Organised crime and violence and instability

Organised crime and illicit markets are commonly associated with violence and political instability (World Bank, 2011). Already in the early 20th century, social theorist Walter Benjamin had written that ‘the great criminal has aroused the secret admiration of the public’ not because of ‘his deed but […] [because of] the violence to which it bears witness’ (Benjamin, 1996, p. 239). This perception is being promoted by graphic news reporting on armed conflicts and situations of chronic violence that are fuelled by proceeds from drug trafficking and other illegal-criminal activities, such as those in Afghanistan, Colombia, Mexico, Central America and – in the 1990s and 2000s – Liberia and Sierra Leone. However, the available evidence does not bear out that organised criminal activities, such as drug trafficking, oil theft and diamond or wildlife smuggling, are necessarily – and equally – violent.

It is furthermore often assumed that organised crime is the midwife of political instability, social disintegration and state fragility or failure. But, again, there is no conclusive evidence that this is actually always and necessarily the case (Patrick, 2011). Hence, it appears wise to start this section by quoting R.T. Naylor, a renowned expert on the matter, that ‘perhaps the best answer to the broad question of whether illicit markets are more prone to violence than licit ones is “maybe, but it depends”‘ (Naylor, 2009, p. 241).

Research on the relationship between organised crime and violence has focused on three distinct issues: (1) criminal activities and organisations’ propensity for violence; (2) the (potential) violence related to illicit markets; and (3) the role of the state and political and social institutions in spurring and/or regulating violence associated with criminal activities.

Regarding the propensity for violence of criminal activities and organisations, there are evidently instances where organised criminal groups take recourse to violence and where competition between them over illicit market shares turns violent, at times even extremely violent. However, this must not be considered a general rule. Research into illicit markets and diverse criminal activities has shown that ‘it is important to distinguish between organized criminal activities in which violence or the threat of violence (coercion) is inherent, and organized criminal activities in which violence is attendant or supportive but not essential to the activities themselves’ (Williams, 2009, p. 324). Examples of inherently violent criminal activities include armed robbery, kidnapping and extortion. However,

when it comes to criminal organizations trafficking illicit commodities, violence is always latent and often manifest, but it is not integral to the criminal activity. […] [Rather] criminal organizations operate outside of the law and cannot resort to law to settle disputes with rivals, to deal with recalcitrant employees, or to obtain redress for grievances. Instead they rely on the use and threat of violence for security (to protect markets, routes, and other strategic assets associated with their trafficking activities), internal order (to maintain internal discipline and punish those guilty of infractions) and power (to expand their market share) (Williams, 2009, pp. 324–5).

In some violent crime-permeated settings, the use of violence by criminal organisations includes targeting family members of rival traffickers and other innocent civilians. It appears that these attacks and killings are geared towards “demoralising” competing criminal groups, showing them that no one associated with them, even if only literally “in passing”, is safe (Shirk & Wallman, 2015). In this regard, Guatemala and Mexico are notorious for high rates of femicide or feminicide—that is, the gender-based killing of women and girls (Carey & Torres, 2009; Fregoso & Bejarano, 2010; Wright, 2011). Thus, while violence is certainly a tool employed by criminal organisations to achieve their goals, it is not necessarily their first preferred choice to act violently. As Phil Williams points out,

Much of the time, criminal organizations avoid violence against one another, and against the state. Cooperation among criminal organizations is widespread, even though it typically remains fragile and can easily break down. […] In terms of the relationship with the state, criminal organizations prefer to operate under the radar but if this is not possible then cooption of state authorities is generally preferred to confrontation. Similarly, criminal organizations are able to maintain internal discipline primarily through trusted relationships, albeit with a large dash of fear thrown in as insurance. The implication is that organized crime violence, while certainly more than an anomaly, is not the norm (Williams, 2009, p. 325).

With regard to illicit markets, the available evidence suggests they are not always and necessarily violent:

The markets for illegal goods and services operate without the usual protection against fraud and violence offered by the court system. The state instead of attempting to facilitate transactions, aims to disrupt them. Contracts cannot be enforced through written documents and the legal system; agreements are made hurriedly, sometimes in ambiguous code, and orally. Territories cannot be allocated through bidding for desirable locations, since there is no enforceable ownership of property for these purposes. All these factors can lead to violence for a variety of purposes. Yet illegality itself is insufficient to generate high levels of violence in a market (Reuter, 2009, p. 275).

When illicit markets—as well as licit ones in which criminal organisations invest and operate—turn violent, this is often related to competition over territory, such as drug trafficking routes, high-value real estate and particularly lucrative street corners for the retailing of drugs. This competition not only affects low-level, local illicit markets but also occurs at the high level, where the,

groups are competing not for territories directly but for the rights to pay those corrupt officials who control specific channels, such as landing strips in a province in Guatemala. This is consistent with Schelling’s classic conjecture about the U.S. Mafia, namely that organized crime was best thought of as the licensed collector of the rents associated with the franchise held by the corrupt police departments in individual American cities (Reuter, 2009, p. 277).

While upsurges in criminal violence can be explained in reference to these different types of competition, they are also caused by tougher and more effective law enforcement. Using the current situation in Mexico as an example, Reuter points out that, ‘as a result of tougher enforcement there has been considerable turnover in the leadership of the principal drug trafficking groups; many leaders have been incarcerated […] or killed in shoot-outs with the police and military’ (Reuter, 2009, p. 278). As is known from other crime-affected settings, such as from the city of Medellín, a Colombian drug-trafficking stronghold, after the demobilisation of local paramilitary groups in the mid-2000s, ‘turn-over increases inter-gang conflict. [Further], the dismissal of large numbers of corrupt officials [as in Mexico] creates uncertainty and hence violence as traffickers search for new sources of protection’ (Reuter, 2009, pp. 278-9). Tougher law enforcement, which not untypically involves employing the military to fight drug trafficking groups and other criminal organisations, is also known to increase the levels of violence as the organisations ‘gear up’ and strengthen their firepower and capability to hit both law enforcers and rivals.

The state and political/social institutions play a crucial role in spurring and/or regulating violence associated with criminal activities. The state—or parts of it—is by no means always an opponent of criminal organisations, but may well be in cohorts with them and participate actively, as mentioned above in relation to some African states, in the creation of ‘protection economies’ (Ellis & Shaw, 2015). The degree to which the state offers protection to organised crime is a key variable:

Institutions of protection, especially what we call state-sponsored protection rackets help explain varying levels of violence within and across illicit markets. Where state-sponsored institutions of protection exist, levels of violence will likely be low. Conversely, the breakdown of state-sponsored protection rackets, which may result from well-meaning reforms intended to strengthen and improve law enforcement [and the rule of law], can ironically lead to increases in violence (Snyder & Durán-Martínez, 2009, p. 254).

The dynamics described above can be seen in the examples of Mexico after the transition from one-party rule to a more pluralistic political system in 2000, Burma/Myanmar after 1990 and Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003. While Mexico witnessed a literal explosion of drug trafficking-related violence after its democratic opening, leading the US government to consider it as being on its way to becoming a ‘failed state’, in Myanmar, by contrast, ‘the construction of a state-sponsored protection racket after 1990 helped quell a protracted civil war, resulting in a large reduction in violence (Snyder & Durán-Martínez, 2009, p. 271). With regard to Iraq, “both Mexico and Iraq have a history of collusion between state elites and organized crime; and in both cases that collusion has broken down” (Williams, 2009, p. 326). ‘The other similarity in context is that both Iraq and Mexico suffer from high levels of corruption. Moreover, although it is tempting to see corruption and violence as alternative strategies of criminal organizations – the infamous choice between silver and lead – in both countries corruption and violence are mutually reinforcing’ (Williams, 2009, p. 329).

With significant context-specific variations, including with respect to the state’s strength and the particular configuration of the existing protection economies, comparable pictures emerge in other cases of state- and/or elite-sponsored protection rackets that are presently operational, such as in Nigeria (the world’s single largest scenario for oil theft), Afghanistan (the world’s single largest opium/heroin producer) and Guinea-Bissau (an important West African trans-shipment point for South American cocaine en route to Europe).

Throughout most of the 2000s, the oil-bearing Niger Delta region of Nigeria witnessed significant levels of violence, when so-called militant groups launched an effective attack on the vital oil infrastructure, significantly reducing the country’s crude output and engaging the federal government military forces and the oil majors in violent confrontation. This escalation of violence in the Delta was accompanied by a hike in oil theft, locally known as ‘oil bunkering’, in which a broad range of militants, oil industry employees and government officials, at both the local/regional and the federal level, have been involved. The crisis in the Delta was ultimately quelled by a presidential amnesty for the Niger Delta militants, issued in 2009 by the Yar’Adua administration, which re-established the terms of a federal state-sponsored protection racket for the massive theft of crude oil (Schultze-Kraft, forthcoming).

In Afghanistan,

Despite growing evidence of the capture of ‘key pieces of the nascent state apparatus’ by drug-trafficking interests, the continuing weakness of the state itself , particularly beyond Kabul, negates its classification as a traditional ‘narco-state’. Where Afghanistan is concerned, there is sufficient ‘narco’ but not enough state. That said, in accommodating the drugs trade and tolerating relationships between major drug traffickers, key governors and deputy ministers, President Karzai has arguably created what former Minister of the Interior Ali Jalali has referred to as a pax narcotica; an approach to governance that, while helping to secure the president’s future, has done little for regional and international security (Bewley-Taylor, 2013, p. 14).

With respect to cocaine trafficking through Guinea-Bissau, Shaw observes that,

Protection has been supplied by a small network within the country’s elite. […] The ability of the elite network to offer protection derives precisely from the fact that the key institutions of the state, including notably the justice system, matter little, and are unable to mount a response. […] In Guinea-Bissau then, what could be termed the ‘political economy of protection’ – managed by an elite protection network – can be described as the set of transactions entered into over time by an elite groups of often competing individuals for the purpose of ensuring the facilitation, sustainability and safety of a set of illicit activities (Shaw, 2015, p. 340–1).

It is important to note that, in cases of state- and/or elite-sponsored protection rackets and economies, criminal violence is not absent, but its levels are likely lower and it is more targeted than in situations where the state confronts criminal organisations head-on. In this regard, it is crucial to recognise that the states in question—be they Afghanistan, Guinea-Bissau, Mexico, Myanmar or Nigeria—are characterised by differing degrees of state fragility. These range from very high in Afghanistan, Guinea-Bissau and Myanmar to relatively lower in Mexico, with Nigeria lying somewhere in between. Such states do evidently not command a Weberian monopoly of the legitimate use of force but are characterised by ‘oligopolies of coercion in peripheral areas’ (Duncan, 2014, p. 19). Writing on two relatively developed southern states, Colombia and Mexico, Gustavo Duncan (2014) argues that ‘in an oligopoly of coercion the state does not disappear but instead participates in the exercise of local coercion […] oligopolies of coercion are subnational authoritarian systems that involve an additional distinction: the permanent and abundant role of organised violence in the relations of the local power with both the local population and the state’ (p. 20). However, note that, in the case of significantly weaker states, such as Afghanistan and Guinea-Bissau, oligopolies may also extend to the central level of government and power.

  • Distinguishing between state and elite-sponsored protection rackets or economies is pertinent because, in many developing countries and especially in “fragile states”, political power is not centralised and institutionally anchored in the state. Instead, political power is often held and exercised by different groups of elites that may or may not have a relationship with the state and formal political institutions and organisations. Under such conditions, the state is only one—and sometimes not the strongest—among several powerful actors participating in the protection economies