Ruslan Trad, journalist and co-founder of De Re Militari
Several ongoing conflicts — in Syria, Ukraine, the Central African Republic — have provided further evidence that we require a new terminology for discussing war, international law, and the perception of “conventional war” in the twenty-first century. Some authors have rightly criticized stasis of many Western military strategists since the Second World War, who see war as an act between two legitimate powers — in this sense, only states. But such state-to-state, army-to-army battles are not only a thing of the past; the never were the “normal” way of war in the sense of being the majority of armed conflict around the world. At the present time, warfare is changing very rapidly. Let us look at some examples of how the map has changed in recent decades.
Frozen and Fragmented
Today we are living in a world with at least a dozen active military conflicts — and this does not include so-called “frozen conflicts”.
The many “frozen conflicts” should not be overlooked, not least because — from the Caucasus through the Balkans and Africa — they can “unfreeze” at any moment. For example, one of the longest running “frozen conflicts” is between Azerbaijan and Armenia, former provinces of the fallen Soviet Union, whose boundaries were never agreed. There are regular flare-ups along the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh zone to this day, with soldiers being wounded and even killed in the last few months. Likewise the problematic situation on the Pakistan-India border area, a dispute that goes back even further and is perhaps better known, centred on the Kashmir province. Political developments in either country can lead to an escalation of tensions in Kashmir at any moment, reminding the world that the contest exists even after years of relative calm.
Still, these are distinct from active conflict zones. Civil conflicts have been doubled since 2001. A map of the latest conflicts would look very worrying. The number of armed groups involved in such conflicts is also increasing. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, there are, on average, between three and nine groups involved in a given conflict. More than 20% of conflicts occur between more than ten groups. In addition to the wars in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, there are hundreds of groups fighting for control, most of them related in one way or another to the mafia, cartels, criminal organizations, and terrorist groups, as well as their nominal rebel or pro-government political allegiances.
Drugs and Consequences
While not often considered within the realm of global conflict, drug trafficking — which is supported by the largest crime syndicates in the world — plays a critical role. Due to the impact of cartels on developing countries, the United Nations has spoken of changing the terminology so that criminal organizations can be brought before the International Criminal Court. As of now, this is impossible because such organizations are not considered state entities, despite the fact that their impacts — the massacres, the actual control of territory, and the economic effects on entire countries of the drug gangs — resemble state conflict zones in scale. It is these facts that propel this desire to change the legal framework so that these groups can also be brought to justice.
With the spread of the new coronavirus, drug shipments from China have shrunk dramatically, hampering the activity of drug cartels in Mexico. Connections between mafia in China and the Mexican groups provide the latter with everything from fake luxury goods (clothing, jewelry, accessories) to chemical precursors that allow for the production of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that has properties similar to morphine and which causes thousands and thousands of deaths in the United States every year.
The extent of the impact the virus had had on the Sino-Mexican black market became apparent in February, when La Union de Tepito, which controls much of the sale of fake goods in Mexico City, began experienced overt “business” troubles because of the lack of shipments of illegal goods from China. Trading with such goods is as important to the criminal groups as the drugs trafficking, a fact highlighted by the 2010 internal schism that had Los Marco Polos arise within La Union de Tepito to take over the trade with China for fake branded goods at the markets in Mexico City. Since the beginning of this year, however, Los Marco Polos’ business has been blocked due to the coronavirus.
There is also evidence that one of the most brutal Mexican cartels, the Jalisco New Generation (CJNG), is also experiencing problems due to the disruption of supplies of the chemical precursors for fentanyl from China.
Everyone Feels the Economic Pinch
Lockdowns have been instituted all over the world to stop the spread of the coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it causes. Latin America is no exception: borders have been closed and air travel suspended. With the legal economy and travel routes that the criminals parasitize for their own ends effectively shut down, the criminal economies — whether drug trafficking, smuggling, or human trafficking — now have to try to find alternative routes for moving their produce. and this might in time make them easier to track. The immediate-run impact has been a rise in prices — and a reduction in customers.
In Honduras, for example, after the government closed its borders because of the coronavirus, traffickers of people known as “coyotes” raised their prices to help people and smugglers enter or leave the country. Many of the crime syndicates members are having to cross these borders multiple times because they have activities in the US.
The Wars Go On
For all the economic damage done to these organized crime groups, they have not been eliminated and are not likely to be; they have products and services people want at prices people are willing to pay, and they are so embedded societally that it will take more than a few months of troubled balance sheets to remove them.
CJNG controls between one- and two-thirds of the US drug market. This is a foothold it would take more than the coronavirus to dislodge. In March, American media shared details of a federal raid that arrested 600 people and seized assets from the cartel, including more than 15,000 kilos of meth and nearly $20 million in cash. Moreover, the group’s mechanisms of control ensure its survival. It is so violent that members leave piles of bodies in streets and hanging from overpasses in Mexico.
The cycle of violence in Mexico has reached new records in recent years. In May 2018, someone was being killed every fifteen minutes on average — nearly 100 per day, over 2,500 per month. Violence in Mexico is only part of a worldwide trend. This blend of crime, extremism, and insurgency is part of everyday life in Central and Southern America, Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Conflicts today cannot be stopped by ceasefire agreements or treaties. It is not just that these organizations have no respect for international organizations or diplomacy; they have every material incentive to keep the wars going.
The Politics of Crime
Many mafia groups, gangsters, and cartels are not treated — academically or legally — as political actors. This has a number of practical effects.
First, it makes bringing them to justice through the established mechanisms of international law more difficult. Cartels tend not to be treated the same as insurgent or terrorist groups whose atrocities can be labelled war crimes. Yet this paradigm misses the mark. Whether the Mexican cartels have developed political ambitions, their actions directly affect the political process and they act as political entities — governing territory, collecting taxes, and instituting regimes of social control, even if through fear and humiliation of the population.
Cartels and other criminal groups may not have as an explicit aim, or not initially, the replacement of the recognized governments, but their actual behaviour results in just that. Most realize that their interests are not in the destruction of the state, which would either create anarchy or lead to the rise of another state and political order. Rather, their interest is in state capture; the state thus ceases to be a target, and becomes a prize to be won. Guinea-Bissau is the classic case of a state that is simply a front for the cartels, and through this political apparatus the cartels acquire a measure of de facto international legitimacy and the ability to forge links abroad.
Leading to the second way not treating cartels like political groups is an error: they forge international links that see them act in the interests of various political forces. A recent case: the U.S. requested in 2018 that Hungary to extradite two Russian arms dealers who allegedly attempted to sell weapons to Mexican drug cartels so they could shoot down U.S. helicopters. It has long been understood that organized crime in Russia and the Kremlin’s intelligence services are in all the important senses synonymous, and the very reasonable fear is that Moscow will use these “deniable” actors to influence the flow of arms to South America as a way to make money and poke the Americans.
Finally, the wars that these cartels partake in and perpetuate frequently lead to a mass exodus of civilians, often across international frontiers. This is an inherently political problem, and the current formulation that means people cannot seek asylum if they’re displaced from a narco-conflict because it doesn’t come under the various treaties governing the status of refugees is an indefensible anomaly.
States Using “Non-State” Actors
In a reversal of the situation described above, where “apolitical” crime gangs seize states, an important aspect of warfare at the present time that is likely to grow is states using “apolitical” hired fighting forces — mercenaries — to accomplish their goals. This, again, creates very messy paradigmatic, political, and legal issues.
For all the focus on the arms industry, where the U.S. supplies over one-third of the global trade, this measure of military prowess is rather antiquated. In war as in nature, those who evolve quickest prevail. The conflicts in Ukraine and Syria suggest that the Russians in particular are more adaptive to the new realities of waging war in a way that is economically and politically viable in the current world order. Where the U.S. failed to achieve its objectives in Iraq after a formal declaration of war and the open stationing of its own troops on the ground, Russia managed to succeed in Syria without either of these things. By sending mercenaries and disguised regular soldiers to Syria (and Ukraine), Moscow enabled the Western state of denial about their presence until it was too late. The Russians were also able to succeed by having different, more limited parameters for success: they were comfortable with keeping their ally in power, presiding over a manageable chaos, while the West sought peace and stability. Russia is doing similar things in parts of Africa, and its allies in Libya have learned the lesson.
This has become a domestic problem for the West. On the one side, the Kremlin has organized a large-scale media campaign to justify its military interventions in Syria and elsewhere, influence the politics of democratic societies. It is no coincidence that Russia’s ruler Vladimir Putin keeps finding more friends in Europe — he is creating them through misinformation. And on the other side, the blurring of old distinctions by the use of mercenaries like Wagner, a formation attached to Russian military intelligence (GRU) that also delivers humanitarian aid and influences the youth in Syria, makes even describing what is happening more difficult, let alone applying international law. Serious changes are needed to the legal regime if justice is to be done against those who use hybrid war.
While all of this is occurring, Western leaders continue with the mantra that “escalation” must be avoided — long after the escalation has taken place, and influence has been lost. From Syria to Venezuela, Russia, an inherently weak state, is filling the vacuum as the U.S. and its allies pull back. This is leading to a more dangerous world. What the West needs at the moment is leadership that is capable of flexible strategies and confident steps, understanding that the world is so interconnected today that when there is a conflict in the Middle East or Africa, or a crisis in Southeast Asia, it affects the security of all.
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