The independent resource on global security

2. Armed conflict, crime and criminal violence


I. Introduction

II. Crime and criminal violence: data, methodology and global trends

III. Transnational crime in armed conflict settings

IV. A new type of armed conflict?

VII. Conclusions



Read the full chapter [PDF].


Criminal groups and profit-driven motives account for a substantial proportion of violence in many areas of armed conflict. Growing reliance by armed non-state actors on shadow economic activity contributes to the erosion of boundaries between political and criminal violence. Traditional distinctions between politico-military groups contesting control over territory or government and criminal actors prioritizing illicit profit become less relevant in conflict areas, especially in dysfunctional or failed states. In a complex web of fragmented violence, militias and other local powerbrokers fight for control of power and resources and exploit opportunities offered by insecurity and war economy.


On a global level, criminal violence is far more widespread than organized political violence. Decline in numbers of armed conflicts since the early 1990s has not been matched by a global decline in homicide rates. While overall global crime levels increase slowly, 2009 saw a notable rise in some types of transnational crime, including in armed conflict.


As demonstrated by the rising piracy based in Somalia, high-profile criminal business in some conflict settings may have even broader transnational implications and resonance than the conflict itself. The case of Afghanistan shows the multifunctional role that the deeply embedded opium economy plays in conflict and post-conflict environments: not only financing armed opposition groups, but yielding profits to most major local politico-military actors, including those loyal to the government, alongside criminal trafficking networks. In such conflict areas, organized crime and the shadow economy can only be effectively addressed once the state has already regained some basic elements of functionality, such as the ability to provide minimal law and order. This explains why the fight against organized, especially transnational, crime should not be divorced from conflict resolution efforts. Finding political solutions to conflicts should take priority as the main precondition for rebuilding or extending functional state capacity that is essential for effectively tackling organized crime.


The case of drug trafficking-related violence in Mexico shows that, even in the absence of conflict over government or territory, large-scale campaigns of criminal violence can pose as great a threat to human security as armed conflict. Such campaigns of criminal violence, often accompanied by intense anti-criminal violence by the state, deserve a category of their own in crime and conflict analysis. More generally, the study of organized crime and criminal violence should be more actively integrated into the broader analysis of collective organized armed violence in and beyond conflict areas.



Dr Ekaterina Stepanova (Russia) is a Lead Researcher on armed conflicts, terrorism and the political economy of conflicts at the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) of the Russian Academy of Sciences.