Foreign Policy recently published an article about future conflicts called The Coming Crime Wars. The article discusses how the number of non-state armed groups (that is, not an official army of a recognized country, but rather some other sort of armed group) is multiplying in civil conflicts around the world. Soldiers in these conflicts are with “drug cartels, mafia groups, criminal gangs, militias, and terrorist organizations” as well as official armies or rebel groups. So far governments are confused about how to deal with this complication.
In the classical view, criminal groups (such as mafias, gangs, and cartels) are not political actors formally capable of waging war. This means they can’t be treated as enemy combatants, nor can they be tried for war crimes. Yet, increasingly, such groups do advance tangible political objectives, from the election of corrupted politicians to the creation of autonomous religious states. What is more, they routinely govern, control territory, provide aid and social goods, and tax and extort money from the populations under their control. They also often collude with corrupt soldiers, police, prison guards, and customs officials to expand their rule. Put succinctly, cartels and gangs may not necessarily aim to displace recognized governments, but the net result of their activities is that they do.
Further, whereas the human cost of typical gang or mafia activity may be contained, the death and destruction that result from today’s crime wars are not. Millions of refugees and internally displaced persons have fled these gray-zone conflicts. But many of those who are dislocated are stuck in limbo, with most of them having been refused asylum, which—as codified in international refugee law, international humanitarian law, and by the International Criminal Court—is typically granted to people fleeing international and civil wars. Governments have typically been reluctant to recognize the dislocated as war refugees, because it would grant legitimacy to the crime wars. Yet with all the civilians killed and maimed, mayors and journalists attacked, families forced to flee genocide and disappearances, the violence generated by crime wars is indistinguishable from that generated by traditional war.
Crime wars are not going away…
This article echoes previous writings of authors like David Kilcullen who in Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla discusses some of the same issues. If you’ve done an area study for your location, you probably tried to identify local criminal groups or cartel activity. If this type of activity is having in civil disturbances around the globe, you can count on it coming to the US — if it isn’t already here.
The Pentagon made a video to highlight some of these issues as well, though it mostly discusses the difficulties in megacities.