America's issues with the Mid East are less pronounced due to a series of events, allowing it to focus on domestic issues.

The Setting

1982 - Ronald Reagan declares his own intensification of the Drug War : This is met with widespread public approval. The USA DEFEND Act (To Defund, Extradite, and Fulfill Enforcement against Narcotic Dealers) is passed, giving the US Federal Government broad powers to arrest, monitor and seize assets. It also authorizes harsh mandatory minimum sentences for low and high level drug offenses.

1986 - Harsh drug policies that do little to curb the demand for drugs cause prison populations to skyrocket. Gangs are quickly gaining money and influence as addicts are forced to choose between prison and addiction. In California, the Bloods and Crips declare a truce to divide the territory of the LA metro area. The Aryan Brotherhood takes a foothold in the deep south. The Northeast a hotbed of competition between the Chinese triads and Italian mafia.

1995 - Incarceration rates are at an all time high. National Guardsmen in the streets of major cities are a common sight, and most police departments now receive surplus hardware from the US military. Texas and California are the first states to experience prison overcrowding, stretching their budgets. Bill Clinton coordinates with the Mexican government to allow the US military and federal law enforcement to conduct operations in Mexico. The dot com boom allows the US to enhance its pervasive surveillance program, but the well funded cartels are beginning to employ crytography to evade law enforcement. The new domain of the drug war is now on the digital front.

2000 - Frustrated with inter-gang violence and the inability of the government to restore order and combat the well equipped cartels, more and more citizens have decided to create militias and vigilante groups. Over 500 of these groups are active, using a variety of legal and illegal weapons acquired through gangs, black market dealers and corrupt government officials.

2006 - The loss in productivity from drug use, mass incarceration, a lack of normalcy and powerful organized crime groups has taken a toll on the US economy. The US inflation adjusted GDP is 9% lower than what it was in 1982. Corruption has become endemic. Several local cops and politicians are feeling the pinch, and are falling under the influence of powerful cartels and whoever has the money. The federal government manages to stay clean, for the most part.

The Question

Fast forward to 2030. How would a criminal gang claim legitimacy in a city that has been under their control for about a year? Said city has transferred control several times in the last 10 years, from the city government, to the federal, and even a few militias. This city is home to 3.5 million people, has a lot of technical and political significance that could help the cartel with it's operations, and is a transit hub that leads to a large suburban population and the Gulf of Mexico.

  • $\begingroup$ They would need to have geography that helps their cause, like being on the coast, or an island. If they're a land locked city in Cuba or Mexico, then they probably won't succeed. In any case, though, I don't think this is a realistic scenario. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 14:16
  • $\begingroup$ is it clearly posited that the drugs can never be legalized at any level? they could then focus on maintaining a monopoly or oligopoly rather than the purely shady defense/enforcement budget. $\endgroup$
    – N. Presley
    Commented Dec 15, 2017 at 6:08

3 Answers 3


Your question is really about what is called "Parallel structures" in Revolutionary Warfare Theory.

Essentially, the task of the revolutionary is to gain the support of the population and wean the population away from the existing government. Parallel structures are just what they sound like; police and security services, courts, health care and other services in contested and rebel controlled areas which provide the same or possibly "better" services than what the government provides.

If the government is inept, corrupt or simply lacks the resources to provide services in an area, then the people in the area might be inclined to support the rebels, simply because having the ability to have your property protected without having to pay off corrupt police, or getting justice in a dispute in a revolutionary court without worrying that the other side has pull or has paid off the judge will seem very attractive. Of course the Rebels will be demanding "taxes" or other forms of payment for the service, so the population (and the rebels themselves) need to balance the cost and effectiveness.

In the real world, the Muslim Brotherhoods in Egypt were a very small factor in Egyptian society and life until a devastating earthquake in the 1970's exposed the corrupt and inept nature of the government. Brotherhood offices in poor neighbourhoods distributed food and blankets to desperate people, gaining legitimacy in the eyes of the poor and building the platform to launch themselves to the point they managed to win the first election after the "Arab Spring". (They screwed up being a government, but that is a different discussion).

Drug lords in Mexico and South America do similar things, including setting up schools and hospitals with their profits, undermining the authority of the government and buying the loyalty of the people. Getting intelligence on what the narcos are doing is difficult when people look to them as the local authority, rather than the government.

On a cost effectiveness basis, this is much better than sending in thugs to terrorize people (like ISIS does). Terror works best in small, controlled doses against specific targets. Large scale terror can and does often bring a response from the people who are tired of being terrorized; The "Anabar Awakening" in Iraq, local village elders leading their young men against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Mexican villages driving out drug gangs are all examples of spontaneous action against the people terrorizing them (in the case of the "awakening", American commanders were very quick to get on board and use this to their advantage). How well local efforts work depends on many factors (including the resources available and the cultural background of the counter insurgency - non warrior cultures or people with limited resources may gain temporary relief but get smashed by returning rebels, drug lords etc.)

So it is quite possible and even probable for rebels, insurgents or drug lords to leverage their resources to create parallel structures and become the "legitimate" authority in their areas. Indeed, it is probably the best means they have to secure their gains and prevent the government forces from being able to easily eject them.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is a great answer. In particular, your point about inept governance and large scale terror are key. Especially since the various militias, government forces and other gangs are guilty of at least one of the above. Also, was a good point to bring up the intelligence aspect. I was thinking more about territorial and technical expertise, but the denial of human intel is also an interesting factor. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 4:39

How have governments ever established legitimacy?

  • Providing for their citizens' safety and well-being,
  • Defending against external/existential threats,
  • Working toward a monopoly on the use of force,
  • Engaging with external governments on a peer-basis.

If your gang can do those things and sustain them, and the acceptance of the large majority of their population accrues to them, they'll be the legitimate government. This might be a matter of years, decades, or generations, depending a lot on external factors. (Are other cities/gangs doing the same thing? How's the US as a whole doing? &c.)

Some well-documented historical examples would include (and I'm just shooting from the hip, here):

  • Achaemenid Empire (in one generation goes from backwater, servile tribes to conquering/uniting the Lydians, Medes, and Babylonians)
  • A bunch of backwater farmers and merchants throws the British out of its American colonies
  • Ideologues and those tired of imperial rule tear down 200 year-old Imperial Russia, engage in two revolutions in one year, and five years later there's a Soviet Union.

Tipping points mean that change can happen fast, but calcification into the new state can take time....


Could they just get legitimacy though elections? They might even be able to get legitimate votes from normal citizens if they are providing the stability that other cities don't have.

Get one or more of their people elected to some public office.
Maybe get/bribe people in the local law enforcement to be on the payroll.
Start pushing their agenda, which is to have the freedom to operate without federal interference.
Get people inserted into some of the federal agencies to deflect or inform on investigations
Use the new political power to push out or subvert any political rivals.

Since they control a lot of the crime in the city, they should be able to make it stop or direct it, so crime rates go down, which makes people happy.
With all the dirty money they can invest in bringing in more legitimate businesses, which creates more jobs, which make people happy. It also helps launder the dirty money.
Keep the city in good repair, and people are happy.

There really isn't a way to just own the city without the threat of federal intervention, since it's still inside the borders of the US, but if they are able to whitewash everything and avoid getting to greedy which could draw attention, they could potentially operate without the feds stepping in and shutting everything down.

Reread the part about the city changing hands, including with several militias.
If "non-government" groups have had legitimate control over the city in the past, then this gang could do it the same way the others did. (which isn't really spelled out in the question, but I assume you've thought about).

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ "There really isn't a way to just own the city without the threat of federal intervention, since it's still inside the borders of the US" O'RLY? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 4:21
  • $\begingroup$ That's a really interesting bit of history :) I remember a few years back talk about one of the Native American tribes possibly trying to secede their land from the US. There are a few others that are trying, some more seriously than others. $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 14:32

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