Even as serious state-level crime and the perceptions of it endanger the stability of imperfect democratic regimes or failing autocracies, the means to address this predicament with national resources or international support appear more elusive than ever.

As mentioned above, the concept of organized crime, which is itself a contested term with multiple rival definitions, is ill-suited to capturing the mercurial, opportunistic arrangements that bring together high-level officials, private sector actors and low-level operatives in criminal endeavours. [29] On many occasions, as in the case of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s manipulation of the judicial system, the levers through which criminal activity was facilitated were in certain cases legal, if not wholly legitimate: the rotation of dissident judges and the use of disciplinary proceedings against them were common techniques. [30] At the other extreme, an analysis of the network that made possible the disappearance of trainee teachers in Mexico last year would seem to extend culpability into numerous branches of the state, as well as two national political parties. Here the concern is different: so prevalent is complicity or tolerance that binary notions of law-abiding officials who are opposed to violent criminal actors may no longer apply. “Articulating the problem of organized crime and its entrenchment in the Tierra Caliente [31] as a matter of good people versus bad people was one of the errors of [former President] Felipe Calderón’s government,” the Mexican journalist Denise Marker has argued. “Seen from outside, without any knowledge of the area and its history, all the region’s inhabitants might be defined as bad.” [32]

Any assessment of national and international policies towards organized crime, and their shortcomings in practice, must begin by recognizing the ways in which crime is deeply embedded in society and politics. [33] The process of criminal entrenchment depends greatly on time and place: the examples offered by the Colombian city of Medellín in the 1970s (source of Pablo Escobar’s infamous cocaine-trafficking cartel) and northern Mali three decades later suggest that a structural change in people’s livelihoods alongside pragmatic political collusion in this shift are prerequisites for a generalized shift in public attitudes to crime. [34] For instance, Escobar’s huge economic influence was predicated on the collapse of the city’s cotton industry. Mali’s shift to illicit trafficking in drugs and arms came about after substantial investments were made in coastal trade facilities across North and West Africa, starving the trans-Saharan route of conventional commercial opportunities. [35]

Once embedded in everyday social and economic practice, complicity with crime can become de facto inescapable: in the northern Honduran town of La Ceiba, the fourth most violent city in the country in 2014, [36] “many customers, who are perhaps not always involved in narco-trafficking, strike up conversations in the clinic, the beauty salon, or the workshop. And the storekeeper, unable to escape… ends up loaded with secrets that he or she never asked to hear.” [37] In West Africa and the Sahel, according to the lapidary analysis of one recent report based on fieldwork, “illicit trafficking and organised crime are not considered criminal behaviour in the communities interviewed: they are merely modes de vie – ways of life.” [38]

This embedding of criminal practice at the community level has signalled a need to consider policy responses beyond traditional law enforcement and imprisonment. Mass incarceration, as the examples of El Salvador and Honduras show, has simply led to stronger and far more violent forms of criminal organization, raising the question as to whether some negotiated accommodation or mediation with criminal groups – however undesirable this might at first appear – could not be a preferable alternative. [39] At the same time, the failure of the attempted truce with gangs in El Salvador has provided a sobering reminder of how difficult a more developmental or humanitarian approach to these issues can be.

It is not within the scope of this paper to explore in depth the issue of mediation with criminal groups, nor the emerging policy agenda as to how development and humanitarian actors rather than security forces may deal with highly criminalized, violent environments. [40] However, it is essential to note that the possibilities for innovative policy responses to criminalized territories – involving broader institutional or judicial reform, or even efforts at cultural change – are themselves circumscribed by the embedding of criminal influence in national elites, and particularly in central governments.

These characteristics of contemporary ‘organized crime’ are widely noted in recent academic and policy literature. Examples include Miklaucic, M. and Brewer, J. (eds), Miklaucic, M. and Brewer, J. (eds), Convergence: Illicit Networks and National Security in the Age of Globalization, Center for Complex Operations, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University Press, 2013; Paoli, L. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Organized Crime, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014; Europol, ‘EU Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment (SOCTA)’, The Hague, Europol, 2013.
Other abuses of power were of course also deployed. See Bullough, Oliver, Looting Ukraine: How East and West Teamed up to Steal a Country, London, Legatum Institute, 2014.
Literally ‘Hot Land’. This refers to the low-lying regions of the Michoacán, Guerrero and the State of Mexico, considered to be an epicentre of criminal activity.
Marker, D., as quoted in Aguilar Camin, H., ‘La captura criminal del Estado’, Nexos, January 2015, (accessed December 2015).
Van de Bunt, H. et al, op. cit.
See Scheele, J., Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara. Regional Connectivity in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012; Strazzari, F., op. cit.; Thoumi, F., ‘Necessary, sufficient and contributory factors generating illegal economic activity and specially drug related activity, in Colombia’, Iberoamericana 35, 105-126, 2009; and Adams, T., Chronic Violence and Its Reproduction: Perverse Trends in Social Relations, Citizenship and Democracy in Latin America, Woodrow Wilson Center, 2011.
Reitano, T. and Shaw, M., Fixing a fractured state? Breaking the cycles of crime, conflict and corruption in Mali and Sahel, Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, 2015, p. 8.
Vargas, Y., ‘Tasa de homicidios de la Ceiba es mas alta que la de paises en guerra’, Presencia Universitaria, 13 March 2014, (accessed December 2015).
López, J., ‘El sombrío panorama de Honduras’, Plaza Pública, 2012. (accessed December 2015).
Shaw, M. and Reitano, T., People’s perspectives of organized crime in West Africa and the Sahel, ISS Paper 254, Institute for Security Studies, 2014.
Van der Borgh, C. and Savenije, W.,‘De-securitising and Re-securitising Gang Policies: The Funes Government and Gangs in El Salvador’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 2015, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp 149-176; and Banfield, J., op. cit., 2014.
For this latter issue, see Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDCM), New Humanitarian Frontiers: Addressing Criminal Violence in Mexico and Central America, Geneva, IDMC, 2015.
Tilly, C., ‘War Making and State Making as Organised Crime’, in Evans, P., Rueschemeyer, D. and Skocpol, T. (eds), Bringing the State Back, Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Block, A. A. and Chambliss, W. J., Organizing Crime, New York, Elsevier Press, 1981.
See, for example, Bayart, J-F., Ellis, S. and Hibou, B., The Criminalization of the State in Africa, Indiana University Press, 1999; Miklaucic, M. and Brewer, J., op. cit.; Karstedt, S., ‘Organizing Crime: The State as Agent’, in Paoli, L. (ed.), op. cit.; Bridenthal, R. (ed.), The Hidden History of Crime, Corruption and States, Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2013.
See, for instance, Chayes, S., op. cit.
See Briscoe, I. et al., op. cit., 2014; and Shaw, M. and Reitano, T., The evolution of organised crime in Africa. Towards a new response, Institute for Security Studies, 2013. For a deep analysis of illicit activity in the African state, see Bayart et al., op. cit.
Buscaglia, E., ‘Judicial and Social Conditions for the Containment of Organized Crime: A Best Practice Account’, in Schönenberg, R. (ed.), Transnational Organized Crime: Analyses of a Global Challenge to Democracy, Berlin, Heinrich-Böll Stiftung, 2013. See also Søreide, T., Democracy’s Shortcomings in Anti-Corruption, CMI Working Paper, 2012.
Johnsøn J., Taxell, N. and Zaum, D., Mapping evidence gaps in anti-corruption: Assessing the state of the operationally relevant evidence on donors’ actions and approaches to reducing corruption, Bergen, CMI Institute, U4 Issue 7, 2012; Brunelle-Quraishi, O., ‘Assessing the Relevancy and Efficacy of the United Nation Convention Against Corruption: A Comparative Analysis’, Notre Dame Journal of International & Comparative Law, pp 101-166, 2011.
Levi, M., ‘How Well Do Anti-Money Laundering Controls Work in Developing Countries?’, in Paoli, L. (ed.), op. cit., p. 399.
Chayes, S., op. cit..
Kemp, W. and Shaw, M., From the Margins to the Mainstream: Toward an Integrated Multilateral Response to Organized Crime, International Peace Institute, 2014, p. 22.
Minder, R., ‘Andorra cracks down on Bank after U.S. Accusations of Money Laundering’, The New York Times, April 10, 2015, (accessed December 2015).
For full details of the initial indictments of May 2015, see here (accessed December 2015).
Also see Briscoe, I. and Dari, E., Crime and error: why we urgently need a new approach to illicit trafficking in fragile states, Policy Brief, Clingendael Conflict Research Unit, 2012.