In discussions of Mali’s chronic problems, one factor tends to be overlooked: organized crime. Illicit activities have a long tradition in remote areas across the Sahel. Mali’s vast north, an area larger than France, is sparsely populated, and historically marginalized by the Malian state. Many people survive by smuggling items like subsidized food or cigarettes. Criminal rents are how people make a living in the marginalized north, but have also funded a myriad of armed groups and corruption networks. Efforts by international actors like the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA), or by regional alliances like the G5 Sahel, increasingly recognize the threat organized crime poses to regional security, governance, and economic development. But why have their efforts fallen short?
After a campaign of “sending rapists,” “deportation force,” “whip out that Mexican thing again,” and “bad hombres,” the Trump administration has moved from the theatrical to the practical in its first steps to build a new wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. Prior to the inauguration, President Donald Trump’s transition team approached the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Interior Department about a new physical border. In his first week in office, Trump signed an executive order instructing the Department of Homeland Security to repair existing portions of the border fence and to build new sections as authorized by Congress in 2006. Although the new administration is clearly moving to fulfill its campaign promises, the results of a new physical barrier will likely have a counter-intuitive effect: Mexican drug cartels will grow stronger.
Since 2006, when the Mexican government declared war on the drug cartels, the United States has increased its law enforcement, military, and intelligence cooperation with its southern neighbor. With U.S. support, Mexican authorities have been able to kill or capture 33 out of the 37 most dangerous cartel leaders. The recent extradition of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to the United States is a testament to the value of high-level cooperation between the two countries. As a result of these notable successes, several larger cartels have fractured and have descended into in-fighting.
As 2016 comes to a close, the Global Observatory offers a list of notable books published throughout the year, recommended by staff of the International Peace Institute.
Arab Spring: Negotiating in the Shadows of the Intifadat, edited by I. William Zartman (University of Georgia Press)
Though the process is still very much still in progress, there has been no shortage of attempts to explain the origins, trace the trajectory, and draw out the conclusions of the Arab uprisings. However, the attempt by I. William Zartman in his edited volume Arab Spring: Negotiating in the Shadow of the Intifadat stands apart. This very prolific professor of international relations has over the decades—and through the pages of some 20 books—turned conflict resolution into an academic discipline in its own right. In the process, he has defined its parameters. Zartman is therefore uniquely equipped to place the tumultuous recent events of the Arab region in their proper historical and academic context. These were—and still are—a set of developments determined by a desire for change from an old to a new order and, therefore, at heart involved a negotiation of that transformation. It is through this lens that Zartman offers a conceptual framework for negotiating transitions, with a team of experts—most of them from the very countries where the events they describe took place—providing their insights. There is also a chapter on South Africa and another on Serbia, which serve as points of comparison. Recommended by Jose Vericat, Adviser.
Around the world, political and criminal actors appear to be working more closely together than ever before. In 2011, the White House warned that criminal networks were forging alliances with political actors to undermine the interests of the United States. Spanish prosecutors have alleged that in many former Soviet states organized crime groups work “as a complement to state structures,” doing “whatever the government…cannot.” Concerns about political and public sector corruption in eastern Europe have grown. A recent report suggests that organized crime groups are taking control of local democracy in countries as varied as Afghanistan, Colombia, and Niger. In the Middle East, organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Islamic State combine local social service provision, militant activity, and transnational organized crime to develop governmental power. And in North Korea, the ruling regime is accused of counterfeiting, drug-running, and even human trafficking. “Mafia states,” as this convergence of political and criminal power has been described, appear to be on the rise worldwide.
Political and criminal actors have long collaborated—not least in the US. As I show in my new book, Hidden Power: The Strategic Logic of Organized Crime, the US government worked closely with the American mafia during World War II and the Cold War to extend its power overseas. In the process, the Mob became an active player in international affairs, mounting armed insurgences, engaging in transnational terrorism, and even engineering regime change in some countries. But the move towards criminalized politics appears to have accelerated in the last two decades. Why?
Santa Claus is commonly imagined as a jolly, benevolent figure who delivers presents to deserving children all over the world. However, another version of Santa Claus exists in the organized crime underworld of Belgium where a Moroccan named Khalid Zerkani is commonly known as “Papa Noel.” Before his arrest, Zerkani would routinely handout money and presents to at-risk youth in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, luring them into his organization. Unlike ordinary organized crime groups that engage in illegal activities for personal enrichment, Zerkani’s group used its criminal proceeds to finance trips of recruits from Europe to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). One notorious recruit of Zerkani’s was Abdelhamid Abaaoud — the ringleader of the Paris terrorist attacks.
The link between crime, radicalism, and ISIL has only recently come into greater focus. Oil smuggling, extortion, and sex trafficking in ISIL-controlled territory are well-known, yet other crimes like drug production, trafficking, and consumption are not. It is important to better understand drug use and the drugs trade because both are helping ISIL commit atrocities and wage its campaign of terror. Viewing ISIL and other jihadist groups as mere collections of drug-crazed fanatics, however, would be a caricature. Organizations like ISIL use drugs for tactical, operational, and strategic reasons that are historically consistent with the behavior of other violent groups in the past. It is worth considering drug consumption within ISIL and other jihadist groups as we consider how to fight them.