The seepage of organized criminal activity into the political affairs of low-income and fragile countries raises a set of issues that require urgent consideration. Until quite recently, the profit-making criminal activities carried out by governments rarely preoccupied the international community, and were treated far more leniently that the atrocities or human rights violations carried out by states and their associated militias. However, recent wars in Afghanistan and Mali, or cases of criminalized states in Guatemala and Guinea-Bissau, have pointed towards a change in this approach, and a much firmer commitment to international support for law enforcement, above all when the crises involve narco-trafficking that is linked to the actions of state officials and the recruitment strategies of non-state armed groups. Even so, the same dilemmas affect policy towards crime-affected conflicts and states that plague foreign interventions in many other settings. In short, there is no easy way to navigate the tensions between the needs of the countries themselves for broad-based, equitable development, and the demands of Western donors for quick ‘wins’ in a campaign to bring about ‘stability’.

However, over the past five years the threat posed by organized crime has assumed a different guise. From being a matter for law enforcement in the West, or a human security and development issue in the fragile states of the South, crime has emerged as a systemic challenge to governance and a trigger of mass public discontent.

Country-wide protests following the disappearance of 43 trainee teachers in Mexico last year appeared to express public discontent not merely with criminal violence, but with defective governance as a whole. “The present movement legitimately calls into question whether Mexico is a democracy,” argued law professor John Ackerman. [13] For a number of scholars, such as Louise Shelley [14] or the Carnegie Endowment’s Sarah Chayes, indignation over criminal rackets in the state resonates far beyond stirrings of public unrest, particularly when it touches conflict-affected states. “Acute government corruption may in fact lie at the root of some of the world’s most dangerous and disruptive security challenges,” argues Chayes, “among them the spread of violent extremism.” [15]

One recent example illustrates the depth of concern. Ukraine’s revolution of 2013-14 stands out for having been driven in large part by indignation at the corruption and illicit financial engineering practised by President Viktor Yanukovych and his allies: in his inaugural address as president in 2010 he embraced the fight against graft, [16] but up to 100 billion dollars are alleged to have been spirited out of the country under Yanukovych’s rule. [17] Despite the entrenchment of fraudulent practices, notably in state procurement, [18] as well as the hardships caused by war and economic depression, the post-revolutionary government is under intense public pressure not to relent in its drive to eliminate these corrupt practices.

A number of striking similarities can be found in the ways that different publics perceived corrupt behaviour in their national institutions: surveys carried out by Transparency International in 107 countries, for instance, have found that political parties and the police force are regarded on average as the most corrupt institutions (see figure 1). Yet at the same time, the various examples of recent public anti-crime and corruption uprisings [19] are distinct in a number of critical ways. Whereas general perceptions of predatory behaviour by rulers have undermined the legitimacy of a number of democratic governments in Latin America (and have even generated demands for a return to military rule in some cases), [20] the same collective, public discontent at high-level graft – and above all, the ostentatious excesses practised within presidential families – reinforced the demand for greater civic freedoms in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011. It is of course significant that the incident that sparked the wave of Arab uprisings involved the self-immolation of a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who had suffered repeated humiliation at the hands of local police and municipal officials demanding bribes.

Figure 1
Perceptions of the extent of corruption in different institutions
Perceptions of the extent of corruption in different institutions.

Source: Transparency International, Global Corruption Barometer 2013

In other contexts, public indignation has been directed at national governments, and generated calls for deeper international intervention in national affairs. Upon its creation in 2007, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN body, assumed certain entitlements to initiate prosecutions; its most recent investigations have led to a succession of prosecutions against senior political officials, and caused the resignation and imprisonment of the serving vice-president and president. Regular EU assessments of Bulgaria, Kosovo and Romania likewise aim to encourage national progress against entrenched corruption and crime in those countries. [21]

On the other hand, there are also well-publicized accusations against international bodies for aiding and abetting local fraud. The target of mass Brazilian protests in 2013 was a perceived pillage of national resources mediated by an international organization: the World Cup organizer, FIFA. Meanwhile, in southern Europe and elsewhere, new left-wing forces, such as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, tend to regard international finance, the European Union’s economic policies and the corrupt behaviour of national governments and business as part of an indivisible continuum, not a series of contending forces. [22]

A common thread of perceptions

The array of suspected criminal rackets, and the divergent ways in which public discontent with crime and corruption has been expressed – whether as a pretext for armed insurgency, or a cause for international intervention, public protest movements or a new political party – would suggest that there is no single explanation for such different manifestations of illicit activity, or for the radically different reactions to them.

Understanding the local political economy of crime and corruption is obviously a sine qua non for knowing exactly who is involved in which illicit activity, and for what purpose. Yet although it is important to acknowledge that criminal activities have many local particularities, this should not obscure the evidence that illicit phenomena have become central to the way the public perceives the actions of their government across much of the developing world: 83 per cent regard crime as a very big problem in their country, and 76 per cent think this of corruption, according to a survey carried out by Pew Research Center in 2014 (see figure 2). [23] Even in Europe, where personal experience of corruption is far less common, 76 per cent of people believe that corruption is widespread in their country. [24]

Figure 2
Issues of major concern in developing countries
Issues of major concern in developing countries.

Such widespread perceptions of criminalized governance, whether accurate or not, demand a robust explanation. In many cases, it would appear that democratic or quasi-democratic environments have become affected by the exacerbated contrast between political expectations and reality. Expectations of transparency, accountability and responsiveness in government, as well as equality between citizens, stand in stark contrast to politicians’ unscrupulous efforts to acquire resources, legal impunity, support from powerful vested interests and armed protection. In other words, the formal trappings of the democratic system and all the ethical values connected with it are proving agonizingly irreconcilable with the informal requirements for electoral success and the achievement of political or economic stability – the resources needed to keep power in an intrinsically shallow form of democracy. [25] This contradiction is visible in numerous popular uprisings, such as the recent Honduran protests against political misuse of social security funds. [26]

The near-universal discontent over political and state complicity with crime, whether this relationship is regarded as direct, indirect, overt, tacit or passive, can thus be understood as the expression of broader and diverse crises of state legitimacy in conditions of flawed democracy or unpopular autocracy. Protests in the Arab world (notably in Tunisia), or Mexico, Brazil and Ukraine, are indicative of the dissimilar, context-specific conditions that have given rise to strikingly similar outcries against state-level criminal collusion. In other cases, notably in sub-Saharan Africa, perceptions of criminal activity in the state likewise exist, yet without always entailing any collective public response owing to low expectations of state performance, or to the fact that political competition tends to be dominated by the contest between ethnic factions.

However, Mali’s crisis in 2012 also provided a telling case from sub-Saharan Africa, and one that is emblematic of the shift in the nature of organized crime, and its broader implications for international security. The role of criminal activity in fuelling the armed insurgency of the north was emblematic of the consequences of illicit activity in poor, fragmented and weakly governed environments, of the sort that has preoccupied the development community for several years, and will continue to do so. [27] But it was the central government’s own perceived complicity with corruption that prompted an eventual coup by junior military officers in Bamako, converting a separatist threat in the north of the country into an existential challenge to the nation-state. [28]

Ackerman, J., “We have an opening up in history”: John M. Ackerman discusses Ayotzinapa and what’s next’, Latin Correspondent Blog, 17 December 2014, (accessed December 2015).
For instance, Shelley argues that all mass terrorist attacks committed between 2001 and 2008 were facilitated or inspired by corruption. See Shelley, L., Dirty Entanglements: Corruption, Crime, and Terrorism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014, pp 29-52.
Chayes, S., Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, p. 7.
See OECD, Anti-Corruption Reforms in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Progress and Challenges 2009-2013, Paris, 2014a, p. 24.
This figure was named by Ukraine’s chief prosecutor General Oleh Makhnitsky in April 2014 and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk in February 2014; see: Foulconbridge, G., ‘Toppled “mafia” president cost Ukraine up to $100 billion, prosecutor says’, Reuters, 30 April 2014, (accessed December 2015), and Walker, S. and Grytsenko, O., ‘Ukraine’s new leaders begin search for missing billions’, The Guardian, 27 February 2014, (accessed December 2015)
See Bullough, O., ‘Welcome to Ukraine, the most corrupt nation in Europe’, (‘The long read’), The Guardian, 6 February 2015, (accessed December 2015).
For an overview of all corruption-related crises, see map ‘Corruption Related Security Incidents Since 2008’ in: Carnegie Endowment, Corruption: The Unrecognized Threat to International Security, Working Group on Corruption and Security, June 2014, p. 13, (accessed December 2015).
Certain protesters against corruption in Brazil have called for military rule: see Pitts, B., ‘Who’s Protesting in Brazil and Why?’, NACLA, 9 April 2015, (December 2015). One recent survey in Latin America shows that “levels of trust in political and social institutions are generally falling, with the Catholic Church and the Army the most trusted, and political parties the least. Of all institutions, trust in elections suffered the greatest decline between 2012 and 2014.” See: Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Americas Barometer 2014, Vanderbilt University, 2014, pp 194-198, (accessed December 2015).
European Commission, Mechanism for cooperation and verification for Bulgaria and Romania, (accessed December 2015).
For example, in a speech before the European Parliament on 1 July 2014, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias said: “It’s scandalous how easy lobbies of huge corporations move around here; how revolving doors convert public representatives into millionaire bosses of big companies… We have to acknowledge that this type of functioning undermines democracy.” See Iglesias, Pablo, ‘Discurso de Pablo Iglesias como candidato a la Presidencia de la eurocámera’, speech, Podemos, 1 July 2014, (accessed December 2015).
23 Pew Research Center, op. cit.
European Commission, EU Anti-Corruption Report 2014, Brussels, European Commission, February 2014, pp 6-7.
For example, see OECD, Financing Democracy: Framework for Support Better Public Policies and Averting Policy Capture, Paris, 2014b, pp 3-7.
Mejia, T., ‘Hondurans lead unprecedented anti-corruption movement’, Inter-Press Service, 21 July, 2015. (accessed December 2015)
See Strazzari, F., Azawad and the rights of passage: the role of illicit trade in the logic of armed group formation in northern Mali, NOREF and the Clingendael Institute, 2014.
Briscoe, I., Crime after Jihad: armed groups, the state and illicit business in post-conflict Mali, The Clingendael Institute, 2014