Much has been said and written in the past two decades about the unprecedented rise of organized crime and criminal violence in the Global South or the 'post-colony' in the wake of the Cold War.
In the Andes, Central America and Mexico, and in West and Southern Africa, the Balkans, Russia and South and Central Asia, violent crime is often perceived as threatening democratic governance, development and the state – and even the international system.
Surfing on the wave of globalization, local-global networks trafficking in illicit drugs, guns, humans, political resources and nuclear material - among many other commodities - have been identified as being responsible for fostering violent conflict, state fragility, corruption, terrorism and coups d’état and for inhibiting development.
Crime, illegality and the violence they create are serious threats to societies and states around the world. And the threat is by no means confined to the 'periphery'.
Crime and illegality aren’t outside; they are embedded in states, societies and governance arrangements
But organized crime and illegality don’t happen outside existing states, societal structures and governance arrangements. Each day, political, economic and social systems across the globe are taking on more distinctly illegal and criminal contours.
Illegality and criminality derive their ultimate power from being institutionally, politically and socio-economically embedded. In other words, illegality offers gains, incentives and profits that those engaged in legally regulated activities can only dream of.
In the many countries with weak or corrupt justice systems, disputes can often be resolved more quickly and effectively through illegal means than through official courts.
To put it crudely, it can be easier and cheaper to hire a contract killer or sicario to take care of a politically taxing situation than it is to introduce a bill in Congress. You might be more likely to succeed in having someone killed than in changing the law, although the outcome of the killing may not be sustainable in the long-term. But in the logic of all things criminal and illegal, the long-term may not matter very much.
If this is true, why should we expect the law to be king, particularly in the eyes of the powerful and those who contest existing power structures? These actors tend to have access to political and economic resources that are well above and beyond the law.
'When the indices of governance are fine… the municipality has been captured by criminal-illegal interests'My point is when criminality is combined with tolerated illegality, it can actually create a form of governance that is effective and efficient. But this governance is a thousand miles from 'good governance'.
Colombia is a case in point. Contrary to the common belief that criminality and illegality spawn 'bad governance', violence and the demise of public authority, there is evidence that in countries with a weak and fragmented national state, or where the state has a 'differentiated presence' (presencia diferenciada del Estado, Spanish language doc), it can become routine to handle public affairs in a way that undermines constitutional and legal frameworks. But the weakness of the state can at the same time allow public goods, including security, to be provided and can contain violence at the local and regional levels.
As one interlocutor told me during a recent visit to Colombia, 'when the indices of governance are fine in a given municipality we have to assume that that municipality has been captured by criminal-illegal interests'.
This implies that, if the municipality hadn’t been captured, groups including state security forces and insurgent, criminal and drug-trafficking organizations would violently struggle for control of local drug crops, trafficking corridors, social security and health systems, oil and natural gas royalties and votes.
Governance can’t ignore criminality and illegality. So how will we deal with them?So, what do we do about criminality and illegality when they turn into essential governance factors? Is there a way to resuscitate the 'good governance agenda'? Or, as crime and illegality seem to be gaining the upper hand in many locales, should we look for alternatives that stand a better chance of surviving?
Criminality and illegality have thus far been mostly ignored in the science and practice of governance. Now the question is urgent: how will we deal with them?
Keep an eye on the Governance and Development blog for more Global Crime posts