Geopolitics and organised crime.
The dark matter of international relations.
We founded Geopolitical Dispatch to analyse geopolitical developments for business readers. We hope most of our readers work for legitimate firms. But even if not, here is an offer you can’t refuse: a look at the intersection of geopolitics and organised crime.
The business of organised crime
An organised crime group, per an oft-cited definition, is a “continuing criminal enterprise that rationally works to profit from illicit activities often in great public demand.”
Such groups are vast and varied: the mafia from southern Italy; the yakuza of Japan; the cartels in Latin America; the triads out of China but especially Hong Kong; and the more ragtag, but no less organised, biker gangs of North America, Canada, and Australia.
Their modes of operation – let alone their modes of transport – may differ. Still, these disparate groups share core characteristics: continuous engagement in illegal activities, close coordination of these operations, and a focus on trading prohibited goods and services.
Despite the state
Aside from the illegal nature of their activities and products, many large organised crime groups closely resemble conventional international businesses. They demonstrate comparable sophistication, employ significant numbers of people, and operate globally. This hints at the primary way organised crime groups impact geopolitics: contributing to the global economy but via the black market.
Accurate data is necessarily elusive but there are strong indications that certain organised crime groups ‘contribute’ more to the global economy than many small countries and multinational corporations.
For example, the 'Ndrangheta, perhaps the world’s largest organised crime group, with tentacles spread across Europe and stretching as far as Australia, is almost certainly one of Italy’s most profitable businesses. It has an estimated annual revenue of approximately $60 billion. By comparison, a highly successful legitimate business from Italy’s north, Prada, generates annual revenue of just $4.4 billion.
Zooming out from the so-called OG (original gangster) home of organised crime to the world at large, the United Nations estimated in 2009 that transnational organised crime generated approximately $870 billion, about 1.5% of the world’s GDP, which is only 0.2% less than Russia’s current global contribution in nominal (but not purchasing power) terms.
Furthermore, many analysts suggest there has been exponential growth in the profitability of organised crime since 2009, mainly because of the after-effects of the 2008 global financial crisis. When conventional markets waiver, underground markets often thrive.
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Against the state
Organised crime groups do not impact geopolitics just by operating as businesses seeking to extract profits on the margins of state power. They also often directly confront states and seek to direct government authority in their favour. This helps them expand the areas where they can do business and enables them to pursue non-business objectives, including obtaining political power for its own sake.
At the extreme end of the spectrum, some organised crime groups function as terrorist organisations and vice versa. In Africa, for example, groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia, as well as various factions in the Sahel, engage in elaborate criminal activities to underwrite their war efforts and their various other attempts to wrest government control.
Often organised crime groups appear friendlier than those operating on the margins of global security. Nevertheless, they are still actively engaged in efforts to oust the state. For instance, in various Latin American countries, the cartels that feed the developed world’s drug habit also offer services their host states fail to provide. Such services range from subsidised medical care to alternative dispute resolution mechanisms.
There’s a similar but much more nuanced story about the yakuza. In many ways, Japanese organised crime groups function as a second police force, left to monitor and impose strict behavioural codes in the parts of society where the national police will not go. Whether for the cartels or the yakuza, the provision of such services supplants the state’s authority, casting the organised criminals as protectors and undermining the rule of law.
For the state
Organised crime groups are not just in the business of making money or directly confronting the state. Governments also call on them occasionally to act in the ‘national interest’ – a helpfully vague concept, especially in this context. This may be at times of war, during peacetime, and, perhaps most profitably, when ambiguity prevails.
For a particularly evocative example of governments leaning on organised crime groups while at war, recall ‘Operation Husky’, the Allied taking of Sicily during World War Two. The US Infantry’s targets were selected by military planners with help from certain mercenary mafiosi, recently domiciled in New York City and shrewdly prioritising good relations with nearby Washington over faraway Rome.
There are countless examples of such coordination between organised crime and governments during peacetime too. After the end of the Cold War, the Kremlin leaned heavily on organised crime groups to prop up its fledgling state and to enrich Russia’s new oligarch class (you could argue they still do with criminal-linked groups like Wagner). Similarly, in Afghanistan, up until the 2001 US invasion, the Taliban maintained deep ties with drug traffickers, using the opium trade to finance its operations.
And then there are states stuck in limbo between peace and war, like North Korea, which has little choice but to turn to the underworld. Pyongyang frequently engages in organised criminal activity, squeezed as it is out of global financial markets by onerous sanctions. For example, it is alleged to traffic vast quantities of drugs via its diplomatic network to bolster its economy and sustain its regime. The trade offers a dual advantage: solid revenue streams and, for the more conspiratorial, a method to destabilise enemies, particularly if the trafficked drugs wreak havoc among target populations.
With the brevity of a media digest, but the depth of an intelligence assessment, Daily Assessment goes beyond the news to outline the implications.
As the state
Ultimately, certain organised crime groups become so powerful that they supplant the state. They cease acting within the margins or even in cooperation with the state but become fully-fledged geopolitical actors in their own right. The organised crime group becomes the state and vice versa – a ‘Mafia state’ is born. This phenomenon is not merely about controlling certain regions; it may involve significant swathes of national territory and even influence foreign policy settings.
To wit, the 15 or so Mexican drug cartels. These ruthless operators dominate the Mexican political landscape, such that, per Le Monde, in several regions, “there is talk of co-governance between the state and the cartels." Cue President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his increasingly militarised programme.
Somalia offers another stark illustration. Though it may now be slowly recovering, the once-failed state was long gripped by political instability. Without a robust central government, organised crime groups were free to wrest whole territories, commit piracy on the high seas, establish trade relationships, levy tariffs, and engage in diplomatic interactions with neighbouring states.
Organised crime groups linger on the peripheries, nestle in the fissures, and pass through the webs – beyond, between, and among their host states. Yet they are surprisingly pivotal actors in today’s world. Wherever they operate, and for whatever purpose, criminal organisations consistently reveal the distance between the ideals of a good and purposeful world order and the realities of a chaotic and rudderless global mess.
This week, we have seen this vividly expressed, whether through the cartel assassination of an Ecuadorian presidential candidate, the role of people smugglers in growing tensions between Belarus and Poland, the use of mafia-related laws in alleged preparations for a fourth Trump indictment, the gangster-like behaviour of political factions in Lebanon, or the criminal-military nexus in Myanmar. Once you start noticing how central organised crime is in geopolitics, you will notice it everywhere.
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