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Mediation Perspectives: Dealing with Organized Crime

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For a variety of reasons, many of today’s armed conflicts exist at the intersection between politics and economics.  As part of this phenomenon, organized criminal activity in armed conflict is increasing rapidly and poses many challenges for policymakers. In this context, an important question is whether there is space for mediation in resolving conflicts in which organized criminal activity plays a significant role.

Treating organized crime as a security problem, as opposed to a purely judicial one, has been gaining traction in the policy world for some time.  Efforts to tackle organized crime through law enforcement alone are now occasionally described as  ‘one dimensional’ and counter-productive. Moreover, the absence of dialogue in conflicts involving organized crime is being recognized as a problem by organizations in the field.  Indeed, a growing debate has highlighted the gap that exists in addressing organized criminal violence, and has led to calls for further discussion about the role that ‘soft power’ dispute resolution mechanisms can play. As modes of criminal enterprise continue to become heavily intertwined with violent forms of conflict, the costs, benefits and risks of mediation in this arena must be carefully weighed.

Challenges for mediators

For mediators, the complex conflict environment that often underpins organized criminal violence poses many challenges. Corrupt state institutions, a ‘hybrid political order’ where a central authority is absent, and often a history of oppression or marginalization can pave the way to a thorny negotiation process and a vicious cycle of crime and conflict.

A key challenge for mediators when engaging in dialogue with organized crime is the risk of being seen to legitimize criminal actors. Therefore, the negotiation process, which may include justice provisions, such as amnesties, has to strike a difficult balance, particularly where state institutions are weak and armed groups have some existing legitimacy amongst citizens. Engaging in dialogue with political-criminal networks that undermine the state can have adverse long-term consequences for state-building and particularly the credibility of judicial and security institutions.

Additionally, security arrangements that result from the negotiation could allow political-criminal networks to form, undermining prospects for justice and peace in the long-term. The splintered command mechanisms that often exist in post-conflict situations can even allow organized violence to become more embedded into state institutions, especially if restorative programmes and security sector reforms are weak. In Guatemala, for example, breaking down the oppressive state system during the peace process allowed organized criminal violence to flourish in the face of a weak and ineffective state.

Why and how to engage

Mediation, however, when applied correctly, has been shown to be effective at preventing criminal violence. The case of El Salvador, where negotiations between the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs in 2012 saw a prompt reduction in violence, is an example of a peace process that was initially unpopular, due to some of the reasons mentioned above, and developed legitimacy over time as levels of violence fell. Thus, while there are important ethical and practical challenges to engaging with organized crime, such efforts are likely to continue if they are successful in reducing violence.

In dealing with organized crime, three key considerations must be taken into account:

  • Inclusivity: The formation of a mediation process requires input from all relevant actors. Because different actors have different incentives, often involving transnational linkages, it is important to engage and give a voice to all stakeholders needed to end the violence. Addressing the root causes of illicit activities is essential to ensure that the outcome of negotiations ‘sticks’ over time. Security sector reform programmes that are developed without the participation of all actors risk compounding future violence. Taking the various actors and their input into consideration, however, does not mean that they all have to be at the actual negotiation table.
  • Clarity of goals and conflict analysis: To be effective, a minimum common goal of all the involved actors has to be established. The presence of rent-seeking behaviour can obscure the goals of the actors. Even if there seem to be purely “financial” motives, these may be linked to ‘identity politics’, social grievances and power struggles. Assuming a purely profit motive is common, and an important risk for third parties to guard against to ensure a nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the conflict and to define the peace process accordingly. At the same time, assuming that all actors are motivated by social grievances is also short-sighted. To be effective, the limits of mediation should be as clear as its positive potential.
  • Impartiality and trust: For third-party engagement to be labelled ‘mediation’, the third party must be impartial and treat all actors in the process in a fair manner. The shortcomings of state parties – and weak governance – are often key drivers for the perpetrators of criminal violence. Dialogue measures that focus on the narrow, legal argument for ceasing violence and criminal activity risk losing legitimacy and trust in the eyes of the criminal party. Instead, an agreement is more likely to be reached by focusing on common beliefs that are distinct from legal or commercial interests – such as the safety of ‘normal’ citizens. In order to build trust between the mediator and negotiating parties, and to ensure a comprehensive understanding of all of the linkages at play, a mediator from within the region – although without connections to any of the parties – can prove extremely valuable.

Building peace in communities suffering from organized criminal activity under weak state institutions is a complex task – of which dialogue and negotiation are just one part. The example of El Salvador highlighted above is by no means a comprehensive indication of the benefits of mediation – a number of truces have since broken down and society remains largely unsupportive of the initiative – but rather a snapshot of the potential role that negotiations can have in reducing violence alone. Ensuring that long-term law and order institutions are robust must be part of a wider, essential process of state-building. In considering the role of mediation in dealing with organized criminal activity, defining the goals of the peace process is extremely important.  Ultimately, a differentiation has to be made about whether the ‘end game’ is to stop the violence or to stop the parties from engaging in any criminal activity.

Sabrin Kassam is a researcher at geostrategic consultancy Wikistrat and has previously worked with the Mediation Support Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author.  They do not necessarily represent those of the International Relations and Security Network, the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich, or any other relevant institutions.

Mediation Perspectives” is a periodic blog entry provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts.

For more information on issues and events that shape our world, please visit ISN Security Watch or browse our resources.


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