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The Case for a Counterinsurgency Approach to Mexico's Cartel Wars

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
9 MINS READOct 1, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
Favio Gomez, brother of Servando Gomez, also known as
(MANUEL VELASQUEZ/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Favio Gomez, brother of Servando Gomez, also known as "La Tuta," is transported in Mexico City on Feb. 27, 2015, after his capture. Counterinsurgency tactics, rather than counterterrorism measures, might bring Mexico more success in battling its cartels.

  • Mexico has not designated its cartels as terrorist organizations, but it uses many counterterrorism tools and tactics to fight them. 
  • Such an approach has weakened many cartels, causing several to implode, but it has done little to enhance the government's legitimacy or address the issues that foster the rise of such groups. 
  • Because cartels have grown strong due to corruption, incompetent governance, economic malaise, impunity and the absence of the rule of law, Mexico might require a holistic counterinsurgency approach that goes beyond military means to remedy the underlying issues that facilitate such criminality.


Just last week, I was chatting with someone on Twitter who stated his belief that Mexican drug cartels should be classified as "terrorists" because of their actions. It's an idea, however, that I have long opposed: Cartels' gratuitous violence notwithstanding, their actions do not really fit the definition of terrorism, which many broadly define as political violence directed toward civilians. To my mind, Mexican cartels have simply not yet emulated Colombia's Pablo Escobar and his Medellin Cartel sicarios and engaged in political violence.

The Big Picture

Geographic proximity to the United States has been both a blessing and a curse for Mexico. Easy access to the giant U.S. market and free trade agreements have fostered more manufacturing activity, jobs and foreign investment in the country. At the same time, Mexico's proximity to illicit U.S. markets has resulted in the rapid growth of extremely violent criminal enterprises. Crime and violence are taking a huge toll on citizens and placing heavy fetters on the Mexican economy. There are many profound factors underlying the rise of the powerful organized crime groups, which are responsible for the majority of Mexico's violence. But until Mexico can address these issues, its government will be unable to kill its way out of this situation, causing the people and the economy to suffer.

Still, it dawned on me that — definitions aside — the Mexican government and its U.S. ally have pursued the "war" on cartels using many of the same tools that we normally associate with the "global war on terror." Mexican special operations forces routinely raid hideouts to capture or kill cartel leaders, as well as employ sophisticated intelligence tools to track or hack cartel communications devices and networks. In one February 2017 incident, Mexican marines poured fire from a helicopter armed with a minigun into a house in Tepic, Nayarit, killing a Beltran Leyva Organization leader and 11 of his henchmen. Widely circulated videos of the incident resembled something one would expect to see in an operation targeting the Islamic State rather than an anti-crime operation in the capital of a Mexican state.  

I certainly don't fault the Mexican military for using military force against the cartels. Since the 1990s, the cartels have employed former soldiers armed with military-grade weapons in their enforcer units. But as we've seen in recent years, the military-based counterterrorism approach to combatting the cartels is not working. The government has captured or killed a long list of cartel leaders but failed to curb cartel violence. Indeed, 2019 is on track to be the most violent year ever in Mexico. Clearly, the Mexican government can't capture or kill its way out of its cartel problem. Instead, the road to solving the country's profound problems might lie along a different, more holistic, tack: a counterinsurgency model. Thinking of the cartels as criminal insurgents provides a valid blueprint for understanding the problem — as well as a road map for addressing it.    

Mexico's Cartels Stage an Insurgency 

The idea that Mexican cartels are criminal insurgents is not a revelation. In fact, Stratfor contributor John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker published an anthology in 2012 on the topic of Mexico's criminal insurgency for Small Wars Journal. As it is, the U.S. military defines insurgency as "the organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region," in its counterinsurgency doctrinal document, Joint Publication 3-24. And while Mexican cartels may not be seeking to establish an alternative government like a typical political insurgency, they are seeking to nullify or challenge the political control of territory to further their criminal operations. 

Insurgents thrive in insecure areas that lack capable, credible governance. There are historical, geographic and political factors that have challenged Mexico City's ability to govern and control parts of the country. Indeed, banditry, smuggling and other criminal activity have historically plagued ungoverned places such as the sparsely populated deserts and mountains of the country's north. 

In some ways, it is only when it comes to end goals that the Islamic State and Mexican cartels differ: Whereas the jihadist group wants to control territory for political power, cartels wish to do so for profit.

Geography and terrain are important factors that enable an insurgency, and it is no coincidence that most successful insurgencies take advantage of rough terrain, such as mountains and deserts, to wage their operations. But even more important than the physical terrain is the human terrain, as insurgents who enjoy the support of the population tend to thrive, relying on locals for shelter, material support, recruits and even intelligence. Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong noted that favorable human terrain allows a guerrilla fighter "to move among the people as a fish moves in the sea," and leftist and jihadist theorists alike have stressed the need to obtain local backing in their insurgencies. The cartels use a complicated combination of largesse and fear to ensure the population stays on their side. Indeed, Mexico's Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera did not become a revered and respected cultural icon by mistake, but rather as the result of a carefully cultivated campaign. In the end, mere popular support couldn't protect Guzman from the massive international effort to capture him, but it certainly complicated authorities' efforts to locate him, allowing the cartel boss to remain freer for much longer than he would have otherwise. 

In places like Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has conducted operations to destabilize areas in which it wants to operate by conducting targeted assassinations and engaging in efforts to influence or sway local leaders to its side. By offering "plata o plomo" (silver or lead), Mexican cartels operate in much the same way, seeking to tip the local population to their side, maintain their favorable standing or, at the very least, obtain locals' fearful acquiescence by demonstrating the government's powerlessness. In some ways, it is only when it comes to end goals that the Islamic State and Mexican cartels differ: Whereas the jihadist group wants to control territory for political power, cartels wish to do so for profit.  

Taking a Holistic Approach

As history has repeatedly demonstrated — including recent history in the war against jihadism — counterinsurgency is difficult. This is especially so when locals view the forces conducting the counterinsurgency as outsiders. For insular communities in the Mexican mountains, federal troops are nearly as foreign as U.S. troops in Afghanistan. At its heart, counterinsurgency is really more an art than a science, meaning it requires a great deal of foresight, patience and cultural understanding. Unlike the current counterterrorism approach, a counterinsurgency approach would go beyond mere military force to utilize all the tools of the national, state and local governments, including their political, economic, educational, health, legal and developmental resources. Getting all of Mexico's conflicting political parties and state and local governments on board would present a challenge, but perhaps only measures that erode cartels' support base will cut such enterprises down to size.  

As I have noted in the past, there is little difference in the geographic factors that influence the north and south banks of the Rio Grande. The vast majority of the drugs that flow north out of Tamaulipas pass through the Texas Rio Grande Valley, while most of the money that flows south ends up back in Tamaulipas. Indeed, the same criminal cartels that operate in Tamaulipas also operate in Texas, but there are worlds of difference in terms of how these groups operate depending on whether they're on the U.S. or Mexican side of the line. As has become abundantly clear, they are far more aggressive and violent in Mexico than they are in the United States. It all goes to show that corruption, incompetent governance, economic malaise, impunity and the absence of the rule of law have allowed cartels to thrive and engage in wanton violence in Mexico. In essence, these are the same factors that have permitted groups such as the Islamic State West African Province to spread in Nigeria, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin in northern Mali and other insurgent groups elsewhere.

This graph shows murder rates by year in Mexico.

Mexican governments have repeatedly tried to address the cartel problem through an institutional approach, focusing merely on reforming corrupt police agencies. The government of current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is taking a similar path, creating a new Mexican National Guard and reviving the Secretariat of Public Security that his predecessor, Enrique Pena Nieto, abolished. These new institutions, however, have done little to reduce the violence wracking Mexico because they are not holistic and cannot address the underlying issues facilitating the criminal insurgencies. Lopez Obrador the candidate noted that corruption was the No. 1 problem facing Mexico, but Lopez Obrador the president has succeeded in doing very little about the issue. 

To be successful, a counterinsurgency campaign must weaken the insurgent forces while building the government's legitimacy. Mexico's counterterrorism approach against the cartels has weakened many of the groups, causing several to implode, but it has done little to stem corruption or enhance the government's legitimacy. This, in turn, has allowed criminals to take advantage of the vacuum of authority and governance. 

Joint Publication 3-24 notes that "the [host nation] government generally needs some level of legitimacy among the population to retain the confidence of the populace and an acknowledgment of governing power." The Mexican government has not been able to build legitimacy in the eyes of the population, which has very little confidence in central authorities' ability to govern. Until Mexico City can begin to make progress on the ground in governing, battling corruption, ending impunity and winning the trust and confidence of the local population, cartels will continue to thrive — no matter how many criminal leaders the military kills or how many new security institutions the state drafts into the fight.    

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