Tom Diaz


In Crime, Gangs, Latino gangs, Mexico, Terrorism, Terrorism and counter-terrorism, Transnational crime on February 4, 2009 at 3:20 am
F/A-18C Hornet)

"Conyo, Homes, The Navy Has Arrived!" (US Navy Photo: F/A-18C Hornet Dropping Flares Over the Pacific)

Salinas, California Mayor Dennis Donohue is fed up with gang-related violence. “Frankly, after three or four decades, we’re no longer interested in coexistence side-by-side with this subculture that has become embedded in our community,” Donohue vented last week to The Salinas Californian.  So he did the only reasonable thing a man in that spot can do — he called in the United States Navy.  More specifically, the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in nearby Monterey, a sweet spot on the coast of central California.

No, there won’t be any submarine-launched cruise missiles or F-18 air strikes raining down on problematic neighborhoods in Salinas, home town of John Steinbeck and now infested with a variety of violent street gangs.  But the city and its problems will be getting some heavy caliber thinking from a flight deck full of scholars specializing in counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency studies at the Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security.  As Herodotus observed, “Force has no place where there is need of skill.” (An aphorism quoted, I might add, at a convenient place in my forthcoming book, No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement, University of Michigan Press, 2009).  The case at hand ensures that there will be some interesting skills applied to this project.

Dr. Hy Rothstein will lead a team of from 10 to 15 faculty members.  If anything, Dr. Rothstein’s vita understates his apparently considerable practical and intellectual experience in the world of violent groups.  His academic credentials are book-ended by a 1974 BA from the United States Military Academy and a 2003 PhD from Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.  A retired Army colonel, he served for more than 20 years in a number of the Army’s Special Forces postings — including an early tour as military adviser to the El Salvadoran armed forces in 1987 to 1989, where he was decorated for valor.  He is the author of Afghanistan And the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare.

The New Yorker‘s high-toned muckraker Seymour M. Hersh dragged Rothstein reluctantly into the public light via an article in the magazine’s April 12, 2004 edition, “The Other War: Why Bush’s Afghanistan Problem Won’t Go Away” (still unsettling reading).  Hersh obtained a copy of an internal report that Rothstein had been asked to write critiquing the fracas in Afghanistan.  According to Hersh, “The report describes a wide gap between how Donald Rumsfeld represented the war and what was actually taking place.”  The report apparently upset ranking officials  in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon — Rothstein was told to chop it back and tone it down, which he was disinclined to do.  In the event his opus thus was swallowed up by inertia and disappeared into the maw of the Puzzle Palace, until it was leaked to Hersh.

Salient to his current endeavor, Rothstein — an advocate for greater and better use of Special Forces in unconventional conflict — wrote this of the kind of special warfare he had in mind for Afghanistan:

Unorthodox thinking, drawing on a thorough understanding of war, demography, human nature, culture and technology are part of this mental approach … Special Forces soldiers must be diplomats, doctors, spies, cultural anthropologists, and good friends — all before their primary work comes into play.

How does this business of “unorthodox thinking” and special warfare relate to gangs?  Mayor Donohue and the Postgraduate School’s spokespersons make it clear that the project is in its formative stages — but is expected to produce different perspectives on a problem that, frankly, has proven resistant to the current approach of being dumped into the laps of “law enforcement,” writ narrowly.  What is being sought is a broader, more informed, more “holistic” approach.  Warfare in Rothstein’s view is not just about bang-bang.

This business of unorthodox thinking (the bigger the better) is precisely what is needed — not just in Salinas, but nationally.  In several years of interviewing cops, prosecutors, federal agents, and Justice Department lawyers, I never talked to a single one who did not acknowledge that — as important as gang-busting is — in the long run it is impossible to “arrest our way out” of a problem that implicates virtually every one of the most vexing of our social, political, and economic problems.

We can pay now or pay later, but if we continue to roll along as we are now, new gangsters will be minted faster than we can take old ones off the streets — in spite of the valiant efforts of state, local, and federal law enforcement.  That is just a fact of life.  (Go here for the story of one man’s flight from California to escape gang rot, only to find it spreading to Utah.)

Some will perhaps protest that this is “militarization.”  Some will find applying counter-terror and counterinsurgency thinking to gangs to be “unorthodox” in the extreme– especially many among any who don’t yet grasp the reality of the transnational criminal violence machines that the larger of today’s gangs have become.  But there is a developing line of thought connecting the dots between gangs and warfare (broadly defined) among more thoughtful and better informed thinkers.  Moreover, to repeat the point, “warfare” does not have to be all about shooting — it may be about a local form of “nation building,” as in education, social services, and economic opportunity.

One of the seminal essays in this general area was Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency, by Max G. Manwaring, another retired Army colonel and Professor of Military Strategy at the U.S. Army War College, published in March 2005.  Manwaring further developed his theme in  A Contemporary Challenge To State Sovereignty: Gangs And Other Illicit Transnational Criminal Organizations In Central America, El Salvador, Mexico, Jamaica, And Brazil.

In Street Gangs, Manwaring discussed the evolution of gangs from the “first generation” barrio-based agglomerations that many observers still romanticize to the transnational “third generation” gangs affiliated with organized criminal groups, well-armed, and in it for territory and money.  (See this Congressional Research Service report also for a discussion of gang “generations” and the meaning of “transnational” gangs.) The essays are worth reading, but the following paragraphs sum up a point that Fairly Civil has been hammering at about the role of gangs in the drug war in Mexico:

The annual net profit from gang-related activities is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. The precise numbers are not important. But the enormity of the amount of money involved is important, together with the additional benefits these financial resources can generate when linked to utter ruthlessness of purpose and no moral or legal constraints. In this connection, a third generation gang can afford the best talent-whether accountants, computer specialists,extortionists, or murderers-and the best equipment and technologies. With such extensive resources, a gang can bribe government officials, hire thugs to intimidate those who cannot be bought, and kill those who cannot be intimidated. Bottomless pockets mean that gangs can move, shift, diversify, and promote operations at will-and, most significantly, they can outspend virtually any legal political jurisdiction. Consequently, a gang can establish acceptance, credibility, and de facto legitimacy within and among the sovereign states where its general organization operates.

In short, the gang phenomenon represents a triple threat to the authority of a given government and to those of its neighbors. First, through murder, kidnapping, intimidation, corruption, and other means of coercion, these violent nonstate actors undermine the ability of a government to perform its legitimizing functions. Second, by violently imposing their will over the elected officials of the state, these actors compromise the legitimate exercise of state authority. Third, by taking control of portions of the national territory (including the borders), the various components of the gang phenomenon are directly performing the tasks of government and acting as states within a state.

It’s perhaps easier to think of these grim processes of gang dominance and failed statehood as happening in Mexico or El Salvador rather than in the United States.  But there are neighborhoods —  and in addition to geographical neighborhoods, zones of enterprise from sidewalk taco stands in Los Angeles to drug trafficking everywhere — wherein the writ of the gang has supplanted the writ of the legitimate government.  And, by the way, exactly who or what entity controls our borders when it comes to illicit traffic in drugs, guns, human beings, and the cash derived from such criminal enterprises?

What is the solution?  Here is an overview from Manwaring’s second monograph:

The power to deal with these kinds of threats is not hard combat firepower or even more benign power. It involves soft, multidimensional, multilevel, multilateral, political, psychological, moral, informational, economic, and social efforts, as well as police and military activities that can be brought to bear holistically on the causes and consequences, as
well as the perpetrators of violence. Ultimately, then, success in contemporary unconventional conflict comes as a result of a unified effort to apply the full human and physical resources of the nation-state and its international allies to achieve the individual and collective well-being that can lead to sustained societal peace.

Complex.  Yes, it would be alarmist to say that things are as bad here as they are in, say, Mexico.

Unless, of course, one has the misfortune to live in one of those neighborhoods where a single hard stare from a gangster is enough to keep the residents in line, mouths shut.

“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. If the money making abilities are removed from the crime there is no power. Legalize the purchase of all drugs and you remove the money and eliminate 90% of the crime. This is not legitimizing the use of drugs but making them a victimless crime and thereby allowing for the individual treatment of simple drug misuse. No more war on drugs but a war on drug abuse! Gangs need this money to finance most other aspects of their operations. You will not only see a reduction in crime across the board but reduction in prison population, theft, murder etc.. Make Drug Use a loosers occupation, put all the money that we will save from ending the war on drugs to educating and employing the problem.

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