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
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Alexandria, Virginia 22314

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[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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