Netwar’s Border Nightmare: Mexican Narco State?

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A week back, John Robb did a concise overview of Moises Naim’s Illict:

“Moises copiously documents how globalization and rampant interconnectivity has led to the rise of vast global smuggling networks….He shows how these networks make money through an arbitrage of the differences between the legal systems (and a desire to prosecute) of our isolated islands of sovereignty. He also shows how their flagrant use of corruption can enable them to completely take over sections of otherwise functional states. ” (Emphasis mine)

As mentioned in Paris Riots: Welcome to Netwar?, Manwaring’s “Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency” gives an example of what Naim describes – but in the context of netwar, fourth generation gangs and the nexus between narco-gangs and weak governments.

While Manwaring gives examples of distant states in Central America and South America, Ted Carpenter brings the issue a little closer in his 15 Novmeber 2005 article: “Mexico Is Becoming the Next Colombia“.

Indeed, he points to the example of Nuevo Laredo. In June 2005 this year, the Mexican federal government effectively lost control of Nuevo Laredo, a city of over 400,000 (just across Laredo, Texas), and had to send over 800 federal troops to effectively regain control from the narco-corrupted local government and law enforcement. This led to a short-lived gun battle with the Nuevo Laredo police and the federal troops.

”Mexico Is Becoming the Next Colombia”

Here’s a general synopsis of Carpenter’s article:

The Colombian-ization

Militarization of Cartels. Cartels are increasingly employing former military elite forces, Mexico’s Special Mobile Force, as their assassins and hitmen. Carpenter warns this increasingly resembles Columbia in the 1980s and 1990s, which proved disastrous for Columbia’s government and people.

Corruption and the Decline of Government Control. Carpenter cites the showdown between federal troops and law enforcement authorities in Nuevo Laredo as a completely breakdown of authority of the government and its ability to maintain effective independent control from the narco-traffickers. Carpenter goes on to cite maybe other examples, including more commonly known cities like Cancun and Tijuana.

While an extreme case, the temporary loss of Nuevo Laredo has shown that nacro-corruption is endemic in Mexico – resulting in losing government control of a major city. Indeed, in 1997, the Mexican drug czar General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo was arrested after three months his appointment for taking bribes the drug lord Amado Fuentes.


Deteriorating Cycle.More corruption – unaddressed – only leads to more corruption. And with the nearly bountiful supply of funds and resources of the narco-gangs, this will simply lead to a further spiraling effect that weakens the state of independent control and makes it more beholden to narco-gang interests.

Spillover Effect. Carpenter notes that violence has already been spilling over to the southwestern US states, with law-enforcements officials in Dallas particularly seeing gang violence. Carpenter also cites problems in New Mexico. While not particularly mentioned by Carpenter, there is the fear of such groups linking up with Al-Qaida or similar groups for attacking the United States.


Carpenter’s article caught my attention because it strongly relates to: 1) Moise Naim’s “Five Wars of Globalization” article; 2) The Unwinnable Escalation of the “War on Drugs”; 3) Manwearing’s article on Netwar – focusing on nacro-gangs in Central/South America; and 4) Andrew V. Papachristos on the Viral Growth of Gangs.

1. Globalization Wars

In February 2003, Moises Naim wrote “The Five Wars of Globalization Wars”(, outlining other major challenges globalization present to states, other than that of Al-Qaida and global islamist terrorism:

1. War on Drugs
2. Arms Trafficking
3. Intellectual Property
4. Alien Smuggling
5. Money Laundering

Naim lists the characteristics network-based of these groups, giving them a great advantage over the state:

1. They are not bound by geography.
2. They defy traditional notions of sovereignty.
3. They pit governments against market forces.
4. They pit bureaucracies against networks.

The narco-gangs in Colombia to Mexico definitely hit on all four points.

2. Escalation of the Drug War. “Plan Colombia” – placing Colombian troops on the offensive with U.S. support and with an attempt to offer alternative crops to plant – has not resolved the overall goal of curtailing supply, only serving to shift the cocaine production from Colombia to other places in the Andes.

By forcing on escalating the Drug War on mainly militarily terms, it has also only serves to force the narco-gang networks to evolve more sophisticatedly and drive deeper in bed with corrupt officials.

Here’s a quick except on the growing sophistication of these narco-groups:

Feeding this habit is a global supply chain that uses everything from passenger jets that can carry shipments of cocaine worth $500 million in a single trip to custom-built submarines that ply the waters between Colombia and Puerto Rico. To foil eavesdroppers, drug smugglers use “cloned” cell phones and broadband radio receivers while also relying on complex financial structures that blend legitimate and illegitimate enterprises with elaborate fronts and structures of cross-ownership.” (1)

Escalation of this was is not the goal, it should be 1) de-escalation of the war; and 2) shifting the way the war is being fought (away from military means).

3. Third Generation gangs. The nacro-gangs in Mexico are turning to classical 3rd Gen Gangs. Third Generation gangs operations at a global level and political goals. In most cases, the political goals were focused on helping attain market protection for these organizations. As expounded in more depth by Manwaring’s “Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency”:

This political action is intended to provide security and freedom of movement for gang activities. As a consequence, the third generation gang and its leadership challenge the legitimate state monopoly on the exercise of control and use of violence within a given political territory.

The infiltration and alignment of parts of the governments in the Central and South Americas (at the differing times) with nacro-traffickers/narco-terrorist are examples of this. Unfortunately, so was the dire situation in Nuevo Laredo. Indeed, we cannot simply call the narco-traffickers as pure non-state actors, as with time – they evolve to corrupt and control elements of the states.

(As to not repeat previous material, I strongly suggest checking out Paris Riots: Welcome to Netwar? for brief over and links to more indepth material.)

4. US Policy and the Viral Growth of Gangs. While not directly addressed by Manwaring, Naim or Carpenter – the U.S. policy of deporting gang members who are illegal aliens has only led to the proliferation and globalization of gangs:

“Since the mid-1990s, U.S. immigration policy has dramatically boosted the proliferation of gangs throughout Latin America and Asia by deporting tens of thousands of immigrants with criminal records back to their home countries each year, including a growing number of gang members. In 1996, around 38,000 immigrants were deported after committing a crime; by 2003, the number had jumped to almost 80,000.

In the case of MS-13, the U.S. government has deported hundreds of members, many of whom continue to illegally migrate back and forth, often carrying goods or people with them. Those that remain in their home countries are almost sure to connect with other deported gang members, and authorities in these countries say they are responsible for a large upswing in crime and violence. In a sense, U.S. immigration policy has amounted to unintentional state-sponsored gang migration. Rather than solving the gang problem, the United States may have only spread it. ” (2)

Closing Remarks

The U.S. and its “War on Drugs” are partially the cause of the escalation of the drug war. The US and other states have escalated the war, only to encourage the development and spread of fourth generation gangs, increasing the corruption of governments – and the growing nexus of gangs and corrupt officials leading to a narco-state.

Naim has stated that “in 1999, the United Nations’ “Human Development Report” calculated the annual trade in illicit drugs at $400 billion, roughly the size of the Spanish economy and about 8 percent of world trade.” (1) So, there are a vast group of quasi non-state actors – the Nacro-Network – with a GDP equivalent to Spain.

With the economy the size of Spain at stake, any attempt to diminish to reach of these narco-gangs will have to be found in inventive ways beyond military means.

In February 2005, the Economist declares that: “In five years, Plan Colombia has offered no evidence to weaken The Economist’s conviction that cocaine should be legalized (though its use, like that of tobacco, should be discouraged).”(3)

Indeed, if the United States was to take the Drug War in a big picture view of security threats, they may have to consider some sort of decriminalization of drug use as the means to undercut the power of these gangs.

The El Rukns gang in Chicago represents the worse that can happen. In 1986, El Rukn were contracted out by Libya to carryout acts of terrorism, but were caught before their plans were enacted.

Remembering El Rukns, there are fears that Al-Qaida will attempt similar plans with narco-gangs. There have been rumors of secret talks between MS-13 (orignally based in Honduras) and Al-Qaida on smuggling material and persons in to the United States. Ironically, the deportation of MS-13 members by the U.S. has helped grow the network.

If Mexico slides towards Colombization, two threats will gather strength: 1) the number and strength of potential gangs that could work with groups Al-Qaida will increase; and 2) the spill over of violence and nacro-trafficking from Mexico to the southwestern U.S. states.

While Mexico isn’t Colombia yet, these major threats are more than sufficient enough for the U.S. to strongly reconsider its approach to the War on Drugs and its own domestic drug policies.

(1) Moises Naim, “The Five Wars of Globalization Wars, Foreign Policy, February 2003
(2) Andrew V. Papachristos, “Gang World”, Foreign Policy, March/April 2005
(3) “The drug “war” in Latin America”, Economist, 10 February 2005