Security has likely been the international community’s top concern in relation to organised crime in the past two decades or longer. Following the end of the Cold War and in the context of accelerating globalisation, Western governments and international organisations identified organised crime as a new threat to the security of states and the international system, a driver of violent conflict in the developing world and in the transition countries of the former Eastern bloc and a spoiler of peace. While mounting concern about the insecurity generated by transnational organised crime was articulated in a series of key documents issued by the UN, other international organisations and national governments (mostly in Europe and North America), it proved challenging to integrate the issue into national and multilateral defence and security policy agendas and peace operations. The default position has generally been one of tackling organised crime through enhancing domestic law enforcement capabilities and increasing international cooperation in tracking and disrupting illicit flows and seizing illegally acquired assets and ‘dirty money’ (see Cockayne & Lupel, 2009). For a number of reasons that for lack of space cannot be discussed here, international peace operations in settings as diverse as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Haiti, Iraq, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, etc. have on the whole not been effective at reining in and reducing organised criminal activities.
In a manner similar to its reluctance to engage with violent conflict and security (on the terms of the security community) in the 1990s and early 2000s (see, for instance, Duffield, 2014; Waddell, 2006), until recently the international development community has not systematically responded to the problems that organised crime throws up for development. As mentioned, this changed when, at the turn of the last decade, several key international development agencies began to work on organised crime. A milestone in this regard is the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report, which refers to organised crime as one of several ‘new’ security threats in fragile and conflict-affected states. Developing the earlier debate about the nexus between security and development, the report starts with the key observation that ‘insecurity not only remains, it has become a primary development challenge of our time. One-and-a-half billion people live in areas affected by fragility, conflict, or large-scale organized criminal violence’ (World Bank, 2011, p. 1).
In this emerging conception, organised crime is thus framed as a driver of new forms of violent conflict that undermine the chances for inclusive development:
The tendency to see violence as interstate warfare and major civil war obscures the variety and prevalence of organized violence – and underestimates its impact on people’s lives. The organised violence that disrupts governance and compromises development also includes local violence involving militias or between ethnic groups, gang violence, local resource-related violence and violence linked to trafficking (particularly drug trafficking). […] This violence is often recurrent, with many countries now experiencing repeated cycles of civil conflict and criminal violence (World Bank, 2011, p. 53).
Moreover, the boundaries between different types of violence and between the actors employing it are becoming increasingly blurred. For instance, in the 2000s, the militant groups in the Niger Delta of Nigeria were both laying siege to the country’s vital oil infrastructure and the operations of the transnational oil majors in the name of ‘resource control’, and very actively engaging in association with regional and federal political and military elites in the theft of crude oil on an industrial scale (Schultze-Kraft, forthcoming; Watts, 2007).
However, it is important to realise that organised crime’s negative impact on development in terms of (in)security is not necessarily and mostly a result of criminal violence. As discussed above, there is no strong correlation between organised crime and violence. Organised criminal activities may, at times, lead to high or even extreme levels of violence. But there is equally sufficient evidence showing that illegal markets can be relatively peaceful depending, for instance, on whether they are ‘closed’ or ‘open’, whether they involve the control of ‘territory’ or not or whether they are ‘co-managed’ or not between criminal organisations and state authorities. Examples of the former scenario include contemporary El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico—that is, key Latin American drug trafficking hubs on the route to the US. The latter scenario can be found in, for instance, Ghana and Guinea-Bissau—key West African drug trafficking hubs on the route to Europe.
Where criminal activities and illegal markets are non-violent, their negative impact on development does not result from the violence they spawn but is transmitted through other vectors that produce insecurity. The crucial question here is thus whether we are talking about the security of the state or rather about human and citizen security in developing countries where organised crime has gained a strong foothold (see Luckham, 2015). In other words, is organised crime a development problem because it generates insecurity for states or because organised criminal activities and groups undermine human and citizen security? The available evidence from across Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia indicates that organised criminal activities throw up both types of problems for development. Depending on the case, it may be the security of the state and the stability of a country’s political institutions that are threatened, or it may be the security of citizens and the full enjoyment of their fundamental rights that are under threat from organised crime. In reality, both scenarios can and do overlap in practice.
- Cockayne, J., & Lupel, A. (2009). Introduction: Rethinking the relationship between peace operations and organized crime. International Peacekeeping, 16(1), 4–19.
- Duffield, M. (2014). Global governance and the new wars: The merging of development and security (2nd ed.). London: Zed Books.
- Luckham, R. (2015). Whose security? Building inclusive and secure societies in an unequal and insecure world (Evidence Report 151). Brighton: IDS.
- Schultze-Kraft, M. (forthcoming). Understanding violence in political settlements: Oil wars, petro-criminality and amnesty in the Niger Delta. Journal of International Development.
- Waddell, N. (2006). Ties that bind: DfID and the emerging security and development agenda. Conflict, Security & Development, 6(4), 531–55.
- Watts, M. (2007). Petro-insurgency or criminal syndicate? Conflict & violence in the Niger Delta. Review of African Political Economy, 34(114), 637–60.
- World Bank. (2011). World development report 2011 on conflict, security and development. Washington, DC: World Bank.