At its most basic form what makes observation useful is the ability to notice change. If we sat around observing something all day and were unable to notice any change, the insight gained from that activity doesn't amount to much. Now, if the point of the activity is to observe no change, then obviously no change would be relevant. But for the most part, observation is most effective when it produces recognitions of change. This couldn't be any more important than for studying organized crime. Because criminals are always changing and organized ones usually at a rate a couple steps ahead of even the most clever detectives.

In fact a lot of the arguing talking that goes on in regard to organized crime is about precisely how little or how much any one group of criminal actors, or criminal activity has changed. The argument of are drug trafficking organizations really cartels is essentially an argument about if they have changed(or evolved) from having a monopoly over certain illicit drug markets or not. You could argue that they never had a monopoly ever, thus for someone to think they'd even be a cartel is just silly. And my response to that would be that Governments and law enforcement agencies are notorious for coming up with silly. I'm not surprised Joe Shmo up in DEA D.C. HQ naively thought El Chapo and company had the cocaine market 110% locked down. It wouldn't be the first time they've made such grandiose assumptions about criminal enterprises. The best example being the so called reported street value that is parroted in press releases that's wildly inflated. And not an accurate representation of the financial loss incurred by a drug trafficking organization when a product is lost to interdiction. It's used as a sort of Drug War propaganda tool or as Tom Wainwright in his book "Narco-nomics" puts it "condemned governments to pouring money and lives into policies that don't work." He's right, which is why you'll always it reported as a sort of indicator of effectiveness of law enforcement action. It's not.

Part of this noticing of change stuff is the ability to identify stages. In other words, is something evolving or evolved. This distinction is worthwhile because it helps us pick up potential linear patterns that assist in predicting outcomes. A simple example would be say we've identified that once Gang A has established their turf and certain circumstances are met. There is a potential that Gang A might progress from focusing purely on turf warfare, to focusing now on profit making commercial enterprises. In fact that is a real observation that the author of this chapter has made. And it's beneficial in that it helps us understand and better anticipate the next move. Because like I said at the beginning, these bad guys are usually several paces ahead of the good guys.

We start off with Chapter 1 and it's introduction to criminal insurgencies, gang and cartel evolution, and intelligence. Written by Dr. John P. Sullivan, a gentlemen with extensive real world and academic experience. And someone who has been writing about and discussing these issues publicly for decades.


Gangs dominate the intersection between crime and war.

That is the first sentence of this chapter. It's an important one because it reminds us that gangs come in many shapes and sizes. In addition pop up in many different geographical locations around the world, under varying conditions. Which of course impacts their operations.

We're reminded that some of these gangs have went through an evolution. In turn becoming further organized, geographically distributed, and commercially diverse in their enterprises. At their most basic form John tells us, these groups "challenge the rule of law and employ violence to dominate local communities", which sounds logical, right. If you're trying to do illegal things you're going to attempt to interfere with whomever is opposing you, in this case law enforcement. Depending on aspirations, you also will be forced to in one way or another use violence to accomplish your illicit goals.

This is not to say that drugs or drug dealing are inherently violent. The pharmacy is selling you drugs and I don't see much violence in that arena. But it's hard to conclude that operating at a high-level in the black market world of drug trafficking doesn't require calculated violence to maintain market share and notoriety. None of them got anywhere being the nice guy.

Ultimately, the big question we are thinking about in regards to gangs here is at what point do they stop being gangs in the traditional sense, most people would think street gangs, and start becoming something more. A street gang naturally doesn't start out internationally, no it starts out on the local streets of neighborhoods around the world. But what John is telling us is that some of these street gangs have progressed past this initial home turf and expanded their aspirations to prisons, neighboring countries, and sometimes other continents. They have used a variety of methods and means to achieve these evolutions. Including at times challenging "the solvency of state political control."

This political word always causes big debate. Like I mentioned above, half of the time we're all just happily arguing about how much one group has changed. And in many cases, especially in the last couple years, that question of change has centered around the involvement of gangs and criminal organizations in politics.

When observing the actions of a criminal organization anywhere that is always a question you want to try to be asking yourself. Do they have an involvement in politics and if so what is it.

Everything is art. Everything is politics. — Ai Weiwei


Now insurgents, they're inherently political. Let's begin with a reviewing what definitions are provided by Joint Publication 3-24 which is a document provided by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most senior leaders within the United States Department of Defense. JP 3-24 is titled simply "Counterinsurgency". It's scope listed in the prefix as "This publication provides joint doctrine to plan, execute, and assess counterinsurgency operations."

Like I just said, insurgency is political. So not only do they typically do everything a gang does, they do it with intent to cause chaos within the political systems. In some instances wanting to remove the current system of government and implement their own. The exact definition put forth by JP 3-24 states,

Insurgency is the organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify, or challenge political control of a region.

The most obvious example of insurgency is terrorism. Currently the world is probably most aware of Islamic related violent-extremism, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant probably being the most well known group. It is easy to overlook the obvious but right there in their name is the word state. The name alone of this group lets you know that they are trying to establish their own state.

And in that mission they attempted to carry out all the functions of a state in the areas which they controlled. They created a flag, created their own court system, minted their own currency, and maintained their own hospitals. This is a long stretch from what we have seen any drug trafficking group in Mexico attempt. (I wrote this before the Mencho hospital story broke, nevertheless that act was fairly novel) Thus why you will find me consistently laughing at the idea of labeling the narcos as terrorists. That is not to deny there are overlaps between the two actors, but at the same time there are extreme distinct differences.

It goes on to add that insurgency is a form of intrastate conflict. But says that insurgencies are "increasingly transregional, multi-domain, multifunctional." This was seen with these terrorist groups. They started local, evolving to larger and larger entities that eventually started expanding across borders, and at times continents. And some even though maybe not physically across continents, ideologically they still do very much exist across continents.

Being that an insurgency is political, there is no question over if it poses a threat to state. It obviously does. It's one thing to have folks using roadways to traffick drugs, it's another to have them using them to topple governments.

What is governance? The JP 3-24:

Governance is the ability to serve the population through the rules, processes, and behavior by which interests are articulated, resources are managed, and power is exercised in a society.

At the point which you have an insurgency on your hands it's undeniable that by definition you've got a serious problem. Being that that group is looking to remove you from power and take over, ultimately implementing a government of their own once they kick you out. Which is why there is so much debate over this question of are they or are they not. Because both instances need to be dealt with differently. It is when we hastily label or attempt one-size-fits-all approaches that we fail to make progress in producing beneficial outcomes. Whether it's counter-insurgency or counter-narcotics. It is difficult and like many things it is far from always black and white. As we will see in the next section, gangs who've stuck to their roots can start to dabble politics, in big or small ways.

Gangs + Insurgents = Criminal Insurgencies

What we are particularly concerned with here this form of insurgency that is of criminal origins. The main distinction being that the groups traditional focus has been on money making schemes. But at some point has shifted to one that is either more focused on politics now, or at the very least is now getting itself involved in politics in one form or another.

Meaning that their goals and aspirations have changed. JP 324 produces some further guidance.

Insurgencies driven by commercial or criminal objectives are an exception. Rather, they focus on gaining political control of the country's leaders and security apparatus.

This distinction is crucial. Put into other words think of it in the sense that 'El Mencho' the current presumed leader of CJNG, is not trying to get so much power that he becomes the President of Mexico. Neither was 'El Chapo' or any of the rest of them. Instead they only seek the ability to influence or control political leaders from afar. Not ever going so far as to actually take up a political appointment to further their schemes.

At the moment in Mexico, that is generally the consensus described above. But in other places in the past that hasn't always been the case. Take the most obvious example, Pablo Escobar being elected to the Colombian Congress by way of the Colombian Liberal Party in 1982. Though it did not last long partly to the fact that at that point it became blatantly obvious the ramifications of such an appointment. Nevertheless it still happened.

But I think maybe some of the kingpins that are around now might look back at Pablo and shake their head at his consistency to maintain the limelight. That doesn't tend to be a method of operation for them these days, as evident by the fact that the two biggest dons Mayo and Mencho have few photos circulating, and no interviews to the press aside from the one Mayo did way back.

What they wouldn't shake their heads at though is the involvement in politics. Just because the act is not flaunted off like was the case with Pablo, doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

This is in my opinion when things start to get fun because in many ways every situation is unique. And has varying degrees of involvement, meaning some groups check many boxes, some check few boxes, but they all usually check a box. The boxes being a certain indicator or activity that might point to an involvement in politics.

Mr. Sullivan helps us further understand the difference of involvement in regards to criminal insurgencies from traditional forms of terrorism as mentioned above.

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 the state and creating criminal enclaves to maneuver.

Put into d00d words, the drug gangs at some point want to become big dogs. And in order to become big dogs they need to keep on expanding that empire. There will come a time when evolving from little dogs to big dogs that a sort of barrier will hit them. This barrier can come in many shapes and forms. One popular one being that of the law enforcement agency, a group of groups that is heavily armed, highly trained, and effective at killing. Another barrier is business and government actors who not by force but by policy work to cripple the drug gangs. Dealing with each of these barriers can be done different, sometimes lead sometimes silver. But without them you're never going to make it to the big leagues. This is why it is often pointed out that these drug gangs or drug cartels or whatever, are unable to exist at such a scale without some form of collusion with state actors. Anabel Hernández bluntly illustrates this in her book "Narcoland".

Semi-illiterate peasants like El Príncipe, Don Neto, El Azul, El Mayo, and El Chapo would not have got far without collusion of businessmen, politicians, and policemen, and all of those who exercise everyday power from behind a false halo of legality.

I'd hope that by 2020 such collusion has become overwhelmingly evident. At which point we can get passed the basic involved or not involved stuff, to the real question.

Who's in charge

Who is calling the shots. Is it the narcos, or is it the politicians aka the state. If we are to believe that the narcos cannot exist without the state than ultimately it is the state who calls the shots.

Did El Chapo forcefully break his way out of prison or did he bribe his way out? Did Ovidio forcefully break his way out of custody or was he let out of custody?

This is not to be conspiratorial at ALL. But to make you think about certain events in the most simplistic way possible. In an effort to remove distractions and narratives, and see who is the one ultimately calling the shots.

It is also to not further the narco narrative. Humans are corruptible, throughout history corruption has brought down many a powerful empires and toppled whole nations. Who is doing the corrupting has very little to do with it to some extent in the larger picture.

Drug traffickers are not the only folks corrupting the state. In fact in 2020 it's even less clear of what their impact is. Usually in times of increased collusion the visible violence element is decreased. But if you've been paying attention lately, the visible violence element is very high at the moment. Hinting to a potential of lower levels of collusion with the state. Remember that visible violence is always a message, whether directly or indirectly and not solely a message to rivals. It can be and is in many times also a message to the state, and sometimes to the local population.

But again, reiterating that the end goal of the violence is not to the topple the government and seize control as it is with "regular" terrorists or insurgents.

With the criminal insurgent, it is for economic reasons such as killing off a local mayor who is using his police force to poke around your drug trafficking methods and operations. That could be seen as an involvement in politics. Because remember if it doesn't or even does but not in a way that one could conclude was deliberate, then all they are is simply organized drug traffickers.

They don't necessarily earn the insurgent title. Which is what I was speaking of when I said that some will not check all the boxes, and might only check one box. This requires one to observe each situation and actor with a fresh perspective, and avoid lumping them all into the same pile. A policy equivalent of which suggested by some is the Foreign Terrorist Designation (FTO).

Keep asking yourself always: who's in charge?

Next part will be taking a closer look at the evolution stages. Including when that transformation starts to touch on the political arena.