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.
Robert Muggah is the founder of the Igarapé Institute and SecDev Group. He is the author (with Ian Goldin) of Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years, to be published in August 2020 by Penguin.