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Boom Times for Criminal Syndicates

The global economic crisis is destined to be accompanied by rising levels of crime, violence, and—increasingly—state repression.

| Mon Apr. 6, 2009 12:50 PM EDT

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

Last Wednesday, the front page of the Wall Street Journal pulled no punches. The lead headline was: "Global Slump Seen Deepening." ("The outlook for the global economy worsened on the eve of a summit of the world's 20 biggest economic powers…") A chart just beneath that headline, labeled "Gloomier Outlook" and showing World Bank economic projections, was nothing short of dramatic. The graph line for world trade simply plunged off a visual cliff and, like an arrow heading for a target, went straight down. The last paragraph of the piece quoted World Bank President Robert Zoellick this way: "In London, Washington, and Paris, people talk of bonuses or no bonuses. In parts of Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, the struggle is for food or no food."

And, he might have added, people there may increasingly be talking about drugs and crime. Intensifying drug wars in Mexico (and their cross-border effects) are already front-page, top-of-the-news staples here in the U.S. Until now, however, no one has suggested, as Michael Klare, author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, does below that this may not just be a response to economic bad times, but part of a planetary trend. It may, in fact, prove to be a potentially toxic "syndrome," involving increasing crime and the syndicates and cartels that go with it, rising violence, and far higher levels of state repression. (To catch an audio interview with Klare on the coming global crime wave, click here.)

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This is the second of what will be an ongoing series by Klare from the dangerous frontiers of "a planet at the brink." In the coming year, as with Nick Turse's domestic "Tough Times" series, this site expects to keep part of its focus on our devolving planet and just what economic bad times mean for the rest of us. Stay tuned. Tom

Global Crime Wave?

A Syndrome of Crime, Violence, and Repression on the Way
By Michael T. Klare

In all catastrophes, there are always winners among the host of losers and victims. Bad times, like good ones, generate profits for someone. In the case of the present global economic meltdown, with our world at the brink and up to 50 million people potentially losing their jobs by the end of this year, one winner is likely to be criminal activity and crime syndicates. From Mexico to Africa, Russia to China, the pool of the desperate and the bribable is expanding exponentially, pointing to a sharp upturn in global crime. As illicit profits rise, so will violence in the turf wars among competing crime syndicates and in the desperate efforts by panicked governments to put a clamp on criminal activity. "

Take Mexico, just now in the headlines. In late March, during her first trip there as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was repeatedly asked about the burst of narcotics-related violence in that country, the thousands of deaths that have gone with it, the patent inability of the Mexican military to contain, no less repress, the drug trade, and the possibility that the country might be at risk of becoming a "failed state." Mexico itself may not be in danger of collapse, she replied diplomatically, but a very real danger threatens both countries from a rise in violent crime along the U.S.-Mexican border. "The criminals and kingpins spreading violence are trying to corrode the foundations of law, order, friendship, and trust between us," she declared at a press conference in Mexico City. To counter this danger, the secretary of state promised a militarized response that reflected the level of danger she imagined—a significant increase in U.S. anti-narcotics assistance, including the expedited delivery of Black Hawk helicopters.

The Mexican drug trade itself is nothing new. The illicit export traffic to the United States and the ensuing bloody competition among drug traffickers for access to the U.S. market have long concerned U.S. and Mexican law enforcement authorities. In the last two years, however, the violence associated with this commerce has grown to unprecedented levels as the leading crime syndicates—the Juárez Cartel, the Sinaloa Cartel, the Gulf Cartel, and Los Zetas—have successfully resisted a fierce government crackdown, while fighting among themselves for control over key border access points. According to Mexico's Attorney General, Eduardo Medina-Mora, 5,376 Mexicans were killed in drug-related violence in the first 11 months of 2008 compared to 2,477 during the same period in 2007, an increase of 117%. And as times get ever tougher for ordinary Mexicans, recruiting for the trade grows ever easier while the killings only multiply. U.S. law enforcement officials now believe inter-gang warfare is spilling into the United States in a serious way, producing rising murder rates in border states like Arizona, California, and Texas.

The ongoing slaughter in Mexico may be monopolizing overseas crime headlines, but other parts of the world have also seen sharp rises in criminal violence in 2008 and the early months of 2009 as the global economic crisis has deepened. With legal jobs disappearing, growing numbers of unemployed youth are unsurprisingly drawn to what's still available—illicit professions or jobs in the military and police that, in many countries, are ill-paid but allow access to bribes. Just such a process appears to be under way in impoverished parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Drug Traffickers and Pirates

In fact, it's an irony that, as global trading and other aspects of economic globalization are breaking down, crime may be globalizing. Consider recent developments in Guinea-Bissau and Peru, when it comes to the growing reach and savagery of Latin America's drug traffickers.

On March 1st, in Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony on the west coast of Africa, unknown assailants killed Army Chief of Staff General Batiste Tagme Na Waie and President João Bernardo Vieira within hours of each other. The two men had long been political rivals, and it is widely believed that President Vieira was behind Na Waie's assassination and was then killed in retaliation by members of the country's security forces.

Guinea-Bissau, however, has also become an important way station for the transshipment of illegal narcotics from Colombia to Europe. Many observers believe that the assassinations were tied to in-fighting among the drug cartels and their associates within Guinea-Bissau's political and military elites. While the killings may have been sparked in part by "personal hatreds [and] ethnic rivalries," said Joseph Sala, a former State Department official with knowledge of the country, a factor was also "the growing involvement of Latin American drug cartels."

In Peru, the pervasive lure of illicit drug profits is reflected in the re-emergence of the Shining Path guerrilla movement—this time as a cocaine smuggling operation. Originally a revolutionary Maoist organization, the Shining Path largely disappeared after its messianic leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured by Peruvian anti-terrorist agents in 1992. Recently, however, a surviving faction of the group has reappeared in a remote, impoverished jungle redoubt, promoting the growing of coca and its refinement into cocaine. Although still professing loyalty to its Maoist roots, the guerrilla faction appears to devote most of its time to fending off efforts by the Peruvian military to suppress drug trafficking in the area. The result has been a spike in armed violence with at least 22 soldiers and police officers killed in the region in 2008, the highest death toll in almost a decade.

As times get tougher, increased criminal violence is also evident in two other striking ways: as rising levels of piracy on the high seas and as a spike in capital punishment in China.

The increase in piracy has gained particular notoriety since Somali pirates hijacked the Sirius Star, a Saudi supertanker carrying more than $100 million worth of crude oil, in November 2008. In some sense, Somalia may be the poster child for what lies in store for far wider regions in a new era of criminalization. As a genuine failed state, after all, it has been experiencing the local equivalent of a great depression for years. While it has led the way on piracy, the phenomenon is on the rise elsewhere as well. The taking of the Sirius Star was only one of 293 incidents of piracy in 2008 – the highest number since the Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) of the International Maritime Bureau began compiling such records in 1992. According to the PRC's annual piracy report, 889 crew members were taken hostage in 2008, 11 were killed, and 21 are still missing and presumed dead; guns were fired in 139 of the incidents, up from 72 in 2007.

When it comes to China, whose booming economy was a global wonder until world trade took a tremendous hit last year, it's hard to gauge the level of violent crime, as officials there are said to systematically under-report it. However, there are indications that it is on the rise and that organized crime has secured a stronger presence in the country. In what is evidently an effort on Beijing's part to combat this trend, the government has vastly stepped up its executions of criminals found guilty of capital offenses. In 2007, according to Amnesty International, at least 470 convicted criminals were executed and another 1,860 (or more) sentenced to death. The just-released figures for 2008 show an enormous increase: 1,718-plus executions and another 7,003 people sentenced to death. Some of those killed may have been political prisoners falsely charged with criminal offenses, but most were, presumably, common criminals put to death to intimidate others who might engage in similar behavior.

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