Some in Washington are calling for a counterinsurgency strategy against Mexico's drug gangs -- this not only misrepresents the security situation in that country, but its proponents have provided no good arguments for the move.

The most prominent recent advocate of counterinsurgency, or COIN, is U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, who used a Congressional hearing earlier this month to call for a revamped Merida Initiative that would be based on COIN, and presumably include a far larger role for the American military. Some analysts outside the government have made similar pronouncements, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously referred to an "insurgency," comparing Mexico to Colombia at the height of its conflict with guerrilla groups.

But these voices are mistaken. One clue that COIN is not the appropriate philosophy for Mexico is that the nation is not suffering from an insurgency. Insurgencies are political movements that seek to extract concessions from the government, or the government’s downfall, through violence. The Mexican gangs are motivated by profit, and have no visible ideological agenda. Their only political goal is weaker law enforcement.

A counter to this assertion could be offered by gangs like the Familia Michoacana and its offshoot, the Caballeros Templarios, as well as some traffickers' use of pseudo-religious icons like Jesus Malverde (a Robin Hood-like figure) and Santa Muerte (Holy Death). In an era where the best known insurgencies have been led by Islamic extremists, it does not require a great deal imagination to conceive of a religiously motivated drug gang morphing into an insurgency.

But imagination notwithstanding, there’s simply zero evidence of such a scenario. Mexican groups’ religious patina is just that, not a guiding philosophy. While gang members use religious icons as a sort of good-luck charm, nothing that has happened over the past five years suggests that Santa Muerte or any other religious figure has an appreciable role in any gang’s operations.

It’s also worth noting that hearts and minds, famously the battleground of insurgencies, are not in play in Mexico. While President Felipe Calderon’s popularity has declined in recent years, the citizens he represents overwhelmingly favor the government in its aggressive combat of organized crime. The proportion of Mexicans who support the use of the army against organized crime is somewhere between between 74 and 83 percent, depending on which poll you use -- this serves as a good proxy for support for the government, given the prominence of the issue. Eighty-eight percent of the respondents to a September 2010 poll by the firm BGC expressed support for aggressive combat of the nation’s drug traffickers.

Furthermore, because a public, U.S.-backed COIN drive could provoke a great deal of opposition in Mexico, such an approach could have the perverse effect of undermining support for a strong anti-organized crime policy within the country.

Those calling for a COIN strategy often elide these differences between a traditional insurgency and Mexico’s problems by employing the label “narcoinsurgency.” However, the fundamental elements of an insurgency, including those that make COIN an appropriate response, have little to do with whether narcos are behind the mayhem. In other words, the “narco” modifier merely confuses the issue, and it doesn’t make COIN any more fitting for Mexico.

Nor is the simple increase in violence or brutality enough to make COIN appropriate. Insurgency represents a difference in kind from regular crime, not a more violent version of the same thing. Furthermore, there are many nations in the region that are both more violent than Mexico (Venezuela, Brazil, Honduras, among various others) and suffer from a greater degree of governmental weakness (Guatemala, for one), yet COIN is hardly ever invoked as the solution for those nations.

The COIN crowd also does not pay sufficient attention to the practical difficulties in committing the U.S. to a COIN approach in Mexico. One obvious challenge is political: while the level of cooperation between the two militaries has improved in recent years, there is a significant degree suspicion of U.S. military designs in Mexico. Given the fact that U.S. military action resulted in Mexico losing half of its territory in the 19th century, it’s not a surprise there is widespread opposition to U.S. troop deployment, and there's little doubt that greater involvement, even without boots on the ground, could cause political upset.

Furthermore, it’s not entirely clear what the U.S. military can do to help Mexico overcome its most formidable institutional obstacles. It won’t help lower indices of corruption, nor will it unclog the nation’s judicial system, nor plug the leaks in the penal system.

The basic question that COIN advocates must answer is: Why? Given the above differences between Mexico’s security problems and the basic elements of insurgency, why would COIN be better than a constantly refined law-enforcement approach? What is makes Mexico different from, say, Italy in the 1980s, or any other country that has engineered a vast improvement in security without using COIN? These questions have not been adequately addressed, yet the burden of proof is on the COIN crowd. If they can’t provide an answer, then the major argument for COIN is simply that it hasn’t been attempted before, which is exceedingly unpersuasive.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

MS-13's 'El Barney': A Trend or an Isolated Case?

MS-13's 'El Barney': A Trend or an Isolated Case?

In October 2012, the US Treasury Department designated the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) as a transnational criminal organization (TCO). While this assertion seems unfounded, there is one case that illustrates just why the US government is worried about the future.

Barrio 18 Leader 'Viejo Lin' on El Salvador Gang Truce

Barrio 18 Leader 'Viejo Lin' on El Salvador Gang Truce

Barrio 18 leader Carlos Lechuga Mojica, alias "El Viejo Lin," is one of the most prominent spokesmen for El Salvador's gang truce. InSight Crime co-director Steven Dudley spoke with Mojica in Cojutepeque prison in October 2012 about how the maras view the controversial peace process, which has...

Ivan Rios Bloc: the FARC's Most Vulnerable Fighting Division

Ivan Rios Bloc: the FARC's Most Vulnerable Fighting Division

When considering the possibilities that the FARC may break apart, the Ivan Rios Bloc is a helpful case study because it is perhaps the weakest of the FARC's divisions in terms of command and control, and therefore runs the highest risk of fragmentation and criminalization.

The FARC 1964-2002: From Ragged Rebellion to Military Machine

The FARC 1964-2002: From Ragged Rebellion to Military Machine

On May 27, 1964 up to one thousand Colombian soldiers, backed by fighter planes and helicopters, launched an assault against less than fifty guerrillas in the tiny community of Marquetalia. The aim of the operation was to stamp out once and for all the communist threat in...

The Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana

The Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana

If we are to believe the Colombian government, the question is not if, but rather when, an end to 50 years of civil conflict will be reached. Yet the promise of President Juan Manuel Santos that peace can be achieved before the end of 2014 is simply...

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

In August 2002, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) greeted Colombia's new president with a mortar attack that killed 14 people during his inauguration. The attack was intended as a warning to the fiercely anti-FARC newcomer. But it became the opening salvo of...

El Salvador's Gang Truce: Positives and Negatives

El Salvador's Gang Truce: Positives and Negatives

The truce between El Salvador's two largest gangs -- the MS-13 and Barrio 18 -- opens up new possibilities in how to deal with the seemingly intractable issue of street gangs. But it also creates new dangers.

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC have always had a love-hate relationship with drugs. They love the money it brings, funds which have allowed them to survive and even threaten to topple the state at the end of the 1990s. They hate the corruption and stigma narcotics have also brought to...

A Look Inside El Salvador's Prison Nightmare (Video)

A Look Inside El Salvador's Prison Nightmare (Video)

El Salvador's Cojutepeque jail is a perfect illustration of how prisons in this country have become the main breeding and training grounds for street gangs.

Criminalization of FARC Elements Inevitable

Criminalization of FARC Elements Inevitable

While there is no doubt that the FARC have only a tenuous control over some of their more remote fronts, there is no evidence of any overt dissident faction within the movement at the moment.