July 8, 2010

The Cartel Rubix Cube

To wage counterinsurgency one must first identify the type of insurgency. Insurgency’s spectrum encompasses terrorism to popular guerrilla warfare, with many variances in between, and each style aims at different objectives.

Determining the goal shapes what type of counterinsurgency to apply.

Mexico’s drug cartels have proven themselves tougher than imagined by a stalwart but worn President Felipe Calderon. Though the cartels may appear criminal organizations they have come to qualify as an insurgency, globalization having blended the terms together. But it’s also too easy to write off the cartels as anarchistic or apocalyptic - “like al-Qaeda” - in the absence of a visible political, economic, or religious platform.

Like al-Qaeda, the cartels hope to establish order through chaos. What kind of order and where are the next questions.

Certainly they aren’t the common image of insurgency. That would be the Taliban. But as al-Qaeda embodies the transnational insurgency and the Taliban a prototypical traditionalist, Mexico's cartels represent the extreme form of organized crime - commercialist insurgency. COIN expert Bard O’ Neill comments in Insurgency and Terrorism, “Their main aim appears nothing more than the acquisition of material resources through seizure and control of political power.”

That seems to fit the cartels' mold.

Yet many insurgencies possess multiple objectives too, which O’ Neill warns of, and to consider the cartels as pure capitalists ignores subtler social aspects. The concept of a smuggler’s code that many believe is under attack, specifically by the paramilitary group Los Zetas, has divided the cartels and set them at war. Jesús Malverde and ancestry links factor into the equation.

The cartels also operate as preservationists - they seek to maintain the status quo. This designation, at least theoretically, eliminates the possibility that the cartels are secessionists. Such a connection would be easy to make given their battles with each-other and the government over territory, or that Los Zetas has set up training camps not so far from the US-Mexican border. Fear of a failed state and civil war stem from these threats.

The cartels appear to desire none of these outcomes.

First they have nowhere to secede, as they would isolate themselves between Mexico and America. Civilians would flee en masse, opening the territory to the full might of a conventional military attack. Second, and more importantly, the cartels base their intelligence operations on corrupt Mexican authorities, and thus stand to lose everything by seceding.

“The cartels don't seek a failed state. Rather they want ‘dual sovereignty’ – that is, to pay off public officials in return for their closing their eyes to criminality,”explains George W. Grayson, a Mexico counternarcotics expert and professor of government at the College of William & Mary.

Cartels want nothing to happen tomorrow and are employing violence to preserve what used to be the status quo before Calderon officially launched his war in 2006. They want the turf wars to end and for everyone to just go about their normal business of using drugs.

This objective makes the cartels exceedingly difficult to combat than if they assumed another form of insurgency. For anyone wondering why the cartels aren’t easier to crush, Los Zetas’s political and military connections allow them to trump the Mexican police and rival its special forces through real-time intelligence. They in particular have become a legitimate quasi-state that, like all cartels, would rather stay in its host state.

Mexico is forced into a political/judicial/economic response, its weakness, instead of its strength in a pure military reaction. The cartels surely wish to avoid US intervention as well. The cartels as a whole already near quasi-statehood, each functioning like a province. Hundreds of billions have been locked away over the decades, with the only real expenses being arms, logistics, and bribes.

No surprise then when a fully-functional submarine turns up in an Ecuadorian lagoon, nor if a collection of Mexican cartels funded the project. Although plenty of drug organizations in South America possess the necessary bankroll, either way Mexican forces are involved. Said DEA Andean Regional Director Jay Bergman, "Now that the Loch Ness Monster has been found, the interdiction community is going to retool their search patterns and how they conduct business.”

Expect the same from whoever made the sub. It won’t be the last.

All of these events, including discouraging Mexico’s recent election, fits into the idea of dual sovereignty and quasi-statehood, and the need to violently defend it. The question remains what to do with a preservationist insurgency flush with cash, loaded with arms, and possessing sovereignty over vast tracks of Mexican territory. Beyond internal government reforms to combat the culture of corruption, economic opportunity must be expanded to mitigate the cartels and reforming US drug laws remains inescapable.

Security is unlikely to deliver the decisive impact Mexican and US officials hope for.

No short or easy solutions exist, but as in any test counterinsurgency benefits from a process of elimination. The cartels don’t have many political demands, making negotiations improbable. They don’t seek to overthrow Mexico’s government and don’t want to fight a civil war. They want to corrupt the present system, preserve it, make their money, and enjoy the sun.

That makes them far harder to defeat and pushes any feasible time-line beyond 2020.


  1. I saw a report that Costa Rica is welcoming U.S. troops to enter their country.

    We will be in Mexico quicker than people imagine.

  2. US Special Forces are already in Mexico training special forces and doing their work, so it depends how you qualify that. A ground campaign may never occur and it may not have to. US troops would probably make the situation worse too, not that Washington ever lets that stop it.

  3. When I say that it means OVERTLY driving the streets in Hum Vees. IMO: Mexico will "ask"us to enter. Wink Wink.

    Mexico will be 'asked' to privatize their oil, and other natural resources.
    It is a natural progression of control through chaos.