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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?