There are well over 100 small, irregular, asymmetric, and revolutionary wars ongoing around the world today.1 In these conflicts, there is much to be learned by anyone who has the responsibility of dealing with, analyzing, or reporting on national security threats generated by state and nonstate political actors who do not rely on highly structured organizations, large numbers of military forces, or costly weaponry—for example, transnational criminal organization (TCO)/gang/insurgent phenomena or politicized gangs. In any event, and in any phase of a criminal or revolutionary process, violent nonstate actors have played substantial roles in helping their own organizations and/or political patrons coerce radical political change and achieve putative power.
In these terms, TCO/gang/insurgent phenomena can be as important as traditional hegemonic nation-states in determining political patterns and outcomes in national and global affairs. Additionally, these cases demonstrate how the weakening of national stability, security, and sovereignty can indirectly contribute to personal and collective insecurity and to achieving radical political change. These cases are also significant beyond their uniqueness. The common political objective in each diverse case is to control governments and/or coerce radical change in discrete political-social-economic systems.
Examples of these phenomena range from Mexico's convoluted combination of drug cartels, enforcer gangs, and the private army of Los Zetas, to Central America's notorious maras, that is, Mara Salvatrucha 13 (or MS–13) and Mara 18, or the 18th Street Gang, to Colombia's devolving criminal or warrior bands (bandas criminales) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) criminal insurgents, to the resurgent Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) insurgents of Peru, and to Argentina's loosely networked but gigantic 300,000-person piquetero propaganda-agitator organization bought and paid for by the Argentine government. This article, however, confines itself to three other quite diverse components of the TCO/gang/insurgent phenomenon operating in Latin America and Europe: the Jamaican posses, Brazilian Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), and the 28-member al Qaeda gang responsible for the bombing of the Madrid train station in March 2004.
The various Jamaican posses are relatively homogeneous, violent, and ubiquitous. Interestingly and importantly, the Jamaican posses have also become a special set of social actors. They are making a social investment in the neighborhoods that they control by performing some of the functions of the failing Jamaican "welfare state." In contrast, one of the largest and most powerful gangs in the world, the 65,000- to 125,000-member PCC, is not as interested in the well-being of the people that it controls as it is in neutralizing and making the Brazilian state irrelevant. Achieving that political objective would give the PCC the freedom of movement and action that would provide the organization with the virtually unlimited commercial self-enrichment it seeks. The third case, the al Qaeda gang that bombed the Madrid train station, illustrates the dramatic political-psychological effectiveness of a small but well-disciplined and well-led gang.
Posses in Jamaica
Similar to other countries in the Circum-Caribbean and elsewhere, Jamaican posses (gangs) are the byproducts of high levels of poverty and unemployment and lack of upward social mobility. Among other things, the posses represent the consequences of U.S. deportation of Jamaican criminals back to the island and, importantly, of regressive politics in Jamaican democracy.2 Unemployment and criminal deportation speak for themselves, but the political situation in Jamaica requires some elaboration.
Given the shift from the production of commodities toward knowledge-based products and services and the reduction of the costs of transport, goods, and labor under economic globalization, the Jamaican government has experienced a loosening of control of its traditional resource bases. As a result, the Jamaican government no longer has the income to provide public services in a welfare-type state. When the government provides public assistance, it has tended to outsource delivery of services to private and semiprivate organizations. Under these conditions, local posses have taken on "social investment" in the areas they control. An important part of the posses' program of action is called "shared government, with a welfare aspect." As a result, gang-controlled communities in Jamaica are considered among the safest in the country, and the posses are helping the people in their "jurisdictions" with education, public health, and employment problems. Thus, as the state has reduced its legitimizing security and service functions, the gangs have stepped in to fill the vacuum and have become—among other types of social actors—social workers.3 Nevertheless, the Jamaican posses remain deeply involved in serious intergang rivalry and violence. Their actions reflect on Jamaica not as a failed state, but as a failing state in the process of reconfiguration. Thus, Jamaica appears to be slowly moving toward something like a "criminal state" or a "narco-state."4
Organization. It is estimated that there are at least 85 different posses operating on the island with anywhere between 2,500 to 20,000 members. Each posse operates within a clearly defined territory or neighborhood. The basic structure of a Jamaican posse is fluid but cohesive. Like most other gangs in the Americas, it has an all-powerful don or area leader at the apex of the organization, an upper echelon, a middle echelon, and the "workers" at the bottom of the social pyramid. The upper echelon coordinates the posse's overall drug, arms, and human trafficking efforts. The middle group manages daily operational activities. The lowest echelon performs street-level sales, purchases, protection, and acts of violence as assigned. When posses need additional workers, they prefer to use other Jamaicans. However, as posses have expanded their markets, they have been known to recruit outsiders, such as African Americans, Trinidadians, Guyanese, and even Chinese immigrants, as mules and street-level dealers. They are kept ignorant of gang structure and members' identities. If low-level workers are arrested, the posse is not compromised and the revenue continues to come in.5
Program. Jamaican posses are credited with being self-reliant and self-contained. They have their own aircraft, watercraft, and crews for pickup and delivery, and their own personnel to run legitimate businesses and conduct money-laundering tasks. In that connection, posses have expanded their operations into the entire Caribbean Basin, the United States, Canada, and Europe. The general reputation of Jamaican posses is one of high efficiency and absolute ruthlessness in pursuit of their territorial and commercial interests. Examples of swift and brutal violence include, but are not limited to, fire-bombing, throat-slashing, and dismemberment of victims and their families. Accordingly, Jamaican posses are credited with the highest level of violence in the English-speaking Caribbean and 60 percent of the crime in the region.6
This example of gang activity fits into the typological description of gangs evolving toward politicized gang status. They are organized for business and commercial gain, but must confront government and security organizations to achieve their self-enrichment objectives. Beyond that, the Jamaican posses have a more hierarchical leadership structure than other more politically oriented, security-conscious, and flatly organized advanced TCO gangs. Members tend to focus on drug trafficking, with market protection a first concern and market expansion second. They use the level of violence they consider necessary to protect markets and control competition. Violence is their political interface to negate law enforcement efforts directed against them by police and other security organizations. And as they seek to exploit their "social investment" and control or incapacitate national and international security institutions, they dominate community life, territory, and politics.
Posse domination of respective turf in Jamaica makes constant cooperation and negotiation with other gangs, TCOs, and the state difficult for generating the degree of stability necessary to conduct profitable business. That kind of cooperation was demonstrated in May 2006 with a month-long series of civic activities called the Safe Communities Campaign. Launched on reggae icon Bob Marley's birthday, its purpose was to assist selected communities—and the posses in them—to think and act in terms of Bob Marley's message of "love, peace, and unity."7 When these kinds of efforts fail, however, the results are conflict and a level of violence commensurate with the level of importance of the issue(s) involved. In that context, we see the rise of private, don-controlled enclaves that coexist in delicate, often symbiotic, relationships with the Jamaican government and its security institutions. Thus, as one kind of authority has withdrawn from a given turf, another has moved in to fill the vacuum. That, in turn, blurs the line between criminal and political violence and gives the posses increased immunity to state intervention and control.8 As other consequences, the effective sovereignty of the state and the personal security of citizens are being challenged daily, and the posses' commercial motives for controlling people and territory are, in fact, an implicit political agenda.9
The Jamaican case is a classic example of first- through third-generation gang activity and development.10 The generic evolution of urban street gangs illustrates that this is a compound-complex issue with implications at three different levels of analysis. First, all three generations of gangs generate serious domestic instability and insecurity. Of course, as gangs evolve, they spawn more violence and instability over wider sections of the political map and create regional instability and insecurity. Second, because of their internal (intrastate) criminal activities and their international (transnational) commercial and political alliances and actions, they exacerbate the confusion regarding traditional distinctions between police law enforcement functions and military national security functions. Thus, little that is effective or lasting has been done to control or eliminate them. Third, when first-, second-, and third-generation gangs or parts of gangs dominate a country's political stage at one level or another, they erode the security and effective sovereignty of the nation-states within and between which they operate.11
Response. Within the context of that frustration, some contemporary civilian, military, and police leaders appear to have recognized that the modern global world is much too interrelated, complicated, and dangerous to advocate a strictly law enforcement solution—or even a strictly military solution— to provide any viable response to local and regional security, stability, and sovereignty threats. The argument is that what is required is a unified civil-military (whole-of-government) effort to apply the full human and physical resources of the nation-state, as well as the international community, to generate effective multilateral solutions to transnational issues.12 A good example of such a holistic, multidimensional, and multilateral approach is the cooperation for security that was achieved between and among the English-speaking states in the Circum-Caribbean during the April–May 2007 world cricket matches.13
English-speaking Circum-Caribbean states achieved whole-of-government cooperation to provide security during 2007 World Cup cricket final
Apart from the personal and collective security provided by the cooperation of the international community at those sporting events, however, the Organization of American States (OAS), the United States, and various Caribbean governments have been unable or unwilling to effectively deal with the gangs that permeate the region. The OAS affirmed in 2003 that gang-related "threats, concerns, and other challenges are cross-cutting problems that may require hemispheric cooperation" and that "the traditional concept and approach [to security threats] should be expanded to encompass new and nontraditional threats." The final result of this affirmation was the condemnation of "transnational organized crime, since it constitutes an assault on institutions in our states and negatively affects our societies."14 Even so, the OAS has been reluctant to go beyond its diplomatic "condemnation." The United States has not done much more. To be fair, however, it must be noted that in 2006, the United States put $10 million into the ongoing antidrug and anticrime efforts outlined in the Third Border Initiative (that is, the U.S. "third border" that includes the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean areas) and is providing other benefits under the Caribbean Basin Initiative.15 Given the entire scope of the issue, this level of funding is clearly not enough.
Conclusions. The democratically elected governments in the Caribbean argue that criminal gangs, such as the Jamaican posses, have profited from their globalized operations and have succeeding in placing themselves beyond the reach of most of the mini-countries in the region to destroy them or even seriously disrupt their operations. Today, it is estimated that any given gang-cartel combination earns more money annually from its illicit activities than any Caribbean country generates in legitimate revenues. Thus, individual mini-state governments in the region are simply overmatched by the gang phenomenon. The gangs and their various allies have more money, better arms, and more effective organizations than the states. And gangs are gradually supplementing the brute violence of previous generations with the brainpower of a new generation of members who are computer savvy and business school–trained with advanced degrees. Additionally, many of this younger generation of gang members, like the older generations, are recipients of an education from North American and/or other prison systems.
In all, increasing gang effectiveness, violence, and impunity have fueled doubts among the Jamaican citizenry about the problem-solving abilities of their elected leaders. Given the reality of the posses' combination of power and beneficial social welfare activities, citizen support and allegiance tend to go to the posses that deliver consistent services and security rather than to the government, which appears unable or unwilling to honor the social contract.16
Primeiro Comando Da Capital in Brazil
The great city of São Paulo, Brazil—the proverbial locomotive that pulls the train of the world's eighth largest economy—was paralyzed by a great, if not divine, surprise in mid-May 2006. Practically nothing moved for 5 days. More than 293 attacks on individuals and groups of individuals were reported, hundreds of people were killed and wounded, and millions of dollars in damage was done to private and public property. Buses were torched, banks were robbed, personal residences were looted and vandalized, municipal buildings and police stations were attacked, and rebellions broke out in 82 prisons within São Paulo's penal system. Transportation, businesses, factories, offices, banks, schools, and shopping centers were shut down. In all, the city was a frightening place during those days in May.17
During that time, the PCC demonstrated its ability to coordinate simultaneous prison riots; destabilize a major city; manipulate judicial, political, and security systems; and shut down the formal Brazilian economy. The PCC also demonstrated its complete lack of principles through its willingness to indiscriminately kill innocent people, destroy public and private property, and suspend the quality-of-life benefits of a major economy for millions of people. Beyond security forces—which were reportedly as involved in extrajudicial killings as the criminal perpetrators of the chaos—the violence and chaotic conditions made any effort to assert governmental authority or conduct essential public services virtually impossible.
Organization and Motives. The PCC has an estimated 65,000 to 125,000 full- and part-time dues-paying members and is led by a brilliant and uncompromising career criminal named Marcola (Marcos Williams Herbas Camacho). Although analysts believe that not more than 6,000 active PCC members are in Brazil's prison system, they know that the PCC has extended its influence into the favelas (ungoverned slums) in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and the other major cities of Brazil. This has been accomplished through a long series of carefully negotiated, sometimes forced alliances with other gangs and favela chiefs (chefes da favela). As a result, at any given time, Marcola controls at least 60,000 PCC members in the prisons and favelas of the country. And, notably, the May surprise in São Paulo was initiated, orchestrated, and terminated by one person—Marcola—from the safety of a maximum security prison, using a mobile telephone.18
Ostensibly, this turmoil and retribution were triggered by prisoners who were being transferred to a maximum security prison that was not equipped to allow the inmates to watch the much-anticipated World Cup soccer matches on television. Thus, an ambitious, prisoner-initiated "prison rights" agenda was the motive for the rebellion. But, at its base, consensus has it that the surprise May explosion was really a show of force by the largest criminal gang in the Western Hemisphere. The primary intent was to announce to the state and federal governments that the PCC and its allies in the favelas were strong enough to compel the negotiations of terms of state sovereignty vis-à-vis that organization. Given that Marcola got everything he wanted out of the negotiations to end the chaos, it is probably safe to say that the PCC and the chefes, or barons of the favelas, have grown more powerful, and the state relatively more constrained.19
Program of Action. Favelas are the bases of the PCC's extended power. In the favela, traffic is everything, and the territory each controls is critical. The PCC, like other criminal gangs, is deeply involved in murder, kidnapping, robberies, extortion, and the trafficking of drugs, arms, and humans. To maintain momentum and expand markets, the organization has increasingly adopted an offensive mode with tactics appropriate to urban guerrilla war, in which it looks for confrontations with rival gangs, police, and military forces. PCC members and temporary "soldiers" from the favelas carry out their tasks armed with automatic weapons, machineguns, hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades, antipersonnel mines, and crudely armored vehicles. Command and control is provided primarily though an efficient communication network based on mobile telephones. This takes us back to Marcola and his cell phone. In areas controlled by the PCC or in areas that might be invaded by PCC-controlled units, one has a choice: to pay dues, mentally submit, and physically contribute to the organization, or subir al cielo (to die).20
In addition to its violent turf-controlling efforts and illicit trafficking activities, the PCC pursues more than a casual, self-serving criminal rights agenda. The organization has 18 to 20 lawyers who work full-time. They act as not only advocates for gang members, but also mentors for young gang members. One of the great successes of the PCC has been to infiltrate or "colonize" the governmental organizations that administer the entrance examinations necessary to enter Brazilian public service. The job of the PCC lawyer-mentor is to ensure that young gang members (and children of the convicts) who have the ability and desire to enter public service can and do get the necessary education and pass the appropriate examinations. As a consequence, the PCC is putting its own people into bureaucratic positions that it considers important in the Brazilian system. Thus, in addition to controlling slums in the major cities of the country, the third-generation members of the PCC appear to be slowly but surely extending their influence into public service. The logical conclusion regarding this effort would be, simply, that Marcola is deliberately leading his organization to infiltrate and neutralize the state. This, of course, would be an important objective in the process of securing freedom of movement and action and in moving Brazil toward criminal-state status.21
Response. It would appear that the São Paulo state government and the Brazilian federal government were not particularly concerned with the specific issues that brought on the May 2006 crisis. The official São Paulo response to the violence and chaos was simply: "I say to our people that the police are still in the streets, they [the people] can go out and have fun this weekend."22 This business-as-usual approach to the gang problem is similar to that expressed not too long ago when a high-ranking federal official stated: "Not to worry. Brazil will grow out of this."23
Favelas are bases of extended power for PCC and other criminal gangs in Brazil
Jeff R. Simpson
On the positive side of this dilemma, the unfortunate São Paulo surprise brought to light socioeconomic-political-psychological problems—poverty, corruption, penetration of the political system, and impunity—that should be debated sooner rather than later. It is hoped that such debates will result in more than simply tough talk. In that connection, the people of Rio de Janeiro have demonstrated their displeasure with the business-as-usual (official lassitude, inefficiency, and outright corruption) approach to dealing with the PCC, other criminal gangs, and the favelas. For instance, reportedly, citizens of Rio de Janeiro (cariocas) rejoiced as the usual hectic pace of murder, assault, and theft slowed to almost negligible proportions when President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva responded to public pressure and announced that 75 percent of the military and police equipment brought into Rio during the Pan American games in July 2007 would remain in the city. How that equipment will be used over time remains to be seen, but cariocas have been reminded of how it feels to live in a safe city.24 Thus, in Rio, preparations to host the World Cup games in 2014 include a serious effort ("preparations for war") to gain control of the various criminal gangs and the favelas.25 On the negative side of this dilemma, vigilante militias in both Rio and São Paulo are violently beginning to impose their own "peace" in favelas the police do not control.26
Conclusions. The 2006 surprise organized by Marcola and the PCC from a maximum security prison in São Paulo illustrates that loosely governed countries and ungoverned territories within them are attractive venues for gangs and other nonstate actors who seek to avoid the reach of criminal justice systems and evade the rule of law for their own advantage. Ironically, Marcola and his fellow PCC prisoners have found safe places for conducting their unprincipled self-enrichment activities. The May 2006 incident is a prime example of a new "urban jungle," within which gangs and their drug baron patrons and insurgent cousins can find political space from which to conduct their illicit commercial enrichment operations.27 This mixing of political and commercial interests is a lethal combination that exemplifies a real and significant threat to the security, stability, and effective sovereignty of the Brazilian state.
Al Qaeda in Spain
Before and shortly after March 11, 2004, al Qaeda's asymmetric global challenge appeared ad hoc and senseless. Nevertheless, a closer look at the ruthless violence in Spain reveals some interesting and important lessons. On March 11, 10 rucksacks packed with explosives were detonated in 4 commuter trains at Madrid's Atocha train station. That terrorist act killed 191 people and injured over 1,800 more. It was considered the most violent attack in Western Europe since the 1988 bombing of Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. Despite its length, the 1,470-page official summary of the investigation of the Madrid bombings provided little information. It indicated that 29 men were involved in the attack, including 15 Moroccans, 9 Spaniards, 1 Syrian with Spanish citizenship, 1 Syrian, 1 Algerian, 1 Egyptian, and 1 Lebanese. The summary also indicated that the accused individuals were members of a radical political group active in North Africa and that al Qaeda exercised only an inspirational influence. Moreover, the official summary indicated that these terrorists might have learned their bomb-making skills not from al Qaeda but from the Internet.
Subsequent investigations of terrorist attacks in Western Europe provided considerable additional information regarding the March 2004 bombings in Madrid and the 29-man organization responsible. Those investigations indicated more than a casual relationship with al Qaeda. Four of the bombers were al Qaeda veterans from the base organization that provided leadership and expertise. Most of the nonveterans involved were operating as part of a lower third ring of the base organization and were involved in criminal gang activities such as drugs-for-weapons exchanges, providing false documentation (passports, other personal identification, and credit card fraud), and jewel and precious metals theft.
Additionally, the nonveterans were involved in disseminating propaganda and recruiting Spanish Muslim fighters to join Iraqi and other al Qaeda–sponsored insurgencies. The intent of these day-to-day activities was to help support and fund regional and global al Qaeda jihadi operations.28 In this instance, the normal criminal gang activities of the group were interrupted so that they could take on the mission of bombing the Madrid train station.29 Not until the bombing, then, did this particular gang transition from an implicit political agenda (that is, recruiting personnel and criminally generating financial support for al Qaeda's political-military operations in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere) to an explicit political challenge to the Spanish state and the global community. Therefore, that was the point at which these delinquents became militants. The purpose of the action was not to achieve any military objective, and it was not a random act. Instead, the bombing was intended to generate strategic level political-psychological results. (Nevertheless, the militancy continued to be treated as both a social and a law enforcement issue.)
What This Effort Demonstrated. Since March 2004, al Qaeda has demonstrated that it can skillfully apply irregular, asymmetric war techniques to modern political war and has done so with impunity. Indeed, its actions were executed in a way that made virtually any kind of Spanish, Western, or U.S. military response impossible. After over 3 years of investigation and the trial, the Spanish court acquitted 7 of the 29 defendants and found 21 individuals guilty of involvement in the bombings. (One of the accused had been previously convicted on charges of illegal transporting of explosives. Also, 4 of the 29 accused committed suicide 3 days after the bombing.) Two Moroccans and a Spaniard were sentenced to 42,924 years in prison. Nobody else was sentenced to more than 23 years in prison. Of great importance is the fact that the men accused of planning and carrying out the attack were not convicted for the train bombing; they were found guilty of belonging to a terrorist group or for illegally transporting explosives.30
The Madrid attack also sent several messages to the Spanish people, the rest of Europe, the United States, and Muslim communities around the globe. The various messages went something like this:
As a result, the publicity disseminated throughout the Muslim world has been credited with generating new sources of funding, new places for training and sanctuary, new recruits to the al Qaeda ranks, and additional de facto legitimacy.32
Additional Results. Even though the information gathered throughout Western Europe from the investigations and trials connected with the March 2004 bombing was treated cautiously and without alarm, the results achieved by the gang were dramatic and significant. The sheer magnitude and shock of the attack changed Spanish public opinion and the outcome of the parliamentary elections that were held just 3 days later. In those elections, the relatively conservative, pro-U.S. government of Prime Minister José Maria Aznar was unexpectedly and decisively defeated. That defeat came at the hands of the anti-U.S./anti–Iraq War leader of the socialists, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Prior to the elections, the Spanish government had been a strong supporter of the United States, its policy regarding the global war on terror, and the Iraq War. Shortly after the elections, Spain's 1,300 troops were withdrawn from Iraq, and Spain ceased to be a strong U.S. ally within global political and security arenas.33
Conclusions. These political-psychological consequences advance the intermediate and long-terms objectives of political war that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda have set forth. The most relevant of those objectives, in this context, are intended to erode popular support for the war on terror among the populations of America's allies and to gradually isolate the United States from its allies. All that—along with the messages noted above—was accomplished by a small gang, at a cost of only $80,000.34
These lessons are intended to help civilian and military leaders to understand the potential power and capability of the gang phenomenon to generate widespread political-social disequilibrium. At the same time, these vignettes demonstrate the power of "phantom groups" all around the world to influence public opinion and transform domestic, foreign, and defense policy. Strategic leaders must think about and deal with these destabilizing problems from multiple angles, on multiple levels, and in varying degrees of complexity. The alternative is to watch the global security arena become further engulfed in a chaos of violence, vice, corruption, and a lack of legitimacy. PRISM