Counterinsurgency, intelligence and Mexican cartels.

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Counterinsurgency, intelligence and Mexican cartels.

Hi everybody. I thought that analyzing some aspects of how Mexican criminal groups manage information and act could be useful from the point of view of Coutnerinsurgency. This text is highly schematic and simplistic, so it may not resemble accurately how organized crime in Mexico behave. Hope you find it interesting

Mexico´s current conflict cannot be labelled but as a war. Nevertheless it´s not a war fought in a formal way. Contrary to what happens in most armed conflicts, amid the Mexican tragedy we can´t see two differentiated sides but rather a very unstable network of armed actors that are constantly fighting between themselves as well as forging weak convenience alliances that last just weeks or a few months. Another special characteristic of the Mexican conflict is the purpose or existential meaning of most of the armed groups. While the Mexican State can act under the name of the classical monopoly of violence and with the scope of pacifying the country and defeating criminality the organized crime groups that confront it and wage war one against the other do not conduct their violent activities for seeking some kind of political/social cause. And although it´s true that certain criminal groups such as the old Familia Michoacana and the Knight Templars Cartel liked to act under the false assumptions of loosely social purposes, portraying themselves as some kind of ``popular force´´ the truth is that these profiles where nothing more than mere alibis used for disguising their criminal actions. Thus, we can conclude that the only objective that organized crime groups in Mexico seek when conducting their violent and non-violent actions is the obtention of profit. This profit can represent different assets such as money (when selling a ton of cocaine to US retailers), territory (when a group invades another´s area such as is happening right now in the State of Guanajuato with the turf between the CJNG and the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel), sources of revenue (when a group targets a certain business owned by another entity such as oil-theft, drug retail distribution, etc)...

Because Mexican organized crime groups cannot act openly against the State fighting the SEDENA, SEMAR or different law enforcement corporations in open field, acting as formal armies, they must recur to insurgency tactics.


It´s not easy defining insurgency since it has been performed almost since the birth of modern cultures in multiple ways by thousands of actors. A good approach would be the definition used by R. Scott Moore when he states that an insurgency ``is a protracted violent conflict in which one or more groups seek to overthrow or fundamentally change the political or social order in a state or region through the use of sustained violence, subversion, social disruption, and political action´´ The paradox of applying this definition to the Mexican panorama is that Mexican criminal organizations do not seek to overthrow the political institutions but to co-opt them, making them accomplices in the unlawful obtention of criminal rents.

This has differentiated the Mexican conflict from other similar tragedies such as the conflict between Colombian criminal organizations and the local Government during the 80s and 90s. During those years the Medellin Cartel and its affiliates chose to conduct selective terrorist actions such as the placement of car bombs or the murder of significant State representatives in order to stress its dominion over the whole country and modify the set of laws that enabled the extradition of top traffickers to US jails. In contrast, Mexican criminal groups have confronted the State forces by using a whole set of tactics and methods that cannot categorized but as Insurgency actions. The carefully planned ambushes against SEMAR convoys in the hills of Michoacan, the training courses being taught at raches in Nuevo Leon or Jalisco, the public relations campaigns waged by powerful cartels through the deployment of narco mantas, etc. These events indicate that Mexican powerful organized crime groups have adopted a purely insurgent strategy for expanding their influence and for their daily activity, a model radically different to the one used until the beginning of the XXIst century when Mexican cartels acted violently but in a much more selective way.

Thus, we could easily label Mexican cartels as entities conducting a very violent kind of ``Criminal Insurgency´´

At the left, three members of the now defunct FARC-EP crossing a river. At the right side a column of at least 40 enforcers alledgely from the Sinaloa cartel crossing a river. The resemblances between formal insurgent guerrillas and Mexican criminal organizations can sometimes be sinisterly clear.

Another singularity about the Mexican conflict is that contrary to most insurgencies Mexican criminal groups are not interested in fighting the State continuously but rather are constantly fighting among them. This means that a certain group which fights using tactics inherent from an insurgency is going to fight another group which uses the same tactics. This leads to violent and direct clashes which can resemble sometimes real combats like those happening in full scale conflicts (such as the case of several African or Middle East countries) Nevertheless at the end of the day most of the clashes between Mexican criminal groups happen in the form of ambushes or sneak attacks performed selectively (machine gun attacks against drug retail businesses, bars, restaurants, car repair shops, etc) This leads us to the main assumption of this article: Mexican cartels, when confronting rival groups must asses the conflict in a way that enables them to combat and defeat an irregular enemy. Thus, Counterinsurgency becomes the most viable option since close combat can be most of the times counterproductive, noisy, and highly costly.

Again, Counterinsurgency as the method used for combatting Insurgency has been used since the origins of the great civilizations and cannot be easily defined. And again the definition of R. Scott Moore is paradigmatic: ``Counterinsurgency is an integrated set of political, economic, social, and security measures intended to end and prevent the recurrence of armed violence, create and maintain stable political, economic, and social structures, and resolve the underlying causes of an insurgency in order to establish and sustain the conditions necessary for lasting stability´´.

Modern conflicts don´t resemble the form old wars used to be. Large armies fighting in extremely vast fronts are nothing more than images and texts reflected in history books. Modern conflicts are waged most of the times between formal and official armies and insurgent groups that use mostly religious or political goals as a legitimate cause for which use armed violence. Thus, conflicts such as those happening in Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or Chechnya have modelled the way conflicts are now fought. In other words, Counterinsurgency has become a crucial discipline in military academies. It´s an extraordinarily complex subject which is in constant evolution so my intention is not to make a deep analysis of the matter but just to identify and analyze those aspects of Counterinsurgency that appear to be used in the Mexican conflict.

A basic characteristic of Counterinsurgency tactics is its division between strictly military operations and more subtle ways of action which include the gathering of intelligence, psychological warfare or social/economic actions undertaken for influencing the social basis on which Insurgency finds its supporters.
Although it´s not easy to apply a strictly militaristic strategy such as Counterinsurgency to the Mexican landscape, a country which is not fighting an officially declared war, it should be noted that Mexico´s case is very interesting because of the level of intelligence data managed by all the actors involved in the infighting. Thus, intelligence becomes the main element around which ``Cartel Countersinsurgency´´ is applied. In my opinion this can be explained by the way criminal organizations do operate in Mexico. A criminal organization, like any strictly political/religious insurgent group, must manage its affairs in the utmost secretly. Their members identities, sources of supplies, infrastructure or political contacts must remain unknown for everyone since anonymity is the only way for grating the group´s survival. Thus, the obtention of that information is a priority for the organization´s rivals since that´s the only way they´ll be able to defeat it. For example, if the local CJNG cells located in the State of Guanajuato are able to discover Marro´s financial operators in Celaya they would be able to eliminate them creating a revenue shortage for the surrounding CSRL´s operatives. Similarly, if a Los Aztecas cell is able to identify a business in Ciudad Juarez used as a meth retail distribution center by a rival organization, attacking the place and killing the people found in the spot would be a way for denying future clients to their rivals, who wouldn´t be able to sell meth locally due to the death threats against their buyers. The examples of intelligence data collected through Counterinsurgency tactics and being used for attacking and damaging rival criminal organizations are almost endless and in my opinion are the cause for most of the daily violence that is destroying Mexico.

Thus, we can say that besides the pure militaristic actions undertaken by criminal groups in Mexico, the gathering of intelligence could easily be the most useful Counterinsurgency tool used by organized crime. How does Counterinsurgency intelligence work? How is it collected, analyzed, and used? Again, the answers are multiple and may vary depending on who we ask, but an analysis of the classic American Counterinsurgency manual will give us a great insight.


In my opinion Mexican criminal networks are compartmentalized and pyramidal ins their structure. Certainly, there are organizations resembling a more horizontal structure, but at the end of the day most Mexican criminal groups present quite similar structures: on the top we have one, two, or several leaders. These top bosses designate several lieutenants, their most trusted men, who oversee the creation of regional subsidiaries and the designation of regional leaders. These regional leaders create local criminal cells acroos all thei area composed by trusted men being used as the organization´s violent spearhead. These local enforcement cells might recruit local petty criminals or street gangs as well as law abiding citizens for using them as halcones (guards), informants, drug distributors, etc. Of course, we can enlarge this structural model by adding financial operators, corrupt law enforcement, affiliated politicians, etc. But in the end, this ``corpus´´ has a pyramidal shape headed at the top by a few bunch of very powerful individuals and composed at the bottom by innumerable hundreds (sometimes thousands) of negligible and expendable employees.

If we want to tackle such an organization we cannot do so by attacking any person who enters in our radar as member of such entity because one of the characteristics of pyramidal organizations is the easiness with which a member is substituted without causing too much harm to the whole structure. Neither can we attack powerful members (local or regional leaders) because most of the times their identities are unknown even by their own associates. For example, we might know that a certain plaza has a boss but we ignore who this person is and so do the people buying meth or cocaine in the streets (they might know that they´re working for this or that organization, but do ignore who are the men directing it)
Thus, if we want to conduct a useful complete identification of the individuals managing a certain criminal group (either at a local, regional, or national level) we must start by identifying those at the bottom of the pyramid.

The thing we would have at our favor is that individuals at the bottom of the pyramid don´t act alone. They usually belong to a little cell or group of people directed by a leader/superior individual, conducting daily duties for the organization: street surveillance, selling drugs in a certain street/neighborhood, collecting extortion quotas, etc. If we can capture one of these individuals, a properly performed interrogation session could provide us with the names of the people who he/she knows inside the street cell, including its leader. If we can capture this street leader, he will reveal the identities of the people he gives the money to, or the names of the people who give him instructions. We then center on capturing the members of this second layer of the group who will lead us to other people which will lead us to an even higher cell. This process can be repeated several times, each time making the future objectives bigger in numbers and importance, until reaching a certain point at which we might be able to identify or capture a certain leader of the whole structure.

Of course, the obtention of information from captured rivals can be tricky and the use of physical force/pain or the threat of provoking them is a very useful tool. In other words, the use of torture is essential in most of the cases for the obtention of sensible information. In Mexico torture has been common since the times of the Aztecs (as in much of the world we must say) but it´s true that drug cartels have carried it to another level by performing incredibly gruesome and savage practices against their captives. The presence of bruises, abrasions or amputated limbs in most of the cadavers that are found executed or in mass graves might reflect not the practice of brutal torture indiscriminately but the fact that most disappeared in Mexico, after being kidnapped, are taken to certain locations (safe houses, bodegas or abandoned facilities) where formal interrogations through the use of terrible torture are conducted in order to obtain information from the victims.

This bottom-assessment of a pyramidal organization was used extensively for the first time during the Algerian Independence war. During the 1950´s the FLN stablished several cells in the city of Algiers that started conducting widespread terrorist actions against policemen, Public Officials and French citizens. Thus, several Parachute divisions were deployed and started tackling the FLN urban structure following the same path. They first targeted the bottom of the pyramid, identifying street guerrilla collaborators, the people who smuggled weapons into the Kasbah or the individuals who could know something about the whereabouts of a certain insurgent. The brutal interrogation tactics used by the French parachutists enabled them to make a path through the FLN pyramidal structure destroying most of its urban infrastructure and cells. The success of this Counterinsurgency method was so great that it was used exactly in the same brutal way by the Argentinean and Guatemalan secret services during the 60s, 70s and 80s for destroying the local insurgent groups operating in urban areas. In both cases the insurgents were totally wiped out.

For a better understanding of this kind of Counterinsurgency pyramidal method a review of the Italian-Algerian film ``The Battle of Algiers´´ by Gillo Pontecorvo, which depicts extremely well how the Pyramid method was used by French Paratroopers, is strongly recommended.

Until now we have analyzed the general framework of a generic method (the Pyramid assessment) which can be used for attacking a rival group amid a direct confrontation. Nevertheless, this is not the only Counterinsurgency strategy that might be used for tackling a rival criminal organization. Thus, it´s necessary to venture alternative Counterinsurgency methods used by Mexican organized crime groups.


Imagine a criminal organization decides to invade the territory of a rival group. This decision implies that the aggressor is going to enter an unknown territory on which its rival has been stablished for a while, developing support networks, businesses, and affiliates all across the area. For example, in 2017 the CJNG started an aggressive offensive against the local criminal cells acting in the State of Guanajuato. This offensive quickly escalated into a full penetration of CJNG´s units in the territory which by the time had developed its own local cartel, the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel lead by Jose Antonio Yepez Ortiz aka El Marro. In the last three years the CJNG has advanced into Guanajuato coopting territories and businesses previously owned by Marro´s organization. This has been possible only through the development of a sophisticated intelligence network.

We could divide the gathering of intelligence by an invasive organization into three phases of study: Basic, Estimative and Operational.

First, when arriving at a new location, the foreign organization might want to conduct a Basic estimation of the local situation. Although this phase is optional since much of the time conflicts between Mexican criminal groups don´t happen abruptly and might be caused by events largely prolonged in time it´s a fact that criminal groups send outpost in the form of suburban columns or even travelling in incognito mode through commercial bus lines. Thus, this Basic phase implies the gathering of general and crucial data such as main plazas, road networks, current state of affairs, main previous events, location of the most populated and anarchic areas where the rival organization might concentrate resources, etc. It can be conducted even before deploying troops. Google maps, for example, offers an excellent platform for conducting Basic estimations about roads, towns and streets.

The second phase is called Estimative and is conducted once the rival has been fully targeted. It implies ana analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the rival forces to start determining what the combat strategy will be. Thus, following our Guanajuato example we can conclude that when arriving at the State CJNG´s cells could have determine that CSRL´s main weakness was its dependency on oil-theft activities since they didn´t have the necessary contacts/infrastructure for conducting major drug smuggling activities. Also, they could have recalled that one of El Marro´s main advantages was the development of a deep and reliable network supporters who would give him shelter and protection. Thus, a quick Estimative analysis of the available data could have forced CJNG cells in Guanajuato to tackle key individuals in charge of extracting oil from Pemex pipelines and laundering El Marro´s money killing them through selective hits using mobile units like the so-called Grupo Elite (which might be several units acting under the same name)

The third step in the gathering of Counterinsurgency Intelligence is called Operational strategy. Once a certain course of action has been selected it´s time to take direct actions against specific individuals who have already been identified. Thus, the Operational phase is the ultimate goal of a Counterinsurgency Intelligence and can be divided into four different types of actions/measures: preventive, reactive, aggressive and remedial.


Preventive actions are undertaken to avoid future rival organizations activities in the area dominated by the group. For example, the recruitment of unemployed or young crooks by a criminal cell, providing them with a few pesos and a mobile phone is the way used for the creation of networks of halcones. A good surveillance network is one of the ways by which local groups can avoid foreign invasions by detecting and reporting almost instantly strangers around the area.

Reactive actions are a direct consequence of rival attacks on controlled areas. For example, if a group managing the theft of hydrocarbons in a certain area of Guanajuato detects rival clandestine intakes in the area, they might ambush the assailants for avoiding further rival activities.

Aggressive actions are specially aimed at the core of the rival organization. In other words, the purpose of Aggressive actions is the decapitation of the rival organization leadership as well as the destruction of the rival´s morale. These are specific operations that require of great planning and that are designed for causing a great commotion in rival ranks. For example, on January 2020 a CJNG enforcement cell attacked a wedding ceremony at the town of Celaya in Guanajuato. During the gunfight the bride and the groom were both killed. A few hours later a CJNG text was published claiming that the objective had been Marro himself, which managed to escape letting his own sister (the bride) in the hands of the enforcers. This action wasn´t very damaging in terms of personnel for the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel and it is still unknown if the bride was Marro´s sister, but if it is so the impact of such an action against El Marro´s family core has been enormous. Attacking the relatives of Guanajuato´s private lord in his own stronghold would mean that the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel cannot even protect his own top members from CJNG´s retaliation. Another example of Aggresive action, although not militaristic, would be the placing of narcomantas in strategic locations as well as the diffusion of a statement recorded on video, which are called narcocomunicados. Most of the times narcomantas are designed carefully, reflecting names, photos and data stressed in vivid colors. In most occasions the narcomantas or narcocomunicados are used as warning labels, indicating that the territory/area belongs to a certain group (so they may be classified as Preventive rather than Aggresive actions) But sometimes they are used for explaining the setting of a rivals´ corruption network among a local law enforcement group. On other occasions, for example, the narcomanta/narcocomunicado try to stress who is the boss of a local unit and his lieutenants. The information being provided through these means is partial and can be false, but its purpose is to demonstrate that the issuer knows who their rivals are and how are they organized. It´s a clear sign of weakness that a criminal group cannot avoid rival penetration by keeping its structure anonymous. Thus, a narcomanta/narcocomunicado can be very effective causing a decrease in the rival´s morale, just like Psy-Ops do in real military scenarios.

Ultimately, Remedial actions are aimed at changing the environment and conditions which cause the rival organization to take roots in a certain area. These Remedial actions are very popular in the military Counterinsurgency and imply the use of ``social campaigns´´ For example, the US army personnel deployed in Afghanistan likes to gather with local Councils of Elders or Jirgas when conducting operations in certain locations. They gather the leaders of a town, interview them, and sometimes provide them with pamphlets, food or medical supplies. It´s difficult to allocate these Remedial actions in the context of Mexican organized crime because Mexican criminal groups do not seek any kind of social welfare. But what they do seek is social support. Thus, complicity, silence and impunity can be obtained by criminal groups through the use of ``social campaigns´´ In my opinion the best real example of Remedial actions in the context of Mexico´s drug war would be the distribution of pantries which has become extremely popular due to the current Covid 19 situation. For example, during the first weeks of confinement we could see videos from several drug trafficking groups such as the CJNG, factions of the CDG or the Nueva Familia Michoacana delivering hundreds of bags filled with basic goods to dozens of people from poor urban and rural areas. When distributing the pantries, the masked men stressed very clearly who they were and why were they providing the people with basic goods: for the seek of social support.

This is a diagram of the different phases of intelligence gathering and the counterisnurgency actions which can be used for tackling a raival organization. It´s highly schematic and a bit simplistic, so reality doens´t always have to fit into this model


On the 23rd September 2019, a video appeared on social media. It depicted 26 heavily armed men wearing balaclavas and dark clothes. A voice heard behind the camera said they were people belonging to an individual identified as Comandante R10 who had already arrived to the State of Mexico and were going to initiate a social cleansing operation by killing extortionists, thieves kidnappers and the public officials supporting them. The voice in a very rude and clear tone goes one identifying five zones of the State of Mexico and designating the individuals in charge of the kidnapping, robbing and extortion rings operating in the areas. The translations of the narcocomunicado would be similar to this:

``This message is for the people from the State of Mexico. We are Comandante R10´s people. We come here for cleaning the State of kidnappers, extortionists, thieves and the people from the Government who support them. We´ll start with Nicolas Romero Zone with the faggot of David, the Reyes Roa, El Mirra´s people, El Toche and the Asereje.
Atizapan Zone: with the faggot of Fernando, El Pelas, el 20, Kevin and Trompas
Tlane (Tlalnepantla) Zone: la Vibora, el Chopped, and the Serranos from Tenayo.
Frente Nacional Zone: Javier, el Ciro, Hector el Pollo, Ivan el Terrible, el Gordo, el Pato and the faggot of Omar.
Tutitlan Zone: el Araña and Mario.
Tultepec Zone: el Licenciado and the fucking kidnapper of Pancho.

I´m Comandante R10 and I´m gonna screw you all´´

Snapshot of the estatement by Comandante R10

What does this statement reveal? We still don´t know who Comandante R10 is. There are rumors about him being a member of the CJNG or the Nueva Familia Michoacana, but the truth is that he didn´t identified himself as member of a certain organization. The State of Mexico is a highly populated urban area were the main illicit businesses are kidnaps, armed robbery, extortion and retail drug distribution.

Map of the State of Mexico and the area supposedly tackled by Comandante R10

Whoever Comandante R10 is he states that he has arrived to the State and has already identified the main criminal cells operating in the territory. This indicates that Comandante R10 and his people had already conducted some sort of intelligence gathering before confronting their rivals. In fact, the information is provided in a very analytical way: first the Zone and then the names and nicknames of the people managing illicit businesses there. The way the data is provided might suggest that the editing organization might have obtained intelligence information from law enforcement who at the end of the day spend 24 hours a day conducting surveillance and interrogatories and know better than anyone how the general panorama in a certain area is.

A map of R10´s area of operations. This is the format used by law enforcement in classified documents and one of the types of information that cartels do pay corrupt public officials for

In fact, the flow of intelligence data between Mexican law enforcement (including the SEDENA and the SEMAR) has been a great problem and is behind the greatest failures and scandals of the conflict (remember the Garcia Luna case. Mexico´s top police officer busted for providing Sinaloa and the Beltran Leyvas with classified information)

It´s true that the people Comandante R10 threats to attack are mostly common thugs who run kidnapping and robbing operations in urban areas, not highly capacitated members of other big rival organizations. But still I think it´s worth noting how an enforcement cell has been able to gather and expose intelligence data with the intention intimidating its rivals and showing itself as a capable and powerful group.

We should ask ourselves how Mexican criminal organizations gather, manage and use intelligence through Counterinsurgency in their daily operations. It´s hardly to believe that they use Counterinsurgency tactics in the rationalized way being explained here. This text is just theory, but it seems realistic to assume that criminal cells do spend a lot of time gathering info and intelligence before acting in a certain way.

It would be illuminating to analyze how and when Counterinsurgency tactics started being used by Mexican cartels. Of course, it´s obvious that early criminal organizations such as the Guadalajara cartel, or the organizations of the 1990s did manage Counterinsurgency and intelligence tactics, but not with the same degree of capacity and success. I think that the recruitment of professional military personnel during the late 90s and early 2000s is the reason behind the ``professionalization´´ if Mexican organized crime, which adopted the means and methods used by their new employees. For example, we all know that the GAFES were specialized at Counterinsurgency and in fact they were used for crushing the Zapatista uprising in 1994. The incorporation of Guatemalan and Central American enforcers with military records might also have had something to do with it, but I think that´s secondary.

It would be interesting to ask ourselves if a good and deep analysis about Counterinsurgency tactics by Mexican organized crime would help to prevent part of the violence since it would be easier to identify where and when a criminal group is going to hit the next time. Who knows, maybe Counterinsurgency is the future of the battle against Mexican cartels.

- Aspects of Counterinsurgency intelligence, by William M. Hartness
- The basics of Counterinsurgency, Small Wars Journal, by R. Scott Moore
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Re: Counterinsurgency, intelligence and Mexican cartels.

I’m sure it’s used by the DEA all the time and going up the ladder in reverse to nab guys. In Mexico I highly doubt it but it does probably happen but for different reasons:ie. not to get a criminal off the street but more along the line of ‘silver or lead.’The plazas are bought and sold and apparently according to a mainboard article sometimes several times. If authorities refuse to sell saying it’s already taken they just may get the lead but I’m sure there’s authorities missing out on the silver and will say sure I will sell you the Plaza or maybe they just sell it to all 3 Cartels and let them fight it out. It used to be much simpler in the 70’s and 80’s and the Cartels were ‘low key’ violence wise and I guess the agreements in place with authorities were easy as there was only 1 Cartel per Plaza so the only thing the authorities meaning the cops had to do was allow them to operate. They didn’t even had to arrest the rivals as there wasn’t any.Now it’s just so darn complicated for the authorities. It’s like you are screwed if you do or screwed if you don’t.It’s almost a luck of the draw like gambling if an authority makes the right decision whether he  or his family
will live or die.
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Re: Counterinsurgency, intelligence and Mexican cartels.

You´re right on the point that plazas are bought and sold Canadiana.

But I think Mexican law enforcement collect intel quite good and that cartels also buy intel from these law enforcement. In fact I think it has become a product itself. When you want certain data and know the right people then you make the call and agree to pay the price.

And then you get classified reports with names and maps of who is who and, where the safe houses, etc.

I think it´s a problem as big as the coimas being paid on the streets to low level law officials
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Re: Counterinsurgency, intelligence and Mexican cartels.

I think the problem of plazas being sold to multiple groups is actually due to the multiple layers of law enforcement and politicians in those areas. Each one of those groups operate independently and they all could sell to different cartels creating the problem. For example,  the local municipales could be on 1 cartels payroll while another bought the state police,  etc...