Under what conditions do organised criminal networks acquire the power to install and take down elected presidents, shape socio-political change and determine the distribution of national wealth? When does crime become king?
This question is important not only to academics. Powered by globalisation, organised crime fuels chronic and pervasive violence and war, undermines public authority and transforms “the international system, upending the rules, creating new players, and reconfiguring power in international politics and economics” (Moisés Naím).
Specialised outfits such as UNODC and the International Crisis Group have produced a large number of reports in recent years on the consequences of organised criminal and illegal activities for development, and for various states and societies. There is indeed good reason for concern.
But it is less clear what the actual socio-political and economic mechanisms, structures and processes are that provide organised crime with the power it ostensibly has. Under what conditions are these mechanisms forged? And by whom?
The usual story about the roots and practices of organised crimeCommon explanations tend to see the existence and rise of organised crime as being dependent on, for instance, lucrative global black markets (for drugs, weapons, humans, etc.), states' insufficient capacity to protect their citizens, or high youth unemployment in the South's megacities.
At the same time, organised crime is perceived as operating from the shadows, from the fringes of the public sphere. It is also assumed to act against the state. The standard narrative is that upright officials are bribed to allow illegal access to privileged information or public funds; security and justice institutions are infiltrated by rogue criminal elements; the state and the political system are 'co-opted' or 'captured' by greedy and blood-thirsty drug-traffickers.
But what if organised crime is part of the state?But what if organised crime was considered differently? Charles Tilly’s famous analogy of state and war-making and organised crime offers an alternative viewpoint. What if states are in essence legitimated and regulated forms of organised crime? What if organised crime is therefore part of the processes driving social, political and economic change? Taking this approach, organised crime doesn't attack and undermine the state. It contributes to its creation and works with, for, and from within it.
Empirical evidence from different parts of the globe suggests that organised criminal networks are indeed carrying out essential tasks that, according to national laws and constitutions, should be undertaken by presidential offices, ministries, police forces, mayors and local council officials that we would like to believe can be held accountable.
More to come on organised crime, the state and international peace-buildingAs I will elaborate in future posts, there are a number of reasons why 'legitimate' institutions are not carrying out these tasks or are delegating them to members and enforcers of the underworld who work hand in glove with civil servants, politicians and business corporations.
A recent article in Colombia's weekly Semana magazine (in Spanish) outlined the linkages and illegal-informal agreements between outlawed paramilitary forces, banana entrepreneurs and public officials in the country's Urabá region. The evidence could not be more telling, or more disconcerting.
There is also evidence that international peace and state-building missions can be elusive and ineffective when it comes to establishing the rule of law and fighting organised crime.
Why, for example, has the major international peace and state-building effort in Kosovo apparently been unable to stop the consolidation of a lawless space and organised crime hub in the Serb-majority north of the country.
Is it all about the essential task of protection, as Tilly would have argued? If so, we need to ask several additional questions: Who is protecting whom, and what are they protecting them against? At what price is this protection achieved? And what is it we have to get ready for?
Keep an eye on the Governance and Development blog for more Global Crime posts