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November 22, 2011 / jeni

Crime-Conflict on Twitter

As has become patently obvious, the demands of the end-stage PhD have distracted our attention mightily from the world of blogging. Whilst I hope to come back to the blog when time allows, in the meantime I can be found on Twitter, sharing all the various articles and news that I come across in my research. Ta until then… 🙂

Follow @CrimeConflict


October 3, 2011 / jeni

War, Inc.

In focusing on crime and conflict, it’s easy to pay too much attention to swaggering warlords and dashing transnational merchants of death. After all, they often have amusing nicknames and an endless string of bravado-laced stories of risk and profit, not to mention the associated excitement of the feds chasing them around.

So let’s pause and remember that some of the biggest profiteers in the last ten years of conflict have been dodgy corporate entities. This isn’t an exercise in moral relativism, but just to point out that our counter-crime efforts in conflict zones are an exercise in changing norms and attitudes toward crime and corruption, and these efforts are doomed to fail when we are perceived as criminal and corrupt ourselves.

Hence this helpful annotation of the Commission on Wartime Contracting’s report to Congress, by Mother Jones, in the form of an ‘All-Time 10 Worst Contracting Boondoggles’ list. I’ve written about #10 here: the funding of warlords and insurgents by trucking contractors. But there’s lots of other good stuff to read about: roads and bases falling apart after costing hundreds of millions, financial systems collapsing under the watchful eye of hired accountants, shady employees diverting funds into their own private villas — and that’s before you even get to allegations of human trafficking and slave labour.

In all, the report estimates that the US government has lost between $31 and 60 billion to contractor fraud and waste in the last ten years. That’s at least $3 billion per year — roughly the same, according to some estimates, as total profits on opium in Afghanistan per year. Unlike the opium trade, however, we can actually do something about contractor criminality.

September 29, 2011 / jeni

US Strategy to Combat Transnational Organised Crime: Progress, Not Perfect

The US government recently released its first Strategy to Combat Transnational Organised Crime (pdf). It’s an important milestone, reflecting not only the enhanced security threats emanating from TOC but the increasing awareness of the severity of such threats on the part of national governments.

Overall, the strategy says all the right things and offers a comprehensive and reasonable-sounding national response. If you are reading this blog, you can probably guess at the contents: drugs, Mexico, terrorism, drugs, cybercrime, arms, drugs, West Africa, intelligence-sharing, oh did we mention drugs? I would have liked to have seen some mention of additional illicit flows, such as timber, as well as the fact that eliminating one illicit activity often leads to the emergence of a substitute one — but in general I thought the Strategy (which is relatively brief) did an admirable job of covering the basics, in line with US interests. And I do believe the very existence of this concise and comprehensive Strategy — on top of significant bureaucratic and law enforcement initiatives — is a major sign of progress.

But of course, as a nitpicky academic, I have some quibbles.

First, there’s a slight tendency to accord TOC an agency and a top-down level of control that it does not always have — for example, by saying that it ‘takes advantage of failed states or contested spaces’ and ‘sets up shadow economies’. The Strategy does not really address the dynamic whereby localised or indigenous organised criminality emerges due to dysfunctional conditions and then links up with transnational networks.

This leads to a related critique, which is that the focus on transnational organised crime neglects a concurrent and major threat to US interests: namely, organised crime within a state in which the US has a vested military or strategic presence. In other words, organised crime poses a threat to the United States not only in its transnational forms but in its hyper-local varieties, if the latter inhibits security and stability in a country where the US maintains troops and/or conducts operations. I appreciate this particular Strategy was not intended to address this variable, but I think some mention of this additional security threat would not have been amiss.

Finally, it’s a shame that as an official US government publication, the Strategy has to toe the official line on the situation in Afghanistan. Or so I assume, as there is no other explanation for why the brief section on TOC in Afghanistan refers only to the drugs financing of the Taliban and other insurgents and offers no mention of corruption/criminality on the part of the Afghan government and security services (a security problem of equal magnitude).

Perhaps it’s only because I don’t have the highest of expectations for official policy in this area, but I think the Strategy offers a good initial framework for approaching the complex terrain of transnational crime. Its main defect is that it generally focuses on the problems for which we have some answers (such as terrorist financing and international drugs shipments) and neglects those for which we have no coherent response (Afghan corruption) or political will to address (the global arms trade). These latter challenges don’t cease to be security threats simply because they’re left out of our counter-strategies.

June 10, 2011 / jeni

Reading List: Crime Wars

Crime Wars: Gangs, Cartels and US National Security

Col. Robert Killebrew and Jennifer Bernal

Center for a New American Security


As illustrated by the unprecedented violence in Mexico, drug trafficking groups have evolved to not only pose significant challenges to that country, but to governments and societies across the Western Hemisphere, including the United States. Crime Wars: Gangs, Cartels and U.S. National Securitysurveys organized crime throughout the Western Hemisphere, analyzes the challenges it poses for the region and recommends the United States replace the “war on drugs” paradigm with comprehensive domestic and foreign policies to confront the interrelated challenges of drug trafficking and violence ranging from the Andean Ridge to American streets.

The result of a yearlong study by the Center for a New American Security, Crime Wars provides some elements of such a strategy, including recommendations for the U.S. government to: renew political and military outreach to Latin American states; enhance efforts to strengthen state institutions throughout the region; and better attack cartels’ financial networks. At the same time, domestic policy should aim to disseminate better intelligence among law enforcement, federally fund additional campaigns to diminish drug demand and safeguard U.S. communities against gang recruitment. Only by dealing with transnational crime in a comprehensive manner will societies in the hemisphere be able to mitigate its impact.

There’s also an interesting brief from Killebrew on Colombia at Small Wars Journal:

No responsible Colombian would claim today that the war is over. Though the main guerrilla group, the Fuerzas Armedas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), which is deeply involved in the narcotics trade, has been substantially defeated and no longer threatens the government, it still retains capability to terrorize and dominate remote areas. Additionally, a new class of violent criminal bands, variously called “Bandas Criminales” or “Bacrim,” has emerged from the breakup of right-wing militias in the ’90s to join the drug trade and ally themselves with the Mexican cartels. Colombian police now consider the Bacrim to be a more significant threat to Colombia than the FARC. Additionally, a Colombian defense official recently noted that, in some ways, this stage of the counterinsurgency campaign is tougher since the various guerrilla and criminal groups, now under increasing pressure from government troops and police, are operating in smaller, more hard-core bands and present more fleeting targets for police and military forces. Military and police strategies are adapting to these new conditions, but at this point it is not the military’s operations per se that are especially remarkable; both the military and police have evolved into professional, competent services. What is remarkable is the manner in which Demobilization, Disarmament and Reintegration (DDR) has become such an integral part of Colombia’s military strategy for ending its long-running insurgency.

June 8, 2011 / jeni

Borders: Where Crime and Conflict Meet

I probably bang on about borders too much (sorry folks!) but that’s only because I don’t think the ‘powers that be’ bang on about them enough. At least in Central Asia, poor border management leads to communal tensions and violence (for example, between Tajiks and Kyrgyz) and facilitates the massive flow of drugs, militants, guns, migrants, you name it. As this recent EurasiaNet article notes (Is Russia Ready to Address Central Asia’s Border Woes?), the long and porous border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan in particular is of great concern to both counterterrorism and counternarcotics agencies throughout the region, and will only become more of an issue as the US and NATO draw down in Afghanistan.

(The article also reminds me to name-check the latest International Crisis Group report on violence and crime in Tajikistan: Tajikistan, The Changing Insurgent Threats)

One of the major problems in looking at crime-conflict issues is that there are few natural homes (whether analytical, academic or institutional) in which to discuss them comprehensively: those who specialise in crime and those who specialise in conflict operate, for the most part, in different worlds, and bringing them together successfully can be a challenge. Border management may be one of the most obvious locales for this type of collaboration, but it tends to be massively under-funded. I’m starting to think that as we look for ways to build a ‘crime-conflict infrastructure’ — i.e., a lexicon and locations for addressing crime-conflict issues — borders may be a good place to start. It may be a bit old-school Westphalian, but we still don’t have many alternatives for containing harmful transnational flows at the international level.


While we’re looking at Central Asia, we may as well consider the occurrence of the first suicide bombing in Kazakhstan, which has been officially blamed — in a display of Soviet-level creativity — on an arch criminal.

The first blast – and the first suicide bomb ever reported in Kazakhstan, which has virtually no tradition of radical Islam – occurred at the KNB [Kazakh intelligence] headquarters in the western oil city of Aktobe on May 17, when 25-year-old Rakhimzhan Makatov rushed into the building and blew himself up, killing himself and injuring two others. The attack bore the hallmarks of an extremist suicide bombing, but investigators offered a different explanation: Makatov was a criminal kingpin who blew himself up “with the aim of avoiding responsibility” for alleged crimes, prosecutor’s office spokesman Zhandos Umiraliyev said.

Usually in Central Asia we see criminality blamed on terrorists; nice to see it works so well the other way around as well.

February 2, 2011 / jeni

Reading List: Forests and Conflict: The financial flows that fuel war

Forests and Conflict: The Financial Flows that Fuel War (pdf)

Arthur Blundell, 2010

Program on Forests / The World Bank


Many resource-dependent countries seem cursed. Logging has fueled conflict in (at least) Burma, Cambodia, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and most notably Liberia, where the UN Security Council sanctioned timber in 2003 as a means of staunching the flow of revenue to the belligerents. This paper examines the major pathways that revenue from forestry can contribute to the outbreak, escalation and/or continuation of armed conflict, including:

• Fueling corruption, which undermines economic development.
• Purchasing arms and materiel, as well as trading timber directly for arms.
• Using logging operators’ security forces as militias.
• Facilitating money laundering and other financial crimes.

Even after peace agreements, fragile states remain stressed due to: contested land ownership, including overlapping logging-concession claims; reporting systems that do not provide timely and accurate information; speculators that bid on concessions hoping to later sell them for profit; and an overall lack of capacity throughout society, which can be exploited by ‘spoilers’ intent on blocking reform. Yet a failure to deal with these stresses can have dire effects: more than a third of countries recovering from civil war revert to conflict within a decade, often because belligerents gain revenue from the illicit exploitation of natural resources.

Fortunately, post-conflict countries can leverage the urgency associated with the crisis—and the concomitant boom in financial and technical assistance—and achieve rapid, visible progress while building durable institutions. However, such reform may be undermined when governments turn to forestry to provide instant—and generally exaggerated expectations of—revenue and jobs, pursuing ‘quick wins’ that compromise longer-term goals. Thus, when governments fail to deliver on promises, at minimum, valuable trust is lost, revenue for poverty-reduction strategies is unavailable, and at worst, the same natural resources that first fueled the war may cause it to morph into renewed forms of criminal violence.

January 12, 2011 / jeni

Banditry in Northern Afghanistan

My colleagues and I have been talking about banditry lately, a curiously old-school-sounding category of crime that nonetheless permeates most zones of conflict and instability. It’s not as flashy as drug-lording or arms-running, but it’s perhaps the type of crime most likely to affect your average person caught up in such unfortunate areas.

I’ll be reading up on this in the near term for a new report we’re writing (the reason for our relative silence lately, by the way!) so I’d like to share some things I come across, as I’m not sure this type of criminality gets enough attention.

For the moment, I’d just like to draw your attention to a recent Al Jazeera article on the Arbakai militias in northern Afghanistan — semi-official armed groups that were so predatory toward local populations that President Karzai was finally forced to order their disbandment. Pessimism remains, however, on whether the groups will actually be able to be disarmed, and the episode is not propelling optimism regarding the creation of Afghan Local Police units across the country.

The situation in northern Afghanistan is in flux, and it’s important to try to understand the dynamics of increasing instability and violence there. These provinces don’t just have a Taliban problem — they have a bandit problem. The question is, are there any mechanisms for effectively dealing with the latter?

December 17, 2010 / jeni

The Kosovo Trafficking Report

Corrupt politicians of the world, listen up: if you want everyone to keep turning a blind eye to your little hobbies, then for god’s sake stay away from the organ harvesting. When even the Daily Mail has something to say about your business, it’s going to be just a bit too awkward for the international community to pretend everything is fine, just fine thanks.

Yes, apparently the prime minister of Kosovo is head of a bunch of heroin-smuggling, rival-assassinating, organ-nicking thugs. It’s gotten a lot of press coverage (see Balkan Insight) but I’m not sure how many people are reading the full report that’s been submitted to the Council of Europe — the draft text can be found here. A few (less salacious) items jumped out at me as I skimmed it.

The report supports the argument that we and many others consistently promulgate regarding the motivations and strategies of non-state actors in conflict zones — namely, that it is misleading to try to separate actors into neat categories of ‘political vs criminal’ (or the outdated ‘greed vs grievance’).

31.       The evidence we have uncovered is perhaps most significant in that it often contradicts the much-touted image of the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, as a guerrilla army that fought valiantly to defend the right of its people to inhabit the territory of Kosovo.

32.       While there were undoubtedly numerous brave soldiers who were willing to go to the warfront, in the face of considerable adversity, and if necessary die for the cause of an independent Kosovar Albanian motherland, these fighters were not necessarily in the majority.

33.       From the testimony we have managed to amass, the policy and strategy of some KLA leaders were much more complex than a simple agenda to overpower their Serb oppressors.

34.       On the one hand, the KLA leadership coveted recognition and support from foreign partners including, notably, the United States Government.  Towards this end the KLA’s internationally well-connected “spokesmen” had to fulfil certain promises to their partners and sponsors, and / or adhere to particular terms of engagement that were the de facto conditions of their receiving support from overseas.

35.       On the other hand, though, a number of the senior commanders of the KLA have reportedly not failed to profit from the war, including by securing material and personal benefits for themselves.  They wanted to secure access to resources for themselves and their family / clan members, notably through positions of power in political office, or in lucrative industries such as petroleum, construction and real estate.  They wanted to avenge what they perceived as historical injustices perpetrated against the Albanian population in the former Yugoslavia.  And many of them were seemingly bent on profiteering to the maximum of their potential while they had operational control of certain lawless territories (e.g. in parts of southern and western Kosovo), and leverage – especially in terms of financial resources – with which to negotiate footholds for themselves in other territories (e.g. in Albania).

Investigators also found that ‘the main KLA units and their respective zones of operational command corresponded in an almost perfect mirror image to the structures that controlled the various forms of organised crime in the territories in which the KLA was active’.

In discussing the criminality embedded in the KLA leadership, and detailing how violent factionalism within the KLA continued after the war and ‘shaped the post-conflict political landscape’, the report also provides a brief case study of the ‘criminalisation of politics’ in postwar societies. It is a phenomenon commonly seen throughout the world’s conflict zones and yet little leverage exists to combat it; often the worst purveyors of it are precisely those political actors who are seen as essential to any political settlement of the conflict. Hence the consternation of this report’s author at finding that knowledge of Prime Minister Thaci’s activities has been widespread within the international community for years, to no apparent effect.

So while it’s understandable that contraband kidneys are the particularly eye-catching detail here, hopefully it will bring increased attention to an enduring, systemic problem in the Balkans and beyond.

December 10, 2010 / jeni

Realities in Tajikistan

Choosing a relatively obscure former Soviet republic as the focus of one’s dissertation will have any number of ramifications, not the least of which is a certain sense of joy whenever anyone else in the world happens to write about it. Thus I was well pleased to see a bit on Tajikistan by Matthew DuPee in the new Asia Despatch. It’s a good summary of Tajikistan’s woeful interdiction efforts — although to be fair, given the nature of the Tajik-Afghan border (where in some places traffickers can simply toss their drugs over the border) and the extreme poverty and corruption gripping the country, I think we have to be realistic about how much Tajikistan can really contribute to international anti-trafficking efforts.

It’s an important factor to bear in mind when looking at Afghanistan, as any efforts to reduce the drugs trade there and restore security throughout the northern regions will in large part depend upon border conditions with Tajikistan and its neighbours.

But let’s try not to fall into the usual trap of seeing everything in Central Asia through the prism of Afghanistan. There are very real concerns about renewed conflict in Tajikistan and other Central Asian republics, and to the extent that the drugs trade encourages corruption, violence and the hollowing out of state capacity, it could be a contributory factor. While it’s true that the likelihood of conflict in the region can sometimes be overblown — hasn’t the Ferghana Valley been a ‘tinderbox’ for a couple decades now? — the recent violence and instability in Kyrgyzstan, and the prospects of regime change in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in coming years, point to a continued potential for conflict that must be managed cleverly if we are to avoid anything like the Tajik civil war of the 1990s.

So how does one brush up on events in Tajikistan? First, I recommend the online work of another crazy academic writing a dissertation on Tajikistan, Christian Bleuer — his Tajikistan Research site and the blogs Ghosts of Alexander and Registan. Not only is he incredibly knowledgeable about the country, he’s quite good at poking holes in overblown predictions and bad strategy.

I also like New Eurasia for on-the-ground coverage and debates about what’s really going on in the country, as well as the Institute for War & Peace Reporting and EurasiaNet. Of course there is always RFE/FL and the English-language Tajik news agency site Asia-Plus.

There’s a lot more out there, of course — just a bit to get you started. If you find yourself fascinated (it can happen!) please feel free to email me for more.

UPDATE: Wikileaks reveals that Tajikistan is a ‘corrupt, alcohol-sodden fiefdom‘. I think I’m going to nick that for my dissertation title.

September 24, 2010 / jeni

Reading List: Ending Wars, Consolidating Peace

Ending Wars, Consolidating Peace: Economic Perspectives

Eds. Mats Berdal & Achim Wennmann

International Institute for Strategic Studies

Adelphi Paper #412-13 (Athens log-in available)

This Adelphi offers a series of economic perspectives on conflict resolution, showing how the challenges of peacebuilding can be more effectively tackled. From the need to marry diplomatic peacemaking with development efforts,and activate the private sector in the service of peacebuilding aims, to the use of taxes and natural-resource revenues as a financial base for sustainable peace, this book considers how economic factors can positively shape and drive peace processes. It examines the complex ways in which power and order may be manifested in conflict zones, where unpalatable compromises with local warlords can often be the first step towards a more lasting settlement.

Be sure to check out Chapter 10 — Crime, Corruption and Violent Economies — by our new King’s confrere, James Cockayne.

Full chapter list:

Introduction:  Mats Berdal

Chapter One:  Peace Processes, Business and New Futures After War:  Achim Wennmann

Chapter Two:  Stabilising Fragile States and the Humanitarian Space:  Robert Muggah

Chapter Three:  Assessing Linkages Between Diplomatic Peacemaking and Developmental Peacebuilding Efforts:  Ashraf Ghani, Clare Lockhart, Blair Glencorse

Chapter Four:  The Bretton Woods Institutions, Reconstruction and Peacebuilding:  Graciana del Castillo

Chapter Five:  Aid and Fiscal Capacity Building in Post-Conflict Countries:  James Boyce

Chapter Six:  Valuable Natural Resources in Conflict-Affected States:  Paivi Lujala, Siri Aas Rustad, Philippe Le Billon

Chapter Seven:  Foreign Direct Investors in Conflict Zones:  Andreea Mihalache-O’keef, Tatiana Vashchilko

Chapter Eight:  War Transitions and Armed Groups:  Jennifer Hazen

Chapter Nine:  State Failure and Ungoverned Space:  Ken Menkhaus

Chapter Ten:  Crime, Corruption and Violent Economies:  James Cockayne

Conclusion:  Achim Wennmann

September 17, 2010 / jeni

Clueless on Corruption in Afghanistan

The list of things we are still uncertain of, nearly nine years into the Afghan campaign, is depressingly long. What’s happened to bin Laden? Should we talk to the Taliban? What’s the best way to disrupt the drugs trade? And so on. So it is not all that surprising that there is no consistent and coherent strategy with respect to corruption in Afghanistan — or even, for that matter, consensus on how serious a problem it really is.

Two items related to this issue caught my eye this week. First, on Sunday, Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote in the Washington Post on the evolving view within American policy circles that a law enforcement approach to Afghan corruption is proving counterproductive. The new Afghan anti-corruption task force is seen as an American endeavour with an Afghan facade. High-profile raids have angered and embarrassed President Karzai (who, when one of his aides was arrested, simply ordered him released). A lack of transparency and coordination means that law enforcement agencies are targeting individuals on the CIA payroll or who are otherwise engaged in assisting coalition efforts.

In short, while there is general agreement on the need to uncover corruption networks and better understand the effects of corruption in Afghanistan, there is a growing divide over how such information should be acted upon. The problem with a law enforcement approach is that, if properly implemented, it is apolitical — lawbreakers are prosecuted regardless of their status or wealth. However, in a counterinsurgency or stabilisation environment, everything is political. Arresting and prosecuting corrupt officials may be highly satisfying to American observers, but if it alienates political allies, disrupts intel efforts, and is not seen as legitimate by local populations, then it may not be worth it. It appears General Petraeus is going to assert more control over anti-corruption efforts, and has even brought in H.R. McMaster to head up a new anti-corruption task force.

The problem with moving away from a law enforcement approach is the lack of a coherent alternative strategy. Alternative tactics — sure. Better inter-agency communication can avert the targeting of allies and informants, and there are lessons to be drawn from Iraq, where corruption has been addressed privately at the highest levels so as not to embarrass or disempower Prime Minister Maliki. But these are essentially tools to mitigate the political effects of corruption — they are unlikely to do anything to halt corruption itself, which is now so massively embedded in political and economic systems that it constitutes a strategic problem in Afghanistan.

Scaling back law enforcement efforts and resorting to informal methods also undercut efforts to promote the rule of law in Afghanistan — and yes, the rule of law may seem like a pipe dream at the moment, but it is precisely in the area of law and justice that the Taliban have found a measure of popular support in rural areas, by providing mechanisms for fair and swift judgment that the government cannot.

Finally, are we or are we not serious about lending some kind of legitimacy to the Karzai government? This is, in theory, a central aim of Coalition efforts and counterinsurgency strategy. Yet in speaking with Afghans over the past couple years, I have been struck by a common theme in their assessments of the current situation — namely, that everyone is a thief. The government steals, the police steal, the foreign armies steal, the NGOs and aid agencies steal — how else to explain a situation where billions of dollars have been dropped on the country and yet the average Afghan is no better off? Failing to prosecute government officials who are commonly known to be shipping shedloads of cash to the Emirates may be politically expedient, but no government can attain legitimacy under such circumstances.

Nevertheless, the problems with the law enforcement approach are obvious, and I am not trying to suggest unwavering adherence to it. But I worry that in trying on alternative practices, we may lose sight of the bigger strategic issues related to corruption in Afghanistan.

Which leads me to the other interesting item of the week, posted a few days ago by Abu Muqawama (otherwise known as Andrew Exum, a fellow War Studies doctoral candidate with a much better day job). On Corruption neatly counterposes those who think corruption is really the central issue in Afghanistan (a position I admit I mostly sympathise with) with those who believe addressing it in any substantial manner would be a classic example of mission creep.

But as I spent more time in Afghanistan last summer and talked to more people back in Washington, I starting wondering whether or not the United States had the time or committment necessary in Afghanistan to really tackle the issue properly. If Afghanistan was going to be our 51st state, then it makes sense to send Patrick Fitzgerald or whoever over to Kabul and let him do his thing. But the reality is that we are trying to leave Afghanistan. So the other school of thought on corruption argues that trying to target corruption in Afghanistan is, like counter-narcotics, the very definition of mission creep. Let’s just train up the Afghan National Security Forces and transition to a security force assistance-type mission as soon as is humanly possible.

Actually, if we are not going to do much of anything about corruption in our remaining time in the country, then we might as well leave right now. If we’re not going to target the massive infrastructure of graft and extortion within which the ANSF are embedded, then I’m not sure the Afghan people will actually appreciate us giving the security forces more training and guns with which to abuse and exploit them. And even if we scale back our overriding aims to not letting Afghanistan become a terrorist refuge again, do we really believe that a massively corrupt government — a government that essentially subsists on bribery, theft and the trafficking of illicit goods — that this kind of government would not turn a blind eye to an Al Qaeda presence for the right amount of cash?

To be fair, Exum acknowledges that ‘corruption might eventually undermine the very host nation government by, with and through which we plan on keeping al-Qaeda and its allies at bay’. But I don’t find his recommended means of addressing the problem — establishing a ‘relationship of trust’ with Karzai — especially convincing. For one thing, if we don’t have a relationship of trust with Karzai after nine years, I think we can say that ship has sailed. More important, Karzai is one man, with a questionable political lifespan. He cannot be the solution to this problem.

I agree with Exum — and the sceptics from the Post article — that as we are not planning a long-term presence, realistically there is not a lot we can do about entrenched corruption in Afghanistan. I suppose all I am asking for in the meantime is some effort to A) not make things worse, and B) at least try for some level of consistency in our aims and strategies. We can strive for better accountability in our own money flows and contracting. We can try to obtain as much intelligence on corruption networks as possible while we are still in a position to observe. Disrupting the production and trade of narcotics and promoting alternative livelihoods has been a contested process for years, but the potential payoffs are great. We can go after the assets that corrupt officials move through the global financial system.

Our options may be few, but pretending that corruption is not obstructing our strategic aims, and dealing with it only informally and covertly, is not going to burnish our credibility or enhance our limited chances of success.

September 11, 2010 / jeni

Cocaine: Who Profits?

Everyone knows there is serious money to be made in the cocaine trade. But the supply chain between coca farmers in the Andes and cocaine users in the US and Europe is long and contested — where do the profits lie?

According to the UNODC report The Globalization of Crime, the largest profits in the cocaine trade are found at the same level as in the trade of legitimate goods:  between wholesalers and consumers.

Some 196 tons of cocaine are needed to satisfy US demand, a flow valued at US$38 billion in 2008, but this money is not evenly distributed. The coca farmers in the three Andean countries earned about US$1.1 billion that year. The amounts generated from processing and trafficking activities within the Andean countries for cocaine destined to be shipped towards North America amounted to around US$400 million. The total gross profits accruing to those importing cocaine to Mexico can be estimated at around US$2.4 billion (excluding costs of shipping) and the Mexican cartels reaped US$2.9 billion that year moving the cocaine across the border into the USA. The largest profits, however, are generated within the USA: US$29.5 billion between the US wholesale level and US consumers. Out of these gross profits, the bulk is made between the mid-level dealers and the consumers, accounting for more than $24 billion or 70% of the total size of the US cocaine market.

A similar pattern is seen in the trade to Europe, although international traffickers claim a larger share of the market’s value.

[A]bout 124 tons of cocaine are distributed in Europe, worth some US$34 billion. It appears that less than 1% of the value of cocaine sales in Europe goes to the Andean coca farmers, and another 1% goes to traffickers within the Andean region. The international traffickers who ship the cocaine from the Andean region to the main entry points (notably Spain) obtain 25% of the final sales value. A further 17% is generated in shipping the cocaine from the entry points to the wholesalers in the final destination countries across Europe. The largest income is generated in the destination countries, between the wholesaler and the consumer, generating more than 56% of the total.

I’m highlighting this breakdown here primarily because it’s a question I’ve often been asked — what is the value of the drug trade in different segments of the supply chain? — and specific figures are hard to come by. Even in this report, UNODC does not attempt a similar breakdown for profits in the heroin trade, for example.

However, the implications of this assessment remain up for debate. An initial reading would tend to support the argument that the demand side of the cocaine trade — i.e., the US domestic market — should be the primary focus for counter-strategies, as it represents the largest share of the overall market. Yet the fact that per capita profits are highest on the supply side of the chain supports a strategy of targeting production and distribution in South and Central America.

In any event, it’s helpful to keep in mind the monetary resources available to the armed groups currently wreaking havoc in Mexico and elsewhere — the inability of the state to pacify the Mexican cartels becomes more understandable when one realises they have nearly $3 billion of annual income at their disposal.

September 2, 2010 / jeni

Now Hear This: Bandits of the Blitz

UK dwellers, there’s a great radio documentary on BBC Radio 4 (and online) next week: Bandits of the Blitz.

With Britain at war and London under siege from the Luftwaffe, everyone’s pulling together. Or are they? Whilst bombs rained down and long-suffering Brits helped each other, some people were simply helping themselves – stealing, looting, and making money on the black market.

World War II created vast opportunities for crime. Warehouses were robbed, army stores rifled and forgers kept busy providing false identity documents, ration books and clothing coupons. Looters, stealing anything of value, cleaned out blitzed houses…

Complex emergency rules left normally-law-abiding citizens facing the courts. Shopkeepers who fell foul of the tangle of red tape faced heavy fines. Even as the war ended, rationing continued, and the black market flourished.

One of the dangers of focusing on crime-conflict issues today is a natural inclination to speak of the same conflicts over and over — Afghanistan, Congo, Mexico, Colombia — conflicts that are intrastate, asymmetrical, buffeted by transnational dynamics, and fought in close proximity to civilian populations. These are important conflicts, ones that affect millions of people, and thus it is only right that they claim the lion’s share of our attention.

However, this makes it easy to forget sometimes about the extent to which crime is an inherent element of war generally — including inter-state and conventional wars. War profiteering, looting, theft — these are not new, and not confined to messy conflicts around the periphery of the developed world.

The heroic narrative of the Blitz sometimes confounds attempts to reveal human frailty, perfidy and exploitation. I’m quite interested to see what Radio 4 comes up with next week.

August 18, 2010 / jeni

Other Voices: Blog del Narco

[h/t Daniel Bennett]

More than 28,000 people have been killed in Mexican drug violence since January 2007. Now the Chicago Tribune reports on a fascinating new Mexican blog that has become the go-to source for detailed information on new killings, gruesome photo and video evidence of crime scenes, and warnings from the killers themselves.

An anonymous, twentysomething blogger is giving Mexicans what they can’t get elsewhere — an inside view of their country’s raging drug war. Operating from behind a thick curtain of computer security, Blog del Narco in less than six months has become Mexico’s go-to Internet site at a time when mainstream media are feeling pressure and threats to stay away from the story.

Many postings, including warnings and a beheading, appear to come directly from drug traffickers. Others depict crime scenes accessible only to military or police. The undifferentiated content suggests that all sides are using the blog — drug gangs to project their power, law enforcement to show that it too can play rough, and the public to learn about incidents that the mainstream media are forced to ignore or play down.

The blog raises interesting ethical questions. On the one hand, it publishes useful information that the public cannot access from any other source (see the LA Times on narco-censorship). On the other hand, it facilitates the cartels’ use of media to intimidate and threaten both rivals and civilians.

Without a  doubt, however, it is an important source for anyone investigating the ongoing Mexican drug war.

August 13, 2010 / jeni

Gangs of London

I live in Brixton, south London — an area historically prone to gang formation and violence. This summer has seen an uptick in violent attacks, including the murder of Zac Olumegbon, a fifteen-year-old boy who lived on my block. He was the thirteenth teenager to be murdered in London this year.

Anyone interested in the dynamics and geography of London gangs would do well to check out Gangs in London (and its associated blog). The website features detailed maps of London boroughs, with gang activity cross-referenced against areas of economic deprivation. The territories of specific gangs are marked in colour-coded blocks. (It’s not always clear how this data was arrived at, but at least for the areas of London I am familiar with, the maps ring true.)

There is also a lengthy and scholarly consideration of What Are Gangs? The author wrestles with the same normative dilemmas that confound us in the wider crime-conflict arena, noting the difficulty in reaching consensus on what constitutes a gang — especially in the UK, where the term ‘gang’ was adopted much later than in the United States — and the way in which the term somewhat uncomfortably tends to encompass a wide range of behaviour, from idle youth to highly organised criminal networks.

The discussion on definitions is an interesting reminder that even when dealing with violent criminal groups in our own cities, with fewer cultural and linguistic barriers to be overcome, we face significant obstacles to analysis and understanding. The problem is often posed as one of access — a lack of inside information on specific groups — and certainly this is a major issue. But even where such information can be developed, we may also lack the appropriate models and language to analyse such activity in a way that facilitates prevention and counter-responses. Luckily, there appear to be major efforts underway in recent years to address this particular issue.

(Of course, when it comes to gangs in less stable environments, we’ve got a entirely new set of analytical problems. For one take on this issue, see Max Manwaring’s Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency.)

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