On War #319: The First Front

William S. Lind
26 October 2009

An article in the October 23 Washington Times points to what I think may be the next important evolution in Fourth Generation war. The piece concerns Mexico’s third-largest drug gang, La Familia. La Familia is best known for beheading people it does not like. But according to the article, its real claim to fame may be as a pioneer in seizing the mantle of legitimacy previously worn by the state.

La Familia is based in a poor, remote Mexican province, Michoacan, where the Mexican state has long been little more than another gang. Unlike the state, La Familia actually provides services for the province’s people. According to the Washington Times,

The group has a strong religious background and proclaims it is doing God’s work, passing out money and Bibles to poor people.

A DEA agent…said cartel leader Nazario Moreno Gonzales sees his drug dealing as serving the best interests of the people of Michoacan.

The agent said Mr. Moreno doesn’t want meth users among his people (meth is La Familia’s specialty) and will take users off the street and pay for their rehabilitation…

La Familia has won the loyalty of the people of Michoacan. According to the DEA, the group…now gives some of the proceeds of its drug trafficking to schools and local officials.

All of this has made it very difficult for authorities to go to Michoacan to arrest members of La Familia.

In effect, it appears La Familia has replaced the Mexican state in Michoacan. The gang provides an export-based economy where locals actually receive the profits. It tries to protect the local population from the negative environmental effects of its industry, i.e., addiction. It offers a range of social services.

Importantly, it deploys one of the most powerful claims to legitimacy, religion. The fact that the Mexican state is rigidly secular makes the Christian identity La Familia seeks all the more effective. Very few peasants are agnostics.

La Familia’s brutal violence may work against or for its quest for legitimacy. If it uses violence carelessly so that the local population must fear being random victims, it will undermine its own legitimacy and push people back toward the state as a source of order. However, if its violence is carefully targeted so as to promote local order and enforce what may be perceived as justice, then even brutality may work in its favor.

Other gangs will undoubtedly figure out what La Familia seems to have grasped, namely that money spent to benefit the surrounding population can buy the best kind of protection, protection by the local people. What has always been true for guerrillas fighting for political goals is true for 4GW entities as well: once the government has to face a population united in support of its enemies, it has already lost.

This model – an illegal but widely profitable local economy + social services + religion – will, I think, spread widely. To succeed, it needs a weak state, one that takes from the local population but provides little or nothing in return. That kind of state is already common in much of the world and will become more so.

The Washington Times ran a header above this story that said “Second Front.” In fact, gangs such as La Familia are the first front. What is coming over our southern border is far more important to America’s future security that any of our wars in sandboxes half a world away. The story quotes Attorney General Eric Holder as saying, “Indeed, while this cartel may operate from Mexico, the toxic reach of its operations extends to nearly every state within our own country.”

Real national security is security in our homes, neighborhoods and cities. Unfortunately, the Washington Establishment continues to define “national security” as attaining world dominion. So long as it does so, it will continue to prop open the door for La Familia and other gangs, both imported and home-grown, which understand that what is real is local.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
1423 Powhatan Street, # 2
Alexandria, Virginia 22314

Direct line: 703 837-0483

Comments are welcome; please observe our comment policy.

[CR:  Friends who were recently in Michoacan report that Bill may be exaggerating La Familia’s influence, but not by a lot.  Certainly the situation represents the replacement of Mexican governmental influence in at least part of that state and demonstrates the ability of non-state armed groups to evolve in response to changes in the security environment, both in Mexico and in the US.

It’s also worth noting that La Familia’s goal does not appear to be to replace the government of either Michoacan or Mexico with its own cadres.  That is, it represents something other than an insurgency, thereby meeting one of the criteria I’ve suggested for a “fourth generation” entity.  In other words, we may be witnessing 4GW as the evolution of crime more than it is the evolution of war (=armed conflict among nations, something that Clausewitz and Sun Tzu agreed upon).]

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7 Responses to “On War #319: The First Front”

  1. Duncan C Kinderon 27 Oct 2009 at 12:09 am 1

    Something similar is happening in Guatemala:

    Residents of a poor Guatemalan town have rallied around a family sought by the United States for drug trafficking but respected at home for handing out food, jobs and medicine to people in need. Guatemala has become a major transit route for drugs smuggled north to Mexico and the United States, and in small towns like La Reforma, wealthy capos are filling the vacuum left by weak governments. The country’s drug trade is run by powerful families that can wield vast control over their smuggling territory.

    Hundreds of protesters recently staged a rally to support the notorious Lorenzana family after the Guatemalan police, army and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raided La Reforma last month to arrest members accused of working with Mexico’s feared Gulf Cartel. “The Lorenzana family generates jobs to provide daily bread for the poor. We support you from the bottom of our hearts,” read one demonstrator’s sign.

    “The majority of people in this area work on the family’s melon and tobacco farms and if there wasn’t this work, we couldn’t pay for food or medicine,” said Miguel Saguil, 52, at the rally outside of one of the Lorenzana’s luxurious houses.

    The hot and dusty land around La Reforma in eastern Guatemala is inhospitable and the region has one of the highest hunger rates in the country, with people often struggling to farm enough beans and corn to feed their families. The government provides few welfare services and many fear their livelihoods will disappear if the Lorenzanas are arrested.

    …. Police say the Lorenzanas use their local backing to create a network of informants, making them difficult to catch. “This is the first time that we’ve openly seen a demonstration in favor of suspected drug traffickers,” police spokesman Donald Gonzalez said, adding that several drug-running families across the country had also been able to garner local support in their patches.

    An international food-aid worker in eastern Guatemala said that drug capos can sometimes do more to directly help the poorest people than the government or aid groups.

    Authorities say other drug trafficking families hold similar sway in towns like Morales in Guatemala’s Caribbean department of Izabal, and in the jungle of the Peten, along the border with Mexico. “There’s a connection with money laundering as this is how they pay all their employees and suppliers, and all their work to build schools, pay for people to bury their loved ones. It’s all a way of building political support,” said Lizardo Bolanos, a Guatemalan economist.

    …. But locals are grateful for any help they can get from the Lorenzana family. “I have one son who is sick and they pay for his medicine, and another who is studying to be a priest and they have given him a scholarship,” said Edelmira Hernandez, 40, a mother of eight.

    [CR: thanks – an important topic. Any other thoughts?]

  2. senor tomason 28 Oct 2009 at 1:37 am 2

    ” provides services for the province’s people”

    This may be new to Mexico – but Colombian cartels have been doing this since the 1980s. One thing that made it so difficult to nail Pablo Escobar was that many folks saw him as Robin Hood.

    [CR: Good point – thanks.]

  3. Duncan C Kinderon 29 Oct 2009 at 12:28 am 3

    Re: [CR: thanks – an important topic. Any other thoughts?]

    The Guatemalan situation described above appears to be a variant of the padron system widely found in Latin America.

    Also, the combination of this patronage with money laundering is interesting.

  4. loggie20on 29 Oct 2009 at 2:49 pm 4

    Same as Afghan poppy growing. It is a lucrative cash crop and keeping the locals on your side keeps peace and garners moral as well as material power.

    The answer to cocaine and heroin is to end those useless wasteful perpetual “wars”.

    Make it like Belgium or Netherlands where drug addicts are treated like sick people not criminals.

    Afghanistan and Iraq are same to the perpetual war establishments.

  5. cynicalon 01 Nov 2009 at 12:12 am 5

    I’ve encountered a similar concept before, on a much smaller scale, in Chicago. Once I was visiting some folks in a bad neighborhood on the south side, with a friend. Our host mentioned that her next-door neighbors sold crack. She then explained that this was actually an advantage: the crack dealers had power in the neighborhood and had no desire to draw law enforcement there. So they used their violence and influence against the petty muggers, rapists and purse theives in the surrounding area. She felt safer on her block due to the stabilizing presence of the crack house.

    If the state is that agency which holds the monopoly on violence in an area, does that make such a block (or, a place like Michoacan) a hole in the state? Or is it more of a wierd parasite or tumor? I’m not sure how to think about this.

    [CR: Your last sentence is the only logical conclusion at this point.]

  6. John Seileron 09 Nov 2009 at 1:01 am 6

    “To succeed, it needs a weak state, one that takes from the local population but provides little or nothing in return. That kind of state is already common in much of the world and will become more so.”

    Sounds like the USA under Bush-Obama.

  7. Barryon 12 Nov 2009 at 12:59 pm 7

    Genetic pacification? .

    “The market economy has expanded because we’ve behaved in ways that make expansion possible. For instance, we no longer see violence as a legitimate way to settle disputes. We no longer use theft and intimidation as means of self-aggrandizement. And we no longer look up to violent charismatic ‘big men’ as role models.[…]

    For most humans, little has changed since time immemorial. ‘They’ trust only close kin and long-time friends. ‘They’ kill over questions of honor and loss of face. And ‘they’ admire men whom we consider to be thugs.

    But there has been change in some regions, like the European world, East Asia, and parts of South Asia. For the historical economist Gregory Clark, the ultimate reason is the rise of the State and its monopoly on the use of violence. This monopoly created a new set of selection pressures. What had once been rewarded in the struggle for existence was now penalized. And vice versa.[…]

    In the centuries after imposition of central authority, male homicide fell steadily from 1150 to 1800, there being a parallel decline in blood sports and other violent practices [..] Clark ascribes this behavioral change to the reproductive success of upper- and middle-class individuals whose heritable characteristics differed statistically from those of the general population, particularly with respect to male violence. Although initially a small minority in medieval England, these individuals grew in number and their descendants gradually replaced the lower classes through downward mobility. By 1800, such lineages accounted for most of the English population[…]

    The… other regions had undergone the same behavioral evolution for the same reason: the emergence of strong states that monopolize the use of violence. Elsewhere, where this evolution has begun more recently, or not at all, the market economy has been less successful. It works only when strong-armed regimes ensure respect for life and property.”