The independent resource on global security

Organized crime: a growing threat to security

Walter Kemp

On 24 February the UN Security Council will debate the issue of organized crime as a threat to international peace. The issue has also been hot in the G8 and regional organizations like the OSCE and ECOWAS. It is also getting a lot of attention in the media. Why is organized crime so high on the political agenda?

In the last 20 years, globalization has outpaced the growth of mechanisms for global governance. This has resulted in a lack of regulationwhether it be on the Internet, in banking systems, or free trade zones. The same conditions that have led to unprecedented openness in trade, travel and communication have created massive opportunities for criminals. As a result, organized crime has diversified, gone global, and reached macro-economic proportions. This is having an impact on security.  

Where control of the government is weak, criminals profit from instability. Such regions are sometimes called 'ungoverned spaces', yet this is a misnomer because in many cases the sub-state entity is more effectively (if not democratically) administered than the internationally recognized state that it has broken away from. While the central government may not be willing or able to deliver public goods, collect taxes and provide public security, the de facto authorities manage to do all three – often on the basis of taxing or controlling illicit activity. Such an environment is advantageous to transnational criminal groups because it enables them to operate outside the law, but not in a complete state of anarchy (which is bad for business). It provides an efficient level of insecurity.

This creates a vicious circle: crime is attracted by insecurity, underdevelopment and weak governance, while the latter are exacerbated by crime.

Conflict or post-conflict areas are particularly vulnerable. In such areas, symbiotic relationships can develop between anti-government forces and criminal groups. This is, or has been, evident in many danger zones, including Afghanistan, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Peru, and parts of West Africa. Indeed, organized crime is present in almost every theatre where the UN carries out peacekeeping or peacebuilding operations.

In many cases, crime is a means to an end: it funds the anti-government struggle. But in some cases, criminal activity becomes so lucrative that political or ideological motivations become blurred with, or even trumped by, greed. Elements of the FARC (cocaine), the Khmer Rouge (ruby and teakwood), the Shining Path (cocaine), rebels in the DRC (gold) and the Taliban (opium) have demonstrated this trait.

In other cases, criminal groups operate more by stealth: seeking to coerce, corrupt or cajole state actors from the inside rather than teaming up with anti-government forces. In such cases, transnational criminal groups put pressure on senior officials in government, the judiciary, the police and the military in order to extract or traffic illicit goods, to operate with impunity and to buy power. They also use contacts in the private sector, for example for laundering money. This leads to the criminalization of the state, or at least many of its elite, for example by building corrupt networks between business, crime, and  politics. Under this arrangement, criminals effectively use all the trappings of the state to facilitate their activities: territorial waters, diplomatic passports, diplomatic pouches, immunity from prosecution, military facilities, intelligence information, even the state financial apparatus are exploited. They also influence the political process by funding political parties, or supporting key politicians. In return, their collaborators get rich. Some countries in West Africa and Central America are heading in this dangerous direction.  

As a result, the state is hollowed out from the insidecaptured by a crooked clique of self-serving cronies who hide their criminal activities behind a veil of legitimacy, use the proceeds of crime to build patronage networks and silence opposition by the threat or use of force (either the security services or the criminal groups). The social contract is replaced by a criminal bargain: criminal activity becomes state-sponsored, and in return the sponsors are protected and enriched by the criminals. The rule of law is replaced by the bullet and the bribe. This deepens corruption, compromises the integrity of state institutions and pushes common people into taking the law into their own hands. Collapse of the rule of law can also strengthen the appeal of political groups offering extreme alternatives, even authoritarian rule.    

Whether profiting from 'ungoverned spaces' or hollowing out the state from within, transnational criminal groupsplugged into global networksgain control of key resources and/or trafficking routes that give them a profitable market share. The richer and more powerful they become, the greater the threat they pose to national, regional and global security as well as undermining development and the rule of law.  

How can an international system, created to deal with tensions between states, confront non-state actors who become rich, powerful, and dangerous by respecting neither laws nor borders? This is a major challenge for the member states and the UN system as a whole.

Some solutions already exist, like the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime which was adopted in Palermo in December 2000. However, in the past decade the Convention has failed to live up to its potential. Parties to the Convention will meet later this year to see if they can strengthen its implementation.

For its part, the UN is looking for system-wide strategic response to organized crime by mainstreaming criminal justice into relevant activities, for example making sure that crime prevention and control are part of the core of the UN’s conflict prevention, crisis management, and peacebuilding activities.

In the same way that there is a separate crime section in bookstores, organized crime used to be considered by policy makers as a dangerous yet isolated issue on the margins of international security. No longer. Crime has made its presence felt with a bang. As one of globalization’s first movers, it has infiltrated deep into licit markets and high into government offices. The world is finally waking up to the threat.


Walter Kemp is the spokesman and speechwriter of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.