Anxiety over the sway exerted by organized crime has rarely been as widely or acutely felt. In a number of countries that may be considered weakly governed, or undergoing erratic transitions to democracy, the issue of organized criminal influence on public affairs is so serious and entrenched that it appears to be no longer responsive to treatment through the traditional methods: law enforcement, anti-corruption campaigns, or institutional purges and reform. Instead, in the cases of Ukraine or Mexico, as well as many of the world’s more fragile states, serious organized crime has become not so much an illegal profit-making activity as an operating mode for parts of the social and political system. According to one global survey, “people in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East all see crime and corruption as the greatest problems in their countries”. [1]

The symptoms of this criminal presence are notorious. Extreme violence, coercive and predatory public administration, judicial impunity, economic distortions, and even a broad cultural tolerance of the coveted criminal lifestyle are among the effects that are manifested in numerous affected states. [2] But familiarity with the consequences of illicit activity has not always translated into sustained efforts by states and international bodies to deal with the systemic nature of crime. The diverse composition of criminal activity, its linkages with the formal economy and public authorities, or its close dependence on the evolving nature of governance remain issues that are daunting in their scale and complexity.

Treating organized crime and corruption as a ‘cancer’ or a ‘virus’ has instead become the shorthand in international policy circles. [3] Instead, this paper will argue that this outlook, although its rhetoric might initially seem persuasive, is seriously mistaken. For various reasons, which will be explored in this report, illicit activity has become part of the living organism of many countries’ public and business affairs. It must be treated not as a foreign body, but as an integral part of governance and economic systems, and it is essential that policy responses are accordingly adapted to this reality.

Crime, development and fragile states

To start, it is essential to understand how crime has evolved even when the methods to tackle it have not. The fight against organized crime has long been the prerogative of law enforcement agencies, which were charged with combating ‘mafias’, ‘gangsters’ or ‘racketeers’, above all in Europe and North America. But the way in which modern organized crime should be characterized has substantially changed – to the extent that the term itself is at risk of becoming obsolete, and a growing obstacle to understanding illicit phenomena.

Until the end of the Cold War, the relevance of organized crime to the concerns of developing, post-colonial or transitional contexts was marginal. The relative perceptions of its threat and importance changed markedly, however, from the 1990s onwards. Countries emerging from communist rule proved fertile ground for criminal protection rackets, none more so than Russia. [4] The development of new transnational trafficking networks – generating large mark-ups in value for their products, as well as sophisticated new divisions of labour – brought resources, recruits and weakly governed or fragile countries into an increasingly sophisticated criminal business chain. [5] It is this development that has been synonymous with the rise in violence in Central America, or the conversion of parts of the Sahel, such as northern Mali and Niger, into hubs for illicit activity, notably the trafficking of drugs and humans. Many of the conflicts that are now attracting high levels of geopolitical concern feature illicit activity and organized crime at their heart. [6]

These concerns have already been rightly noted by many governments, and across the community of development donors. Grand ambitions for peace- and state-building in developing countries, particularly those entering a post-conflict phase, have been watered down as the rise of criminal activity and armed violence continue to thwart progress. Brought into the mainstream of donor thinking by the World Bank’s World Development Report 2011, [7] organized crime and the supposed means to combat it are increasingly being folded into the approaches of peacekeepers, peacebuilders, development practitioners and conflict mediators. [8] At the same time, however, the reality is that crime in fragile states has huge costs in terms of lives and human security, and this continues to produce a number of extremely thorny problems that test the resourcefulness of development and foreign policy. It has raised questions as to the future of the international regime of drug control, where prohibition seems only to have hardened the power of narco-trafficking cartels and the violence they use; [9] it has posed new challenges for US border control as a result of the flow of unaccompanied child migrants fleeing criminal violence in Central America; [10] and it has engendered a complex new front in efforts to combat Islamist terrorism due to these terrorist groups’ great dependence on illicit revenues. [11]

In these respects, a certain amount of progress has been made in understanding the issues posed by crime, the ways crime is linked to other state or non-state actors, and how these problems might in principle be addressed. [12] However, the hallmark of contemporary crime is the astonishing speed of its evolution, often outpacing the means adopted to tackle it, as well as the sheer diversity of its connections to other – legal – sectors. As a result, while efforts are underway to understand and mitigate the effect of crime in fragile states, new forms of illicit activity with an unprecedented impact on public life have emerged. Below, this report explores what these most recent shifts in criminal practice mean for international peace and security, and what sorts of innovative responses may be required.

In particular, the report argues that the terms we use to describe the phenomenon of organized crime are increasingly an obstacle to more sophisticated responses, in that they do not help to explain the way illicit activities are embedded in local communities and state structures. The report analyses how the risks and threats posed by criminal activity are not simply manifestations of disorder or challenges to statehood, but are systemic to statehood, above all in emerging democracies – where they can be deeply destabilizing as a result. Lastly, it concludes that any new approaches must recognize the need for a revolution in strategic outlook, one that focuses as much on the form of crime as on its content.

Pew Research Center, Crime and Corruption Top Problems in Emerging and Developing Countries, November 2014.
There is a copious literature detailing these effects in different regions of the world. For example, on Latin America see Briscoe, I., Perdomo, C. and Uribe Burcher, C. (eds), Illicit Networks and Politics in Latin America, Stockholm, International IDEA, Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy, and the Clingendael Institute, 2014; on West Africa, see USAID, The development response to drug trafficking in Africa, Washington DC, 2013; for an analysis of economic effects, see UNODC, Estimating illicit financial flows resulting from drug trafficking and other transnational organized crimes, Vienna, UN, 2011; for a concise account of organized crime’s relations to society, see Van der Bunt, H., Siegel, D. and Zaitch, D., ‘The Social Embeddedness of Organized Crime’, in Paoli, L. (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Organized Crime, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014.
These word have been used by to describe criminal acts by, among others, Ban Ki-Moon, David Cameron and Pope Francis. See, for example, UN News Centre, ‘Time to fight back against “cancer” of corruption – UN chief’, 8 December.
For example, see Sukharenko, A., ‘Organized Crime in Russia’, Per Concordiam, Journal of European and Defence Studies, Vol. 5 (4), 2014. (accessed December 2015).
One way of understanding this shift is from a predominantly predatory model of organized crime (extortion and racketeering) to one anchored in market-based crime, involving the supply of illegal products. This differentiation is derived from the typology of R. T. Naylor, discussed in Picard, J., ‘Can We Estimate the Global Scale and Impact of Illicit Trade’, in Miklaucic, M. and Brewer, J. (eds), Convergence: Illicit Networks and National Security in the Age of Globalization, Washington DC, Center for Complex Operations, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University Press, 2013.
See Tabib, R., Stealing the revolution: violence and predation in Libya, NOREF and the Clingendael Institute, 2014; and Hallaj, O. A., The balance-sheet of conflict: criminal revenues and warlords in Syria, NOREF and the Clingendael Institute, 2015.
World Bank, World Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security and Development, Washington DC, World Bank, 2011.
For example see Banfield, J., Crime and Conflict: The New Challenge for Peacebuilding, London, International Alert, 2014; Cockayne, J., State fragility, organised crime and peacebuilding: towards a more strategic approach, NOREF Report, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, 2011; Whitfield, T., Mediating criminal violence: Lessons from the gang truce in El Salvador, Oslo Forum Papers, HD Centre, 2013; Kavanagh, C. (ed.), Getting Smart and Scaling Up: Responding to the Impact of Organized Crime on Governance in Developing Countries, New York University, Center on International Cooperation, 2013; and Jespersen, S., ‘Development engagement with organised crime: a necessary shift or further securitisation?’, Conflict, Security & Development, 15:1, 23-50, February 2015.
Organization of American States (OAS), Scenarios For the Drug Problem in the Americas 2013 – 2015, Washington DC, OAS, 2012, and LSE Ideas, Ending the Drug Wars: Report of the LSE Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, 2014.
UNHCR, Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Protection, Washington DC, Regional Office for the United States and the Caribbean, 2014.
Briscoe, I., ‘The New Criminal Blitz: Mali, Iraq, and the Business of Asymmetry’, International Relations and Security Network, 10 July 2014, (accessed December 2015).
For example, see The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Improving Development Responses to Organized Crime, conference report, July 2014, (accessed December 2015).