From Drug Wars to Criminal Insurgency: Mexican Cartels, Criminal Enclaves and Criminal Insurgency in Mexico and Central America. Implications for Global Security


This text was written for a seminar on « Netwars and Peacenets », held in Paris on 27-28 June 2011, in the frame of the Chaire of Manuel Castells entitled « Interdisciplinary analysis of the society in webs » at the Collège d’études mondiales.

Transnational organized crime is a pressing global security issue. Mexico is currently embroiled in a protracted drug war. Mexican drug cartels and allied gangs (actually poly-crime organizations) are currently challenging states and sub-state polities (in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and beyond) to capitalize on lucrative illicit global economic markets. As a consequence of the exploitation of these global economic flows, the cartels are waging war on each other and state institutions to gain control of the illicit economy. Essentially, they are waging a ‘criminal insurgency’ against the current configuration of states. As such, they are becoming political, as well as economic actors.

This presentation examines the dynamics of this controversial proposition. The control of territorial space — ranging from ‘failed communities’ to ‘failed regions’ — will be examined. The presentation will examine the exploitation of weak governance and areas (known as ‘lawless zones,’ ‘ungoverned spaces,’ ‘other governed spaces,’ or ‘zones of impunity’) where state challengers have created parallel or dual sovereignty, or ‘criminal enclaves’ in a neo-feudal political arrangement. The use of instrumental violence, corruption, information operations (including attacks on journalists), street taxation, and provision of social goods in a utilitarian fashion will be discussed. Finally, the dynamics of the transition of cartels and gangs into ‘accidental guerrillas’ and ‘social bandits’ will be explored through the lens of ‘third generation gang’ theory and ‘power-counter power’ relationships. This presentation will serve as a starting point for assessing the threat to security from transnational organized crime through lessons from the Mexican cartels.

Published at 15 April 2012