Gangs and insurgencies

Foreign Policy has an interesting looking article about the organized crime and insurgencies.  In it, the author cites a new paper in the Small Wars Journal by John P. Sullivan titled “Future Conflict: Criminal Insurgencies, Gangs and Intelligence”.  I don’t know how but Sullivan somehow manages to sucker me into reading his stuff every time and every time I’m disappointed.  The paper is a motherload of unexamined assumptions, outdated information and self promotion (17 of his 24 footnotes cite himself).  I don’t know Sullivan and I’m sure he’s a great guy but if this is the sort of thinking that’s driving policy as Robbert Haddick is kinda-sorta implying, we’re in big trouble.  Sullivan has been promoting essentially the same idea for over 10 years, that gangs are going to politicize and become the major threat to the nation state system as these modern day barbarians storm the gates and plunge us into a new dark age.

Oh…he also seems to have a bizarre obsession with the number 3.  There are three ‘generations of gangs’ and three types of cartels.  Why three?  Beats me, since the categories are entirely arbitrary and there’s no evidence to support these divisions.

He begins with a bold statement:

“Gangs dominate the intersection between crime and war.”

I don’t even know what the hell that means but he tells us he’s going to examine areas where “acute and endemic crime and gang violence challenge the solvency of state political control.”  Therein lies his major defect, as I see it.  For Sullivan, gangs are a cause of instability rather than a function of it.  Therefore…eliminate the gang and stability returns.

Too bad there’s no evidence for that.

Gangs don’t form to ‘challenge the rule of law’ as Sullivan states, but rather, form to fill a void where the rule of law is absent.  In the absence of order, people organize and when a group of people are in a Hobbsian state of nature (whether in a Brazilian slum or an urban housing project here in the U.S.) the people who can wield force tend to run things.  They may get more ambitious later but I think you’ll find very few people entering the life of crime with the goal of undermining the Westphalian system (check out Gang Leader for a Day if you want a brilliant 320 page example of this).  They want to meet their basic Maslow(ian?) needs initially.

Transnational gangs aren’t the reason there isn’t a strong, stable democracy in Russia, Columbia, Nigeria or Mexico.  Those nations have a history of corruption, instability and lack of public safety that precedes the arrival/creation of transnational gangs in their territories.  Gangs certainly don’t make the situation better but I’d like to see the evidence that they are the cause of these problems.

He then describes ‘criminal enclaves’ and uses Ciudad del Este as an example.  He discribes it thus:

A jungle hub for the world’s outlaws, a global village of outlaws, the triple border zone serves as a free enclave for significant criminal activity, including people who are dedicated to supporting and sustaining acts of terrorism. Denizens of the enclave include Lebanese gangsters and terrorists, drug smugglers, Nigerian gangsters and Asian mafias: Japanese Yakuza, Tai Chen (Cantonese mafia), Fuk Ching, the Big Circle Boys, and the Flying Dragons. This polyglot mix of thugs demonstrates the potential of criminal netwarriors to exploit the globalization of organized crime.

That certainly seems to make sense but if there’s such a good case that the area is as bad as all that why does he use a reference that’s ten years old?  Are we to assume that this area of the world has been untouched by 9/11 and its aftermath?  There’s certainly been work done to assess the nature of Ciudad del Este in the past ten years why not mention any of it?

Ciudad del Este is a cartel?  Who’s running it?  Is there some sort of Evil League of Evil pulling the strings or is it an anarchic wonderland that attracts all sorts of criminal and terrorist group because they can all do their own thing?  If the latter, how could it be a cartel?

There’s just so much to critique in the paper I’m not sure how much detail I should go into.  His ‘generations of gangs’ is absolutly terrible and has no utility when discussing gangs or anti-gang strategy.  It’s uselessness is demonstrated by his definitions of the generations which require the existance of gangs which exist in more than one generation at a time.  So, does that mean there are five generations?  Four and a half?  It starts to feel like the papal astronomers adding more and more orbits to the planets in order to keep the Earth at the center of the universe.  Just dump it and find a better explanitory tool already.

I’ve been looking at gangs for about 10 years now and ever since that time I’ve been hearing horror stories about how gangs are just about ready to destroy civilization.  I suspect scaremongering like this has a lot more to do with securing grant funding and speaking engagements than it does with depicting reality.  Some gang leaders in the U.S. do occasionally attempt to transform their gang into a politically motivated force.  There are even some examples of short term, local successes on their part.  But they don’t last over time or space because of a number of inherent contradictions between the conditions needed for a politically motivated group (even if criminal) and an economically motivated one.

There are some interesting parallels between gangs and insurgencies.  They both feed on disenfranchisement.  The Sunnis fueled the insurgency in Iraq because they were out of power and looking to be on the wrong end of a payback spree.  The reason street gangs went from neighborhood nuicence to serious criminal problem has a lot to do with collapsing economic systems in inner cities in the 70s and 80s, the rise of narcotics as an opportunity to achieve financial well being and neglect by government of social services.  Both populations had little to lose and so elements of that population decided ‘What the hell’.

There are important lessons to our response to both as well.  Our current anti-gang strategy (such as it is) much more resembles our Iraq strategy (such as it was) in 2003-2006.  We generally isolate ourselves from the population, do the occassional ‘kenetic operation’, engage in the usual post operational chest pounding and declarations that we’ve ‘turned a corner’ and then find ourselves right back where we’ve started.

Perhaps the answer isn’t what Sullivan recommends (more riot police, counterterrorism forces, high intensity policing, etc. – you know an M-16 armed balaclava wearing dude on every streetcorner to kick the shit out of anyone who questions state authority) but rather the same principles advocated for COIN operations.  Hearts and minds.  Clear, Hold, Build.  Restore order, establish you’re there for the long haul and rebuild infrastructure, opportunity and trust.  Yes, it’ll be expensive.  Yes, it’ll take a lot of time.  Clearly building and filling prisons isn’t proving to be the answer so perhaps it’s time for a different approach.

4 responses to “Gangs and insurgencies

  1. Interesting piece. I love a good internet takedown. I checked out the FP article, and laughed when I saw that it was written by one of the SWJ guys.

  2. “In the absence of order, people organize”

    If people are organized, QED there necessarily is order. Otherwise, they could not organize.

    Certainly in the history of the Chinese Revolution, there is a profound interrelationship between bandit gangs, on the one hand, and peasant rebellions ( including Mao’s ), on the other. The traditional Chinese novel, Water Margin, the robin Hood of Chinese literature, a tale of a gang of bandit heroes in Sung Dynasty Shantung province, played and plays an important ( and complicated and controversial ) role in the mythos of the Chinese Revolution. The Nationalists referred to the Communists as “bandits” and many actually were.

  3. Pingback: COIN in the cities « Travels with Shiloh

  4. Pingback: COIN in cities (con’t) « Travels with Shiloh

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