What Mexico Can Learn from Counterinsurgency Doctrine

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A new study by the RAND Corporation carefully avoids describing the Mexican drug conflict as an insurgency. But, as the report points out, there could be important lessons for Mexico in cases of armed rebellion elsewhere in the region.

There are still voices in U.S. Congress pushing for a counterinsurgency strategy against Mexico’s criminal gangs, despite plenty of arguments·for why the security situation should not be classified in that way.

The debate over the use of “insurgency” is unlikely to die out, especially considering that·President Felipe Calderon himself has warned that the drug gangs are attempting to “replace the state.” But as policy think-tank the RAND Corporation argues, whether Mexico is classified as battling an insurgency or not, the country could do well to adapt some of the same strategies used to defeat insurgents elsewhere.

RAND uses a complex scorecard to classify insurgencies and calculate how likely governments are to be able to defeat them. The think-tank identifies 15 “good” characteristics of government rule which increase chances of success against insurgents, and 12 “bad” factors which makes it likely that insurgents will win or lock the authorities into a stalemate.

According to the RAND scorecard, Mexico has a couple of key characteristics working in its favor. The country is technically a functional democracy, and the security forces are still competent enough to disrupt a wide range of criminal operations. Adding up the numbers, RAND determines that Mexico has six out of the 15 factors which help determine a country’s success in consolidating security.

Using RAND’s measurements, this gives the Mexican government a better chance of “winning” compared to insurgencies like the Nicaraguan revolution, in which guerrilla forces overthrew the corrupt and ineffectual Somoza dictatorship. Mexico is also far stronger than the other country most associated with counterinsurgency doctrine, Afghanistan, which RAND says complies with just two of the 15 characteristics of good governance.

Strangely, RAND opts not to use Colombia as an example in the study, even though this is the most obvious case of counterinsurgency warfare in Latin America. Neither is the country used as a case study in RAND’s more extensive report on counterinsurgency doctrine, released in 2010.

But even though Mexico has a far stronger government than other insurgency-ridden nations in Asia and Africa, there are still vulnerabilities. RAND identifies a few of the most serious: in many cases, the security forces are perceived as worse than the criminals; additionally, they have failed to react quickly enough to shifts in criminal strategy. Mexico’s criminals are also better trained and, in general terms, have a stronger motivation to fight than the security forces, RAND notes.

Overall, when contrasted to other historical insurgencies, Mexico is squarely in the middle ground. It doesn’t look like Mexico is quite strong enough to definitely win against the criminal gangs and break the cycle of violence. But neither does it look like security conditions will get so bad that rule of law will break down altogether.

The think-tank implies that right now, the Mexican conflict is similar in many ways to the early phases of insurgencies in countries like Peru. In that case, the government at first refused to acknowledge they were confronting a nascent insurgency, and instead treated the situation as a law-enforcement problem. The government’s denial of the seriousness of that problem allowed security to break down to the point that Peru basically entered a state of emergency in the mid-1980s, and much of the public lost faith that the state would win the fight.

In some ways, the danger isn’t that Mexico’s gangs will morph into full-fledged insurgencies akin to Peru’s Shining Path. The real risk is that the public will again lost faith, growing more weary of the conflict and hostile to government forces. The Mexican government needs to be viewed as more legitimate and better able to provide stability and jobs than the criminal gangs are.

To win this fight, It is in Mexico’s interest to adopt more of the characteristics of governments that defeated the insurgencies they face, RAND argues. This includes encouraging development and shying away from a repressive, military approach, which gives the civilian population more incentive to feel like the government forces are as bad or worse than the criminal groups. The Mexican state also has to fight for credibilty. Corruption and lack of unity of effort among the security forces will only mar initiatives to weaken the cartels.

A core tenet of the counterinsurgency doctrine, after all, is building and sustaining government legitimacy. In many ways, this is the real war that Mexico needs to win, not ticking off a list of cartel leaders killed or captured.

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