Small Wars Journal


Social Banditry and the Public Persona of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán

Mon, 04/29/2013 - 3:30am
This article reviews nine key insights into social banditry originally described by Eric Hobsbawm and examines their applicability regarding Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel. Because some of Mexico’s organized crime leaders aim to be viewed as social bandits, and visit Guatemala and the Mexico-Guatemala border region to evade authorities, the article focuses on particularities of those culture zones in the potential application of three primary strategies of information operations to contest a social bandit’s prestige: emphasizing distance between the social bandit and the local poor, portraying collusion of the social bandit with local authorities and opposition to federal authorities, and emphasizing closeness between federal power and the local poor. A criminal organization leader who desires the prestige of social banditry would have cause to oppose each strategy. The analysis predicts that the first two strategies are more realistic, potentially more important strategically, and are more likely to become intensely contested through Information Operations, within culture areas of Guatemala and the Mexico-Guatemala border region.

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Why Mexico's Zetas Expanded Faster than their Rivals

Wed, 04/24/2013 - 3:46pm
"Why Mexico's Zetas Expanded Faster than their Rivals" by Steven Dudley and Viridiana Rios 

Sunday 21 April 2013

The Zetas are not the only extremely violent, military-style criminal organization from Mexico. Yet, they are the only one that operates in 350 Mexican municipalities, as well as numerous others in Guatemala and Central America. Why have they been able to expand faster than their rivals?

Read it here.

Knowing Where and How Criminal Organizations Operate Using Web Content

Tue, 02/26/2013 - 9:30am

Very significant work with SWJ El Centro counter non-state OPFOR (opposing force) implications.  Presented at the 21st ACM International Conference on Information and Knowledge Management (CIKM 2012) October 29 to November 2, 2012 in Maui, Hawaii. The MOGO (Making Order using Google as an Oracle) discussed in this paper is highly cost effective and provides very significant OSINT (open source intelligence) analytical capabilities via a web crawler approach. See the trafficker distribution figures, politician-municipality significant relations, and cartel migration patterns for applications. Also note the acknowledgement section re institutions supporting this project.  

Knowing Where and How Criminal Organizations Operate Using Web Content

Michele Coscia and Viridiana Rios

KddLab - ISTI CNR/ Department of Government - Harvard University

We develop a framework that uses Web content to obtain quantitative information about a phenomenon that would otherwise require the operation of large scale, expensive intelligence exercises. Exploiting indexed reliable sources such as online newspapers and blogs, we use unambiguous query terms to characterize a complex evolving phenomena and solve a security policy problem: identifying the areas of operation and modus operandi of criminal organizations, in particular, Mexican drug trafficking organizations over the last two decades. We validate our methodology by comparing information that is known with certainty with the one we extracted using our framework. We show that our framework is able to use information available on the web to efficiently extract implicit knowledge about criminal organizations. In the scenario of Mexican drug trafficking, our findings provide evidence that criminal organizations are more strategic and operate in more differentiated ways than current academic literature thought.

Sniper Executes a Police Chief of Nuevo Leon with a .50 Caliber Rifle (Translation)

Mon, 02/25/2013 - 8:30am


This significant incident was brought to my attention by the reporter Chivis with Borderland Beat. He also provided the translations. This may very well be the first targeted assassination of a Mexican public safety official by a sniper utilizing a .50 cal rifle (possibly a Barrett but this is speculation). The standoff range was reported to be 60 meters which is about 66 yards away. This is the distance where a tripod (e.g. tripié del fusil—this is likely in error as a bipod would typically be utilized— but it was left behind so the stabilization device is in question) was found abandoned along with a shell casing—which possibly suggests a lower level of training and/or the immediate need to escape and evade pursuers. The sniper may have been in a prone firing position as the items were reported found in vacant lot near the Commander’s home. The target was hit in the back with the lot providing a clear line of site to the parking and/or door of the residence. Of interest is that Chivis had interviewed me about Mexican cartel weaponry employment patterns in December 2012. The use of 50 cal. sniper rifles was briefly discussed in the interview. See

Francotirador ejecuta con fusil calibre .50 a mando policiaco de Nuevo León


19 DE FEBRERO DE 2013 


MONTERREY, N.L. (apro).- El comandante de la Agencia Estatal de Investigaciones, Gustavo Gerardo Garza Saucedo, fue ejecutado esta madrugada por un francotirador que utilizó un fusil de bala calibre .50 para dispararle cuando llegaba a su casa en Apodaca, 20 kilómetros al nororiente de la capital, informó hoy la Procuraduría de Nuevo León.

Translation: MONTERREY, N.L. (apro).- The commander of the State Investigation Agency, Gustavo Gerardo Garza Saucedo, was executed this early morning by a sniper using a .50 caliber rifle  to shoot him when he arrived  home in Apodaca, 20 kilometers northwest of the capital, reported today by the Prosecutor of Nuevo Leon.

For the Spanish article see

Peña Nieto’s Piñata: The Promise and Pitfalls of Mexico’s New Security Policy Against Organized Crime

Sat, 02/23/2013 - 7:25am

Peña Nieto’s Piñata: The Promise and Pitfalls of Mexico’s New Security Policy Against Organized Crime

Vanda Felbab-Brown

The Brookings Institution

February 2013

Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has a tough year ahead of him. After six years of extraordinarily high homicide levels and gruesome brutality in Mexico, he has promised to prioritize social and economic issues and to refocus Mexico’s security policy on reducing violence. During its first months in office, his administration has eschewed talking about drug-related deaths or arrests. The Mexican public is exhausted by the bewildering intensity and violence of crime as well as by the state’s blunt assault on the drug trafficking groups. It expects the new president to deliver greater public safety, including from abuses committed by the Mexican military, which Mexico’s previous president, Felipe Calderón, deployed to the streets to tackle the drug cartels.

Patron Saints of the Mexican Drug Underworld Training Course

Mon, 02/04/2013 - 8:30am

Preface: This is an unpublished archival document provided for the benefit of SWJ El Centro readers. It discusses spiritual awareness training for U.S. law enforcement pertaining to the Mexican cartels and gangs. A Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer who attended this training in the City of Industry was able to clear a murder case based on information he received during the training. U.S. Marshal Almonte, since May 2011, has testified in Federal Court four times regarding the use of these “patron saints” by Narco traffickers. While the Marshal is now reducing the amount of training sessions provided, due to the increase in requests from Assistant United States Attorneys to testify in Federal Drug cases, he would like to emphasize his availability to U.S. law enforcement officers if they have any questions pertaining to these “patron saints” or the artifacts recovered which are associated with them.

The National Latino Peace Officers Association (NLPOA), North Los Angeles County Chapter, in cooperation with the California Narcotic Officers’ Association (CNOA), the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, the United States Marshals Service, and additional law enforcement agencies sponsored a major training course on 17 May 2011 in Industry Hills, California. This day-long course was conducted by Robert Almonte, United States Marshal, Western District of Texas, and focused on the topic of the Patron Saints of the Mexican Drug Underworld. Over 500 law enforcement officers from Southern and Northern California, Nevada, Arizona, and Hawaii attended the course that was preceded by a color guard, the singing of the national anthem, and a police chaplain’s blessing. Added bonuses to the training were the attendance of actor Erik Estrada who is also a reserve police officer and an NLPOA member along with strong corporate sponsorship by local businesses supportive of law enforcement. 

This restricted law enforcement training course contains extremely graphic and accurate material that pertains to the brutality inflicted by the Mexican cartels against each other, to those that oppose them, and even on innocent bystanders. The training consists of a lecture that utilizes a slide show of images and text, incident videos and news reports, and crime scene photos, along with a large table display exhibiting paraphernalia such as statues, candles, prayer cards, and other iconitry. The course includes an overview to the drug wars taking place in Mexico, an introduction to common cartel tactics, a discussion of cartel forms of violence, and an in depth analysis of the “saints” and spirits that drug traffickers utilize—via prayer and petition— to protect themselves from U.S. law enforcement. These spiritual entities include San Simon, Jesus Malverde, Juan Soldado, Santa Muerte, and many others not normally discussed.

This unique course is ideal for patrol officers, law enforcement personnel assigned to highway and border check points, detectives, intelligence analysts, and crime scene investigators. The course is both professional and practical in nature, has a very strong officer safety component running though it, and fully maintains the attention of the audience. It is definitely delivered in a ‘boots on the ground’ manner derived from Almonte’s field experiences and personal charisma. He has over 25 years in law enforcement with the El Paso Police Department, with most of his career spent on the front lines of the drug war. The training is further augmented by Almonte’s extensive field research conducted at narco-shrines in both Mexico and the United States, personal interviews of those involved in the honoring of legitimate and worship of illegitimate saints related to the drug trade and other criminal activities, and his ongoing consultation with members of U.S. law enforcement throughout the country concerning recent narcotics cases.

Santa Muerte shrine inside drug house

US Marshal Almonte inside Santa Muerte temple

Major themes and lessons learned from this training course include:

• Providing the warning signs of what to look for in order to heighten officer awareness of the situations that they may find themselves in when facing Mexican drug traffickers.

• The notion that ‘smuggler superstition’ often results in ‘police suspicion’ with some very major drug busts resulting as a consequence.

• Patron Mexican cartel saints and spirits may be found in various combinations and in strange item pairings such as with ‘Scar Face’ movie posters and other very common images.

• That many worshipers of the unsanctioned saints—such as Juan Soldado (Patron Saint of Illegal Aliens) or Santa Muerte (Saint Death)— and especially those who honor the Catholic saints of last resort (e.g. Judas Tadeo), typically do not engage in criminal behavior.

• The interrelationship of probable cause and preponderance of evidence as it relates to the use of legitimate and illegitimate saint icons and imagery in the possession of drug traffickers.

• Explanations of candle and sympathetic magic, cleansing, and other rituals and spells and the differences between witches and healers in Mexican folk religion.

• The fact that the instructor has great depth of knowledge and provides many nuances and subtleties concerning the patron saints of the Mexican underworld that cannot be found anywhere in written reports and stories published on this topic.

It is suggested that officers who may benefit from this training should seriously consider taking it when it has been scheduled for their operational area. Generally this training is well broadcasted in advance by the hosting agencies with course signup information posted at law enforcement training websites. For further information regarding this subject matter, you can contact U.S. Marshal Robert Almonte at 210.271.2525. 

Trans-Border Institute Briefs NORTHCOM on Mexican Security Challenges

Fri, 02/01/2013 - 5:08pm

On Wednesday, January 9, TBI Director David Shirk provided a briefing to the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) on recent developments in Mexican security. The briefing took place at NORTHCOM's facilities in Colorado Springs and included high-level analysts from the Department of Defense and other U.S. government agencies. The title of the briefing, "The Drug War in Mexico: U.S.-Mexico Security Challenges in 2013 and Beyond," provided an overview of the recent findings of the Justice in Mexico Project, sponsored by a generous three-year grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Specifically, the presentation included new data from the institute's forthcoming report on drug violence in Mexico, as well as a discussion of Mexico's changing security context under newly inaugurated President Enrique Peña Nieto. The presentation used for this briefing is available in PDF form.

Mexican Cartel Tactical Note #16

Mon, 01/28/2013 - 9:15am

Note: This important, yet mostly forgotten, incident from 4 years ago represents a clear ‘firebreak’ in violence potentials for U.S. law enforcement officers vis-à-vis gang and cartel members armed with hand grenades. Such grenades are becoming more and more common in Mexico with thousands seized from the gangs and cartels. Their documented use against police personnel, vehicles, and facilities has occurred numerous times. They represent an increasing ‘officer safety’ concern on this side of the border.

Key Information:  Associated Press, “Cartel grenades may be coming into 3 August 2009.

PHOENIX — It was a scenario U.S. law enforcement had long feared: A fragmentation grenade from Mexico's bloody drug war tossed into a public place. 

Only the grenade thrower’s bumbling prevented bloodshed in a south Texas bar — he neglected to pull a second safety clasp. But the act was proof that one of the deadliest weapons in Mexico's drug battle is a real threat to the U.S., and investigators are stepping up efforts to make sure it doesn't happen again.

While Mexican drug violence has been spilling across the border in the form of kidnappings and killings, grenades are a particular worry because they can kill large numbers of people indiscriminately, and they are a weapon of choice among Mexican cartel members.

“It’s one thing to shoot someone — that’s a very violent act. But to throw a grenade into a crowded bar or a crowded restaurant, that's a different type of criminal you are dealing with, a different mindset,” said Bill Newell, special agent in charge of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Arizona and New Mexico…

Markings on weapons match 
The grenade that failed to explode in the bar in Pharr, Texas, had the same markings as grenades thrown in October at the U.S. consulate in Monterrey, Mexico, and at a television station in early January in the same city. The grenade thrown at the consulate failed to explode, and no one was injured when the grenade hit the Televisa network’s studio as it aired its nightly newscast.

But all three grenades were manufactured at the same time and place, and were at one point together in the same batch from South Korea. Their manufacture date was unavailable.

The United States and South Korea rank as the top two producers of the grenades seized in Mexico, according to the ATF…

The alleged gang member who threw the South Korean grenade into the Texas bar on Jan. 31 wasn't believed to have been acting on behalf of a cartel. Still, Hidalgo County Sheriff Guadalupe Trevino, whose office investigated the case, suspects there is a loose association between the gang behind the attack and Mexican cartel members.

After the grenade bounced off the floor and landed on a pool table, an off-duty police officer picked it up and threw it back out the door. No one was hurt, no arrests were made, and authorities are divided about whether the targets were rival gang members or off-duty police officers.

The incident led the ATF to issue a warning to law enforcement agencies along the border…

Handout photo provided by the U.S. Department of Alcohol,

Tobacco and Firearms [For Public Distribution]

Who: Gang members, thought to belong to the tri-city bombers, threw the hand grenade. A search warrant was served at 1023 Bell Street, Pharr, Texas with three suspects arrested and several pounds of marijuana and a shotgun seized. [2].

What:  A South Korean K-75 fragmentation grenade (based on the U.S. M67 grenade) was thrown into a bar containing off duty U.S police officers.  An unidentified man who looked in via the front door of the bar threw the grenade inside. The grenade bounced off the floor and landed on a pool table. It fortunately did not explode— a second safety clasp had not been pulled— and it was thrown back out the front door of the bar by one of the off duty police officers. This 2.5 inch spherical 14 ounce grenade produces “casualties by high-velocity projection of fragments” [6]. It has a 4-5 second delay once the fuse is properly activated that detonates 6.5 ounces of Composition B high explosive—“The 
effective casualty-producing radius is 15 meters and the killing radius is 5 meters” [6].

When:  Late on the night of Saturday 31 January 2009 [4].

Where:  The grenade was thrown into the ‘El Booty Lounge’ at 3701 N. Veterans Blvd in Pharr, Texas [3].

Why: Initially, speculation existed that the grenade might have been directed at the off duty U.S. police officers in the bar. Another view is now that “Investigators don’t suspect the Zetas of direct involvement in the attack on the Pharr bar. Instead, they believe members of the Tri-City Bombers gang may have been targeting top leaders of the rival Chicanos gang” [5]. A number of area gangs “…including the Tri-City Bombers, the Texas Chicano Brotherhood, the Texas Syndicate and the Hermanos Pistoleros Latinos…” are said to be violently competing for a spot as the designated South Texas enforcers for the Zetas and ongoing incidents are taking place as they prove themselves worthy [5]. Of the two lines of reasoning, the attack on opposing gang members—rather than upon U.S law enforcement officers—appears to be the more plausible one.

M67 fragmentation hand grenade

FM 3-23.30. 7 June 2005, 1-3 [For Public Distribution] [6]

Tactical Analysis: This was a very basic incident— a fragmentation grenade was tossed into a bar— initiated by a gang member untrained in the safety functioning of the grenade. Minimal recon was evident by the perpetrator peering in through the front door of the bar and tossing in the explosive device. Escape and evasion took place by means of running away and or hopping into a get-away vehicle. The criminal act was traced back to the perpetrator within a couple of days so basic OPSEC (operational security) procedures were not likely followed.  This could be attributed to either forensics (via fingerprints or surveillance footage), eyewitness accounts of the fleeing suspect, or ‘word on the street’ from the gang members or their associates bragging about the incident at the bar. The origins of the K-75 South Korean grenade were traced back to a warehouse in Monterrey, Mexico, which contained explosives and high-caliber weapons, which is believed to have belonged to the Zetas—the then paramilitary arm of the Gulf cartel. The grenade was tied to a production lot, via serial number tracing, to two other grenade attacks in Mexico—one against a Televisa news station and one against the U.S consulate in Monterrey [4, 5]. While at that point dozens of grenade attacks had taken place in Mexico, including quite a few across the border in the city of Reynosa, the cross border violence potentials that this attack signified with its tie in to a cartel stockpile of weapons and a U.S. based gang linked to that cartel [the Gulf cartel] is of importance. What is further troubling about this incident is the fact that off duty U.S. law enforcement officers were in a bar late at night that was either frequented by Chicanos gang members or actually contained them at the time of the grenade attack.


[1]. Victor Castillo, “Three men arrested in Pharr house raid.” 2 February 2009,

[2]. “Pharr Grenade Correlation to Mexico Attacks.” Fox 2 News. 11 February 2009, See video.

[3]. To view the front of the bar, see the photos in this article. “Man throws grenade into bar outside Pharr.” 2 February 2009,

[4]. Ken Ellingwood and Tracy Wilkinson, “Drug cartels' new weaponry means war.” Los Angeles Times. 15 March 2009,,0,5675357,full.story.

[5]. Jeremy Roebuck, “Authorities fear RGV gangs competing for cartel work.” Valley Freedom Newspapers. 17 February 2009,

[6].  “Chapter 1: Types of Hand Grenades.” Grenades and Pyrotechnic Signals, FM 3-23.30.  U.S. Army, 7 June 2005,

The Benefits of a Paramilitary Force in Mexico

Fri, 01/11/2013 - 5:30am

Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the Baker Institute blog as part of its Viewpoints series. It is republished with permission.

The benefits of a Mexican gendarmerie

Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto is starting his six-year presidential term with plans for a new paramilitary police force. The Gendarmería Nacional will initially consist of 10,000 officers. Originally proposed during his campaign with a target of 40,000 officers, the current plan was announced during a session of the National Security Council (Consejo Nacional de Seguridad) and the force is slated to police the contested plazas and regions impacted by insecurity.

Mexico’s security situation

Mexico has been embroiled in a complex drug war leading to a mix of high intensity crime and non-state armed conflict. Started under Vicente Fox, the conflict accelerated in 2006 under the administration of Felipe Calderón.  Drug cartels and gangs threatened civil order, challenged state forces and embraced extreme violence and barbarism to ward off interference from the state. High casualty rates—with deaths perhaps exceeding 100,000—combined with brutal beheadings, dismemberments, social cleansing leading to about 20,000 missing and a combination of refugees and internally displaced persons, were accompanied by direct infantry assaults on the police and military from cartels.

Car bombings, narco-tanks, and military-style tactics led to a situation where the civil police were outgunned. The military (both the army and Navy known by their respective Spanish acronyms, SEDENA and SEMAR) were deployed to stabilize the situation and contain the de factocriminal insurgency.’ Corruption, impunity, and human rights violations complicate the situation. Kidnapping, extortion (collection of street taxes), and murder threaten the civil peace.  Police, corrections and judicial reform have become complicated and slow-moving necessities.  The Federal Police under the Secretary of Public Security (SSP) has been the primary federal law enforcement entity to respond, but military-style assaults and street battles waged by the gangsters have led them to become more of a formed police unit or gendarmerie than a community oriented law enforcement organ.  Similarly, the military and naval forces deployed to the conflict lack police skills, and have been accused of human rights violations.  Local and state police are often inadequately prepared and have lingering corruption and transparency challenges. Relations between the military and police are complex and sometimes strained in this complex conflict environment.

Why a gendarmerie?

Skeptics may ask “why a gendarmerie?”  The new 10,000 strong force will draw most of its initial complement from the military with the army (about 5,000 soldiers), and navy (about 2,000 sailors) contributing the bulk, require new statutory authority, and cost about $1.5 billion Pesos (US$ 117.4 million) for start-up in 2013 alone. Is this worth it? Indeed, respected security analyst Alejandro Hope, writing at InSight Crime, suggests that a gendarmerie may not be the right solution for Mexico’s security gap.  Hope notes that the new Gendarmería Nacional, as described in commitment #76 of the “Pact for Mexico” (the president’s new security plan), would create “a territorial body that allows the exercise of the sovereignty of the Mexican State [federal government] in all corners of the country regardless of their distance, isolation or weak state.”  Hope then outlines three objections to the new force: 1) there is no need for a rural police force, 2) there are insufficient potential qualified recruits for the force which would compete for resources and personnel from other police agencies, 3) It would create dual, competing national police forces (i.e., fragmentation).

Gary Hale, a drug policy fellow at the Baker Institute and former chief of intelligence for the Houston field division of the Drug Enforcement Administration , also questioned the rationale for a Mexican gendarmerie in previous Baker Institute Viewpoints blog.  For Hale, the question is will the force be effective, will it sap resources from other initiatives, and can it be made combat effective in enough time?  Hale also raises questions about command and control and relations with other police forces (at state, local, and federal levels). He concluded that if “properly trained, equipped and commanded, National Guard [i.e., gendarmerie] units in Mexico could serve to augment the offensive military forces that are needed to complement federal and state police forces.”

Filling the “security gap”

The police and military have different roles and core capabilities in democratic societies. The military frequently is challenged by the ambiguities of community policing.  On the other hand community police are challenged by intense combat.  Police are generally structured to work in one or two-person patrols and often lack the capacity to work in the formed units needed to counter armed, infantry-style assaults.  The Mexican military (both army and naval forces) has been used in the drug war to fill the gap in high intensity crime and in combat against non-state actors. This was a necessary step, but at best, a short-term solution. Military forces are not configured for policing (as allegations of human rights violations attest).  They are designed to fight other militaries, not investigate complex conspiracies or police the streets of a community. On the other hand, police are ill suited for addressing armed insurrection and military-type operations.  This ‘security gap” where neither police nor military are ideal is essentially the “missing mission.”

Modern formed police units (FPUs), also known as Stability Police Units (SPUs) like the French Gendarmerie or Italian Carabinieri fill the interstitial void in capabilities found in complex situations at the intersection between crime and war.  As defined by the US Institute of Peace, “Stability police are robust, armed police units that are capable of performing specialized law enforcement and public order functions that require disciplined group action. They are trained in and have the flexibility to use either less-than-lethal or lethal force, as circumstances dictate. They are rapidly deployable, logistically self-sustainable, and able to collaborate effectively with both the military and the police components of a peace mission.”  These are far from just ‘rural police,’ they are effective social control and security organs for operating in contested zones—both urban and rural–where there is a need to bridge policing and military operations.  The value of these forces was recognized in the Balkan conflicts and these modern gendarmerie units have played key roles in peacekeeping, order maintenance, counter-terrorism and anti-mafia operations.  The flexibility afforded by these units has led to the creation of the European Gendarmerie Force (EUROGENDFOR) comprised of contributing units from France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Italy, Romania, and Spain.

Conclusion: Flexible, agile response

Gendarmeries have flexible, expeditionary capabilities and can effectively bridge the demands of community policing, complex investigations, and military (light infantry) operations. Duplication and lack of coordination among other police services can be mitigated through joint training, staff rotations, and effective oversight.  A Mexican gendarmerie is not a replacement for the development of effective community police and state and municipal levels or the Federal Police, but when integrated with these forces as part of a ‘full-spectrum’ capacity, it can be an effective adjunct to eradicating cartel and gang violence and a viable tool for security sector reform.

Please see also this video on "Mexico, Drugs, and a Possible Way Forward."