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May 13, 2009 / criminalstudent

Crime and the Global Political Economy

International Political Economists have begun taking crime seriously as a topic worthy of academic attention (although they might not spend much time or space on conflict linkages) and the International Political Economy Yearbook is this year devoted to Crime and the Global Political Economy, published by Lynne Rienner who have also been kind enough to upload the first chapter. Although there is scant direct mention of violent conflict, a few points are worth highlighting anyway:

Firstly, the analytical connection between globalisation and crime is re-examined. Globalisation is here not seen as a mere instrument or means for criminal actors, but instead criminality is part of an elaborate (and globalised) political game between states and non-state actors.

 The following chapters demonstrate that the political, economic, and normative agendas of state and nonstate actors lead to selective criminalization and diverse patterns of compliance with prohibition regimes. Crime, we argue, is thus better understood as an integral part of globalization rather than simply its underside.

Secondly, the authors have little time for conventional analysis that tends to treat crime and criminal organisations as unitary phenomenons with little variation across time or space.

Yet, extensive variation exists in patterns of criminal organization, internal hierarchy, and the formality of external linkages as well as the durability of cooperative endeavors across sectoral operations and national borders (…)

Thirdly, the statistics used to buttress claims on the ‘threat’ of crime, the need for funding or indeed success in clamping down on crime also come under fire.

… official estimates of illegal drug production, seizure rates, retail and wholesale drug prices, and the drug user population have yielded a bewildering array of statistics. …

Too many reports?

Too many figures?

While law enforcement agencies tend to claim that the reason for the poor guess-work is the inherently shady and hidden nature of crime itself, our authors here have a less exotic explanation.

R. T. Naylor (2002, x, 301n2) recounts conversations with United Nations officials revealing how public relations considerations influenced their creation and perpetuation of the vaunted figure of $500 billion for the global drug trade. Turning to official estimates of money laundering, Naylor (2002, 8 ) observes further that “the reality is that no one has a clue about how much illegal money is earned or saved or laundered or moved around the world.”

It would seem that the murkiness of global financial flows has combined beautifully with bureaucratic self-interests and that we may not have (or ever attain) any good measure of illicit activities and flows on a global level. Perhaps it is better then to turn to snippets of information than reports that claim to cover the phenomenon globally.

Some of the analytical issues that also affect the analysis of the crime-conflict nexus are raised: namely the risk of an inherent state-bias in the use of crime as an analytical category.

Peter Andreas and Ethan Nadelmann argue in Chapter 2 [for] the need to recognize that states through their law-making and -enforcing authority define what is criminal […] Andreas and Nadelmann argue that rather than simply eroding state power, crime has become a means to expand it. States have used criminalization to re-regulate liberalized transnational flows.

More specifically, in conflict situations incumbents tend to criminalise non-state armed groups and claim that they are either violent barbarians or that their stated political aims are nothing but a thin veneer for their actual ‘criminal’ economic aims. A related strategy can be to clamp down on illicit, but previously tolerated, activities that are seen to disproportionately benefit non-state groups.

But at the global level, it is argued that overlooked dimension to crime is that the most powerful states may not always be equally minded to addressing different forms of crime if this conflicts with other priorities. Perhaps even cases of “he’s a criminal, but he’s our criminal”

Capacity-based approaches to globalization and crime often assume that policymakers in powerful states are willing to fully engage in crime control. I reject the usefulness of this assumption, arguing that it ignores ways in which prohibitions can conflict with other interests of powerful states.

Plotting selective criminalisation?

Plotting selective criminalisation?


Studying the political decision-making in several of the great powers regarding what to clamp down on and what to tolerate due to capacity constraints, due to political expediency, or maybe even the negative effect on an enemy would make an extremely interesting research project or a pretty good movie.

Finally, this is perhaps shown in the case of Mexico. The description of the chapter analysing crime in Mexico certainly stands out in terms of the implications for our understanding of the relationship between crime and state stability.

[Monica] Serrano argues that from the 1910s through the 1960s, the Mexican state embraced a “state-led criminal market” of drug control. Institutionalized corruption protected and regulated a booming drug trade feeding the US market while ensuring domestic stability. At the local and national levels, she notes, political authorities “tolerated, protected, or regulated” drug production and trafficking. Since the late 1960s, however, diffusion has become more extensive, with Mexico moving toward a “privatized criminal market.” (…)The resulting erosion of the old “tacit agreements” between traffickers and the state, the dismantling of corrupt antinarcotics bureaucracy, and rising levels of violence fueled by the private armies of the new trafficking organizations, Serrano concludes, have resulted in criminal markets beyond the capacity of the Mexican state to regulate or control. 

Rumours of the imminent demise of the Mexican state are, in my view, greatly exaggerated, but if the above analysis is correct there might in some cases be a Faustian trade-off between political stability and tolerating organised crime or criminal syndicates. Certainly, if these activities are brought under the tacit control and regulation of key actors in the state apparatus, there is little scope for neither turf wars between organised groups nor violent responses to policing operations. I am not sure how this however would translate into any kind of (ethical and) workable policy prescription.


One Comment

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  1. kiers / Jun 27 2009 19:22

    another example of how what is simply banal crime can take advantage of the “cover” of terrorism.!

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