Tom Diaz

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In Terrorism, Terrorism and counter-terrorism on February 11, 2009 at 11:37 pm
The Late Imad Mugniyah

The Late Imad Mugniyah (Hezbollah Photo)

Israel’s IDF remains on high alert on the anniversary of Imad Mugbniyah’s death.  The following is the full text of private intelligence organization Stratfor’s analysis. (  For background about Hezbollah’s operations in the United States, see the book I wrote with Barbara Newman, Lightning Out of Lebanon: Hezbollah Terrorists on American Soil (Presidio Press, Random House 2005).  For a contemporaneous account of Mugniyah’s death and background on his life see this Times Online story from 2008.   The Weekly Standard blog this week recounts a story floated in an Israeli newspaper that credits information leading to Mugniyah’s assassination to capture of a Hezbollah operative by U.S. forces in Iraq.  According to this report, the operative provided details about the secretive Mugniyah’s routine.  There is no way to confirm this account directly, of course.  But go here for story of capture of Hezbollah operative Ali Mussa Daqduq in Iraq (along with a bonanza of diaries, computer files, and “pocket litter”) and here for background on Mugniyah’s terrorist history and his links to the Mahdi Army in Iraq.  Bottom line: somebody got information that enabled somebody to get to Mugniyah, one of the most cautious men in history.  And what goes around, comes around in the Middle East.

Retribution for Mughniyah: A Dish Served Cold?
February 11, 2009
Global Security and Intelligence Report
By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

Feb. 12 will mark the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Imad Mughniyah, one of Hezbollah’s top military commanders. The anniversary certainly will be met with rejoicing in Tel Aviv and Washington – in addition to all the Israelis he killed, Mughniyah also had a significant amount of American blood on his hands. But the date will be met with anger and renewed cries for revenge from Hezbollah’s militants, many of whom were recruited, trained or inspired by Mughniyah.

Mugniyah Reported Killed in This Bombing

Mugniyah Reported Killed in This Bombing (Lebanon Times)

Because of Hezbollah’s history of conducting retaliatory attacks after the assassination of its leaders, and the frequent and very vocal calls for retribution for the Mughniyah assassination, many observers (including Stratfor) have been waiting for Hezbollah to exact its revenge. While the attack has not yet happened, threats continue. For example, in a Jan. 29 news conference, Hezbollah General Secretary Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah left no doubt about the group’s intention. “The Israelis live in fear of our revenge,” he said. “The decision to respond to the killing is still on. We decide the time and the place.”

Initially, given the force of the anger and outcry over the assassination, we anticipated that the strike would come soon after the 30-day mourning period for Mughniyah had passed. Clearly, that did not happen. Now a year has passed since the killing, but the anger and outcry have not died down. Indeed, as reflected by Nasrallah’s recent statement, the leadership of Hezbollah remains under a considerable amount of internal pressure to retaliate. Because any retaliation would likely be tempered by concerns over provoking a full-on Israeli attack against Hezbollah infrastructure (similar to the attack in the summer of 2006), any Hezbollah strike would be conducted in a manner that could provide some degree of plausible deniability.

It is important to remember that Hezbollah retains a considerable capacity to conduct terrorist attacks abroad should it choose to do so. In fact, we believe that, due to its high degree of training, vast experience and close ties to the Iranian government, Hezbollah retains a more proficient and dangerous terrorism capability than al Qaeda.

22004838Repeated calls for revenge and Hezbollah’s capabilities have combined to ensure that the Israeli government maintains a high state of awareness. Even though a year has passed, Israelis, too, are waiting for the other shoe to drop. On Feb. 1, Elkana Harnof of the Counterterrorism Bureau in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office told The Jerusalem Post that, “Based on our information, we believe the organization is planning one large revenge attack close to the anniversary of [Mughniyah’s] death.” Harnof added, “All we can say publicly is that [Hezbollah] has gone to enormous effort to prepare various kinds of terror attacks, and the big one is likely going to take place soon.” Like Stratfor, the Israelis also believe that the attack will be directed against Israeli or Jewish targets outside of Israel.

Busy Bodies

There are a number of indications that Hezbollah has not been idle in the year since Mughniyah’s death. First, there has been a good deal of preoperational activity by Hezbollah militants in several countries, including the United States. This activity has included surveillance and other intelligence-gathering for targeting purposes. At one point last fall, the activity was so intense inside the United States that law enforcement officials believed a strike was imminent – but it never came. Additionally, there are credible reports that Hezbollah plots to strike Israeli targets in Azerbaijan and the Netherlands have been thwarted. (Although, from information we have received, it does not appear that either of these plots was at an advanced stage of the attack cycle.)

We have no reason to doubt the reports of Hezbollah preoperational activity. It is simply what they do and what they are. Even though the group has not conducted a successful attack overseas since 1994, it does maintain a robust network of operatives who stay busily engaged in operational activities. While many of these operatives are involved primarily in financial and logistical activities, we believe it is worth noting that Hezbollah has never conducted or attempted an attack in a country where it did not have such a support network in place. They use these networks to assist their militant activities in a number of ways, but perhaps the most significant way is in the conduct of preoperational surveillance.

Hezbollah, a creature of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, also has a long history of receiving aid from Iranian embassies in its overseas operations, including its terrorist strikes. Almost inevitably, Hezbollah’s overseas attack plans are found to have murky links of some sort to the Iranian embassy in the country where the attack was to occur, and to the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security or Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers stationed there.

Hezbollah utilizes an “off the shelf” method of planning its terrorist attacks. This is very similar to the way major national military commands operate, where they make contingency war plans against potential adversaries in advance and then work to keep those plans updated. This style of sophisticated, advance planning provides Hezbollah’s senior decision makers with a wide array of tactical options, and allows them to assess a number of attack plans in various parts of the world and quickly select and update a particular attack plan when they make the decision to launch it. When they do decide to pull the trigger, they can strike hard and fast.

This type of planning requires a great deal of intelligence-gathering, not only to produce the initial plans but also to keep them updated. Because it requires a lot of collection activity, this effort likely accounts for much of the operational activity that has been observed over the past year in the United States and elsewhere. These ongoing surveillance operations are not just useful for planning purposes, but they are also good for sowing confusion, creating distractions and causing complacency. If Hezbollah operatives have been seen periodically conducting surveillance around a facility and no attack has followed that activity, over time it becomes very easy for security personnel to write off all such activity as harmless – even when it might not be this time.

Not Crying Wolf

There are some who argue that the lack of an attack by Hezbollah since the Mughniyah assassination, combined with the fact that the group has not used its terrorist capability to conduct an attack for many years, signifies that Hezbollah has abandoned its terrorist ways and instead focused on developing its conventional warfare capability.

We do not buy this argument. First, it ignores the existence and purpose of Hezbollah’s Unit 1800, which, among other things, recruits Palestinians for anti-Israeli terror operations inside Israel and the occupied territories. Second, if Hezbollah had abandoned its terrorist arm, there would be no need for the preoperational planning activity noted previously, and in our opinion, reports of such surveillance activity are too frequent and too widespread to be discounted as false sightings. Granted, such activities do cause jitters and have some effectiveness as a psychological warfare tool, but we do not believe that those limited benefits justify the time and effort being put into Hezbollah’s intelligence-collection program. There is also that pesky problem of explaining the thwarted attack plots in Azerbaijan and the Netherlands. Because of this, we do not believe that the U.S. and Israeli governments (among others) are crying wolf when they provide warnings of pending Hezbollah attacks.

We continue to believe that if there is an attack by Hezbollah, it will likely come in a country where there is an existing Hezbollah support apparatus and an Iranian embassy. (Although, in a confined geographic area, operations could be supported in a third country that lacked one or both of those elements.) We also believe that such an attack is more likely in a country where there is ready access to weapons or explosives, and where there are poor law enforcement and intelligence capabilities. We wrote an analysis discussing this in some detail during the 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. In that piece, we provided a matrix of the places we believed were most likely to be the site of a Hezbollah attack against Israeli targets, and one of the important criteria we considered was the presence of both an Iranian embassy and a local Hezbollah support network. When we discuss these two elements, it is important to note that in past attacks, the attackers were brought in from the outside in order to provide plausible deniability – but they did receive important support and guidance from the network and embassy.

Since we wrote that analysis in July 2006, there has been a significant increase in Iranian influence in parts of Latin America, including Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia, and Hezbollah has not been far behind. In addition to claims by the U.S. Treasury Department that Venezuelan nationals and organizations are supporting Hezbollah financially, there have been persistent rumors of Hezbollah militants and IRGC officers conducting training at camps in the Venezuelan jungles.

These reports are especially noteworthy when combined with a recent rise in anti-Semitism in Venezuela and an outright hostility toward Jews demonstrated by pro-Chavez militia groups. A pro-Chavez militia is believed to have been involved in the vandalism of the main synagogue in Caracas on the night of Jan. 30-31, 2008. We are among many who don’t buy the government’s official explanation that the vandalism was motivated by robbery. To us, the fact that the intruders remained in the building for several hours, made the effort to scrawl anti-Israeli graffiti inside the building and stole databases containing personal information on congregational members seems very unusual for a simple burglary. Our suspicion is magnified by the extensive anti-Semitic statements made on the Web sites of some of the pro-Chavez militia leaders. All of this raises serious concerns that the Venezuelan government could turn a blind eye to Hezbollah efforts to conduct an attack on Israeli or Jewish interests in that country.

There are many who believe that the anti-Semitic attitudes of the Argentine government in the early 1990s helped embolden Mughniyah and his followers to attack Israeli and Jewish targets there. The anti-Semitic environment in Venezuela today is even more overt and hostile than it was in Argentina.

In keeping with Hezbollah’s history, if an attack is launched, we anticipate that it will have to be fairly spectacular, given the fact that Mughniyah was very important to Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors – although the attack must not be so spectacular as to cause a full-on Israeli attack in Lebanon. Hezbollah can weather a few airstrikes, but it does not want to provoke an extended conflict – especially as Hezbollah’s political leadership is extremely focused on doing well in the upcoming elections in Lebanon.

Given Hezbollah’s proclivity toward using a hidden hand, we suspect the attack will be conducted by a stealthy and ambiguous cell or cells that will likely have no direct connection to the organization. For example, in July 1994, the group used Palestinian operatives to conduct attacks against the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish nongovernmental organization office in London. Also, as we have seen in prior attacks, if a hardened target such as an Israeli embassy or VIP is not vulnerable, a secondary soft target might be selected. The July 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association in Buenos Aires is a prime example of this type of attack. It should serve as a warning to Jewish community centers and other non-Israeli government targets everywhere that even non-Israeli Jewish targets are considered fair game.


In Crime, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on February 11, 2009 at 3:59 pm
Not Mexico -- And Yet ...

Not Mexico -- And Yet ...

Sentimental local boosters still describe Shelby County, Alabama as “The Heart of Dixie.”  The geographic center of Alabama lies within the county — in the Richardson-Randall Cemetery, about 2 miles east of Montevallo.  The county, founded in 1818, was named after Isaac Shelby, a hero of the King’s Mountain Battle during the Revolutionary War.  According to the 1820 Shelby County census records, two years after its founding, 2,492 people lived within Shelby County bounds: 2,044 whites and 448 “Negroes.” The ethnic ratios have stayed pretty much the same throughout the turbulence of the Civil War, the national involvement in various World Wars and assorted foreign adventures, the fight for Civil Rights, the emergence of the New South, and the Era of Millennial Wisdom that is upon us now.  Fried chicken, grits, and sweet tea are not hard to find in Shelby County.

Even though there has lately been a tiny but growing Latino presence, Shelby County seemed a slice of American pie, about as far away from Mexico as one could get culturally and geographically.

Not Mexico

Not Mexico

That is, until the five guys incident.  Not the famous “Five Guys” hamburger chain.   No, I’m talking the five Mexican guys that Shelby County Sheriff’s Deputies found when they conducted a “welfare check” at an apartment on August 20, 2008.  The five guys who had been tortured with electrical shocks, mutilated — whispered local accounts include the horrific traditional stuffing of severed genitalia into the living victim’s mouth, secured with all-purpose duct tape — and throats slashed.  Those five guys.

This incident is worth keeping in mind when one hears abstract discussions about the “drug war in Mexico” and “violence jumping the border.”  This horrific violence did not happen in a “ghetto” or a “marginalized barrio” in Los Angeles or Chicago.  It happened in a nice apartment complex in a nice community that may be very much like the one you love in.  Apparently, one of the victims just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as he had come over to the apartment in connection with a used car sale.

The Birmingham News reported on September 19, 2008, “Killed were Angel Horacio Vega-Gonzalez, 23; his brother, Gustavo Vega-Gonzalez, 24, also known as Armando Lopez; 24; Ezequiel ‘El Chino” Rebollar-Terevan, 23; and Jaime ‘Tuso’ Echeverra, 30, and Armando Ibarra Mendoza, 31. Charged with capital murder in the slayings are brothers Alejandros Castaneda, 31; and Juan Francisco Castaneda, 25; Jaime Duenas-Rodriguez, 22; Christopher Scott Jones, 40, and Derreck Renone Green, 32.”

Shelby County Suspected Perps -- Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Four of the Shelby County Suspected Perps -- Innocent Until Proved Guilty, Of Course

According to various published reports, this was a case of pay back between Mexican drug trafficking organizations.

Here is how it went down, according to an account in the Birmingham News on September 18, 2008:

A source close to the Shelby County investigation detailed the events that led to slayings, and identified the connection to the Gulf Cartel. Police believe that Echeverra’s brother is a top leader in Atlanta’s Gulf Cartel, the source said.

The Castaneda brothers, though not members of any cartel, were drug dealers caught in a feud between Gulf Cartel factions in Texas and Atlanta, the source said.

According to the source, a truck carrying drugs or drug money, roughly $450,000, was delivered to the Castaneda brothers. They took the load, and transferred it to a different pickup truck.

The Castanedas then hired couriers to deliver the haul to an undisclosed location. Instead, a group of men and women wearing ski masks carjacked the truck, the investigator said, and the dealer in Texas told the Castaneda brothers they were still responsible for the shipment.

The brothers, the investigator said, deduced that if the truck was found in Birmingham, it was stolen by some local drug faction. If it was found in Georgia, they believed, the Atlanta faction of the Gulf Cartel would be the culprits.

When the truck was recovered several days later in Jackson County, Ga., the Castanedas believed that the Gulf Cartel in Atlanta was responsible for the theft, investigators said.

To get revenge against the leader of the Atlanta faction, the Castanedas targeted the Atlanta ringleader’s brother, Jaime Echeverra, and his cousin, Ezequiel Rebollar-Terevan, two of the Shelby County victims, investigators said.

The plan was to interrogate them and torture them until they told whether Echeverra’s brother was responsible for the stolen drugs or money, the investigator said.

”Whatever came out of that interrogation, we don’t know, but they must have found their answers and then they all were killed,” the source said.

The Vega-Gonzalez brothers, the source said, were small-time dope runners with Echeverra and Rebollar-Terevan. Authorities believe Mendoza, at the apartment trying to sell a car, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The local law enforcement task force concept kicked in and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office arrested suspects remarkably quickly.  This posting on the Sheriff’s website indicates both the scope of the investigation and the scope of the Mexican drug organizations’ operations in the Heart of Dixie:

In the course of this investigation, 24 search warrants were obtained and executed (17 of those in Shelby County and seven in Jefferson County). In all, 14 vehicles, 14 weapons including 12 assault rifles, one handgun, one shotgun, and approximately 426 grams of methamphetamine, 20 grams of cocaine and drug paraphernalia have been seized. Investigators continue to process and examine all of the evidence gathered to date. The Sheriff’s Office will work to ensure that the weapons seized do not make it back onto the street through judicial proceedings.

The Law West of Georgia -- Shelby County Sheriff Chris Curry

The Law West of Georgia -- Shelby County Sheriff Chris Curry

Here is another remarkable bit of information.  Sheriff  Chris Curry did not dissolve into a rant about “illegal aliens.”  Quite to the contrary, his office contacted an Hispanic advocacy group — the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA)  — and invited it to expand its operations into Shelby County! Here are excerpts from a Birmingham News report:

“We have asked HICA into the area to help us improve community relations with Spanish-speaking members of the community,” said Capt. Ken Burchfield of the Sheriff’s Office. “My gut feeling is that a lot of Hispanic victims don’t report crimes because they have an illegal alien status and are afraid to call us … There are predators inside their community and outside, because people know a lot of Hispanics won’t call police…Our job as a local law enforcement agency is not to deport people. That’s a federal issue. But if you are a battered spouse, or you’ve been robbed, you should call the sheriff’s office, irregardless of your race and ethnicity.”

Good, cooperative, multi-agency police work.  Enlightened police-community relations.  We are going to need all of that in our own war against transnational gangs.


In Crime, Gangs, Guns, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on February 5, 2009 at 8:32 pm
The School of Athens, Raphael

The School of Athens, Raphael

If one assumes the Western culture that we more or less enjoy today in the United States began in earnest in Classical Greece, we are standing on the shoulders of some 2,500 years of deep thought about how to govern ourselves well and wisely.  Getting from there to here sometimes required violent action and always required courage.  However deeply divided we remain about the details, the hallmark of Western society is our fierce commitment to a secular political space where decisions affecting the common good are made democratically and without violence.

The core of our political deal is that we value freedom and the worth of the individual.  We have reluctantly invested our government with the exclusive right to use force — to maintain order and keep us from each others’ throats and our nation secure from foreign enemies — because history taught us in the West the hard lesson that both the discipline of divine right and the anarchy of every-man-for-himself lead eventually to a bloody mess.  The details, every other political decision, is decoration to be contested in the common nonviolent, secular political space — the more fiercely the better.  As annoying as it is, politics is good.

For an excellent explication of a different way things are organized in places that never enjoyed the transformational experiences  of Western culture — i.e.,  the ancient tribal governance common to much of the world with which we are in conflict today — read The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs by David Pryce-Jones.  The book is not actually only about the Arabs, and the author’s terminology has been criticized in that regard.  No matter, read  The Closed Circle and you will more easily grasp the logic of governing among “tribal” leaders from Yasser Arafat, Hassan Nasrallah, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden to the surviving-boss-0f-the-week in Hamas.  The values of these societies are considerably different from ours.

!8th Street Gangsters -- Misguided Homeboys?

18th Street Gangsters -- Misguided Homeboys?

Gangster values are also different from and fundamentally hostile to everything Western culture stands for. One of the first people I interviewed in researching my book on Latino gangs was a “gang culture” expert in the FBI.  When I asked him to describe the gang culture, he turned the question around on me.  The conversation went something like this:

Expert:  Do you have children?

Me:  Yes.

Expert:  Do you try to teach them values?

Me (wondering where this was going):  Well, yes.

Expert:  Well, just turn those values upside down and you will begin to understand gang culture.  Everything you think is good, they think is bad.  Everything you think is bad, they think is good.

In his monograph A Contemporary Challenge To State Sovereignty: Gangs And Other Illicit Transnational Criminal Organizations In Central America, El Salvador, Mexico, Jamaica, And Brazil, Max Manwaring describes the values of the gangster culture that he writes has overrun the Mexican states of Quintana Roo and Sinaloa:

This corrupt environment affects everyone and everything, and has been described as feudal or medieval. Local gangs and their TCO [transnational criminal organization] allies have a safe haven from which to operate; enjoy immunity within that safe haven from any illicit actions; “tax” residents, travelers, and businesses at will; and maintain their own self-determined system of law and order. Actors in that world are known to derive their values from norms based on slave holding, sexual activity with minors and their exploitation in prostitution, the “farming” of humans for body parts, and the killing and torture of innocents for political gain and personal gratification (as sport). Notions such as due process of law, right to jury trial, individual privacy, and human and women’s rights may exist as concepts among some, but do not appear to be practiced. Thus, in Quintana Roo and Sinaloa, people live in a feudal environment defined by patronage, bribes, kickbacks, cronyism, ethnic exclusion, and personal whim.

If you think such violence is a phenomenon peculiar to geography south of the border, think again.  One need not go to Quintana Roo or Sinaloa to find the real-life, on the street, acting out of this ruthless “self-determined system of law and order.”  Examples abound in the United States.

What is ultimately at stake is not how many drug addicts there are more or less.  Or how many misguided youth might be saved by  secular or sectarian healing.

What is at stake is which value system will prevail in our society.


In Crime, Gangs, Latino gangs, Mexico, Terrorism, Terrorism and counter-terrorism, Transnational crime on February 4, 2009 at 3:20 am
F/A-18C Hornet)

"Conyo, Homes, The Navy Has Arrived!" (US Navy Photo: F/A-18C Hornet Dropping Flares Over the Pacific)

Salinas, California Mayor Dennis Donohue is fed up with gang-related violence. “Frankly, after three or four decades, we’re no longer interested in coexistence side-by-side with this subculture that has become embedded in our community,” Donohue vented last week to The Salinas Californian.  So he did the only reasonable thing a man in that spot can do — he called in the United States Navy.  More specifically, the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in nearby Monterey, a sweet spot on the coast of central California.

No, there won’t be any submarine-launched cruise missiles or F-18 air strikes raining down on problematic neighborhoods in Salinas, home town of John Steinbeck and now infested with a variety of violent street gangs.  But the city and its problems will be getting some heavy caliber thinking from a flight deck full of scholars specializing in counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency studies at the Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security.  As Herodotus observed, “Force has no place where there is need of skill.” (An aphorism quoted, I might add, at a convenient place in my forthcoming book, No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement, University of Michigan Press, 2009).  The case at hand ensures that there will be some interesting skills applied to this project.

Dr. Hy Rothstein will lead a team of from 10 to 15 faculty members.  If anything, Dr. Rothstein’s vita understates his apparently considerable practical and intellectual experience in the world of violent groups.  His academic credentials are book-ended by a 1974 BA from the United States Military Academy and a 2003 PhD from Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.  A retired Army colonel, he served for more than 20 years in a number of the Army’s Special Forces postings — including an early tour as military adviser to the El Salvadoran armed forces in 1987 to 1989, where he was decorated for valor.  He is the author of Afghanistan And the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare.

The New Yorker‘s high-toned muckraker Seymour M. Hersh dragged Rothstein reluctantly into the public light via an article in the magazine’s April 12, 2004 edition, “The Other War: Why Bush’s Afghanistan Problem Won’t Go Away” (still unsettling reading).  Hersh obtained a copy of an internal report that Rothstein had been asked to write critiquing the fracas in Afghanistan.  According to Hersh, “The report describes a wide gap between how Donald Rumsfeld represented the war and what was actually taking place.”  The report apparently upset ranking officials  in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon — Rothstein was told to chop it back and tone it down, which he was disinclined to do.  In the event his opus thus was swallowed up by inertia and disappeared into the maw of the Puzzle Palace, until it was leaked to Hersh.

Salient to his current endeavor, Rothstein — an advocate for greater and better use of Special Forces in unconventional conflict — wrote this of the kind of special warfare he had in mind for Afghanistan:

Unorthodox thinking, drawing on a thorough understanding of war, demography, human nature, culture and technology are part of this mental approach … Special Forces soldiers must be diplomats, doctors, spies, cultural anthropologists, and good friends — all before their primary work comes into play.

How does this business of “unorthodox thinking” and special warfare relate to gangs?  Mayor Donohue and the Postgraduate School’s spokespersons make it clear that the project is in its formative stages — but is expected to produce different perspectives on a problem that, frankly, has proven resistant to the current approach of being dumped into the laps of “law enforcement,” writ narrowly.  What is being sought is a broader, more informed, more “holistic” approach.  Warfare in Rothstein’s view is not just about bang-bang.

This business of unorthodox thinking (the bigger the better) is precisely what is needed — not just in Salinas, but nationally.  In several years of interviewing cops, prosecutors, federal agents, and Justice Department lawyers, I never talked to a single one who did not acknowledge that — as important as gang-busting is — in the long run it is impossible to “arrest our way out” of a problem that implicates virtually every one of the most vexing of our social, political, and economic problems.

We can pay now or pay later, but if we continue to roll along as we are now, new gangsters will be minted faster than we can take old ones off the streets — in spite of the valiant efforts of state, local, and federal law enforcement.  That is just a fact of life.  (Go here for the story of one man’s flight from California to escape gang rot, only to find it spreading to Utah.)

Some will perhaps protest that this is “militarization.”  Some will find applying counter-terror and counterinsurgency thinking to gangs to be “unorthodox” in the extreme– especially many among any who don’t yet grasp the reality of the transnational criminal violence machines that the larger of today’s gangs have become.  But there is a developing line of thought connecting the dots between gangs and warfare (broadly defined) among more thoughtful and better informed thinkers.  Moreover, to repeat the point, “warfare” does not have to be all about shooting — it may be about a local form of “nation building,” as in education, social services, and economic opportunity.

One of the seminal essays in this general area was Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency, by Max G. Manwaring, another retired Army colonel and Professor of Military Strategy at the U.S. Army War College, published in March 2005.  Manwaring further developed his theme in  A Contemporary Challenge To State Sovereignty: Gangs And Other Illicit Transnational Criminal Organizations In Central America, El Salvador, Mexico, Jamaica, And Brazil.

In Street Gangs, Manwaring discussed the evolution of gangs from the “first generation” barrio-based agglomerations that many observers still romanticize to the transnational “third generation” gangs affiliated with organized criminal groups, well-armed, and in it for territory and money.  (See this Congressional Research Service report also for a discussion of gang “generations” and the meaning of “transnational” gangs.) The essays are worth reading, but the following paragraphs sum up a point that Fairly Civil has been hammering at about the role of gangs in the drug war in Mexico:

The annual net profit from gang-related activities is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. The precise numbers are not important. But the enormity of the amount of money involved is important, together with the additional benefits these financial resources can generate when linked to utter ruthlessness of purpose and no moral or legal constraints. In this connection, a third generation gang can afford the best talent-whether accountants, computer specialists,extortionists, or murderers-and the best equipment and technologies. With such extensive resources, a gang can bribe government officials, hire thugs to intimidate those who cannot be bought, and kill those who cannot be intimidated. Bottomless pockets mean that gangs can move, shift, diversify, and promote operations at will-and, most significantly, they can outspend virtually any legal political jurisdiction. Consequently, a gang can establish acceptance, credibility, and de facto legitimacy within and among the sovereign states where its general organization operates.

In short, the gang phenomenon represents a triple threat to the authority of a given government and to those of its neighbors. First, through murder, kidnapping, intimidation, corruption, and other means of coercion, these violent nonstate actors undermine the ability of a government to perform its legitimizing functions. Second, by violently imposing their will over the elected officials of the state, these actors compromise the legitimate exercise of state authority. Third, by taking control of portions of the national territory (including the borders), the various components of the gang phenomenon are directly performing the tasks of government and acting as states within a state.

It’s perhaps easier to think of these grim processes of gang dominance and failed statehood as happening in Mexico or El Salvador rather than in the United States.  But there are neighborhoods —  and in addition to geographical neighborhoods, zones of enterprise from sidewalk taco stands in Los Angeles to drug trafficking everywhere — wherein the writ of the gang has supplanted the writ of the legitimate government.  And, by the way, exactly who or what entity controls our borders when it comes to illicit traffic in drugs, guns, human beings, and the cash derived from such criminal enterprises?

What is the solution?  Here is an overview from Manwaring’s second monograph:

The power to deal with these kinds of threats is not hard combat firepower or even more benign power. It involves soft, multidimensional, multilevel, multilateral, political, psychological, moral, informational, economic, and social efforts, as well as police and military activities that can be brought to bear holistically on the causes and consequences, as
well as the perpetrators of violence. Ultimately, then, success in contemporary unconventional conflict comes as a result of a unified effort to apply the full human and physical resources of the nation-state and its international allies to achieve the individual and collective well-being that can lead to sustained societal peace.

Complex.  Yes, it would be alarmist to say that things are as bad here as they are in, say, Mexico.

Unless, of course, one has the misfortune to live in one of those neighborhoods where a single hard stare from a gangster is enough to keep the residents in line, mouths shut.

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from


In Corruption, Crime, Gangs, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on February 2, 2009 at 9:54 pm
Latino Gangs Are Expanding Geographic Reach in U.S. and Some Are Moving Into Wholesale Drug Trade from Traditional Retail Sales.  Both Moves Promise More Violence in Turf Wars.

Latino Gangs Are Expanding Geographic Reach in U.S. and Some Are Moving Into Wholesale Drug Trade from Traditional Retail Sales. Both Moves Promise More Violence in Turf Wars.

A flurry of new information and expert opinion issued within the last several weeks indicates that the United States will see increased violence involving Latino street gangs, like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), during 2009.  More violence is also predicted in Mexico, as the Mexican  government continues its war on the powerful Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs), also called “cartels.”

Fairly Civil has already reported the news from the National Drug Threat Assessment 2009 that some street gangs are moving beyond their role as the nation’s primary retail drug outlets and “increasing their involvement in wholesale-level drug distribution.”

The National Gang Threat Assessment 2009, released today and available in a PDF file here, confirms that assessment.    “Gang members are the primary retail-level distributors of most illicit drugs. They also are increasingly distributing wholesale-level quantities of marijuana and cocaine in most urban and suburban communities,” according to the new report.

The National Gang Threat Assessment reports two other elements that — combined with the move into wholesale drug trade — are likely to increase the potential for violence.

One is the continued territorial expansion of gangs:

Gang members are migrating from urban areas to suburban and rural communities, expanding the gangs’ influence in most regions; they are doing so for a variety of reasons, including expanding drug distribution territories, increasing illicit revenue, recruiting new members, hiding from law enforcement,and escaping other gangs. Many suburban and rural communities are experiencing increasing gang-related crime and violence because of expanding gang influence.

Competition Over Retail Customers Usually Means Armed Violence in the Drug Business

Competition Over Retail Customers Usually Means Armed Violence in the Drug Business

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

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Expansion into new territory means friction with existing drug distributors — possibly other, smaller bore gangs — and the resulting necessity to “rationalize” markets.  As a knowledgeable FBI agent told me in the course of my researching my upcoming book —No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (U. of Michigan Press, 2009) — the gangs don’t sit down to negotiate “rationalizing” markets.  They whip out the guns and start shooting.  Last gang standing gets the market. (In this regard, retired Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Gang Sergeant Richard Valdemar has a short piece here, useful for navigating the sometimes-confusing nomenclature (e.g., sureno and norteno) of the California-based  gangs that could be infiltrating your placid  neighborhoods far from the West Coast.)

Even more troubling is the Gang Threat Assessment report’s carefully understated notice of the  potential for confrontation between U.S.-based gangs and the Mexican DTOs:  “Some gangs traffic illicit drugs at the regional and national levels; several are capable of competing with U.S.-based Mexican DTOs.” (My emphasis.)

Roll that phrase around in your mind one more time.  Competition in the business of trafficking illegal drugs almost certainly means violence.  But the Mexican DTOs have proven themselves to be capable of unbounded levels of well-armed and bizarrely cruel violence — from attacking police stations with rockets, to rolling severed heads into bars, to boiling bodies in vats of acid.  If a U.S.-based gang or gangs goes up against the Mexican DTOs, a blood bath could result.  In this regard, it is worth remembering that the Mexican DTOs basically did to the Colombian cartels what this pregnant line suggests:  grew up and took over the old Colombian drug distribution system.

Mexican Drug War Will Continue to Get Worse Before It gets Better(Reuters Photo)

Mexican Drug War Will Continue to Get Worse Before It gets Better(Reuters Photo)

Meanwhile, the private global intelligence firm Stratfor, has released the following assessment of the future of tortured Mexico in its (subscription)  Annual Forecast 2009 for Latin America:

Regional Trend: Mexico’s Cartel Crisis Will Build

At the time of this writing, there are no reasons to expect the level of violence in Mexico’s cartel wars to lessen. The death toll of drug-related violence in 2008 was about 5,700, more than twice the previous year’s figure. There are no signs that competition among the cartels is diminishing, and the government does not appear to be letting up on its assault on the cartels. The cartels have demonstrated the ability to undermine the effectiveness of law enforcement around the country and have even demonstrated the ability to strike at government targets in Mexico City. An increase in either the frequency of attacks or the severity of intimidation tactics by cartels against Mexican law enforcement is all but certain. Escalation could include the use of devices such as car bombs and other methods of targeted assassination. As the global recession generates more unemployment, the likelihood of more violence, civil unrest, rising crime and a surge of cartel recruits will only increase.

But although Stratfor sees the situation in Mexico on a continued downward spiral, we do not envision a sharp escalation of violence spilling into the United States in 2009. The cartels must balance the need to move their product across the border with their need to fight law enforcement interference, and it is not in their interest to provoke a substantive response from the United States. For now, Mexican cartels use U.S. street and prison gangs to manage drug distribution and retail inside the United States. That relationship will continue, and potentially increase during 2009, but not to the extent that the cartels’ bases of operations will move north of the border. An increase in cartel-related gang violence in the United States is likely in 2009, but a massive increase in cartel violence that severely impacts U.S. civilians – or a high-profile increase in cartel corruption of U.S. politicians and law enforcement (congruent to the situation on the Mexican side of the border) – would be counterproductive. As long as that is true, the side effects of the cartel war that spill over the border will remain a law enforcement challenge – as opposed to an existential threat – for the United States.


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