Friday, July 26, 2019

The coming crime wars


Future conflicts will mostly be waged by drug cartels, mafia groups, gangs, and terrorists. It is time to rethink our rules of engagement.

Wars are on the rebound. There are twice as many civil conflicts today, for example, as there were in 2001. And the number of nonstate armed groups participating in the bloodshed is multiplying. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), roughly half of today’s wars involve between three and nine opposing groups. Just over 20 percent involve more than 10 competing blocs. In a handful, including ongoing conflicts in Libya and Syria, hundreds of armed groups vie for control.


For the most part, these warring factions are themselves highly fragmented, and today’s warriors are just as likely to be affiliated with drug cartels, mafia groups, criminal gangs, militias, and terrorist organizations as with armies or organized rebel factions.

This cocktail of criminality, extremism, and insurrection is sowing havoc in parts of Central and South America, sub-Saharan and North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

Not surprisingly, these conflicts are defying conventional international responses, such as formal cease-fire negotiations, peace agreements, and peacekeeping operations. And diplomats, military planners, and relief workers are unsure how best to respond. The problem, it seems, is that while the insecurity generated by these new wars is real, there is still no common lexicon or legal framework for dealing with them.

Situated at the intersection of organized crime and outright war, they raise tricky legal, operational, and ethical questions about how to intervene, who should be involved, and the requisite safeguards to protect civilians.

Mexico is on the front lines of today’s metastasizing crime wars. Public authorities there estimate that 40 percent of the country is subject to chronic insecurity, with homicidal violence, disappearances, and population displacement at all-time highs. States such as Guerrero, Michoacán, Tamaulipas, and Veracruz are paralyzed by extreme organized violence, as routine discoveries of mass graves attest. Since former President Felipe Calderón ratcheted up the country’s war on drugs in 2006, violent competition among the Mexican military, police, cartels, and criminal factions has left at least 200,000 dead. There were more than 29,000 murders in 2017, but 2018 is set to see even more—perhaps the most ever. In Guerrero alone, more than 2,500 people were killed last year, many of them victims of clashes between 20 autodefensas (self-defense militias) and 18 criminal outfits.

Owing to endemic violence and the government’s slow retreat from crime-ridden areas, some towns are now run by parallel governments made up of criminalized political and administrative structures. In what are increasingly labeled “narco-cities,” the entire political and economic apparatus exists to perpetuate a drug economy.

In Brazil, meanwhile large portions of some of the country’s biggest cities are under the control of competing drug trafficking factions and militias.

Some 1,000 low-income communities, roughly 20 percent of Rio de Janeiro, for example, are controlled by the Comando Vermelho (Red Command), Amigos dos Amigos (Friends of Friends), or Terceiro Comando Puro (Third Pure Command). São Paulo, meanwhile, is purportedly entirely under the authority of the Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Capital Command, or PCC).

And in smaller cities across north and northeastern Brazil, gangs and militias are starting to battle for dominion in the favelas. Already, they effectively administer state prisons. Some vigilantes have started to try their hands at politics and are running for office, while others seek to influence elections through buying and selling votes. Organized and interpersonal violence killed almost 64,000 Brazilians in 2017, much of it concentrated among poorer black youth. The mayhem has also triggered repeated federal military interventions.

Making matters worse, Latin American armed groups are going transnational. Some of Brazil’s gangs, for example, are expanding their reach beyond Brazil. The PCC, now Latin America’s most infamous drug faction, has operations in at least seven countries across South America. Groups hatched in the United States, the MS-13 and Barrio 18, have made El Salvador one of the world’s most violent countries measured by homicide rate. And the Colombian city of Medellín’s fragmented cartels, criminal gangs, rebel groups, and paramilitary organizations have metastasized from Mexico to Argentina. Likewise, outside of the Americas, in metropolises such as Cape Town, Lagos, and Karachi, gangs recruit child soldiers to fight their battles and service booming cross-border trade in drugs, minerals, and trafficked people.

Today’s crime wars hark back to a pre-Westphalian era of perpetual conflict involving feudal kingdoms and marauding bandits.
This partly explains why the norms developed to regulate armed conflict between modern states don’t really apply.

In the classical view, criminal groups (such as mafias, gangs, and cartels) are not political actors formally capable of waging war. This means they can’t be treated as enemy combatants, nor can they be tried for war crimes. Yet, increasingly, such groups do advance tangible political objectives, from the election of corrupted politicians to the creation of autonomous religious states. What is more, they routinely govern, control territory, provide aid and social goods, and tax and extort money from the populations under their control. They also often collude with corrupt soldiers, police, prison guards, and customs officials to expand their rule. Put succinctly, cartels and gangs may not necessarily aim to displace recognized governments, but the net result of their activities is that they do.

Further, whereas the human cost of typical gang or mafia activity may be contained, the death and destruction that result from today’s crime wars are not. Millions of refugees and internally displaced persons have fled these gray-zone conflicts. But many of those who are dislocated are stuck in limbo, with most of them having been refused asylum, which—as codified in international refugee law, international humanitarian law, and by the International Criminal Court—is typically granted to people fleeing international and civil wars. Governments have typically been reluctant to recognize the dislocated as war refugees, because it would grant legitimacy to the crime wars. Yet with all the civilians killed and maimed, mayors and journalists attacked, families forced to flee genocide and disappearances, the violence generated by crime wars is indistinguishable from that generated by traditional war.

Crime wars are not going away, which is why the United Nations, its member states, and the international humanitarian community should clarify whether high-intensity crime is a purely domestic problem to be dealt with by policing and criminal justice (as argued by Carlos Iván Fuentes of the U.N. Office of Legal Affairs, as well as Paul Rexton Kan and Phil Williams of the U.S. Army War College and the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for International Security Studies, respectively) or a criminal insurgency (as Christian Vianna de Azevedo, from Brazil’s Federal Police, and other scholars would have it). And if there is consensus on the latter view, armed interventions will have to adhere to the host of protections contained in international humanitarian law.

Whatever the answer, it is certainly worth debating appropriate rules of engagement. Given that some cartels and gangs front well-armed and disciplined soldiers, improvised infantry fighting vehicles, top-of-the-line communications and surveillance networks, and military-grade weapons (such as rocket-propelled grenades and antipersonnel mines), as well as use high-intensity tactics (including ambushes and attacks on police and military forces), the threat cannot be wished away.

And even if a definition of crime wars is sorted out, observers still need to make distinctions among today’s belligerents. The key to determining what kinds of laws such groups are subject to will be their official status—whether they are designated as rebels, gangsters, or terrorists; how their organization is structured; and the intensity of their violent interactions. Generally, clear territorial control and a high intensity of fighting could bump a group up to the point where it would have to comply with international humanitarian law under Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions’ Additional Protocol II.

To take just a few cases, as the Geneva Academy noted in The War Report 2017, armed gang violence in Colombia, El Salvador, and Mexico is of particular concern. In all three cases, “armed gangs often use heavy weaponry, and some control sizeable territory and have the ability to conduct military operations, while the military is frequently involved in their repression,” a summary of the report states. “The number of civilian casualties linked to gang violence and state responses to this violence, might also exceed those of major current armed conflicts.” The Colombian and Mexican cases, according to the report, should constitute “non-international armed conflicts.” This does not necessarily mean that domestic or international military intervention is required, since civil policing is still a viable option in many situations, but it would bind states to the norms of international jurisprudence. By contrast, the situation in El Salvador does not rise to the level of war, since the MS-13 and Barrio 18 are less organized.

This new breed of crime conflicts involving cartels, gangs, and militia is challenging established norms about what is, and what isn’t, war.


The need for binding international humanitarian and human rights law, domestic obligations, and constraints for these armed groups is real, even if it is controversial. Some humanitarian agencies are already testing out new approaches to mitigating the suffering generated by these conflicts. For more than a decade, the ICRC has quietly administered pilot programs in Rio de Janeiro, Port-au-Prince, Medellín, Mexico City, Karachi, and other settings it labels as “situations of violence.” But a more comprehensive approach is needed, one that is upgraded to today’s realities. If the world fails to see crime wars as wars, the humanitarian and political cost of them will only rise.

Sol Prendido Borderland Beat from foreignpolicy

27 comments:

  1. Good read. I would also make the comment that it is interesting what parts of the world do not have these issues. The weaponization of these crime groups should be a topic that is just as worrisome

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  2. Shit I cant imagine how it was like living in juaritos in 2010 more then 3000 killed in that city alone. Not to mention 2009 2011 etc...

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  3. Overpopulation and inequality are the issues concerning today's world.

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  4. Esto es una crisis. Los propios investigadores admitirán que nunca han leído la historia de grupos como los rurales y las comunidades que prosperaron entre la revolución y el sexenio de Lázaro Cárdenas. Uno de los conflictos más sangrientos fue entre los residentes de villa escalante y los purépechas de las comunidades vecinas. El problema era la tala de madera para ser utilizada en la fabricación de muebles. Otras disputas fueron sobre los derechos de agua y muchos otros involucraron orgullo y salvar la cara. Una famosa disputa involucraba a un joven y una niña que se escaparon. Había un odio perpetuo entre los dos grupos. El Presidente L Cárdenas envió el mensaje de que si las disputas continuaban no obtendrían nada de las reformas que estaban en curso.

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  5. Once the violence, corruption, and impunity reach critical mass by adversely affecting significant portions of the population, the resulting tumult becomes identified as an insurrection and civil war between forces that support the justice and the rule of law and those who descend into anarchy and chaos. Mexico needs to test and verify the loyalty of its political
    and military leaders, sack those suspected of corruption, instill order in military ranks, and create elite military squads to eliminate criminal members. And when confronted in the field, the enemies of the State should be given no quarter. While many non-combatants may be killed, caught up in the cross fire, some killed by misidentification resulting in tragic consequences, a war against the cartles is the shortest means to the end of saving law and order in Mexico and bring justice back to this nation. Easier said than done, when many parts of society,from the top down, have been corrupted.

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    1. Much easier said than done. Totally get what you’re saying, but Mexico is stuck between a rock and a hard place no matter what. Maybe civil war, decriminalization of drugs, legalization of firearms for citizens without violent charges/arrests, or state run narcotics 🤷🏻‍♂️

      Corruption runs so deep no matter what’s done it will be a constant struggle

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    2. Exactly right...

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    3. Calderon was doing that and the people gave up. They voted in dipshit from the old PRI party with some idea about being nice to the criminals and they'll be nice back. Drug laws are the same and people are still unarmed. Cartels have spread crime everywhere and now Mexico has a much bigger problem.

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    4. It is much easier said than done but how bad does it have to get before people are fed up enough? When EVERY SINGLE FAMILY has personally lost a child? You have criminal elements firmly in control of massive swaths of country and literally NO ONE has even proposed a solution. This is the only way.

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  6. Yes while cartels continue to grow, the government of Mexico does only 10 percent of action, very minimal, AlMO get up at do something.

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  7. So yeah like I was telling you guys some time back. Wars will continue. Get rid of all those dumb rules that protect these bad actors and I’m more than sure that the criminality can be contained. Better this than the majority of the people who speak longingly and yearn for a past that was considered so good. As if the good times were meant to last forever. - Sol Prendido

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    1. Doubt that greed can be contained.

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    2. Greed can't be contained but their greed is exactly what must be used against them. Make it unprofitable for them to continue this level of indiscriminate violence. Drugs won't stop. No one really wants them to in the government. But the violence must. Look at Colombia. Has the cocaine stopped? No. But they realive terrorizing civilians was very bad for business

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    3. How can one separate greed from being unprofitable? The 2 go hand in hand. One cannot sustain itself without the other.
      I see what you're trying to get at.

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    4. There is greed and there is greed, nobody can match Thomas Alva Edison or Henry Ford or many other great men of industry and entrepreneurship, each in their own field, living off, whatever contracts or grants they could from their rich and powerful until they were able to, finance their own projects.
      These days most entrepreneurs and businessmen are all bent trying to find the richest investors to steal all their investment, some times in suspicious gambles in their own guaranteed benefit.

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  8. This part here:

    The need for binding international humanitarian and human rights law, domestic obligations, and constraints for these armed groups is real, even if it is controversial.

    is absolute and utter bullshit, and why nothing is being done to stop the problem.

    Thesis, Anti-thesis, Synthesis.

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  9. 9/11 happened and Latin America was forgot. Foreign policy, or lack thereof, has shitty consequences

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    1. 6:16 LatinAmerica is not ever forgotten,
      it is considered in—the-bag-bounty, and taken for granted.
      But Bolivia, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Cuba among others did not sleep on their laurels, Mexico had 4 of the last 6 elections stolen by a continuously progressively more corrupt state that decided who would be king with presidential powers, until AMLO finally won a decisive victory.
      LatinAmerica did not forget themselves, but there are extreme rightist regimes now too, like Argentina, Chile, Brazil etc, trying to "Make 'their' America Great Again",
      great, for themselves only.

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  10. I 100% blame Chapo Guzman and Felipe Calderon for the violence and insecurity. Chapo pushed into all the other territories because he wanted to be the boss/famous, and Calderon's cutting off the heads strategy. Destabilized pretty much all of Mexico and at best it will still take years to bring the violence down. 100,000+ dead, ridiculous.

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    1. Blame others too from all sides for these atrocities.

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  11. Awesome article that addresses what I believe to be of utmost relevance to resolving the problems in Mexico. I firmly believe a complete change in the rules of engagement and an aggressive and brutal military campaign is the only way to alter the trajectory of Mexico's crime rate. And I don't mean like in Michoacan or Juarez. I mean targeted assassinations of the leaders who are responsible for this senseless violence.

    I know this will never happen but I find it INCREDIBLY demoralizing to hear AMLO speak of human rights violations as it pertains to El Chapo. These people have tuned Mexico into something worse than a war zone. Until the dynamics change to where indiscriminate violence against civilians is no longer a sound business decision it will not change but rather progress. The only way I can think of to make that happen is to do things which I'm afraid the Mexican public would never go for.

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    1. Has Syria worked for its citizens?
      A divided country where some oppose and others are content. Change will require action. And those actions are not always pretty.
      Civil war torn countries are still unstable (economically, human rights speaking).

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  12. Its Drugs it ruin the hold World. Not just the U.S. AND MEXICO. Mexico ten years ago had no drug problem with the people

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    1. Thank your government for not taking a harder stance on drug trafficking.

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    2. 10 years ago many had better employment opportunities with better annual incomes. Economic factors have played a role in majority of our issues.
      Overpopulation and inequality!

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    3. 10:58 importing corn from the US left Mexican farmers without sources, of income, they were ripe for mariguana farming and criminal lives, also pushed for by "Our Men In Mexico" alumni.

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