Socio-cultural issues

The socio-cultural dimension is perhaps the aspect of the relationship between organised crime and development that so far has received the least attention in the academic and policy literatures. While the evidence base needs to be broadened, it seems undeniable that, for subaltern and underprivileged groups, particularly young people, in many development settings there is a social attractiveness to being part of a criminal organisation and engaging in illicit and/or illegal activities. Increasingly, this includes young women, for whom ‘successful female criminal bosses have become “role models”‘ (Siegel, 2014, p. 62). Living and working in the ‘underworld’ provides social status where other legitimate avenues for social advancement and mobility either do not exist or are very hard to break into. As ‘crime has become more and more embedded in social life’ (Siegel, 2014, p. 63), the lure of quick and easy money is omnipresent and both young men and women are vulnerable to giving in to it. Consider, for instance, the young captains of the go-fast boats that are setting out from different locations on Colombia’s Pacific coast to destinations as far away as Central America or even China. If they manage to avoid getting caught by the US Coast Guard or the navies of other countries and if they do not sink on the journey or are killed, they can be pretty certain that back at home they will receive a hero’s welcome and a payment for their services that they would never have been able to obtain in a lifetime’s work.

Out of this grow sub-cultures, which, depending on the circumstances, may become the ‘official’ culture in a given locality and among large groups of young people living in peri-urban and destitute areas of large cities. Consider, for instance, the musical subculture of the narcocorridos in Mexico, the symbolism of tattoos among street gang (mara) members in Central America and the so-called cult groups and fraternities in Lagos and the large cities of the Niger Delta in Nigeria (Bargent, 2014; Eberlein, 2006; Simonett, 2001). In this regard, it is important to note that women do not typically figure in larger numbers in the hierarchies of organised criminal groups and gangs. While recent research has refuted the notion that women have traditionally been subordinate part players in a male-dominated system of organised criminality (Arsovska & Allum, 2014), they, as mentioned above, are nonetheless at risk of becoming victims of gender-based acts of criminal violence and other abuse. Further, participation in illicit or illegal activities is not always perceived to be outside of, or in contravention with, social norms. This is the case in, for instance, West Africa, where drug trafficking is not seen as a crime but rather as a “decent” way to earn a living (Schultze-Kraft, 2014). The same can be said about other regions, such as the Andes in South America and Afghanistan, where illegal activities are tolerated or even actively supported by sectors of the population, either because there is very little trust in the—fragile—state and its adherence to the law (reflected in repressive state practices and serious human rights violations) or because there are no viable alternative and licit economic opportunities, particularly for the poorer and poorest households (Mansfield, 1999).

Yet this social tolerance of illicit or outright criminal activities and behaviours comes at a cost, as social cohesion is affected, generational conflicts erupt between elders and youths, conflicts between and within communities are spurred, family and clan relationships are transformed and public health problems are aggravated. According to a recent study,

not only do criminal networks garner billion dollar profits from dealing directly in the counterfeiting and trafficking of medical and pharmaceutical goods […] but also a number of the most virulent organized crime practices: drug trafficking and human trafficking, contribute significantly to denigrating public health. For example, injecting drug use is responsible for one in ten of every new HIV infections globally, and in some countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia this runs as high as 80% (Global Initiative/SWP, 2014, p. 4).

Further, in certain—likely extreme—circumstances, social tolerance of illicit and criminal activities and behaviours can be reflected in the emergence of what has been described as a ‘culture of lawlessness’. According to Williams (2009), ‘Iraq after the collapse of the Ba’athist regime was characterized by anomie – a behavioral sink, a degeneration of rules and norms and the emergence of forms of behavior unconstrained by standard notions of what is or is not acceptable. […] The decline of behavioral norms and standards feeds into the spread of crime and violence’ (p. 327).

  • In this regard, Jana Arskova and Felia Allum write, ‘since the late 1990s, police agencies across the globe, including INTERPOL and Europol, have noted that on the one hand, women have gained more prominent roles in transnational organized crime networks, in particular human trafficking […] and, on the other hand, the number of female offenders is substantial and growing. […] The roles of female offenders in human trafficking networks have become central’ (Arskova & Allum, 2014, pp. 3–4).