What makes countries vulnerable to transnational organised crime?

Countries emerging from conflict or other major crises face numerous difficult challenges on the road to state-building. One of the most harmful is the rise of violent crime, which threatens weak state institutions and the rule of law. In a number of cases, this concern is accentuated by the presence of transnational organised crime. Instead of starting on a path of economic and institutional development, these nations are transformed into way stations on the route of illicit products – drugs, clandestine migrants, or commodities such as timber or diamonds – heading to rich consumer markets. A conservative estimate puts the total value of these global markets at $125 billion per year.

The problems posed by transnational organised crime are serious and spreading. In Central Asia, West Africa and Central America, the wounds of civil war and political transition had not yet healed by the time the phenomenon appeared. Instead, criminal groups took full advantage of the weaknesses of governments and the rule of law in the aftermath of faltering transitions to democracy. These groups formed links with formal economic and political actors, and used their power where necessary to intimidate citizens into submission. Electoral processes, political parties, security forces, horizontal inequalities, ethnic rivalries and basic conceptions of citizenship have all been reshaped by criminal money and violence.

This report explores in depth the exact nature of the threat posed by transnational organised crime and the conditions that give rise to its growth. In particular, it asks whether the presence of transnational groups in fragile states is an effect of international conditions – such as the need to supply a particular consumer market – or due to causes that are internal to the country. On this basis, it picks out five key factors that underlie the expansion of this sort of crime. These are:

• the proximity to trafficking routes and destination markets;

• favourable international security conditions;

• extreme institutional fragmentation; • high levels of inequality; and • social atomisation.

Above all, the report stresses the importance of the last three domestic vulnerabilities in providing criminal groups with exceptional leverage over state and security actors, businesses, and local populations.

In conclusion, it offers a number of pointers for future policymaking that take into account the grave threat posed by transnational organised crime to stability and development. While this threat is undeniable, it is also true to say that it is the expression of fault lines and vulnerabilities in fragile states that cannot be repaired solely by law enforcement or donor exhortation.