Frontlines of Criminal Insurgency: Understanding the Plazas

Mexico, and the cross-border region that embraces the frontier between Mexico and the United States, are embroiled in a series of interlocking, networked criminal insurgencies. These criminal insurgencies are essentially battles for dominance of the plazas, or corridors for the shipment of drugs into the United States. They are battles for profit and power.

Cartels battle among themselves, the police, and the military, enlisting the support of a variety of local and transnational gangs and criminal enterprises. Corrupt officials fuel the violence, communities cower under the violence, and alternative social structures emerge. Prison gangs—like Eme, the Mexican mafia—transnational street gangs—like MS-13 and !8th Street—and military bands—like Los Zetas and Los Negros —also play pivotal roles in the allocation of force and influence. Collectively, these forces of instability and thuggery are criminal netwarriors.  The plazas are the front lines of Mexico’s drug wars. It is clear that the plazas are the vital terrain of the distributed criminal insurgency battles—and may even constitute certain cartels’ centers of gravity.

Understanding the plazas is an essential component of addressing Mexico’s drug wars.  Police, military, and civilian officials can analyze the plazas as a means of gaming the “geosocial” dynamics of criminal insurgency. Looking at the influences, market imperatives, and factors that drive cartel and gang evolution, as well as the quest for dominance in the plazas helps place the violence encountered in criminal insurgency in context. In this analytical endeavor, red teaming is more than the tactical red cell penetration of vulnerable nodes. It is an adaptive exploration of the criminal enterprises and their interactions within the social and market dynamics of the plazas.

Analysts should also look at the network attributes of gangs and cartels in order to determine indicators for future activity. Which gangs or cartels are emerging in a particular area, what factors will extend their reach? Where are their new markets? What is the interaction between a specific gang or cartel? These intelligence questions can be explored through scenarios and analytical wargames. What factors are key market drivers? Where will new markets emerge? What counter-gang approaches will degrade criminal influences in failed communities? How can legitimate community political and social structures be marshaled to limit criminal reach and influence? By systematically applying adaptive, analytical red teaming, intelligence and law enforcement analysts can explore indicators of gang or cartel evolution, as well as potential courses of action to counter criminal insurgency.

Understanding criminal insurgency and criminal netwarriors is an emerging field of inquiry. Many theoretical and practical questions remain and, if answered, these questions will improve our understanding of how non-state criminal forces interact with each other and fight government power.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether the potential exists for a global insurgency to take root in failed communities in North America and how criminal actors will interface with that insurgency.  To what degree will the criminal insurgency in Mexico spill over into the United States? This is not a purely academic question; nearly all observers agree that the power of criminal organizations in the Americas is rapidly increasing.
Most importantly, how can domestic and foreign intelligence best be integrated to address these potentials? How can we observe the emergence of movements that can morph into insurgent or criminal insurgents within North America? How can the intelligence community work with the law enforcement community to deal with these emerging criminal insurgent security challenges?

Answering these questions is crucial to developing effective means of dealing with the problem of cartels, third generation gangs, and criminal insurgents—and the eventual goal of transforming the plazas from violent venues for criminal exploitation into agoras for legitimate political and social transactions.

John P. Sullivan is a career police officer. He currently serves as a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department where he is assigned to the Emergency Operations Bureau. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism (CAST). His research focuses on counterinsurgency, intelligence, terrorism, and urban operations. He is co-editor of Countering Terrorism and WMD: Creating a Global Counter-Terrorism Network (Routledge, 2006).

Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security. He is currently Contributing Editor for Future Military Operations and Homeland Security at Red Team Journal. His articles have been published in Red Team Journal, Small Wars Journal and other publications. Elkus blogs at Rethinking Security, Dreaming 5GW, and the Huffington Post. He is currently a contributor to the Center for Threat Awareness’ ThreatsWatch project.

For Additional Reading:

John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Red Teaming Criminal Insurgency,” Red Team Journal, 30 January 2009.

John P.  Sullivan, “Criminal Netwarriors in Mexico’s Drug Wars,” GroupIntel Blog, 22 December 2008.

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

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

Adam Elkus

Adam Elkus

Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security. He is also a Technology Research Analyst at CrucialPoint LLC, an Editor at Red Team Journal, and a PhD student in American University's School of International Service. He has published on technology, strategic theory, and emerging threats in The Atlantic, West Point Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, Infantry, Small Wars Journal, and other publications. He holds an MA in Security Studies from Georgetown University.