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State and Nonstate Associated Gangs: Credible "Midwives of New Social Orders"

Authored by Dr. Max G. Manwaring. | May 2009

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This monograph introduces a poorly understood aspect of ?wars among the people.?1 It deals with the complex, protean character and hegemonic role of gangs, agitators, armed propagandists, popular militias, youth leagues, warrior bands, and other mercenary organizations operating as state and nonstate surrogates in the murky shallows of the contemporary asymmetric and irregular global security arena.2 This monograph, however, will not address tattooed teenage brigands. Rather, it will focus on ordinary-looking men and women who are politically and commercially dexterous.

Like insurgencies and other unconventional asymmetric irregular wars, there is no simple or universal model upon which to base a response to the gang phenomenon. Gangs come in different types, with different motives, and with different modes of action. Gangs also come with various possible allies and supporters. Examples of state and nonstate associated gangs include Venezuela?s institutionalized ?popular militias,? Colombia?s devolving criminal or warrior bands (bandas criminales ),and al-Qai?da?s loosely organized networks of propaganda-agitator gangs that operate in Spain and other parts of Western Europe. The motives and actions of these diverse groups are further complicated by their evershifting alliances with insurgents, transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), drug cartels, warlords, governments that want to maintain plausible denial of aggressive illicit action, and any other state or nonstate actor that might require the services of a mercenary gang organization or a surrogate.3

The internal and external hegemonic use of gangs goes back at least to the 16th century and Machiavelli, who said, ?Some have made themselves masters of [city-states] by holding private correspondence with, and corrupting one party of the inhabitants. They have used several methods to do this.?4 Machiavelli must have thought that everyone clearly understood what he was saying, because he did not elaborate. As an example, everyone knew that political leaders, regardless of title, employed ?unofficial henchmen? they could put to use in a contingency. It was V. I. Lenin in the early 20th century, however, who articulated the strategic asymmetric-irregular-political vision within which so many contemporary nonstate and nation-state actors now operate.5 Lenin argued that anyone wishing to compel an adversary to accede to his will, ?must create [organize, train, and employ] a body of experienced agitators.?6 In that connection, anybody and everybody are free to study his ideas, adapt his ideas, and implement them for their own purposes.7 Lenin?s purpose was straightforward: If these instruments of statecraft (agitators; that is, the gang phenomenon) succeed in helping to tear apart the fabric upon which a targeted society rests, then the instability and violence they create can serve as the ?midwife of a new social order.?8

In these terms, Lenin?s classic strategic vision is relevant to modern political discussions regarding ?new? socialism, populism, and neo-populism, as well as hegemonic challenges to stronger opponents. Lenin?s Democratic-Socialism was the dictatorship of the proletariat?only a Leninist Social-Democracy can represent the democratic will of a people (the proletarian or working class). His methodology was, therefore, populist and neo-populist. He was a populist in the sense of being anti-liberal democracy. He was neo-populist in terms of being anti-bourgeois-capitalist political-economic system.9 He was hegemonic in terms of the Leninist dictum that it can only be with the ?defensive? extinction of all opposition that a new social order will come about, as well as true sovereignty.10 And only when Leninist surrogates are in place all around the world will Social-Democracy be safe and peace possible.11 In any event and in every phase of the revolutionary process, agitator-gangs (popular militias) play significant roles in helping their political patrons prepare to take control of a targeted political-social entity. As a result, state and nonstate supported and associated gangs are important components of a highly complex political-psychological-military act ? contemporary irregular asymmetric political war.12

One can take an important step toward understanding the political wars in our midst by examining a few selected cases. Accordingly, this monograph examines three contemporary variations on the Leninist agitator-gang theme. They are, first, Hugo Chavez?s use of the ?New Socialism? to facilitate his neo-populist Bolivarian dream of creating a mega-state in Latin America that would be liberated from U.S. political and economic domination; second, gang permutations in Colombia that are contributing significantly to the erosion of the Colombian state and its democratic institutions and implementing the anti-system objectives of their elite neo-populist sponsors; and, third, al-Qai?da?s sophisticated, strategic, and hegemonic use of political-criminal gangs to coerce substantive change in Western European foreign policy and governance.

Lessons derived from these cases demonstrate how gangs might fit into a holistic state or nonstate actor effort to compel radical political-social change and illustrate how traditional political-military objectives may be achieved indirectly rather than directly. These lessons are significant beyond their own domestic political context. They are harbingers of many of the wars among the people that have emerged from the Cold War and are taking us kicking and screaming into the 21st century.13 These cases are also significant beyond their uniqueness. The common political objective in each case is to coerce radical change in targeted political-economic-social systems.


The Venezuelan, Colombian, and al-Qai?da in Western Europe cases represent a diverse array of contemporary conflict situations. The differences in these irregular and asymmetric wars are illustrated by a range of objectives, motives, and modes of operations. As examples, the Venezuelan case demonstrates a neo-populist and New Socialist set of motives and objectives. The present Colombian situation describes more narco-criminal self-enrichment than left or right-wing ideological objectives. And al-Qai?da in Western Europe emphasizes regional hegemonic political motives and objectives. At the same time, the Venezuelan case illustrates the use of institutionalized popular militias as a tool of contemporary statecraft. In Colombia, nonideological criminal and Left and Right-wing persuasion and coercion is being conducted by relatively large criminal or warrior groups (bandas criminales). And, in Spain and other parts of Western Europe, al-Qai?da is relying on small loosely organized networks of propaganda-agitator gangs to initiate the achievement of its political aims.

These cases demonstrate that the gang phenomenon (popular militias, gangs/cells, and bandas criminales) and its state and nonstate patrons are not directly challenging incumbent governments for control of targeted states. By responding to this kind of challenge to security, stability, and sovereignty in traditional ways, including accepting corrupt practices and/or pretending the problems will go away, most political leaders are playing into the hands of the phenomenon and the powers that support it. They do not appreciate the nature and extent of the violent challenge to political order and the values of democratic governance being raised by state or hegemonic power-supported militias (Venezuela), criminal bands (Colombia), and small propaganda-agitator gangs (al-Qai?da). Yet, what makes these cases significant beyond their own domestic political context is that they are the results and harbingers of much of the ongoing purposeful political chaos of the 21st century.

These cases are also significant beyond their differences in that the common denominator political objective in each supposedly unique case is virtually the same. The common theme that runs through each of the diverse cases outlined above is that any indirect or direct attempt to violently control, depose, or replace a targeted government must eventually lead to:

  • The erosion of democratic governance;
  • The erosion of state institutions, and to the processes leading to state failure;
  • The establishment of military or civilian dictatorships;
  • The estabilishment of tribal states, criminal anarchy, or warlordism;
  • The creation of "new" socialist, populist, or criminal states; or
  • The absorption, division, or reconfiguration of existing states into entirely different states.

As a corollary, this cautionary tale and Colonel T.X. Hammes, USMC (Ret.) remind us that the United States still does not have a unified strategy and organizational structure to deal effectively with the debilitating type of wars examined above?that is, 4GW irregular asymmetric war.121 The strategic level requirement, thus, involves two different levels of analysis?cognitive and organizational:

  • The need for civilian and military leaders at all levels to better understand the nature of contemporary conflict, and to implement a realistic and multidimensional ends, ways, and means strategy to deal with it; and,
  • The need for an organizational structure to ensure high levels of individual, national-institutional, and trans-national unity of effort.

Ambassadors Stephen Krasner and Carlos Pascual have argued that in today?s increasingly interconnected world, the chaos inherent in weak and failed states poses an acute risk to U.S. and global security. When chaos prevails, terrorism, narcotics trade, weapons proliferation, and other forms of organized crime can flourish. ?Left in dire straits, subject to depredation, and denied access to basic services, people become susceptible to the exhortations of demagogues and hate-mongers.?122 The international community and the United States are not, however, prepared to deal with governance failure. The United States and the rest of the world need to develop the tools to both prevent conflict and manage its aftermath when it does occur. Krasner and Pascual further argue that, ?To promote sustainable peace, Washington and its partners must commit to making long-term investments of money, energy, and expertise.?123

As a consequence, in the spring of 2004, the George W. Bush administration created a new office within the State Department: the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS). The intent was to create an organization that could help lead and coordinate joint operations across U.S. governmental agencies to respond to evolving crises around the world, in concert with the international community.124 This was a step in the right direction and a worthy attempt to develop a new set of tools for conflict prevention and conflict response. These tools ranged from establishing a capability to plan for stabilization and reconstruction, to organizing resources from various U.S. governmental agencies so they might be mobilized quickly in response to a given crisis situation.125 The results of these efforts, however, have been disappointing.

The basis of the problem is that no single U.S. Government agency (the Department of State) and that no number of partial measures can be of much help in dealing with contemporary irregular conflict until:

  • Fundamental strategic-level changes in the amorphous U.S. interagency organizational architecture are implemented to ensure an effective ?whole-of-government? and transnational unity of effort;
  • Strategic leaders throughout the entire interagency community understand and can deal with ambiguous unconventional irregular conflict in a comprehensive, coordinated, and cooperative manner; and,
  • The entire civil-military interagency community can come together to provide the United States with a unified capability to utilize the instruments of soft and hard power that are effective in the contemporary global security arena; and, that can be integrated with coalition/ partner governments and armed forces, nongovernmental agencies, and international organizations.

Such unity of effort recommendations may be found, for example, in the Phase 1, 2, and 3 Reports of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS). These comprehensive reports are entitled ?Beyond Goldwater-Nichols: Defense Reform for a New Strategic Era,? ?Beyond Goldwater-Nichols: U.S. Government and Defense Reform for a New Strategic Era,? and ?The Future of the National Guard and Reserves.?126 Additionally and importantly, James R. Locher III and his associates at the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR) are making recommendations similar to those passed by the U.S. Congress in the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense (DoD) Reorganization Act. These recommendations focus on the bases from which the U.S. interagency community might develop a more effective organizational capability to work synergistically over the long term in complex, irregular, and politically ambiguous contemporary conflict situations.127

In addition to dealing with the political and organizational difficulties at the interagency level, it is imperative to develop leaders who can generate strategic clarity and make it work. Like other members of the interagency community who act as individual instruments of U.S. national power, the expanding roles and missions of the armed forces will require new doctrine, organization, equipment, training, and education to confront the challenges of contemporary conflict. In this connection, the U.S. armed forces, along with their civilian counterparts, must also respond to responsible recommendations that go well beyond present-day conventional warfare.

Such recommendations, as one example, that pertain directly to the U.S. Army may be found in ?TF (Task Force) Irregular Challenges CSA (Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army) Outbrief,? and ?TF Irregular Challenge DAS Decision Brief on Interagency Cadre Initiative,? presented by the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College in 2005 and 2006. The recommendations in these documents center on the cultural mind set adjustments required to transition from the kinetic fight to nonkinetic conflict.128 In that connection, there are at least four doctrinal, educational, and cultural imperatives the U.S. armed forces must consider and act upon:

  • The study of the fundamental nature of conflict has always been the philosophical cornerstone for understanding conventional conflict. It is no less relevant to asymmetric irregular conflict. Thus, it is recommended that the U.S. Army take the lead in promulgating 21st century concepts that can help leaders deal with the uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, and chaos they will face as an inherent part of modern human conflict.
  • Civilian and military leaders at all levels must understand the strategic and political-psychological implications of operational and tactical actions in contemporary conflicts that involve entire societies. In these terms, it is recommended that leaders be taught how force can be employed to achieve political ends, and the ways that political considerations affect the use of force.
  • At the same time, strategic leaders at all levels must be educated to understand the challenges of ?ambiguity? so that they may be better prepared to deal with them.
  • It is also recommended that the U.S. Army take the lead in revitalizing and expanding efforts that enhance interagency as well as international cultural awareness?such as civilian and military exchange programs, language training programs, cultural orientation programs, and combined (multinational) civilian and military exercises.129

These cognitive and organizational recommendations are nothing radical. They are only the logical extensions of basic security strategy and national and international asset management. To quote Krasner and Pascual again, ?The broader payoff is security. . . . That can only be in everyone?s best interest.?130


1. General Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

2. Kimbra L. Fishel, ?Challenging the Hegemon: Al-Qai?da?s Elevation of Asymmetric Insurgent Warfare onto the Global Arena,? in Robert J. Bunker, ed., Networks, Terrorism and Global Insurgency, London, UK: Routledge, 2005, pp. 115-128.

3. Max G. Manwaring, A Contemporary Challenge to State Sovereignty: Gangs and Other Illicit Trans-National Criminal Organizations in Central America, El Salvador, Mexico, Jamaica, and Brazil, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2007.

4. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Art of War, New York: DeCapo Press, [1521] 1965, p. 196.

5. See, as examples, V. I. Lenin, ?What Is To Be Done?? [1902]; ?Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution,? [1907]; and ?Socialism and War,? [1915] in Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Lenin Anthology, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1975, pp. 12-19, 112-114, 134-141, 194-195, respectively.

6. Lenin, ?The Tasks of Russian Social-Democrats,? Anthology, p. 5.

7. See, as examples, J. Boyer Bell, Dragonwars, New Brunswick, NJ: Transition Publishers, 1999; Thomas A. Marks, Maoist Insurgency since Vietnam, London, UK: Frank Cass, 1996; and David E. Spencer, ?Reexamining the Relevance of Maoist Principles to Post-Modern Insurgency and Terrorism,? unpublished manuscript, n.d. Also see General Vo Nguyen Giap, People?s War People?s Army: The Viet Cong Insurrection Manual for Underdeveloped Countries, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962, pp. 34-37; Abraham Guillen, ?Philosophy of the Urban Guerrilla,? Donald C. Hodges, trans. and ed., The Revolutionary Writings of Abraham Guillen, New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 1973; Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Unrestricted Warfare, Beijing, China: PLA Literature and Arts Publishing House, 1999; and Jorge Verstrynge Rojas, La Guerra Periférica y el Islam Revolucionario: Orígines, Reglas, y Ética de la Guerra Asimétrica, Special Edition for the Army of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, IDRFAN, Enlace Circular Militar, Madrid, Spain: El Viejo Popo, May 2005.

8.Ibid., pp. 3-11; and ?What Is To Be Done?? pp. 12-19, 112- 114; and ?Socialism and War,? pp. 194-195. Also see ?The State and Revolution,? p. 324; ?The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky,? p. 467; ?A Great Beginning,? p. 478; and ?The Dictatorship of the Proletariat,? pp. 489-496, in Anthology.

9.Ibid.; and Vladimir Torres, The Impact of ?Populism? on Social, Political, and Economic Development in the Hemisphere, Ottawa, Canada: Canadian Foundation for the Americas (FOCAL), July 2006, pp. 1-18, available at www.focal.ca.

10. Lenin, ?The Tasks of the Youth Leagues,? Anthology, p. 671.

11. Ibid.

12. Lenin, ?The Tasks of the Russian Social Democrats,? Anthology, pp. 3-12.

13. Ian Beckett, ?The Future of Insurgency,? Small Wars & Insurgencies, March 2005, pp. 22-36.

121. Hammes, The Sling and the Stone, pp. 207-215. Also see Qiao and Wang, 1999, p. 108.

122. Stephen D. Krasner and Carlos Pascual, ?Addressing State Failure,? Foreign Affairs, July/August, 2005, p. 153.

123. Ibid., pp. 153-154.

124. Ibid., pp. 154-163.

125. Ibid., pp. 160-163.

126. These reports are authored by Clark A. Murdock, Michele A. Flournoy, Christine E. Wormuth, Christopher A. Williams, Kurt M. Campbell, Patrick T. Henry, Pierre A. Chao, Julianne Smith, and Anne A. Witkowsky, entitled ?Beyond Goldwater-Nichols: Defense Reform for a New Strategic Era,? Washington, DC: Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), March 2004, July 2005, and July 2006, available at <www.csis.org/isp/bgn/reports.

127. See James R. Locher III, Victory on the Potomac: The Goldwater-Nichols Act Unifies the Pentagon, College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002. The PSNR.orgbut information may be obtained by writing to the Project on National Security Reform, The Center for the Study of the Presidency, 1020 19th St. NW, Suite 250, Washington, DC 20036.website is restricted,

128.See ?TF Irregular Challenge CSA, Outbrief,? Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, June 28, 2005; and ?TF Irregular Challenge DAS, Decision Brief on Interagency Cadre Initiative,? Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, November 27, 2006.

129. Ibid. Also see Hammes, The Sling and the Stone, pp. 282- 291.

130. Krasner and Pascual, p. 163.