Tom Diaz


In Crime, Gangs, Guns, Latino gangs, Mexico, Terrorism and counter-terrorism, Transnational crime on January 18, 2009 at 2:32 pm


“Away out here they got a name
For rain and wind and fire
The rain is Tess, the fire Joe,
And they call the wind Maria.”

(“They Call the Wind Maria” is from the 1951 Broadway musical comedy Paint Your Wagon, lyrics by Alan J. Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe.)

Some years ago the Pentagon used to be called “the Puzzle Palace.” Then James Bamford wrote a book about the National Security Agency titled The Puzzle Palace and the term was preempted for the code-breaking entity (also known as “No Such Agency” in an earlier era).  One can easily see how each connotation is distinctly apt:  the NSA solves puzzles.  The Pentagon is a puzzle.

One of the pieces of the current Pentagon puzzle is something called the United States Joint Forces Command.  Never heard of it?  Wonder what it does?  Wonder no more.  Here’s the command’s official description of its “mission and strategic goals”:

The United States Joint Forces Command provides mission-ready joint-capable forces and supports the development and integration of joint, interagency, and multinational capabilities to meet the present and future operational needs of the joint force.

Clear on that? If this multisyllabic concatenation of jargon is an example of the kind of prose Bush the Lesser got from Strategic Genius Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, no wonder the Iraq adventure went bad.

A more sharply written product of the command is an intriguing document titled the Joint Operating Environment 2008, also known as JOE 2008.  JOE is described as an “historically informed, forward-looking effort to discern most accurately the challenges we will face at the operational level of war, and to determine their inherent implications.”  It’s a kind of road map of bad stuff that can happen military-wise through the 2030s.  (You can download a pdf of the 51-page report here.)

Poor JOE 2008 got itself into an appendage wringer the moment it was released to the public last December, with this statement:

The rim of the great Asian continent is already home to five nuclear powers: China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Russia.

Uh-oh.  Did someone say, “North Korea”? That put some nameless, faceless, but exceedingly honest bureaucrat’s appendage right smack in the kimchi.  See, the United States has vowed it will never accept North Korea as a nuclear power.  JOE hit the fan and someone commanded the command to clarify things thusly:

The statement regarding North Korea does not reflect official U.S. government policy regarding the status of North Korea. The U.S. government has long said that we will never accept North Korea as a nuclear power. This clarification has been communicated to the embassy of the Republic of Korea.

Well, that certainly “clarifies” things.  However, according to a report in The New York Times today, North Korea could have as many as six nuclear bombs.  The matter thus seems to turn on what the meaning of “is” is.  For more background on the Korea kerfuffle, see this Korea Times piece.  But, because JOE 2008 was originally an internal document, a fair inference would seem to be that this is a case of truth colliding with diplomatic fiction.

JOE 2008 also made this sobering observation:

In terms of worst-case scenarios for the Joint Force and indeed the world, two large and important states bear consideration for a rapid and sudden collapse: Pakistan and Mexico.
The Mexican possibility may seem less likely, but the government, its politicians, police, and judicial infrastructure are all under sustained assault and pressure by criminal gangs and drug cartels.  How that internal conflict turns out over the next several years will have a major impact on the stability of the Mexican state.  Any descent by Mexico into chaos would demand an American response based on the serious implications for homeland security alone.


A serious impediment to growth in Latin America remains the power of criminal gangs and drug cartels to corrupt, distort, and damage the region’s potential.  The fact that criminal organizations and cartels are capable of building dozens of disposable submarines in the jungle and then using them to smuggle cocaine, indicates the enormous economic scale of this activity. This poses a real threat to the national security interests of the Western Hemisphere.  In particular, the growing assault by the drug cartels and their thugs on the Mexican government over the past several years reminds one that an unstable Mexico could represent a homeland security problem of immense proportions to the United States. 

Drug Traffickers Are Building Submarines Like These in the Jungle (DEA Photo)

Drug Traffickers Are Building Submarines Like These in the Jungle (DEA Photo)

As observed elsewhere on Fairly Civil, Mexico is indeed in an exceedingly violent existential struggle with drug trafficking organizations, largely armed by smugglers who easily acquire their military-style killing machines — including semiautomatic assault rifles, Barrett 50 caliber anti-armor sniper rifles, and “vest-busting” handguns like the FN FiveSeven — on the wide-open U.S. civilian firearms market.  Latino street gangs — like the 18th Street gang and MS-13 — are increasingly involved in the traffic of both drugs and guns, as described in detail in my forthcoming book from the University of Michigan Press, No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (Spring 2009).

A failed Pakistan is truly scary (what happens to its 50 nukes?).  But a truly failed Mexico — JOE 2008 does not predict such a result, but merely observes this could happen — would put all kinds of evil right across the border.

Mexico Before The Mexican American War

Mexico Before The Mexican American War

Putting aside the sensitive and imponderable question of the likelihood of a collapse, what seems to have grabbed the attention of Mexican authorities is the JOE’s  reference to “an American response.”  Alarm bells were quite fairly raised, given the history of U.S. incursions into Mexico, particularly the ripping off of a huge chunk of Mexican territory in the name of Anglo-Saxon “Manifest Destiny” in the so-called Mexican American War.  (This sordid history is also laid out in No Boundaries.) Mexican officials read the JOE 2008 report as suggesting armed U.S. intervention might be necessary.  Secretary of Governance Fernando Gomez Mont tartly rejected that idea in an interview with CNN in which he declared “inadmissible” the suggestion of United States intervention.

But what could the implications of a failed Mexico be for the United States?  The answer would obviously depend on the definition of failed state.  (For definition go here, and for Foreign Policy Magazine’s index of failed states, go here.)  Among the principal attributes of a failed state are “loss of physical control of its territory or a monopoly on the legitimate use of force; erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions; an inability to provide reasonable public services; and the inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.”  Here are a few impacts one can extrapolate from this definition and the JOE 2008 report.

1.  North-bound immigration would be increased by hordes fleeing disorder.  This happened during the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s and the wars in Central America in the 1980-1990s.   It has also been reported that some Mexicans in the United States illegally are already deciding to stay here — in spite of pressure from toughened immigration enforcement — because they fear the violence in Mexico more than they fear ICE’s raids.

2.  The illegitimate use of force, failure to provide public services, and co-option of national decision-making would spread throughout the region and exacerbate existing economic distress. This would impel even more migrant flight.  For one example of the spread of Mexican DTO violence in the region, see this CNN report from Guatemala.

3.  This increased immigration would add more pressure to the challenge of Latino assimilation in the United States. The JOE 2008 report addresses this issue under the rubric of “Trends Influencing the World’s Security”:

By the 2030s the U.S. population will climb by more than 50 million to a total of approximately 355 million.  This growth will result not only from births in current American families, but also from continued immigration, especially from Mexico and the Caribbean, which will lead to major increases in America’s Hispanic population.  By 2030 at least 15% of the population of every state will be Hispanic in origin, in some states reaching upwards of 50%.  How effective Americans prove in assimilating these new immigrants into the nation’s politics and culture will play a major role in America’s prospects.  In this regard, the historical ability of the United States to assimilate immigrants into its society and culture gives it a distinct advantage over most other nations, who display little willingness to incorporate immigrant populations into the mainstream of their societies.

4.  Intra-Mexican violence would spread to the territory of the United States. Violence by the Mexican drug traffickers is reported to have already come to the United States (mostly in the form of internal warfare, settling unpaid debts, etc.)  But first-generation ethnic groups have always stayed in touch with political developments in their home countries, and some minority of such groups has often inflicted violence on factional rivals in the United States.  Moreover, the United States has often served as a home base for exiled opponents of one or another Latin American state, launching clandestine operations from U.S. soil.

5.  The proximity of the United States to uncontrolled Mexican territory (no man’s, or if you prefer, no woman’s land) would invite the establishment of clandestine bases and training grounds by terrorist and other armed groups wishing to do violent ill to the United States or its interests in the region. JOE 2008 makes an elegant point one can relate to this possibility, which is the ability of small, informally organized, but extraordinarily violent groups to take advantage of technology:

One does not need a militia to wreak havoc.  Pervasive information, combined with lower costs for many advanced technologies, has already resulted in individuals and small groups possessing increased ability to cause significant damage and slaughter.  Time and distance constraints are no longer in play.  Such groups employ niche technologies capable of attacking key systems and providing inexpensive countermeasures to costly systems.  Because of their small size, such groups of the “super-empowered” can plan, execute, receive feedback, and modify their actions, all with considerable agility and synchronization.  Their capacity to cause serious damage is out of all proportion to their size and resources.

6.  The supply of illegal drugs would explode. Freed of even minimal existing enforcement restraints in Mexico, traffickers would be free to concentrate on building and strengthening their ties and conduits with Latino (and other) gangs inside the United States.

If you were President Obama, what would you do?

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from

  1. […] capabilities, and strong affiliations with gangs in the United States.”  This is, of course, why the war going on in Mexico today is so important to the United […]

  2. What would I do? First, I’d never have put nyself in his position. Lawyers, for all their vaunted education in tactics are, as a group, lousy tacticians. If the question is only about what should be done, as an engineer I’d say use the technology that is in full production, the Reaper, for instance.
    In any case, soon or late the decisions about when and where to open fire will be made by subsets of the Puzzle Palace. Ineluctably so. They have their pursuits, you have yours and I have mine. The methodology may vary but I prefer to believe the goals are more or less convergent.
    Be well,

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