Red Teaming Criminal Insurgency


The specter of criminal insurgency is haunting the police stations and barracks of North America. Powerful criminal networks increasingly challenge the state’s monopoly on force, creating new threats to national security. Mexico is currently deteriorating under the weight of criminal violence,1 but it is by no means the only state in the Americas suffering from criminal insurgency. We are seeing a general rise in the power of transnational criminal organizations ranging from the street collective MS-13 to the powerful Mexican drug cartels—and the threat could hit us very close to home. Even American street gangs are increasingly evolving into “third generation” gangs: large, networked, transnational bodies that may yet develop true political consciousness.2
      Criminal insurgency presents a challenge to national security analysts used to creating simulations and analytical models for terrorism and conventional military operations. Criminal insurgency is different from “regular” terrorism and insurgency because the criminal insurgents’ sole political motive is to gain autonomy economic control over territory. They do so by hollowing out a small piece of the state and establishing absolute dominion over it. If challenged, they respond violently by targeting government personnel and civilian populations.
      Criminal insurgency could very well be a small symptom of a greater change in world politics. Though the futurist’s crystal ball is perpetually cloudy, there are signs that we may be witnessing the beginnings of post-Westphalian successor forms of political governance powerful enough to challenge increasingly moribund states.3 What eventually emerges may be a new form of networked state that combines many elements of the current state system with criminal insurgency, terrorism, and corporatism.
      A growing need exists to analyze the problem of criminal insurgency and develop new analytical models. Our aim is to summarize the problem and introduce several analytical models that can be used in simulations and red team exercises.

Future Warfare: Through a Scanner Darkly

In order to explain the emergence of criminal insurgency as a serious force in the Americas, we must first examine the debate over the evolution of the state and its role in modern conflict. While we do not yet fully understand the nature of current state change, non-state actors are growing more powerful as the modern state enters an apparent period of transition.
      It has become popular to claim that we are witnessing the hollowing of the state, a process that will lead to a Mad Max-like struggle of all against all. The expansion of ethnic statelets, insurgent bases in both rural and urban zones, and general sources of disorder hollows out the state, reducing the government’s presence to capital cities—an outcome seen in conflict zones such as Mexico, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Military theorists such as Martin van Creveld, William S. Lind, and John Robb all extensively reference the fall of the state in their writings.4
      Several factors are working in concert to undermine state power: many states no longer have the material power to protect their citizens from both natural deprivations and increasingly powerful non-state adversaries. Disruptive technologies have enabled increasingly sophisticated network forms of organization seen in many adversarial non-state movements. The last—and most important—factor in the decline of the state is its waning legitimacy, either from public recognition of its hollowness or the rise of potent religious, ethnic, or criminal competitors. Another possible source of competition is the pool of increasingly formidable private military corporations.
      But the rise of adversarial non-state groups is only one side of the story. In the last few decades, a baffling array of non-governmental organizations and international organizations have assumed sovereign functions once reserved for the state. Not only do powerful international structures such as the United Nations, World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund exercise a surprising degree of control over policy, but they also shift international norms. International organizations, for example, have played a crucial role in creating norms against aggressive war and human rights abuses. The notion of the international community’s “responsibility to protect” civilian populations against famine and genocide has gained wide acceptance, threatening traditional notions of state sovereignty.5
      Network forms of organization go hand in hand with what sociologist Manuel Castells calls the “network society.” Networks increasingly pervade international politics, with power drawn toward large hubs that connect networked sources of commerce, culture, and political-cultural identity. Often, these hubs tend to be what sociologist Saskia Sassen calls “Global Cities”—giant cities with economic, political, or cultural significance in international politics.6 Some of these megapolises are not “global cities” in the more conventional sense; rather, they are giant dilapidated slumlands whose role lies in their status as a pivot point for the global illicit economy. Richard Norton of the Naval War College calls these ungoverned zones “feral cities,” and diagnoses them as a national security problem of growing significance.7
      University of Texas law professor Philip Bobbitt also talks about the rise of “market states”—states maximized for generating wealth—and “virtual states”—states that exist only in the minds and allegiances of their clandestine members in cyberspace—as distinct possibilities as well.8 The global ebb and flow of illicit trade also produces a combination of the market states and virtual states, a kind of criminal empire where decentralized governance is an emergent process created by the interaction of feral cities, non-state organizations, and the global economy. Military theorist Robert Bunker also sees the rise of “criminal states,” states so completely taken over by crime that they become driven by the imperatives of the illicit economy.9 Finally, French philosopher Paul Virilio sees the growth of the state as being driven by the demands of military strategy rather than politics. An artist by trade, Virilio tracks the rise of a “bunker archaeology” that follows the rise of the modern industrialized state.10 [click to continue …]

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  1. See John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “State of Siege: Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency,” Small Wars Journal, August 2008. []
  2. John P. Sullivan has written extensively on “third generation gangs” in many different forums. See especially John P. Sullivan, “Transnational Gangs: The Impact of Third Generation Gangs in Central America,” Air & Space Power Journal (Spanish Edition), Second Trimester 2008 at eng.htm for a discussion of recent developments related to transnational gangs. []
  3. John Rapley, “The New Middle Ages,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 3, May/June 2006, pp. 95-103. []
  4. The canonical text about the decline of the state is the book of the same name by Martin van Creveld. See Martin van Creveld, The Rise and Decline of the State, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. []
  5. See for more information. []
  6. Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. []
  7. Richard Norton, “Feral Cities,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 56, No. 4, Autumn 2003, pp. 97-106, available at www.nwc. []
  8. See Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles, New York: Knopf, 2002. []
  9. See Bunker (ed), Criminal-States and Criminal-Soldiers, New York: Routledge, 2008. []
  10. Virilio is a prolific author. The best introduction to his thought is Speed and Politics, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006. []


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