistan, and a global economic meltdown, a new rapidly evolving threat—narcocartels and gangs—has been developing in Mexico and Latin America.

Mexico is gripped by a set of inter-locking, networked criminal insurgencies.  Daily mayhem, kidnappings, assassinations of police and government officials, beheadings and shoot-outs are the result of extreme combat between drug cartels, gangs, and the police.  The cartels vying for domination of the lucrative drug trade are seeking both market dominance and freedom from government interference.  Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, and other border towns are racked with violence.  Mexico City itself is not immune.  An infusion of police and military remains stymied as corrupt officials choose to side with the cartels.

The drug mafias have abandoned subtle co-option of the government to embrace active violence to secure safe havens to ply their trade.  This de facto ‘criminal insurgency’ threatens the stability of the Mexican state, and already has started to reverberate north of the Rio Grande in the US.   As the Los Angeles Times has reported, few regions in the US are immune to the wake of Mexican drug trafficking organizations in these “Borderless drug wars;” 195 US cities have a Mexican cartel presence.

Not satisfied with their feudal outposts in the Mexican interior and along the US-Mexico frontier, the cartels are also starting to migrate southward throughout Central America, and even to the Southern Cone, setting up business in Argentina, and across the South Atlantic to Africa.

The cartels’ links reach beyond the Americas. For example, “Drug Cartels Move Beyond Borders“ at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas describes the expanding reach of Mexican cartels. This influence extends from the highest levels of Mexican government down to local police. But the drug war’s impact has also been felt well beyond Mexico, extending across the Americas to as far away as Australia. Mexican cartel connections with Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta organized criminal clan, allow drugs to be shipped from Colombia through Mexico to the US and on to Italy. From there, the drugs can be distributed throughout Europe.

The 2009 National Threat Assessment published by the National Drug Intelligence Center identifies Mexican drug-trafficking organizations as “the greatest organized crime threat to the United States” based on these developments.   Money fuels global expansion, and transnational organized crime has learned it can thrive in the face of governmental crisis.

The cartels are joined by a variety of gangs in the quest to dominate the global criminal opportunity space.  Third generation gangs—that is, gangs like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) that have transcended operating on localized turf with a simple market focus to operate across borders and challenge political structures—are both partners and foot soldiers for the dominant cartels.  Gangs and cartels seek profit and are not driven by ideology.  But the ungoverned, lawless zones they leave in their wake provide fertile ground for extremists and terrorists to exploit.

Terrorists, gangs, and organized crime can exist as independent threats, but increasingly, they interact in a number of ways.  Terrorists or insurgents may exploit organized crime; criminal gangs may act as middlemen in small arms, explosives or human trafficking; drugs may finance operations; and actors on both sides of the house may facilitate or conduct attacks for each other.

One component of the terrorist threat stream is the global Islamist jihad—essentially a global networked insurgency.  Islamist movements operate in a cooperative manner among ‘theaters of operation’ where local groups gather intelligence and targeting data and share it across theaters within the global jihadi network, which is a loose confederation of independent movements and networks with varying local, regional, and global roles and reach.

As criminal and extremist movements spread their reach across jurisdictional lines, their activities transcend the traditional boundaries of local, state, Federal, international, and global jurisdictions.  Responding to violence resulting from criminal and terrorist activity demands a high degree of interaction and cooperation among a span of government agencies, but first, the threat must be recognized. Such cooperation involves a range of enforcement, intelligence, and policy issues.

Globalization of economic processes has empowered a new class of transnational criminal actors including terrorists, organized crime, and gangs.  These ‘global criminals’ fuel conflict and stimulate a new security environment—an environment where non-state actors threaten global stability, and policing and law enforcement must become instruments of national power.

David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla call these global criminal actors ‘netwarriors,’ John Robb calls them ‘global guerrillas,’ and Robert Bunker calls them ‘criminal soldiers.’  Whatever we call them, collectively I view them as ‘criminal netwarriors.’ It is valuable to recall Martin van Creveld’s admonition from The Transformation of War:  “In the future, war will not be waged by armies but by groups whom today we call terrorists, guerrillas, bandits and robbers, but who will undoubtedly hit upon more formal titles to describe themselves.”

Containing criminal netwarriors and reinforcing the viability of states worldwide, but especially in the Western Hemisphere, must become a national and global security priority.

John P. Sullivan is a career police officer.  He is currently a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department assigned to the Emergency Operations Bureau with responsibility for tactical planning. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism, co-editor of Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a Global Counter-Terrorism Network (Routledge, 2006), and a frequent contributor to Small Wars Journal.

For additional reading:

John P. Sullivan, “Outside View: Mexico’s criminal insurgency,” United Press International (UPI), 18 December 2008.

John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency,” Defense and the National Interest, November 2008.

John P. Sullivan, “Danger Room Debrief: Gang Threat Could Top Al Qaeda, Mr. President-Elect,” Wired Danger Room, November 2008.

John P. Sullivan, ”Forging Improved Government Agency Cooperation to Combat Violence,” National Strategy Forum Review, Fall 2008.

John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “State of Siege: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency,” Small Wars Journal, August 2008.

John P. Sullivan, “Transnational Gangs: The Impact of Third Generation Gangs in Central America,” Air & Space Power Journal – Spanish Edition, July 2008.

Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Iraq & the Americas: 3 GEN Gangs Lessons and Prospects,”     Small Wars Journal, April 2007.


  • Pingback: Criminal Netwarriors in Mexico’s Drug Wars

  • http://rethinkingsecurity.typepad.com A.E.

    “David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla call these global criminal actors ‘netwarriors,’ John Robb calls them ‘global guerrillas,’ and Robert Bunker calls them ‘criminal soldiers.’ Whatever we call them, collectively I view them as ‘criminal netwarriors.’ It is valuable to recall Martin van Creveld’s admonition from The Transformation of War: “In the future, war will not be waged by armies but by groups whom today we call terrorists, guerrillas, bandits and robbers, but who will undoubtedly hit upon more formal titles to describe themselves.””

    The criminal netwarriors concept does fill a bit of theoretical gaps. We may not be at the stage of a BlackFor-type entity yet but we are certainly well on our way to getting there.

  • Pingback: Sunday reading links « Caracas Gringo

  • Pingback: Drug Wars Jeopardize National Security « International Politics and Policy