The use of violence is one of the defining features of an organised crime group, used for intimidation, extortion and as a criminal service in its own right, and as such, organised crime has become on the of leading drivers a of violence, insecurity and conflict. In 2005, the report of the UN Secretary-General, In Larger Freedom, highlighted organised crime as one of the principle threats to peace and security in the 21st Century. The 2011 World Development Report calculated that areas exposed to prolonged violence and conflict experienced a 20 percent loss in development performance in comparison to more stable and peaceful peers. The 2015 States of Fragility report released by the OECD, which uses a multi-dimensional framework to measure state fragility, demonstrated clearly that transnational threats such as organised crime and terrorism have served as a leveler across states, negatively affecting high income, middle income and lower income states equally, and demanding shared responses and shared responsibility to control the flows and mitigate the impact.

Discussions around the relationship of organised crime to violence and conflict sit at the nexus of two debates: between gang violence and drug trafficking in the Americas, regions posting the highest levels of homicide globally; and in the context of weak, failing or failed states where the interwoven connections between conflict actors, resources, illicit flows and insurgencies have been prominently explored.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Homicide Report found that of the half a million people are killed each year as result of intentional homicidal violence, organised crime is a significant cause. In Central America and Mexico, which suffer from the world’s highest homicide rates, 30% of murders are related to organised crime or gang violence. The operation of illicit drug markets drives violence and homicide levels, often due to violent competition between rival groups or involved parties, and the psycho-pharmacological effects of using certain drugs, such as cocaine and amphetamines, are also proven to have been causally linked to violence, such that in Latin America, rates of violent crime are six times higher than in the rest of the world.

Rapid urbanisation and sharp income inequalities across the globe, but particularly in the southern hemisphere, have resulted in slums characterised by high crime, violence and insecurity. Neglect of organised crime’s ability to penetrate vulnerable urban environments carries high risks, for which Cape Town is a case in point: the city has the highest rates of murder and drug related crime on the continent, with murders at a rate of over 7 per day.

An over concentration on drug trafficking, however, neglects that rarely are criminal groups exclusively involved in just drug markets. A contemporary feature of organised crime is that groups are frequently poly-crime groups, engaging in a gamut of activities in addition to drug trafficking, including piracy, smuggling of migrants, smuggling of body parts, trade in artifacts, arms trade, extortion, kidnapping, prostitution, illegal mining and illegal logging. Therefore in the increasingly complicated debates around the utility of drug legalisation, opponents argue that it would not by itself lead to the reduction of violence. Using security and justice-based interventions to interrupt, interdict and seize drug revenues away from organised crime groups may significantly weaken them, and in some cases could potentially lead to their vanishing altogether, but in the majority of cases it would still require addressing of the other forms of criminal revenue that might continue to fuel the groups. It further neglects that violence is perpetuated by groups involved is other forms of illicit activity, and more importantly, by protection itself. Competition over routes and markets are a significant source of violence across criminal industries, and the use of violence or the threat thereof is also a means of generating income. Protection and extortion are in themselves defining features of territorially-based mafia groups across the globe.

Vice-versa, efforts that have focused on the manifestations of violence and conflict without assessing the role of illicit flows and criminal networks as causal factors have similarly been unsuccessful. For example, analysis of experimentation with gang truces, including those most recently in the Americas between 2012-14, showed that the most successful of these achieved their primary objective to reduce the rate of violent homicides in the short term, but in the medium to long term they were challenged to achieve sustainability whilst trafficking activities continued. Furthermore, the focus on one metric – homicides – as the primary indicator of success or failure, overlooked the fact that during the period of truces organised criminal activity, extortions and other violent crime rose exponentially.

In the context of failed and failing states, the analysis around the role of illicit resources flows has been quite widely examined, particularly in the context of Africa and the post-colonial “Congo” wars in Central and West Africa. In these discussions, violent protection of access to natural resources such as minerals, oil and wildlife, have been shown to be linked to the cause, exacerbation and protraction of conflict. In more recent conflicts in the Sahel, similar analysis has been applied to illicit trafficking in drugs, the smuggling of migrants and other criminal transit flows as serving as a means of resourcing insurgencies. However, in both cases, the failure of internationally sponsored peace and transition processes to adequately address illicit flows and provide effective means to separate criminal activity from legitimate grievance, and to protect the institutions of the state from penetration of illicit flows, has become widely cited as reasons for the resurgence of conflict and subsequent state failure.

The ability of the international community to respond to the threat of organised crime has been significantly hampered by the strong emphasis placed on the issue as a “security” threat, which results in overly militarised, security driven responses that have the tendency to lead to the escalation rather than suppression of violence, the entrenchment of insurgencies and has been attributed by some as a driver of growing trends in violent extremism in a diverse range of theatres. Therefore, the need to work towards genuinely integrated strategies, or even development lead approaches, has become a priority. Some cite the work done to reduce crime and violence in the favelas in Brazil, and to reinstitute the state as a meaningful entity, as a good practice in this regard, but achieving this level of intervention would arguably be a challenge in those states with lower capacity and less resources. Militarised responses, without being part of a broader integrated strategy, have only increased violence and suffering, without having an appreciable impact on the criminal groups.

This programme area of the Global Initiative seeks to develop better informed and designed strategies to address the challenges organised crime presents to successfully reducing violence and fragility.




Stay in the loop with Global Initiative news.