Small Wars Journal

Barbarization and Narcocultura

Wed, 08/31/2011 - 11:36am

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Mexico’s criminal conflicts continue to rage, and the government, cartels, and vigilantes increasingly contest the crucial plazas surrounding drug trafficking routes. Our series on Mexico’s criminal insurgency (or more specifically interlocked criminal insurgencies) has covered a number of trends—such as the emergence of cartel operations against the state in 2007, the growing trend of “societal warfare” and barbarism as well as internecine cartel warfare since 2010, the narco-cultural dimension and the growing international element of cartel operations. In the time since our last assessment in February 2010, many of these trends have intensified.

This essay will focus primarily on methods of interpreting the drug war, societal warfare, sophistication of cartel operations, and the internationalization of the conflict. This piece aggregates other publications on the violence since our last update, collecting many pieces of events and trends and modes of analysis observed and published in the interim.

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About the Author(s)

Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University. He has published articles on defense, international security, and technology at Small Wars Journal, CTOVision, The Atlantic, the West Point Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel, and Foreign Policy.

Dr. John P. Sullivan was a career police officer. He is an honorably retired lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, specializing in emergency operations, transit policing, counterterrorism, and intelligence. He is currently an Instructor in the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California. Sullivan received a lifetime achievement award from the National Fusion Center Association in November 2018 for his contributions to the national network of intelligence fusion centers. He completed the CREATE Executive Program in Counter-Terrorism at the University of Southern California and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government from the College of William and Mary, a Master of Arts in Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis from the New School for Social Research, and a PhD from the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya). His doctoral thesis was “Mexico’s Drug War: Cartels, Gangs, Sovereignty and the Network State.” He can be reached at


Mike Burgoyne

Mon, 09/05/2011 - 5:24pm


Great comments but I would encourage you to look at the previous SWJ writings by Sullivan and Elkus.I think you will find some of your concerns were addressed in their other articles.



Hubba Bubba

Sat, 09/03/2011 - 11:21am

As exciting as the title struck me, this article ends up failing to deliver on what appears to be the main thesis:

“This essay will focus primarily on methods of interpreting the drug war, societal warfare, sophistication of cartel operations, and the internationalization of the conflict.”

Digging into the article, I expected to see some explanation on what the drug war complex system in Mexico had, to include how Mexican society (and at the strategic level which the authors miss the mark on entirely- how interrelated societies such as America and source nations such as Columbia) as well as a solid explanation of what cartels are- and why they adapt and behave as they do. The internationalization of the conflict further insinuates some discussion on the ‘demand nation’ behaviors- with America again a critical element of the larger drug economic relationship. But that dog doesn’t hunt here. I will explain in detail below, as I wasted 30 minutes reading this, perhaps spending another 30 minutes providing some critical reviewing of the logic (or lack thereof) might benefit other readers.

First, there is no organizing principle here for this article. I search for this in every article, book, movie, etc. because that unifies the logic and supports the overarching narrative. While there are many references to a variety of interesting theoretical concepts such as Machiavelli, Dante, Schmitt, Stahl, the Cold War, ‘Dead Carl Club’-aka Clausewitz, Max Webber- and that is just on page 2; but there is no logic linking these various and dissimilar theories into an overarching ‘meta-narrative’ for the authors’ main argument. It strikes me more of the weaker academic reflex of tossing as many well-known theories from other fields into your paper in the hopes that it might “make the soup better.” The danger here, as many SWJ readers may pile on as well over, is that when you toss in Machiavelli or Clausewitz into your article, you are dropping blood in the water. Be ready to swim with the sharks. Clausewitz deserves some attention with relation to Mexican narco-wars, but it cannot be an afterthought- nor can you simply add it into the mix if the logical underpinnings are non-existent or flawed. It is better not to include it at all. Less is more.

Vocabulary is problematic; when using any word that is specific enough to warrant quotations, you probably need to explain how you define that word- how it associates to your logic. On page 3, the authors apply the word ‘fractilization.’ Pasted below, here is that portion:

“What accounts for the rise of barbarization? The answer lies in a growing “fractalization” of the conflict Due to the complexity of relationships involved, understanding the Mexican criminal insurgency has always been difficult. The first major barrier to understanding has been the “hidden” element of deep state politics. Conflicts between cartels and the state may at first seem like a straightforward case of cartels contesting state power but in reality come down to different cartels battling each other utilizing state security elements as chess pieces. As conflict fragments or “fractalizes” in response to the disintegration, adaptation and strategic re-alignment of cartel, state, and independent actors, it becomes more complex and potentially more volatile.”

Now, the header for that section used the fancy word ‘banalization’, and even “hidden” has quotations which indicate an alternative meaning within the context. Words matter- they are important. Does ‘fractilize’ really bring something explanatory to the party here? From my perspective, all this section tells me is that a complex adaptive system such as the evolving Mexican narco-environment is ‘fractilizing’- which means “more complex and potentially more volatile.” Unfortunately, that is the self-licking ice-cream cone response that linear positivists prefer to use for dealing with complex adaptive systems that introduce uncertainty where certainty is sought. We explain it away as, “things are getting more complex.” What does “more complex” mean- that ‘complex’ alone does not already hit? Just the word ‘complex’ evokes a dynamic, adaptive, and self-organizing system that is capable of transformation with many interrelated and diverse actors, patterns, etc. While new words are often useful for introducing novel concepts, there are none here- Mexico is complex; wait, it is more complex, because it is fractilizing? Okay…

“Conflicts between cartels and the state may at first seem like a straightforward case of cartels contesting state power but in reality come down to different cartels battling each other utilizing state security elements as chess pieces.”

- this portion also troubled me with the problematic logic on several levels here. Any chess metaphor implies a set game with rules followed by both players- a static system; a system one can control and predict better. We know the chess pieces can only move in certain combinations, and while skill and luck factor in between players, they both agree to Chess rules and the chess game. Cartels are not like this at all. Their adaptation and emergent behavior is akin to one player following the chess rules (the Mexican government), while the other player introduces new pieces to the board- with new moves; moves that take them off the board, and ‘rules’ that change and progress at a faster rate than the opposing player can keep up with.

“To use a metaphor from American gangland cinema, the cartels are increasingly more like Sonny, Vito Corleone’s violent and psychopathic offspring, than Al Pacino’s more cold and calculating Michael.”

- Again, this is problematic. Using a mob movie metaphor to help explain a real crime enterprise demonstrates more ‘simulacra’ than simulation (Baudrillard). One might as well use Scarface. Instead, metaphors from dissimilar sources are often better at explaining abstract concepts or imparting a challenging logical argument to an audience.

Perhaps ‘Gremlins’ might work better, despite it being a 1980s fantasy-horror flick. The genre does not matter as much as the deeper explanation- hence one does not need to bound oneself to simply mob movies when seeking metaphors to explain drug cartel emergent behavior. In Gremlins, the protagonists purchased an exotic pet for the original purpose all pets are bought- for pleasure. We enjoy pets; they make us happy. But this mogwai thing had some important rules, which implied some danger and the potential for some positive feedback loops of a destructive nature if left unchecked. Don’t feed them after dark, don’t get them wet, and don’t let other folks get too many of them (if I recall the movie correctly- has been about 20 years).

So, drugs are like mogwais in a way. We want drugs (collectively as a society) for pleasure. But they do come with rules- and risks. If things get out of control, drugs will cost you more than the pleasure is often worth. Quickly, the entire cycle can accelerate and move in directions you did not anticipate. Mogwais getting wet and eating after midnight are akin to drug cartels gaining traction in corruption and violence as they begin to spiral into greater profit as an economic enterprise. Soon, you have a movie theater filled with the little buggers terrorizing a town. In this case, Mexico is overrun with cartels spawning, growing, inter-fighting, and all part of a larger assemblage of narco-supply that supports the western drug habit. This thing is bigger than Mexico, yet this article bounds 90% of the content around Mexico itself.

Throughout this article, I just cannot figure out if cartels are criminal enterprises, or are politically motivated terrorist organizations, or are insurgents. These are not interchangeable, although our political, military and law enforcement institutions routinely do so. Criminals seek profit. They may use some political or ideological aspects, but only if profit is an end-state. A cartel might radicalize and become a political element, but then I would argue that the splinter element that continues the purely drug economic enterprise is still a criminal enterprise. Political goals trump profit for non-criminal enterprises; their risks and goals are fundamentally different. Clausewitz might be useful for a political terrorist group analysis, as might Machiavelli, but economic theories might be better for Mexican drug cartels. Mixing them up implies some problematic logic.

The argument exists, but it isn’t present here…
“Elite and criminal conflict—in both classical and contemporary times—has always been violent and barbarous. However, many of the practices involved in the cartel wars—endemic symbolic beheadings, targeting of civil society elements, cultic practices of the “Knights Templar” (Los Cabelleros Templarios, a mutation and splinter group of La Familia) and other groups—symbolize a kind of societal sickness largely without precedent. Beheadings and dismemberment are calculated to terrorize. They are symbolic tools used to shock the public and dehumanize adversaries.”

- This section was particularly devoid of any sound understanding of history or human violence, but that might be tied to the overarching lack of any cohesive logic on cartels in this article. If one makes a claim that current Mexican cartel beheadings are occurring on an “unprecedented scale” and represent “societal sickness”- one is obligated to back that claim up, or risk failing in their academic endeavor. Primitive societies around the world on every continent in every time-period have done equally horrid actions; many within the 20th century…and Nazi and Soviet purges are just the obvious ones.

Even our own nation (the US) had some horrific incidents where senseless killings occurred for criminal action; there are lots of bodies buried in New Jersey landfills for a reason. Angry Republicans (18th century political party, not current one) stabbed and beat to death a group of fellow Americans, including a Revolutionary War General in Baltimore in heated political exchanges leading up to the war of 1812, for instance. But the difference is the symbolism of the brutality; and this is where the article fails at explanation yet again. WHY DO CARTELS BEHEAD instead of just killing their rivals?

Murder is murder, and eliminating a rival is clearly good for an organization if it increases their profit. So, if making someone “sleep with the fishes” to apply a metaphor out of the same well-pilfered American mob-movie database- if that is simply good enough, the importance of the murder relates to the action itself. Eliminating a pawn from the chessboard helps you win the game. But what about when simply eliminating the rival is NOT enough. What about when you need to send a message? That is the symbolism behind the beheadings- it is not barbaric unless you simply admire the problem instead of understanding the system. Labeling something barbaric is DESCRIPTIVE. But this alone is not EXPLANATORY. Why?

If I am a drug cartel leader, and I need to kill a reporter that is hurting my freedom of maneuver (linked to my prosperity), I can have him killed. But, I recognize that the newspaper will replace the reporter with another one. Perhaps the murder will drive more attention towards me- making the act of simply murdering him actually more costly in the long run. If I murder him, but continue in a process to drive something symbolic along with the act of eliminating a rival, I might be more effective. Beheading is a very visual form of murder- does anyone remember the French getting a bit carried away with it in the 1780s? Cartels use a symbolic execution method because not only do you eliminate a rival, but you do it EFFECTIVELY. The action ripples through the environment, generating prosperity for the organization due to the fear factor. If in Mexican culture, there was something else that symbolized a more horrible death, the cartels would be doing that instead- not because they are barbarous, but because it is more profitable and effective. If pulling out a man’s intestines and turning them into beef jerky and forcing the family to eat it was symbolically a more gruesome yet profitable way of doing business, the cartels would be doing that publically as well. It is only brutal because with your western values in place, you view the system through tinted lens.

Well, my 30 minutes of typing are up. Out of time. I had more to say and more notes on this article; perhaps if discussion spins up I will continue...

Hubba Bubba