Countering Mexico's criminal insurgency means offsetting largesse and threats

Countering Mexico's criminal insurgency means offsetting largesse and threats
© Getty Images

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is wrapping up a three-day trip to the states of Guanajuato, Jalisco and Colima, some of the Mexican states most impacted by criminal violence. AMLO, as the president is called, undertook the trip to demonstrate his support for efforts to pacify those violence-wracked states. But with Mexico in the midst of a full-blown criminal insurgency, a presidential visit likely will do little to quell the violence. Mexico’s criminal insurgency can be solved only through a holistic counterinsurgency strategy.

The U.S. military’s counterinsurgency operations manual defines insurgency as “the organized use of subversion and violence to seize, nullify or challenge political control of a region.” Cartel groups frequently use violence to nullify and challenge the Mexican government’s political control across a wide swath of Mexico. Examples of this include high-profile events such as the “Culiacanazo” that erupted in October 2019 when Mexican troops attempted to arrest Ovidio Guzman Lopez, or the audacious June 26 assassination attempt against Mexico City’s secretary of public security. 

Latin America has a long history of insurgencies. Mexico’s criminal insurgents differ from ideological groups in that they do not want to replace the government; instead they seek to nullify or challenge the political control of territory to facilitate their criminal operations. Like other guerrilla fighters, Mexico’s criminal insurgents conduct hit-and-run attacks, picking the place and time to strike. They will attack when they have superior numbers and then fade away when confronted by overwhelming government force. They rarely will stand and fight unless there is a need to do so. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Physical and human terrain are critical to striking and then disappearing. Most insurgencies, including Mexico’s, occur in rugged terrain such as mountains, deserts or jungles. Areas along the Sierra Madre Occidental and Sierra Madre Oriental mountain ranges and northern deserts long have been home to bandits, outlaws and smugglers. The families and clans that gave rise to today’s cartels have been involved in illicit commerce for decades, which brings us to the topic of human terrain. 

Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong, whose insurgent campaign overthrew the government of the Republic of China, noted that favorable human terrain allows a guerrilla fighter “to move among the people as a fish moves in the sea.” Other insurgent leaders and theorists, including Osama bin Laden, also have emphasized the need to win the backing of the people for their struggle — the human terrain. Mexico’s criminal insurgents use a combination of largesse and threats to gain the allegiance of the local population. Most recently, such generosity was demonstrated by the COVID-19 relief campaigns that various cartels carried out, in which they handed out food and other necessities to needy families. 

This combination of largesse and threats also is used in attempts to influence political leaders, something referred to as “plata o plomo,” meaning quite literally, “You will take my silver, or you will take my lead.” This practice has been successful and resulted in widespread corruption and impunity in Mexico, which have further undermined the government’s authority and the people’s confidence in the government. As seen in the charges brought against Mexico’s former public security minister, Genero García Luna, this corruption can extend to the highest reaches of the Mexican federal government. 

History has demonstrated that successfully mounting a counterinsurgency is difficult. Because of the nature of guerrilla warfare, and the battlefield on which it is typically conducted, it is not possible for the government to kill or arrest their way out of an insurgency. Rather, a holistic approach is required that utilizes local, state and federal governments. 

AMLO has been criticized for championing a “hugs, not bullets” approach to violence in Mexico. The concept behind this approach was to give young people education and job opportunities that would keep them from becoming involved with organized crime groups. During his campaign, AMLO pledged to remove the Mexican military from the government’s anti-cartel efforts. He was on to something when he recognized that force alone is not the answer to solving Mexico’s violence, but as president he has discovered that military force is definitely required to help keep the military power of Mexico’s criminal insurgents in check. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Classic counterinsurgency operations are composed of three phases: 

  • Clear the insurgents from an area; 
  • Hold the area to keep the insurgents from returning and provide security to the local population; and 
  • Build the capacity to provide effective local governance in the area. 

Military, police and judicial tools are needed for the clear and hold phases, but the build phase must include a whole-of-government effort that includes educational, health, economic, social, developmental and political action. 

AMLO’s campaign plank included rooting out corruption — a promise he has found difficult to achieve. Corruption and impunity together have helped the criminal insurgents shape the human terrain, while undercutting trust in the government. The people simply do not believe government officials are willing and capable of protecting them against the cartels. It is flat out dangerous to inform the government about cartel activities or to attempt to oppose them. Mexico never can begin to build effective governance that the people trust until they root out corruption and end impunity. 

Strong leadership is critical to the success of this effort. A whole-of-government effort requires a leader who can provide a vision that people rally around. The unity needed to conduct a successful counterinsurgency requires overcoming the tensions that exist between political parties, between the states and the federal government, and between the commercial sector and the government. All of Mexico must work in unison to be successful.

Yet even a successful counterinsurgency cannot eliminate criminality. It can, however, bring criminal violence down to more manageable levels by reducing the power of the insurgents. The same organized crime groups that operate in Mexico also operate in the United States, though in a much more restrained manner north of the border. If Mexico can reduce the level of violence to that in the United States, it will be a success and will portend great things for Mexico and the Mexican people.  

Scott Stewart is a vice president at TorchStone Global, with 35 years of analytical, investigative and security experience. He previously led global analysis of terrorism and security topics at Stratfor from 2004 to 2020. He also spent 10 years as a special agent with the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, where he was involved in investigations of terrorism and other crimes.