More and more, wars and conflicts are being waged by groups who have no affiliation with states. This means that the rise of heavily-armed militia-type groups, cartels, regional gangs, or other actors which function according not to international treatises on the rules of engagement, but by their own standards and principles – or lack thereof.
The world has witnessed the brutal realities that arise from the tyranny of the self-governing non-state armed group. Mexico is amid the bloodiest year in its history, with politicians, innocents, and even YouTube stars who dare speak ill of cartels falling victim to their merciless brand of retaliation. Much of the Middle East, Libya and Syria in particular, is either controlled by rebel groups with no higher accountability or is in various stages of fending off such groups from toppling an official government.
These sorts of groups do not and will not have seats in the United Nations. They don’t respect or abide by international standards regarding prisoners of war, chemical weapons, or the other basic rules of engagement. Thus, their rise represents a seismic change in the way that conflicts look, and many believe that they are molding what the future of conflict and diplomacy, civil and international, will look like.
Long gone are the days of two clearly-defined opponents lining up parallel infantries on a grassy expanse, aiming, and firing. Gone too are the times when the enemy was clearly defined in any real sense. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), approximately half of today’s conflicts involve between three and nine opposing groups, vying for different outcomes and harboring unique motivations. There are currently hundreds of armed, non-governmental groups waging war globally, many of them funded by drug activity, nations supporting borderline or outright terroristic acts, sex trafficking, or any number of other condemnable fundraising methods.
Certain regions – namely, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and Central and South America – are affected disproportionately by these sort of groups taking over land, power, and populations so that, while their methods are not, their power has become more formal. This complicates the nature of how these regions are handled from an international standpoint. While negotiations with regimes in many of these regions was never particularly easy, dealing with a corrupt yet official administration is a cakewalk compared with a rebel group that doesn’t respect the international order, peace agreements, or other tools which have historically brought a level of sanity to the global landscape.
A nation like Mexico typifies the problem, as they have an internationally recognized and Democratically-elected government, yet cartels are the de facto rulers throughout the country, wielding fear, violence, and bribery to dictate everything from local curfews to policy decisions. The Mexican government is notorious for launching ‘wars’ on drugs, which time and again prove to be half-measures undercut by deals with cartel leaders which ultimately take advantage of government favor to gain more territory. The government has become so inept at protecting its people that armed autodefensas, or self-defenders, have arisen to protect their communities, ultimately resulting in even more firefights with uncompromising criminal outfits.
Yet, despite a fragmented reality of who holds power in Mexico, international actors hoping to make a difference in the country’s affairs can only deal with the official government. Though, at least Mexico has an official government. Nations such as El Salvador are almost completely ruled by gangs, which have spilled over into America with disturbing results. For Americans, the level of brutality which El Salvadorian gang members engage in is brutal in the extreme, almost unthinkable. For El Salvadorian nationals, their methods represent an unfortunate, yet unchanging, way of life. Gangs in Brazil are exporting their unique brands of terror throughout South and Central America, taking advantage of governments weakened by corruption and related scandals, and a populace less resolved to eschew alternative, non-official structures of power – even if they are imposed by gangs – than they have been in the past.
We know that these groups are taking over, becoming more influential, and becoming a seemingly indelible aspect of the international landscape. The question is…what to do about it?
For nations that do still have governments, it can feel a helpless venture to attempt cracking down on other nations where non-governmental armed groups have achieved outsize influence. Creating a new set of international conflicts by deploying foreign troops to help fight these criminal elements seems like overreach that would likely carry a mass of foreseeable yet unintended consequences. Still, it’s become clear that de-fanging these groups is beyond the capabilities for most of the host nations in which they run wild – even one as large and important to the international order as Mexico is.
Arming other criminal factions against the prevailing one is also a hapless proposal, as we’ve seen the concept of arming one rebel group to get another backfire too many times to persist in that method. Perhaps we must accept that nothing can be done on an international level. After all, would sanctions against Mexico, as an example, lead to the government more effectively removing cartels from power?
Almost certainly not. The cartels are willing to use methods so base, so vile, that they will stop at nothing – including targeting a politician’s family and friends – to ensure that sanctions will never hold weight over their own cruel methods. So, it seems that the best answer is not to engage in a greater measure of international intervention, as we’ve seen that that, too, fails more often than it succeeds.
The best course seems to be to recognize the problem, deal with compromised nations accordingly, but to take the each-country-for-itself approach to ordering one’s house. Recognize what’s gone wrong in other nations, and protect yours from the same fate to whatever extent possible. This is the only way that a nation such as the United States will avoid the fates of Mexico, Brazil, El Salvador, and other nations where the criminal factions are the de facto leaders.