(ICE photo)

When Elite Counterinsurgency Training Winds Up Aiding Organized Crime

  • The U.S. and other countries helped train elite anti-terror units in countries facing serious crime
  • The trained personnel can end up joining criminal networks and training them

The links between organized crime and non-state terrorism have been well documented. They can and do range from casual alliances to joint operations, with considerable blurred boundaries. The links between organized crime and state terrorism – carried out by state bodies – have been studied far less. This is becoming a critical area, especially in areas like post-Cold War Latin America.

Many countries in this region benefited from advanced counterinsurgency training, often from the leading nations with experience, such as the United States, France and Israel. Often these states then set up elite and well-equipped units, capable of taking the fight to their insurgency groups. The modus operandi not infrequently involved higher levels of violence than conventional forces of law and order would be capable of or wish to be seen using.

What then happened is that some of the leading officers and top fighters in these units, upon demobilization, were recruited by criminal groups. They brought their tactics and capabilities with them.

In one sense this is nothing new – a certain portion of any body of demobilized soldiers will often take up banditry. This is been documented since at least the post-Civil War period in the U.S. and has been a major feature of organized crime in Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union.

What is different here is the level of sophistication that these figures can bring with them. Philip L. Johnson, a doctoral candidate in political science at the City University of New York, studied criminality in Mexico and argues in a new report “in favor of including state terrorism as an important component of the full range of forms of terrorism.”

Mexico has long had a serious problem of organized crime and the criminal underworld, but for decades violence and disruption were maintained within tolerable bounds. Coinciding with the start of Mexico’s war on narco-trafficking from 2007 and following political liberalization that took place in the 1990s, which led to the weakening of aspects of the political establishment, organized crime reached new levels of brutality. Johnson now describes the use of terror tactics, or what another researcher called “violent lobbying,” as a characteristic of Mexican criminal groups. The levels of violence are greater and more brazen than is usual in organized crime, at times approaching the level of an insurgency.

Looking at one group in particular – the Zetas – a picture emerges of a group that is distinctive for being originally recruited deliberately from elite military units rather than just the local police and gangs. Known top Mexican elite soldiers join the organization and recruited their former colleagues. Many of the anti-terrorism and anti-insurgency tactics used by official elite counterinsurgency units can now be seen in the actions of groups like the Zetas, including the indiscriminate killing of unarmed civilians, just because they are associated (perhaps by geography or language) with the enemies and are a security risk. Although not an official tactic, this happened repeatedly in counterinsurgency operations in Latin America in the Cold War period, Johnson notes.

The Zetas also operated secret, well-organized training camps allowing them to recruit inexperienced individuals and even juveniles. According to Zeta protocols, the budget for training new recruits was $8,000 per recruit, and a single camp could house over 100 recruits. Such camps allow tactics and skills to be transmitted from former state specialists to new recruits, a process made easier by the fact that many of the former state specialists were themselves trained to be trainers.

There is a clear and visible process of transmission of skills and tactics from former governmental elite counterinsurgency specialists to nonstate criminal groups, Johnson writes. “The linkages between organized crime and state terrorism are strategic, not opportunistic or accidental,” he said.

These allow organized criminal networks to “appropriate tactics of state terrorism into the group’s repertoire,” often with brutal results.

This clearly has policy implications, Johnson says, because the original elite counterinsurgency units frequently acquired these tactics and this training from other countries, made available because this was thought to be the way to tackle the problem.

The reality is that the security apparatus in a state may well be compromised either currently or in the future, particularly in the aftermath of what might have been a long and brutal campaign against organized crime or counterinsurgency. Tactics and skills may, and probably will, leak over to the other side, he stresses. Those who develop security policies and provide programs of assistance will need to take this into account.

Read the full report

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Phil Price is a multilingual writer and translator based in London, UK. A graduate of Oxford University, Phil went on to hold senior management positions in several major British and German companies, and spent time living and working in Germany and Poland as well the UK. For HSToday, Phil reviews the latest findings from academic research and international studies into all aspects of international terrorism and presents the key trends and insights.

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