Foreign Affairs, May/June 2012
The global economic crisis has been a boon for transnational criminals. Thanks to the weak economy, cash-rich criminal organizations can acquire financially distressed but potentially valuable companies at bargain prices. Fiscal austerity is forcing governments everywhere to cut the budgets of law enforcement agencies and court systems. Millions of people have been laid off and are thus more easily tempted to break the law. Large numbers of unemployed experts in finance, accounting, information technology, law, and logistics have boosted the supply of world-class talent available to criminal cartels. Meanwhile, philanthropists all over the world have curtailed their giving, creating funding shortfalls in the arts, education, health care, and other areas, which criminals are all too happy to fill in exchange for political access, social legitimacy, and popular support. International criminals could hardly ask for a more favorable business environment. Their activities are typically high margin and cash-based, which means they often enjoy a high degree of liquidity -- not a bad position to be in during a global credit crunch.
But emboldened adversaries and dwindling resources are not the only problems confronting police departments, prosecutors, and judges. In recent years, a new threat has emerged: the mafia state. Across the globe, criminals have penetrated governments to an unprecedented degree. The reverse has also happened: rather than stamping out powerful gangs, some governments have instead taken over their illegal operations. In mafia states, government officials enrich themselves and their families and friends while exploiting the money, muscle, political influence, and global connections of criminal syndicates to cement and expand their own power. Indeed, top positions in some of the world's most profitable illicit enterprises are no longer filled only by professional criminals; they now include senior government officials, legislators, spy chiefs, heads of police departments, military officers, and, in some extreme cases, even heads of state or their family members.
This fusing of governments and criminal groups is distinct from the more limited ways in which the two have collaborated in the past. Governments and spy agencies, including those of democratic countries, have often enlisted criminals to smuggle weapons to allied insurgents in other countries or even to assassinate enemies abroad. (The CIA's harebrained attempt to enlist American mafia figures to assassinate
Because the policies and resource allocations of mafia states are determined as much by the influence of criminals as by the forces that typically shape state behavior, these states pose a serious challenge to policymakers and analysts of international politics. Mafia states defy easy categorization, blurring the conceptual line between states and nonstate actors. As a result, their behavior is difficult to predict, making them particularly dangerous actors in the international environment.
A Revolution In Crime
Conventional wisdom about international criminal networks rests on three faulty assumptions. First, many people believe that when it comes to illicit activities, everything has been done before. It is true that criminals, smugglers, and black markets have always existed. But the nature of international crime has changed a great deal in the past two decades, as criminal networks have expanded beyond their traditional markets and started taking advantage of political and economic transformations and exploiting new technologies. In the early 1990s, for example, criminal groups became early adopters of innovations in communications, such as advanced electronic encryption. Criminal syndicates also pioneered new means of drug transportation, such as "narco-submarines": semi-submersible vessels able to evade radar, sonar, and infrared systems. (Drug cartels in
A second common misperception is that international crime is an underground phenomenon that involves only a small community of deviants operating at the margins of societies. The truth is that in many countries, criminals today do not bother staying underground at all, nor are they remotely marginal. In fact, the suspected leaders of many major criminal groups have become celebrities of a sort. Wealthy individuals with suspicious business backgrounds are sought-after philanthropists and have come to control radio and television stations and own influential newspapers. Moreover, criminals' accumulation of wealth and power depends not only on their own illicit activities but also on the actions of average members of society: for example, the millions of citizens involved in
A third mistaken assumption is that international crime is strictly a matter of law enforcement, best managed by police departments, prosecutors, and judges. In reality, international crime is better understood as a political problem with national security implications. The scale and scope of the most powerful criminal organizations now easily match those of the world's largest multinational corporations. And just as legitimate organizations seek political influence, so, too, do criminal ones. Of course, criminals have always sought to corrupt political systems to their own advantage. But illicit groups have never before managed to acquire the degree of political influence now enjoyed by criminals in a wide range of African, eastern European, and Latin American countries, not to mention
In the past decade or so, this phenomenon has crossed a threshold, resulting in the emergence of potent mafia states. José Grinda, a Spanish prosecutor with years of experience fighting eastern European criminal organizations, maintains that in many cases, it has become impossible for him and his colleagues to distinguish the interests of criminal organizations from those of their host governments. According to Grinda, Spanish law enforcement officials constantly confront criminal syndicates that function as appendages of the governments of
In mafia states, government officials and criminals often work together through legal business conglomerates with close ties to top leaders and their families and friends. According to Grinda,
"The Mafia Has The Country"
Organized crime has a corrupting influence on all Bulgarian institutions, including the government, parliament and judiciary. In an attempt to maintain their influence regardless of who is in power, OC [organized crime] figures donate to all the major political parties. As these figures have expanded into legitimate businesses, they have attempted -- with some success -- to buy their way into the corridors of power. . . . Below the level of the national government and the leadership of the major political parties, OC "owns" a number of municipalities and individual members of parliament. This direct participation in politics -- as opposed to bribery -- is a relatively new development for Bulgarian OC. Similarly in the regional center of Velingrad, OC figures control the municipal council and the mayor's office. Nearly identical scenarios have played out in half a dozen smaller towns and villages across
This state of affairs led
Crime and the state are also becoming intertwined in
Police departments, secret services, courts, local and provincial governments, passport-issuing agencies, and customs offices have all become coveted targets for criminal takeovers. Last year, René Sanabria, a retired general who headed
A mafia state has also taken root in
Owing in part to such ties, the cocaine business has flourished in
In the past, foreign policy scholars generally considered international crime to be a relatively minor problem that domestic legal systems should handle. The impact of crime, they believed, was insignificant compared with the threat of terrorism or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Fortunately, the conventional wisdom is starting to change. More and more experts and policymakers are recognizing that crime has become a significant source of global instability, especially with the emergence of mafia states.
Criminal gangs, for example, have become involved in for-profit nuclear proliferation.
Even putting aside the alarming prospect of nuclear mafia states, governments heavily involved in illicit trade might be more prone to use force when their access to profitable markets is threatened. Take, for example, the 2008 war between
Profiting In The Shadows
Increasingly, fighting transnational crime must mean more than curbing the traffic of counterfeit goods, drugs, weapons, and people; it must also involve preventing and reversing the criminalization of governments. Illicit trade is intrinsically dangerous, but the threat it poses to society is amplified when criminals become high-level government officials and governments take over criminal syndicates. Yet today's law enforcement agencies are no match for criminal organizations that not only are wealthy, violent, and ruthless but also benefit from the full support of national governments and their diplomats, judges, spies, generals, cabinet ministers, and police chiefs. Mafia states can afford the best lawyers and accountants and have access to the most advanced technology. Underfunded law enforcement agencies, overworked courts, and slow-moving bureaucracies are increasingly unable to keep up with such well-funded, agile foes.
Law enforcement agencies are also hamstrung by the fact that they are inherently national, whereas the largest and most dangerous criminal organizations, along with the agents of mafia states, operate in multiple jurisdictions. Mafia states integrate the speed and flexibility of transnational criminal networks with the legal protections and diplomatic privileges enjoyed only by states, creating a hybrid form of international actor against which domestic law enforcement agencies have few weapons. The existing tools that national governments can use to counter the new threat -- treaties, multilateral organizations, and cooperation among national law enforcement agencies -- are slow, unwieldy, and unsuited to the task. After all, how can a country coordinate its anticrime efforts with government leaders or top police officials who are themselves criminals?
The emergence of mafia states imperils the very concept of international law enforcement cooperation. In 2006, the heads of police of 152 nations met in
But more troubling for
As the role of mafia states has become clearer, law enforcement officers across the globe have begun to develop new policies and strategies for dealing with such states, including requiring high-level public officials to disclose their finances; scrutinizing the accountants, lawyers, and technology experts who protect crime lords; and improving coordination among different domestic agencies. The rise of mafia states has also added urgency to the search for ways to internationalize the fight against crime. One promising approach would be to create "coalitions of the honest" among law enforcement agencies that are less likely to have been penetrated or captured by criminal groups. Some states are already experimenting with arrangements of this kind, which go beyond normal bilateral anticrime cooperation by including not just law enforcement agencies but also representatives from intelligence agencies and armed forces. A complementary step would be to develop multinational networks of magistrates, judges, police officials, intelligence analysts, and policymakers to encourage a greater degree of cooperation than
Unfortunately, despite the near-universal recognition that combating international crime requires international action, most anticrime initiatives remain primarily domestic. And although mafia states have transformed international crime into a national security issue, the responsibility for combating it still rests almost exclusively with law enforcement agencies. Indeed, even in developed countries, police departments and other law enforcement bodies rarely coordinate with their national security counterparts, even though transnational crime threatens democratic governance, financial markets, and human rights.
An important obstacle to combating the spread of mafia states is a basic lack of awareness among ordinary citizens and policymakers about the extent of the phenomenon. Ignorance of the scope and scale of the problem will make it difficult to defend or increase the already meager budgets of government agencies charged with confronting international crime, especially in a time of fiscal austerity. But such awareness will be hard to generate while so many aspects of the process of state criminalization remain ill understood -- and therein lies an even larger problem. Devoting public money to reducing the power of mafia states will be useless or even counterproductive unless the funds pay for policies grounded in a robust body of knowledge. Regrettably, the mafia state is a phenomenon about which there is little available data. The analytic frameworks that governments are currently applying to the problem are primitive, based on outdated understandings about organized crime. Addressing this dearth of knowledge will require law enforcement authorities, intelligence agencies, military organizations, media outlets, academics, and nongovernmental organizations to develop and share more reliable information. Doing so, however, would be only a first step -- and an admittedly insufficient one.
(AUTHOR BIO: MOISÉS NAÍM is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats Are Hijacking the Global Economy.)
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