On March 15, 2005 the FBI took the war on terrorism to one of the most violent and widespread Central American gangs. 100 members of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) were arrested in a nation-wide dragnet -- a small portion of the gang's estimated 8-10,000 members dispersed over 31 US states. Most of those captured will be detained, arraigned, and eventually deported to El Salvador and Honduras. Once back in Central America, where many haven't been for the majority of their lives, they will join tens of thousands of other gang members undermining the viability of the Honduran and El Salvadorian states. This gang began on the streets of LA and has since been exported back to Central America (more background from NPR).
Gangs Grow Up
The MS-13 isn't your ordinary gang. It is, according to Max Manwaring (of the Strategic Studies Institute), an example of a new breed of gang. A third generation gang. In his paper, "Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency" Max provides a generational framework for understanding the evolution of gangs:
- First Generation. Turf protection. Unsophisticated leadership. Opportunistic petty crime.
- Second Generation. Organized for business and financial gain. Broader geographical footprint. Violence is slaved to the intimidation of commercial competitors and government interference.
- Third Generation. Multinational footprint. Extremely sophistication transnational criminal operations (lawyers, banks, etc.). Political control of undergoverned/served areas within target states (a TAZ). Extreme interference in state function, including overt attempts at state control.
A Challenge to the State
Third generation gangs have ridden the rapid growth of the transnational criminal economy which already has a UN estimated Gross World Product of $2.5 trillion a year (this criminal economy grows in parallel with globalization). They are heavily involved in drugs, kidnapping, protection rackets, and smuggling of all types. To protect their activities, these gangs target governments with bribery and intimidation. Given that most of their activities are beyond the reach of any one government to influence, they have become very effective at subverting states through the:
- elimination of the state's monopoly on violence.
- distortion of legitimate market activity.
- conversion of states into corrupt kleptocracies.
Gangs as Insurgents
Unlike historical guerrilla insurgencies, gangs: 1) don't want to run the state directly, 2) don't have a central ideology or a comprehensive political program, and 3) don't represent, protect, or enrich anybody but their members. Their main goal is to secure their existence and their right to unfettered activities. However, third generation gangs do parallel guerrillas and terrorists in that they primarily target states. They do this through:
- Coercion. Bribery. Corruption.
- Regime change. Changes in government through delegitimization.
- State Failure. State breakdown either as the direct cause or through the continuation of the state's inability to resume function.
Third generation gangs fit the model of global guerrillas perfectly. They operate, coordinate, and expand globally. They communicate world-wide without state restriction, often via the Internet. They engage in transnational crime. They participate in 4th generation warfare and their activities disrupt national and international systems. Finally, they coerce, replace, or fail states that stand in their way. In all of these categories, they parallel the development of al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Like al Qaeda these gangs are rivals of nation-states. Their organic growth has already pushed them into direct confrontation with states. Over the next decade we will see:
- Gangs adopt systems sabotage to more easily coerce or fail recalcitrant states. The ability of gangs to buy expertise will ensure substantial access to the systems needed.
- Coordination between global guerrilla groups. A global bazaar of violence will develop to share weapons, expand criminal activities, etc. The destruction of the state system is a powerful unifying force.
- Homegrown third generation gangs will challenge the US for control. From the Aryan Brotherhood to the MS-13, the US is teeming with increasingly powerful gangs. These gangs will ride globalization to become more effective competitors over time. Porous borders, an increasingly disenfranchised immigrant community, and a bursting prison system (a source of training and recruitment that has a potential pool of 2 m people and counting) will ensure this.