Posted by: hobbesonafob | June 26, 2009

Insurgencies and COIN as Social Engineering?

Narcosaints are far more dashing than your run-of-the-mill Catholic saint...

Narcosaints are far more dashing than your run-of-the-mill Catholic saint...

Another beer-laced conversation with a friend a few days ago gave way to a few interesting thoughts, one of which I will briefly elaborate on. It seems to me that COIN could be viewed as a form of social engineering.

First, I want to begin with the following disclaimer: this is not about America exercising cultural hegemony and “americanizing” societies or anything like that. I think that it would be more beneficial to look at social engineering in a more nuanced way. We can look at the occupying force (e.g. a predominantly Western coalition) as trying to nation-build, which I believe is a form of social engineering. But, I believe we can also look at the “insurgents” or other contentious and coercive nonstate actors (CCNAs) as social organizations engaging in social engineering. This is not to say that all CCNAs engage in social engineering, but there are some that do.

I will bring up Migdal’s notion of “social control” and apply it to the drug cartels in Mexico.

The importance of being able to mobilize a population is shown in Migdal’s description of social control: “Social control is the currency over which organizations in an environment of conflict battle one another” (1). For him, social control is divided into three levels:

COMPLIANCE: “conformance to its demands by the population. Compliance often first comes with the use of the most basic of sanctions, force.”

PARTICIPATION: “to gain strength by organizing the population for specialized tasks in the institutional components of the state organizations.”

LEGITIMATION: the “acceptance, even approbation, of the state’s rules of the game, its social control, as true and right” (2).

The ability for a CCNA to exercise social control provides an incredible resource from which to draw. Social, mental, and even emotional capital can be drawn from those who change their primary loyalty from the state to a CCNA and begin to comply, participate, and accept the CCNA as a legitimate party.

Events in Mexico have revealed the increasing power of Mexican drug cartels. If one compares the situation in Mexico to Migdal’s examination of state power, one will notice that the cartels are exercising increasing social control. The Mexican cartels have been able to coerce Mexico’s population and state officials into compliance with the cartels’ demands. The police chief of Jaurez, Robert Orduna stepped down from his position after the cartels threatened to kill at least one police officer every two days. After a police officer and a guard were killed, Robert Orduna resigned. The mayor of Jaurez believed that Mr. Orduna’s resignation was the only way to keep police officers safe from the violence; this example relates to Migdal’s concept of “Compliance.” As well, the recent anti-army protests in Mexico may be a sign that drug cartels have been able to organize populations to perform in specialized actions — as per Migdal’s notion of “Participation.” The BBC claims that these protests were initiated and directed by the cartels. One of the four cartels, the Gulf Cartel’s enforcement arm, known as Los Zetas, are deserters from the Mexican army special forces (3). Again, much like the former loggers in B.C., the cartel has been able to employ the skills of soldiers trained by the state (an example of capitalizing off the investments made by the state) and using individuals to actively participate in the CCNA’s organization. The amount of participation in the cartels is quite extraordinary. According to the U.S. Defense Department, two of Mexico’s drug cartels are able to field more than 100,000 “foot soldiers,” if they were to combine their forces. This rivals the Mexican army which currently has approximately 130,000 soldiers. There is no doubt that the Mexican drug cartels have been able to effectively force compliance on selected agents of the state and the population, as well as being able to have the citizenry participate in specialized activities.

The final requirement for Migdal’s concept of social control is “Legitimation” — the acceptance or the approbation, of a CCNAs actions as being “true and right” (4). This is harder to evaluate empirically without conducting surveys, however, a few qualitative observations may provide some information. Writing for Foreign Policy, Sam Quinones writes that during his time in Mexico during 2008, he spied what locals called narcomantas: “drug banners” (5). The banners were placed by a cartel accusing a rival cartel of working hand-in-hand with Mexican President Felipe Calderón. The intended effect of the banner is two-fold: delegitimize the Mexican state and cast aspersions on the rival gang.

Another social development is that of “narcosaints,” which are figurines of a “Mexican version of Robin Hood” named Malverde, who is considered the patron saint of drug traffickers in Culiacán, Sinaloa (6). Not only do these new cultural artifacts play off of what Mexicans hold sacred, but it also adds to the drug traffickers’ social narrative. Another medium used to propagate this narrative is found in corridos (ballads) that have been part of Mexican tradition for the past 100 years. Usually used to glamorize figures during the Mexican Revolution, corridos have been increasingly about drug traffickers. These ballads are known as narcocorridos, and they are based on the exploits of drug traffickers and drug cartels (7). The presence of narcomantas, narcosaints, and narcocorridos reveal an emerging legitimization of the actions of the drug cartels, or at the least, an attempt by the cartels to legitimize their actions. This cultural shift in northern Mexico is described by Quinones in the following excerpt:

A narcoculture has evolved there, venerating smugglers and their swaggering hillbilly style, called buchon. Hicks became heroes. They moved into wealthy neighborhoods and fired guns in the air at parties. Bands sing their exploits; college kids know how they died. Sinaloa is that rare place where townies emulate hayseeds, and youths yearn to join their ranks (8).

Anthropologist, Marc W.D. Tyrrell would classify this cultural shift in Mexico as an example of successful social engineering, exemplifying the “the desired end form of the social engineering” because it “already fits into the cultural matrix” (9). These social changes have not convinced the entirety of the population of the cartels’ legitimacy. The formation of vigilante groups issuing death threats to the drug cartels have proven that the whole of Mexico’s population has not accepted the drug violence. There is some doubt as to whether or not all of these citizens’ militias are genuinely grassroots, or if some of them have been fronts for competing drug cartels (10). To make matters more complicated, another group called the Armed Movement of the North, has pledged to begin fighting “the aggressions of foreign capital” and “the abuse and injustices of the current government” (11).

If one accepts Migdal’s view on social control as being “the currency over which organizations in an environment of conflict battle one another,” (12) then the increase of the social control by Mexico’s drug cartels may have serious consequences for the Mexican state. The appearance of vigilante groups has undertones of a new form of social contract between individuals in the face of the Hobbesian WARRE that transpires in Mexico. If these groups begin to invest into social control, it will only be a matter of time when both the drug cartels, rebel groups, and militias begin to engage in “independent classificatory exercise[s]” (13). It is at this point where:

the names get changed and how the people and things are rejigged to fit the new categories. First the people are tempted out of their niches by new possibilities of exercising or evading control. Then they make new kinds of institutions, and the institutions make new labels, and the label makes new kinds of people” (14).

At this level of social control, the CCNAs will be able to label individuals as “traitors” and “enemies” and this becomes problematic not only for those who are perceived as traitors or enemies, but for the state when it itself becomes the enemy. The failure of the Mexican state to curb violence and provide legitimate economic growth for its population has created an opportunity of which drug cartels have only recently begun to take advantage. The situation in Mexico is an example of what can occur when CCNAs begin investing in and obtaining social control.

I would argue that AQ/the Taliban also demonstrates some forms of social control. Whether it be marrying into different tribal/family groups, or assassinating key leaders in the NWFP, AQ/the Taliban has shown its willingness to modify societies for its own ends.

Due to other commitments, I won’t be posting for a whole week. An exam just after Canada Day (how lame…), report deadlines, and plans for a canoe trip in Algonquin Park, will be eating up most of my time.

Works Cited/Footnotes

1. Joel S. Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988),, 32.

2. Migdal, 32-33.

3. BBC, “Q&A: Mexico’s drug-fuelled violence,” March 24, 2009.

4. Migdal, 32-33.

5.  Sam Quinones, “State of War,” Foreign Policy, March/April 2009, 77.

6. Foreign Policy, “Photo Essay: Spring Break Gone Wrong?” June 2, 2008.

7. Chris Summer and Dominic Bailey, “Mexico’s forbidden songs,” October 3, 2004.

8. Quinones, 78.

9. Marc W.D. Tyrrell, “What to Know Before you Go: 10 Questions to ask before, and during, a mission” in Stability Operations and State Building: Continuities and Contingencies. ed. Greg Kauffman (Strategic Studies Institute, 2008), 124. Available at

10. Ioan Grillo, “As Crime Mounts, Mexicans Turn to Vigilante Justice,” Time, February 21, 2009.,8599,1880450,00.html.

11. Alfredo Corchado, “Mexico downplays rebels’ threat, but some see reason for worry,” Dallas News, February 12, 2009.

12. Migdal, 32.

13. Douglas, 99.

14. Ibid., 108.


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