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”. 
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.  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.  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.
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.  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.  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. 
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,  organized crime and the supposed means to combat it are increasingly being folded into the approaches of peacekeepers, peacebuilders, development practitioners and conflict mediators.  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;  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;  and it has engendered a complex new front in efforts to combat Islamist terrorism due to these terrorist groups’ great dependence on illicit revenues. 
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.  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.