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Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency

Authored by Dr. Max G. Manwaring. | March 2005

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This monograph explains the linkage of contemporary criminal street gangs (that is, the gang phenomenon or third generation gangs) to insurgency in terms of the instability it wreaks upon governments and the concomitant challenge to state sovereignty. Although differences between gangs and insurgents regarding motives and modes of operations exist, this linkage infers that gang phenomena are mutated forms of urban insurgency. In these terms, these ?new? nonstate actors must eventually seize political power to guarantee the freedom of action and the commercial environment they want. The common denominator that can link the gang phenomenon to insurgency is that some third generation gangs? and insurgents? ultimate objective is to depose or control the governments of targeted countries.

The author identifies those issues that must be taken together and understood as a whole before any effective countermeasures can be taken to deal with the half-criminal and half-political nature of the gang phenomenon. This is a universal compound-complex problem that must be understood on three distinct levels of analysis: first, the gangs phenomena are generating serious domestic and regional instability and insecurity that ranges from personal violence to insurgent to state failure: second, because if their criminal activities and security challenges, the gangs phenomena are exacerbating civil-military and police-military relations problems and reducing effective and civil-military ability to control the national territory; and, third, gangs are helping transitional criminal organizations, insurgents, warlords, and drug barons erode the legitimacy and effective sovereignty of nation-states . The analytical commonality linking these three issues is the inevitable contribution to either (a) failing and failed state status of targeted countries, or (b) deposing or controlling the governments of targeted countries. In these terms, we must remember that crime and instability are only symptoms of the threat. The ultimate threat is either state failure or the violent imposition of a radical socio-economic-political restructuring of the state and its governance.

In describing the gang phenomenon as a simple mutation of a violent act we label as insurgency, we mischaracterize the activities of nonstate organizations that are attempting to take control of the state. We traditionally think of insurgency as primarily a military activity, and we think of gangs as a simple law-enforcement problem. Yet, insurgents and third generation gangs are engaged in a highly complex political act?political war. Under these conditions, police and military forces would provide personal and collective security and stability, while they and other governmental institutions combat the root causes of instability and political war?injustice, repression, inequity, and corruption. The intent would be to generate the political-economic-social development that will define the processes of national reform, regeneration, and wellbeing. The challenge, then, is to come to terms with the fact that contemporary security and stability, at whatever level, is at base a holistic political-diplomatic, socio-economic, psychological-moral, and military police effort.

This monograph concludes with implications and strategic-level recommendations derived from the instability, civil-military jurisdiction, and sovereignty issues noted above that will help leaders achieve strategic clarity and operate more effectively in the complex politically dominated, contemporary global security arena.


These are the essential components of strategic clarity. Even though every conflict situation differs in one way or another, none is ever truly unique. Throughout the universe of contemporary conflict in general?and complex emergencies involving nonstate actors in particular?there are analytical commonalities. The final outcomes of the ?New Wars,? such as those ongoing in Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico, and the Andean Ridge of South America brought about by narco-traffickers and gangs, are not determined primarily by the skillful manipulation of violence on the battlefield. Control of these situations and their resolutions will be determined by the qualitative judgments and unity of effort established before, during, and after conflicts are politically recognized to have begun and ended.

Two common denominators underlie the discussion of the issues considered. The first is the need to understand and to behave as though the Cold War is over, combined with learning how to optimize capabilities in an ambiguous, nontraditional, global security environment. In colloquial terms, this first common denominator relates specifically to ?mind-set,? and, in more formal terms, it refers to leader judgment. The second common denominator involves the political partnership requirements that will permit doctrinal and structural change related to coalitions and operations involving mixes of military and civilian organizations. This requirement is fundamental to maintaining unity of effort in unconventional nonstate conflict. These common denominators are essential for success in complex emergencies. Thus, we must develop leaders and organizational structures that can generate strategic clarity and make it work?the sooner, the better.75

To dismiss the above recommendations as ?too difficult,? ?unrealistic,? or ?simply impossible? is to accept the inevitability of unattractive alternatives. At best, international leadership can leave forces in place to maintain a de facto military occupation, as in Cyprus. Or, at worst, leadership can ?declare victory and go home? with the sure knowledge that that particular set of problems will erupt again and again, and the time, treasure, and blood expended will have been for nothing.


75. Ibid.