I've been rather feverishly working on a new collaboration with John P. Sullivan that should be out soon, but I want to pause a bit to examine Mexico. I got a review copy of Narcos over the Border and will be very enthusiastic about taking a look when I have some more free time.
Robert Bunker, the volume's editor, has been very busy in writing about the analytical problem Mexico poses for insurgency analysts:
In Bunker's taxonomy, gang studies, the specialty of some criminologists and law enforcement practitioners, is one way to analyze events in Mexico. Students of gang operations analyze how gangs capture control of neighborhoods, prison populations, and local drug markets. Next is organized crime studies, also the purview of criminologists and law enforcement practitioners, but a level of criminal activity that would imply more organizational sophistication and broader territoriality than that implied by gang studies. A third classification is terrorism studies, a focus of academics and government officials at the national and international levels. Under a terrorism model, cartels in Mexico would use terror to compel compliance from rival gangs, government officials, and non-combatants. Insurgency studies are the fourth paradigm, currently an interest of academics and military planners. Under this model, cartels could ultimately form shadow governments either in parallel or inside the legitimate government. Finally, there are future warfare studies, a province of academics which hypothesizes the creation of new transnational organizational structures that could both combine and supplant governments, security forces, criminal organizations, and corporate interests.
The problem, as Bunker argues, is that elements of all these arguably present in Mexico and the surroundings conflicts in the region related to the cartel violence. The Mexican government, however, only is interested in the first two images: organized crime and gang studies. Moreover, analysts interested in the Maoist security paradigm are also not interested in thinking about insurgents struggling for political power without an explicit, modernist ideological motivation.
The idea of criminal insurgency, as developed by Steven Metz and others, fills something of a gap in the literature but is in itself incomplete and in need of greater research and analysis. But for now, it does give us a better look at what is going on in Mexico and other places. The risk, however, is that it might lock in certain policy responses that might not be helpful. One of Metz's strongest points, as observed in many of his monographs and essays, is that not all irregular problems really demand a American response, and those that do should be judged by the criterion of national interest and feasibility. It's not inconceivable that a triggering incident of some sort down the road might lock in an American response that would only worsen the situation. I am not visualizing a redux of the Pancho Villa expedition, which would not be tolerated by any actor in the hemisphere. But there are many other ways to make an already bad situation worse.
In a way, the conceptual overlap between the gang and organized crime dimension and that of policy might be a boon, as police and law enforcement experience with large criminal organizations provides a baseline for developing doctrine, even though cartels are more "social bandits" than anything else.