Secret Missions and Mustache Guys
“If you want to do illegal tings, you need other people. You rob a bank, you need a driver. You deal drugs, you need a supplier. There are very few criminal fields where one guy works by himself. Even a counterfeiter needs help getting special inks. When you need other guys to do something illegal, you got to trust each other.
Trust is in short supply on the street. Obviously street people got to be careful of each other. We’re all criminals. The other problem is we got snitches. How do I know the other guy is not setting me up? How do I know he’s not going to rat me out if we get heat? Does he got balls, or does he shit his pants when we got a problem? You need to know all these things before you start working with somebody.
To take trust builds time. You need to get high with a guy, joke with him, chase women with him, get into fights with him to see how he carries himself in different situations. It can take months and months to figure out who the other guy is.
The Mafia was many things. It was paying taxes and rules and old mustache guys telling you what you couldn’t do. The Mafia was also a trust organization. If someone in the Mafia you knew pointed to a complete stranger and said, “He’s a good guy,” you could take that to the bank and rob it. You don’t need to spend months with the guy. You could immediately focus on making money together.” - Jon Roberts, the “Cocaine Cowboy,” in American Desperado
Working in an environment where trust is essential and evasive, outside the law, is not merely the realm of criminals, of course. Though the comparison might be unflattering, many varieties of clandestine operation occur under similar circumstances. They do so, of course, with political purposes that can find some moral and legal justification in the policy deliberations of a legitimate political community. At the sharp end, similar dynamics and consequences still apply.
It should be no surprise that clandestine operations and criminal organizations frequently work together. To acknowledge this is not to endorse the conspiracy theories which attribute all mob actions to some government or another’s master plan than to recognize how the international arena can make common cause between the two types of organizations.
The history of covert operations and organized crime in Florida and Cuba frequently intertwines. Many of those the CIA worked with as part of Operation 40 and Brigade 2506 went into a life of crime after the Agency funds dried up. After all, if you can smuggle cargo into a hostile country for the government, you can probably smuggle drugs into another one for a drug cartel. There is common interest, too – organized criminals which cannot cut deals with a regime or manipulate its coercive institutions are likely to resist it, and it is no surprise the “Family Jewels” release details an abortive venture into working with the Mafia to assassinate Castro.
But aside from the concrete cases of collaboration and common figures, there are interesting lessons in the abstract. The methods of building and assessing trust among those engaged in undesirable activity in a hostile state frequently displays similar logic (which, as I’ve pointed out before, often leads to cooperation or at least indirect complicity between the professions). That organized criminals frequently work with minority groups or social networks more generally that they perceive to be anti-statist is no surprised. They provide trust networks yet to be integrated into the sovereign state’s machinations, which reduces their likelihood to defect and often provides a common quasi-ideological defiance to the hostile state.
This cooperation manifests itself in a variety of ways in the criminal world. As the previously linked paper notes, in “a legal business context, relations across ethnic and language barriers are generally believed to be difficult to establish and maintain,” but “the opposite may be true in the case of illegal businesses since the respective other’s status as a foreigner often rules out the possibility of his or her cooperating with the authorities.” Ideological and political preferences can also play similar effects. Roberts, for examples, notes he had little trouble, as a Mafia exile in Florida working overwhelmingly with Hispanic drug trafficking organizations, in enlisting “rednecks” into his work or at least securing their complicity, because their distrust of and dislike for “the feds” built a sense of common cause and trust.
This adds perspective to how we view the U.S.’s use of unconventional warfare and proxy strategies. Working with minority groups and the excluded not just makes sense on a balance of power logic, but it also provides access to a trust network and set of coherent organization that exists beyond the control of the state, which greatly facilitates getting into business together – it should not be a surprise that the Kurds, Hmong, Montagnards and Sufi ASWJ feature highly in histories and reporting on U.S. proxy activities.
In other words, it’s partially for want of a reliable set of “mustache guys” that the U.S. refrains from arming a variety of covert groups today. The kind of experiential trust-building Roberts describes is a kind the CIA frequently now is unwilling or unable to execute in hostile environments makes throwing weight into a proxy war unfeasible, unless there is an alternative mechanism to circumvent the trust-building process. Given the past proclivities and recurring record of the Gulf states vigorously involved in arming Syria’s rebels today, why the U.S. might not want them filling that role is clear.
Unfortunately, for scarcity of personnel capable of operating at a scale large enough to do massive proxy wars in-house, the U.S. turns to “mustache guys” such as Zia ul Haq and the ISI. In Syria, many of the available “mustache guys” seem a lot more like (pardon the phrase) “beard guys” who use ideological kinship and a trust network inherently beyond the control of Damascene authority. Thus, the U.S. is stuck trying to shore up the creation of an alternative hierarchy to fulfill this role – a local unified command structure for rebel forces.
Of course, you can have similar organizations that exist in power when working with a target regime. The important quality seems to be, of course, that the trust network isn’t sublimated into an overall system of control that gives leverage or influence to the people you’re attempting to thwart. This is not simply a concern for clandestine operations, however. In terms of nation-building operation, the conflicting interplay between the ideal trust networks for a foreign patron and the indigenous ruler or rentier regime encumbers democratization and liberal mechanisms of government. Sustained foreign interventions frequently raise, empower, or prop up regimes prone to double-dealing and manipulation abroad and predatory behavior at home.
Jay Ulfelder, in a recent post on Libya, makes an interesting point on this note. While I still do not believe intervention in Libya was the best U.S policy option available, he does a good job of explaining how and why Libya’s new government developed the way it did:
Now, instead of swinging away at a foreign-funded piñata, Libya’s regional factions have to choose between swinging at each other or working out ways to get along. Because none of those regional factions enjoys a significant coercive advantage over its rivals, there are strong incentives to refrain from the former, and that seems to be helping push the latter along. As James Madison argued in Federalist No. 10, it’s impossible to remove the causes of factionalism, so the best we can do is to try to control its effects. The crazy-quilt character of post-Gaddafi politics may be hindering the emergence of a powerful central government, but it also naturally protects against one alternative that Madison saw as a graver threat than faction, namely, a tyranny of the majority. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but my hunch is that the state produced by this halting process will ultimately prove more durable than any construct we would have gotten from another foreign-funded, “high modernist” state-building binge. If Afghanistan and Iraq are any guide, that’s actually not a very high bar to clear.
The problem is, of course, that while this insulates the U.S. from the costs of propping up the new regime, it also reduces its leverage over its interests and thus the regime’s incentive and ability to crack down on networks with which the U.S. is most concerned about. Libya does not have a tyranny of the majority, but it is so far from one it has limited capability for, and indeed, created some political impediments against, violent extremist groups. Not that “state-building,” “nation-building,” or now, in its more politically-palatable formation, “capacity building” and “partnership” are without their own problems. Far from it, they recent experience suggests they are almost always worse. But because the U.S. simply can’t replace every unsavory regime it needs to work with, many of which are more durable than Gaddafi’s highly personalized tyranny, we are stuck in search of “mustache guys” who can furnish us with partners without the bloody and costly ordeal of going it alone or earning our partners through trial by fire.
Successful criminal enterprises understand that trust has limits. Indeed, studies have found criminal enterprises will continue not merely in the face of lack of trust but active mistrust, but they also frequently must break trust bonds and sacrifice expendable relationships in order to continue their existence. While the mythos and perception of honor is important, trust has many bases besides reputation and maintaining any kind of outlaw enterprise militates against inflexibility – something Roberts himself recognizes in his examination of how the Mafia operated and his own work with the Medellin Cartel occurred. The ability to create partially expendable networks and remain resilient in the face of absent trust or mistrust is a frequent feature of well-functioning organized criminality. Whether governments should and how they would replicate the desirable features of these organizations may be an important question as conceptions of foreign policy turn increasingly to the indirect or collaborative approaches.