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Crime

Borderless illegality

by Joseph Miller

In brief

Police agents in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, after gunmen killed four people in May

Police agents in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, after gunmen killed four people in May

As the world is globalising, so are criminal gangs and cartels. Stemming cross-border crime is a daunting challenge. The consequences of illegal behaviour are clear, but the global community lacks policies to tackle it.

After the USA took drastic measures to slow the drug flow from Columbia, the Columbian cartels began looking for new paths into the United States. They began developing routes through Mexico in the 70ies, and according to journalist Anabel Hernández, the government there tolerated and even supported them for years. Her estimate is that half of the members of parliament were involved in the drug trade one way or another.

Mexico’s current drug war began in 2006, when president Felipe Calderón came to power and declared fighting the drug economy one of his main goals. Since then, it has claimed some 40,000 lives, experts say. In particular areas where cartels hold much of the power, as in Ciudad Juárez for example, horror stories about murders abound. Luz del Carmen Sosa Carrizosa, a journalist of Ciudad Juárez’ daily El Diario, says that, on average, ­seven people are assassinated in that city every day, including kids on the way to school. There are only 35 homicide investigators in the area, she says, so only three per cent of the murders are solved and perpetrators put on trial.

Impunity, Carrizosa stresses, has boosted the power of the cartels and is undermining trust in democratic institutions. She also speaks of rampant corruption in the police force. Her colleague Hernández agrees. According to her, the Ministry for Public Security gets funding and training from the United States, but its officers nonetheless still commit atrocities, and many of them are now basically servants to criminal gangs.

Mexico is not the only country that is suffering from cross-border crime. Afghanistan, according to Yami Torabi of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, a civil society organisation, is one of the most corrupt countries. Matters have been getting worse since 2002. He accuses “half of parliament” of being involved in smuggling of some sort, be it weapons, drugs or human beings. Different criminal networks, he says, are competing for trade routes. On the other hand, bribes must be paid for virtually any sort of government service – this practice is seen as normal in every­­-day life.

Invisible merchandise

In June, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a think tank close to Germany’s Green Party, hosted a conference in Berlin with the title “Grenzenlos Illegal” (“Borderless illegality”). The focus was on the globalisation of crime. As Carolyn Nordstrom of the University of Notre Dame in the USA put it, as the world globalises, so do mafias and cartels. New trade routes that are established for legitimate business provide ways for criminal groups to smuggle more goods, enlarge their markets and sources from new areas. She argues that these products and their movement are essentially “invisible” and rarely monitored.

According to Nordstrom, some people who do not seem to be criminals actually are criminals. The people in the industrialised nations who knowingly take money from the cartels are at fault too. They help to launder money and benefit from illegal activities. Nordstrom also emphasises that the most successful criminals are the rich ones who do net get their own hands dirty.

She says that there are links between militant groups in Africa or the Middle East and Latin American drug smugglers. On the other hand, there are different kinds of cross-border crime. Food and ­essential pharmaceuticals are smuggled too. According to Nordstrom, such resources become instruments of power: it is easier to control people when one can provide goods they depend on. If criminal gangs do so, however, they are likely to further marginalise governments of fra­gile states.

Edgardo Buscaglia, a consultant who works for donor agencies including the World Bank and GIZ, points out that the absence of a state allows private groups, whether they are legal or not, to fill the gaps. He says that countries have to come to terms with the issues according to their own culture and history. They need to establish institutions of governance that suit them, and can only fight international crime on that basis. He adds that donor nations must not use aid money to buy sides, because they are likely to compound problems that way.

To some extent, the legalisation of illegal practices can help. In the past, various experts have argued that formalising the trade in cocaine and other illicit drugs would reduce the damage done. Regine Schönenberg of Berlin’s Freie Universität says she used to argue that way herself. She doubts, however, that this approach would actually uproot international crime cartels. If they no longer can rely on drugs trafficking, she says, “they will find something else”.

Stemming the globalisation of crime is a daunting challenge. Countries have different laws and different value systems. When something, such as cocaine trafficking in Mexico, is more or less tolerated as a legitimate source of income for decades and is then suddenly criminalised, armed gangs are likely to fight back. “There are going to be problems; a lot of money is involved,” says Hernández.

Joseph Miller