Challenge 12: Look within for transnational criminals

Degrees of dirt: the state and organised crime are not separate entities as we like to believe. Flickr/PropagandaTimes

In part 12 of our multi-disciplinary Millennium Project series, Jacqui Baker argues that the ugly truth of organised crime is that governments and their agencies are a fundamental part of it.


Global challenge 12: How can transnational organized crime networks be stopped from becoming more powerful and sophisticated global enterprises?

Rethinking the “war on transnational organized crime” demands an interrogation of ourselves.

In late 2000, United Nations General Assembly ratified the Convention on Organised Crime. This heralded a landmark moment of multilateralism in the war against the transnational organised criminal syndicates. Meanwhile, in another corner of the UN, an ad hoc committee was just beginning to sketch out what a similar convention on corruption might look like.

This eventually became the UN Convention against Corruption, a document ratified in 2003. The decade that has followed has been marked by the growth of global industries around the “prevention” of transnational crime and corruption. These industries are as much knowledge complexes as anything else, with their own unique scales of measurement and quantification. Together, anxiety about these two kinds of crimes have come to define the tensions of a globalized 21st century. And yet, that initial asymmetry of ratification timelines, the prioritizing of one form of criminality over the other, is indicative of the critical imbalances in the way we conceive of crime and corruption.

Corruption is the great misunderstood counterpart to organised crime. The field is dominated by assumptions. Where organised crime is transnational, flexible and mobile, state agents are sovereign and fixed. Where transnational crime is organised and efficient, corrupt agents are disorganised and act independently. Thus, where organised crime is cunning and manipulative, state officials are vulnerable and incidental. Even the profession/discipline’s dominant working definitions dumb down corruption. Joseph S. Nye’s understanding of corruption as “the abuse of public office for private gain” reduces the role of the state in illicit activity as a problem of maverick officials motivated by personal interest. The complicity of state agents is the necessary counterpart to transnational crime and yet, the state networks and organisations that promote illicit activity are treated as an adjunct to transnational criminality, reducing their role to incidental protector rather than a primary beneficiary of criminal activity.

The lexicon of state corruption includes words like “systematic” and “organised” and yet even in states of endemic corruption, where all the fiscal, legal and political resources lie within the state, the literature of transnational crime continues to cast the state agents as the weaker agent. We often speak of states being “captured” by organised criminal networks seeking to take on the state¹s coercive and legal machinery to shield and further their economic interests.

Colombia, Mexico, and Guinea-Bissau are all known as narco-states, countries where parts of federal or local government have been invaded by drug cartels that become so embedded within the state, that their conduct is normalised and legitimised. Increasingly, studies of organised crime from developing or transitional states argue that vast tracks of the state are “captured” and under processes of internal reconfiguration. Nestled within the state, criminal networks are able to use the mechanics of the state - the apparatus of law, the veneer of legitimacy - to create more fertile conditions for their operations.

Mexican security forces with Marcos Carmona Hernandez, an alleged commander of the well-connected, ultra-violent Zeta cartel, believed to have been formed by elite soldiers. AAP/EPA/Sashenka Gutierrez

But when you kneel down and take a good hard look at it, even traditional studies of “organized crime” have trouble delineating the line between corrupt official and mobster, between “state” and “captured state”: politicians have multiple roles in industry and lobby groups; regulators move between government and industry; criminal organizations form legitimate security services; police and military moonlight on the side; military generals head up private enterprise. “True” career criminals, those that can be clearly put in one camp over the other, don’t often have deciding roles over illicit practices.

Facilitating movement between the two spheres are a whole host of brokers, fixers, and deal-makers with varying but enduring relationships with and within the state. This goes well beyond analytically tenuous ideas of state hijack or state capture. The fact is that when we really squat down and try and put our finger on it, the border between “the state” and “society”, “criminal groups” and “corrupt officials” is just not clear-cut.

To get around the problem of blurred boundaries, recent works by researchers such as Alexander Kupatadze in the field of transnational organised crime have advocated for terms like “state” and “substate”. But arguably, this doesn’t go far enough to reshape the theoretical field to concur with empirical reality.

The fact is that the traditional categories of “organised crime” and “state” are only analytic frameworks that no longer, or perhaps never did, represent the lived reality of “crime”. These frameworks suit the interests of state agents, who after all, dominate what we know about “organised crime”. The thesis of creeping transnational criminal networks displaces our attention from states we know to malevolent aliens that we don’t and suspends us within conditions whereby “we do not know what we do not know about transnational crime”, as Gary Lewis puts it.

A better approach would be to recognize criminality and illicit activity as a constituent part of all states. Modern state formation has always entailed a critical delinquent element, utilising different mechanisms at different points in the trajectory of their development. The corruption is not incidental, but strategic and instrumental. Transitional and developing states often rely upon illicit rents and criminal economies to make up for the deficiencies in their own fiscal management.

This is not just a “third-world” problem. Jason Sharman’s cutting edge work on shell companies and money-laundering showed how OECD countries are least likely to comply with the regulations of their own making. Rather than assuming the state has an automatic purchase on lawfulness, we might ask in what ways does the state create the conditions under which criminal economies flourish?

In interrogating more fully corruption’s role in facilitating transnational organised crime, we might find a bitter truth in the wise words of Pogo: “we have met the enemy and he is us”.

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