The most important emerging security challenge of the 21st century is the merger of crime, terrorism, and insurgency. From Mexico to Bosnia, national security establishments are increasingly focused inward, struggling to contain gangs and criminal syndicates that are metastasizing into national-security threats. “Criminal states” already exist today, and crime may become an overt and powerful form of political organization in the new century—far more powerful than the historic Mafia, for example, which largely operated in the shadows.
The scale of criminal capability—the growth of criminal activity in the world at large and in specific regions especially—is producing a new kind of warfare, one that reflects the postmodern interconnected world in which money, arms, and people flow freely across international boundaries and usurp control of territories from traditional states. While U.S. defense thinking, driven by events in Iraq and Afghanistan, has grappled with changes in warfare over the past decades (for example, in retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Frank Hoffman’s “hybrid war” theory), this is very different.
Five factors have combined to change the nature of international and interstate organized crime. The first has been the explosion of technology and Web-based communications, which has had a huge impact on practically every aspect of international affairs. Many of the effects of the technological revolution have been beneficial. But the darker side has been to enable criminal networks to expand, connect, and move illicit funds with the same ease as governments and legitimate enterprises; cell phones, email, Twitter, Internet websites, and funds transfers have become powerful tools, often allowing sophisticated criminal organizations to stay several steps ahead of government security agencies.
Illicit banking transfers in particular have permeated the legitimate banking business, where billions of “black” dollars slosh around the world through funds agencies—including, at least until recently, U.S. banks and brokerage houses—and merge with legitimate business funding. The Global Positioning System (GPS) has taken the guesswork out of navigation, so aircraft carrying illegal drugs can make spot-on nighttime drops or landings; semi-submersibles (and a growing number of submersibles) can navigate in the open ocean to precise locations, and drug kingpins can track shipments around the globe. Whatever technological advantage states used to have over non-state organizations or networks has been generally erased; the playing field has been leveled.
Sophisticated Hardware in the Wrong Hands
Second, the ready availability of arms and transport systems worldwide has permitted criminal networks to be at least as well armed, and often better armed, than state security forces. Further, the easy availability of transport systems has simplified the movement of people and stuff (particularly, but not only, illegal drugs). One of the more baleful effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union was to release large stocks of weaponry and other military hardware onto the world market, as well as long-suppressed entrepreneurial energies found within the former Soviet bloc. Today the ubiquitous AK-47 and its cousins are found in every niche, though other high-tech weapons from Israel, third countries, and the United States have proliferated as well.
Large jet transports, often of B-737 size, haul drugs in bulk around the world; some areas in Mexico and Guatemala are aircraft “graveyards” where planes are simply abandoned after their trip north. Likewise, and in addition to surface transport, criminal networks are now moving from crude semi-submersibles used for smuggling in the Caribbean to fully submersible cargo carriers that range beyond the Galapagos in the Pacific; in law-enforcement circles there are rumors of even more capable vessels.
Third, huge migrations occurring worldwide have led to whole populations of rootless people, living in states but having little stake in the local political culture. As a percentage of total population, it’s possible that more people are now on the move than during the Germanic migrations in the closing years of the Roman Empire. The record is clear that when large masses of unassimilated foreigners live within a state, they become, first, victims of crime and, eventually, willing or unwilling participants if they remain alienated.
The story of the illegal Mexican and Central American populations in the United States is a classic case; they are the first victims of vicious gangs like MS-13 and the Eighteenth Street Gang, and then fear of authorities—even by legal immigrants who live in the ethnic community—provides a haven for the very criminals who prey on their fellow Latinos. The same is happening worldwide, particularly in Europe. Understanding of this historic movement (and rapid assimilation of migrants into the prevailing political and social culture) is the only effective strategic defense against the growth of permanently embittered and hostile subcultures in the state, but nativism and political crosscurrents often work against strategic logic.
Fourth, the production and sale of illegal drugs worldwide feeds the growth of criminal networks, supports terrorism, and finances the continuation of insurgencies like the Taliban in Afghanistan, Colombia’s Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), and the long-running insurgency between the Mexican state and the deadly drug cartels that ship drugs into the United States, the world’s most profitable drug market. As a general rule, the FARC remains the world’s most prolific producer of cocaine (though levels of production have fallen in recent years through the intervention of the Colombian government), and opium flows generally from central Asia—Afghanistan in particular. (Curiously, both coca and opium were introduced to Colombia and Afghanistan to displace native food crops; neither was widely cultivated until relatively recently).
In the Western Hemisphere, criminal networks that move cocaine and marijuana north are destabilizing governments throughout Central America and may well be challenging the survival of a legitimate Mexican state. But criminal drug networks are not focused only on drugs; murder, extortion, kidnapping—a huge cash cow for the Mexican cartels—counterfeiting, theft, and other activities are intermingled with drug distribution. The idea that legalization of drugs alone is a winning strategy against these feral criminal networks is naive in the extreme; their record shows that when markets slump, they ramp up other kinds of crime to maintain their profits.
From Syndicate to State
Finally, the rise of powerful organized criminal networks has permeated legitimate governments of some states, leading to the development of “criminal states” whose authorities collude with, and profit from, criminal networks embedded in their governments and their countries. The case of North Korea’s counterfeiting, illegal arms sales, and drug trafficking is well known. Since the rise of Hugo Chavez, members of the Venezuelan government have been deeply involved with the Mexican drug cartels and the FARC. For example, in 2008 the U.S. Treasury Department issued indictments for three current and former members of the Venezuelan government for “materially assisting” the FARC’s narcotics-trafficking activities.1
The Chavez government provides havens inside Venezuela for the FARC. Criminal states can also work together. Flights between Venezuela and Iran, itself a criminal state, occur frequently, and Venezuelan passports are distributed freely to passengers on those aircraft. Iranian agents and members of Hezbollah active inside Venezuela cooperate in shipping drugs out of the country, notably north to Mexico and east to West Africa. The Venezuela-Iran connection is an example of a “criminal state axis” in which crime and politics are more or less openly commingled.
In other localities such as Southern Europe and the Russian Republic, criminal activity increasingly takes place within governments, corrupting legal systems and security forces as well. The rise of the criminal state, free of legal scruples but embedded in the international state system with all the trappings of traditional statehood—sovereignty, a currency and a banking system, U.N. membership, and so on—is an ominous and growing political fact of life in the new century.
One effect of all these developments has been the integration of crime into warfare—currently, most directly into terrorism and insurgency—and the merger has left many of the world’s governments, particularly the United States’, running behind developments. The word “insurgency,” in particular, seems to hit a kind of barrier to common sense, as the U.S. Secretary of State and an Army undersecretary found to their discomfiture in speeches that were later “corrected.” Few struggling countries want to admit they have an insurgency in their midst, with all the negative political overtones, while admitting to a crime wave of staggering proportions seems to be OK.
The primary objection appears to be the political aim, or lack of it, of the criminal networks. As one U.S. four-star general put it, the Mexican cartels aren’t out to take over the government, and are therefore not conducting an insurgency. But facts on the ground matter. Even if the cartels’ possession of vast swaths of northern Guatemala and some parts of Mexico aren’t enough proof for the legalistically minded, U.S. definitions of “insurgency” vary widely from the outdated takeover of a government (Joint Publication One) to the more recent Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (In the Army, FM 3-24), which comments that an insurgency is a protracted struggle “to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government” while increasing insurgent control. Without descending further into dead ends of jargon, here is a three-part key to understanding the evolving nexus of crime, terrorism, and insurgency.
The Crime-Terrorism Continuum
First, the practical difference between all three is simply scale. They are fundamentally illegal acts against the civil laws of a host country. When any hostile entity organizes and arms itself to a degree that challenges the authority of the state, as is happening today in Mexico and in other parts of the world (notably in Central America), then an insurgency is occurring. Basically, the insurgents in those localities are acting against the law and would be subject to civil prosecution but for their numbers. One murder is a crime. A murder spree against a whole population is terrorism. And a thousand murderers ambushing police and military patrols inside their own country and kidnapping public officials is an insurgency.
Second, the ultimate solution in all three cases is the imposition of the rule of law. In cases where the rule of law has not previously existed, then the government must first bring the law forward to all its people and win their allegiance, then proceed to bring the insurgents, or the terrorists, or the criminals, to justice under law—exactly as successful counterinsurgency practice requires. It is a long process that involves, in some cases, the “reinvention” of a legal system.
Colombia, the single counterinsurgency success (so far) in this hemisphere, has learned this lesson well. Respect for law and the Colombian constitution is the foundation for the state’s vastly varied and complex counterinsurgency strategy that is bringing the country back from the brink of defeat just a decade ago. Mexico’s challenge is not so much a shortage of smart, dedicated people, which it has, but the absence of a resilient, respected judicial system at state and federal levels. Likewise, other states struggling with criminal insurgencies find a strong and trusted legal system is vital to back up their security services, including military forces. One experienced official of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) suggested that effective counterinsurgency requires a “legal kit” of efficient military and police forces, an effective prosecutorial system, honest courts and appeals courts, and good prisons—and an extradition treaty with the United States, to get the really hard-core criminals and guerrilla leaders out of the country.
Finally, the effect of the foregoing is to pull military forces, originally designed, trained, and equipped to operate under the laws of war, into support of police forces that operate under constitutions and domestic legal frameworks. Some merging of boundaries is the inevitable result. In the Colombian case, the National Police have organizations that operate much like the military’s—to the military’s occasional discomfiture. In the United States, in fact, police departments all over the country operate SWAT teams that reflect military organization and use military-style weapons. Some branches of Customs and Border Protection—at 48,000 officers, the Border Patrol is a small “army” along U.S. borders—look much like military units, and at one time the DEA ran operations in South American jungles that closely resembled those run by U.S. special operations troops.
In the United States in particular, the military professions and legislation have long erected barriers between the military forces and civilian law enforcement; the example usually cited is posse comitatus, which prohibits federal military support to domestic law enforcement without presidental approval. At one time, such limits may have served both a social good and been convenient in budgetary and bureaucratic terms. U.S. military people have traditionally held their profession strictly aloof from law enforcement. As crime has grown in scale and merged with terrorism and insurgency, both the armed forces and law enforcement agencies over the past decades have gradually developed ways to cope with legal and self-imposed barriers; many naval readers will remember the Coast Guard officer on board a U.S. Navy frigate, who briefly “commanded” when drug seizures took place.
When the Carter administration (correctly) defined terrorism as a criminal act in the 1970s, some may have believed that these fig leaves were necessary to maintain the rigid line between the use of U.S. military forces in law enforcement (though it is at least as likely that Defense officials also sought to protect operating budgets from law enforcement encroachments) and “proper” employment in military operations. U.S. counternarcotics support to the Colombian government before 2001 was strictly conditioned so that the assets could be used only against drug gangs and not insurgents, though the FARC was then in the process of becoming the narcotics-producing criminal insurgency it is now. The result on the ground was often confusion and lost opportunities.
In retrospect, those restrictions seem antiquated, but some still exist; U.S. military support to law enforcement overseas is still often handicapped by overly cautious procedures and local policies that shortchange operations with U.S. agencies and allies. They should be revised. The armed forces have capabilities—intelligence, logistic, transportation, and even tactical assets—that are in short supply in law enforcement agencies, and that should be made available as needed. In fact, better cooperation is under way in some areas, particularly along the Mexican-U.S. border.
Translatable Skills vs. Evolving Threats
What does this forecast hold for America’s armed forces? The most urgent point is that they must maintain their capability to fight conventional war; real threats exist out there, too familiar to require elaboration, that require the United States to maintain the world’s best Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marines. As the criminal threat develops, expert warfighting skills can be modified as needed to support new challenges, but skills can’t be adapted if they don’t exist already. Much expertise is already in the force, and should be preserved.
By the nature of their duties, special operations forces operate already in the gray area between military and law enforcement functions. For example, in some cases in Afghanistan, DEA agents have been integrated in raids onto Taliban hideouts that double as opium-producing factories. Some U.S. conventional commanders and units in Afghanistan, as they did in Iraq, also find themselves acting in some civil police functions when Afghan legal officials are absent, just as their forebears did on the American frontier in the absence of a marshal.
U.S. naval vessels stand guard in the Arabian Sea against piracy; operations in the Caribbean and along the Pacific coast of South and Central America will require ever more coordination with allied nations in their home waters. Meanwhile, in Washington, policymakers are moving to recognize the growing threat of criminal networks. The United States has just published its Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, which is in effect a replacement for the now-outdated U.S. strategy to combat terrorism.2 This is a good first step.
In the end, though, the growth of criminal networks in this century may ultimately transform warfare into a new kind of violent conflict that will challenge our familiar “conventional” and “unconventional” frameworks. Lurking always in the background are nuclear weapons and other powerful arms, and the thought of them in the hands of a reckless criminal state, or a powerful criminal network, gives one pause. Ultimately, the conflict—in which U.S. military forces will play a key role—will be about the legitimacy of governments and the rule of law versus powerful cartels and criminal states that rule by fear and corruption.
The good news in this otherwise dark scenario is that people vastly prefer to live under the rule of law and to be ruled by constitutions, not criminals. “Criminal insurgencies” have none of the allure of political or religious causes, and Colombia’s record shows that states can turn around—can embrace the rule of law, win the affections of their people, and either rehabilitate criminals or put the thugs in jail. This is the “graduate level” of counterinsurgency. The current situation in Mexico can be reversed, and civilized states can begin to win against crooks and fanatics that have nothing to offer. The first and most urgent requirement is that we recognize the nature of the evolving threat.
Colonel Killebrew writes and consults on national defense issues as a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Prior to his retirement from active duty he served for 30 years in a variety of Special Forces, infantry, and staff duties.