Should Mexican Drug Cartels Be Labeled as Insurgents?

A few weeks ago, Freakonomics received an email from a man in Mexico City describing the effects of Mexican drug cartel violence on daily life and asking for our solutions to his country’s seemingly endless crime problems. This week, The New York Times ran a piece on Mexican drug cartels and growing American infiltration of criminal organizations. Now, a new report from RAND on drug-trafficking violence in Mexico analyzes the situation in the context of an insurgency, bringing to bear research on defense-sector reform.

What’s clear is that the drug-fueled violence in Mexico has diversified over the last decade into several other underworld activities: human trafficking, weapon trafficking, and assassinations, just to name a few. In other words, the cartels are no longer just cartels — they are something larger.

The RAND paper reiterates many points that have become familiar to us about the situation in Mexico: corruption is rife, policing is weak. It also looks at how high unemployment and a “youth bulge” have helped fuel Violent Drug Trafficking Organizations (VDTO). For many young unemployed people, joining a crime syndicate is often the best job option. But the most jarring part of the paper is the discussion and comparison of Mexican drug violence to other insurgency trends around the world. Rather than a war on crime, what if the battle with cartels is really a battle with different insurgent groups? The authors write in their summary:

The goal of this study was not to determine whether the current situation in Mexico should be categorized as an insurgency. Instead, without entering that contentious debate, the study considered the extent to which the factors currently present in Mexico make it appear similar to historical insurgencies. If Mexico were viewed as facing an insurgency (counterfactually or otherwise), how would it compare to historical insurgencies? The RAND Counterinsurgency (COIN) Scorecard assessment found that Mexican drug violence shares some characteristics with historical cases of insurgencies and that Mexican counterdrug efforts share some characteristics with historical COIN efforts around the world.

RAND found that Mexico falls right in the middle of countries that have defeated insurgencies (winners) and countries that haven’t (losers). Winners include Sierra Leone, Croatia and Turkey. Losers include Afghanistan, Rwanda and Sudan. The authors are careful to point out that it’s unclear whether cartels can be considered an insurgency, but the very comparison raises an interesting point about the level and scale of violence that we’ve witnessed over the past few years. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people were murdered in cartel violence between December 2006 and December 2010.

The RAND researchers used the Delphi Method to ask experts specific questions about widespread Mexican violence. In essence, experts individually answered the questions but had the opportunity to see other people’s answers and revise their own. Participants included people with a research background in Mexico, COIN or the defense sector. The authors address the problematic nature of the term “insurgency” as they describe the different ways people reacted to the questions and the hard-to-pin-down nature of Mexico’s crime identity today. They write:

Some participants asserted that several of the scorecard factors do not apply in Mexico or mean something different in the case of Mexico. These claims highlight interesting aspects of the Mexico- specific context. For example, the Urban Flashpoints Scorecard contains a question that asks whether the city being considered is part of a “contested homeland” or “indivisible territory.” The panelists recognized that this question is aimed at ethnonationalist issues that have plagued other countries but are not present in Mexico. However, several experts made compelling arguments that territorial contestation plays a critical role in understanding the contemporary violence in Mexico, because competing VDTOs contest control of the various smuggling routes and attempt to establish “zones of impunity” against the influence of the state.

Certainly, it is crucial to recognize the difference between Mexican cartels and traditional insurgencies — conflating the two completely is irresponsible and dangerous. And even when viewed in the insurgency context, Mexico’s future remains undetermined; the country falls right in the middle of the win-lose spectrum. Then again, even after thousands of casualties, Mexico remains in the “first stage” of the battle — and recognizing the nature and extent of neo-drug traffickers is crucial to winning the war.

Mike B

Mexico needs to step up its game and take the gloves off. As long as there are few official consequences the organized criminals will continue to ride roughshod over a weak and corrupt state. The only good news is that these gangs do not it any way have the support of the communities they operate in. Except in isolated circumstances they provide no social services and no order. The only insurgencies that provide any hope of success are those that actually do a better job than the indigenous government, like Hamas or the Islamic Courts Union.

Pancho Villa

The "War on Drugs" was first declared on June 17, 1971. That's more than 40 years ago. It's quite clear that it is not a war to eliminate illegal drugs. It is a war to control them. Now, the Mexican government is fighting to get a bigger piece of the pie. That's why they fight the "cartels". If you think they want to eliminate illegal drugs, think again. 40 years.
The solution is simple: Vote innocent in drug trials. It's one of the few places your vote is counted correctly.


us citizens..... goverment... please stop sending guns and ammo here....

the situation is sad...lots of families have been damaged...

stop your demand for drugs...

Lisa Johnson

The US government has to accept that prohibition does not work. It didn't work in the 1920's and it hasn't worked for the last 40 years. Turn these enterprises into legitimate businesses with proper control and regulation and the violence will subside. Mexico needs to make this a top priority, legalize drugs in Mexico and push it as part of the Free Trade agreement.

Joshua Northey

The real solution to this and the US's "immigration problem" is for the US to work out with Mexico a slow annexation. They have a huge security deficit and we have a huge security surplus. It is a match made in heaven.

Pull back the US troops from their now obsolete foreign bases, and station some of them in the northern estados of Mexico. There can be a slow generational annexation program.

For the first 10-30 years US forces provide security and policing while the local Mexican estado government governs the border provinces. Maybe some experienced state officials from the US are drafted to help reform the estado's govenrment and help them prepare for statehood. Then after some reasonably long time period the US annexes those estados and starts working on the next set south.

This would solve a lot of problems for the US and Mexico and make both countries stronger in the long run. Of course then most kids would have to learn Spanish, but that is already a good idea.



If these cartels are insurgencies, we are given yet another example against the conventional wisdom of using decapitation strategies to combat insurgent groups.

Decapitation is a completely ineffective counter-insurgency strategy. When you kill the leaders of hierarchical insurgent groups, the organization and its members don't stop functioning. They become decentralized and more perverse.


There seems to be a major irony in considering the drug trafficking groups as insurgents. Insurgents are trying to overthrow the government, but the drug trafficking only exists because the government makes drug trafficking illegal. Should they manage to overthrow the existing government, either they make drug trafficking legal - in which case their reason for existing falls apart - or they have to continue the policy of prohibition, giving rise to new trafficking organizations which they will have to try to suppress.


They are considered a criminal insurgency. Not all insurgencies want to take over the government or force it to meet ideological demands, something a number of scholars have noted. The Leninist or Maoist models of insurgent groups (ie incumbent regime vs. insurgent) are outdated.

Cartels are non-state actors who attempt to overtake governmental, corporate, and societal institutions and processes with violence. They also are far more than mere drug cartels--regularly extorting, kidnapping, and car bombing throughout Mexico. Plus, more than 30k innocents have been killed there in 4 years.

These cartels are narco-terrorist organizations. If these groups were in the Middle East (or really anywhere that didn't border the US), they would be classified as terrorists.


About time they started to wake up. The Obamanation is just not doing annihtyg so he and his Socialists can get re elected. The border situation is a national disgrace as is Obama and Holder. Congress has no guts this should not be a partisan issue.

[WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us '0 which is not a hashcash value.


So far, Americans do not care what happens in the other side of the border as long as the drug they consume is reachable, the guns they produce are sold to cartels, etc. Solidarity between societies start with the question: what am I doing that keeps this situations? Then it proceeds to what you can d to help.

What makes me laugh is that everybody speaks of mexican cartels, but nobody mentions the AMERICAN CARTELS. Drugs are not legal in America!! Not only Mexico is experiencing corruption, but the American society as well. The US government has the resources and capacity to fight their inside problems but prefer to ignore them. It would be of great interest to hear on the news about the American side of the equation.

Legalization will not solve the problem of corruption and violence; it will only make drug and criminal gangs change their financial source which would mean civilian and government extortion as it already happens. The only solution lies in the fight of crime and education with solid family values.



By labeling them as insurgents and terrorist or as foreign "enemy combatants", that will make way for indefinite detention without trial (saves a lot of logistics and taxpayers money). It's nothing new. Guatanamo Bay is the final solution. My two cents worth.


I've become convinced that the federal government is actively involved in the international drug trade, and are profiting mightily, somehow. Iran-Contra style, I suppose.

There is really no other reason to perpetuate this, and it wouldn't have lasted this long if it was simply a morality issue.

If we legalize recreational drug use in the U.S, that will suck much of the profit out of the business in South America, most of the incentive for violence, and most of the medical concerns, with standardized quality control.

When was the last time anyone got beheaded over alcohol in the U.S.?


Legalize? No. Cocaine is not comparable to alcohol with respect to dependency, for example. I think there are amoral reasons to at least try to keep some of the 'hard' drugs out.


Ike, tobacco generates just as much dependency, and kills far more people every year than all illegal drugs combined. Would making tobacco illegal improve that situation, or just attach new crimes to the same problem?

If we legalized cocaine, then the price would go down, and the quality would go up. People would be able to afford their habit, and the forbidden fruit angle would vanish along with the cartels, as they would go legitimate overnight if they could. Corporations would replace cartels, and they would generate tax revenue and legitimate jobs instead of border tensions, private fiefdoms in South America, and beheadings.

We need to give up on dictating morality to people, or at least find a more effective method. I agree cocaine is bad news, but I wouldn't presume to tell others they should be in prison because they accept consequences I'm afraid of.

Lizeth garcia

I think that Mexican dug cartels ARE stronger than the US government.

jeff l

not so

Jeff L

Mike B, your analysis makes no sense...."take the gloves off"??!! That sounds real serious and tough-minded, but is a very simplistic prescription. That's essentially what Calderon did and just look at the carnage...besides, how can the government truly take the gloves off both hands when the corruption runs so deep and wide throughout law enforcement and the political institutions that those "ungloved hands" will not be working at full strength in concerted effort. Furthermore, to say that the drug syndicates enjoy no popular support is totally incorrect. They have, in fact, entered the breach in many communities in Mexico, and provided livelihoods for tens of thousands. During the V. Fox era, some also began to finance food and medical care for local residents. The fact is that the federal government has always been somewhat remote from the border states in terms of services and maintaining law and order. No popular support? What about the wildly popular narcocorridos, telenovelas and narco movies? What about the widely worshipped patron saints of narcotrafficking? To be sure, the majority of Mexican society is sick of the violence. But to say that "the not in any way have the support of the communities they operate in", is quite mistaken and a very important aspect of the problem.