Emerging Alliance, Part II


Criminalized States and Terrorist-Criminal Pipelines

By Douglas Farah

Senior Fellow, Financial Investigations and Transparency

International Assessment and Strategy Center

Adjunct Fellow, Americas Program, CSIS


The Criminalized State

07/04/2011 – The cases from Part I show the connectivity among these disparate groups operating along different geographic parts of the overall criminal-terrorist pipeline. Rather than operating in isolation, these groups have complicated but significant interaction[s] with each other, based primarily on the ability of each actor or set of actors to provide a critical service to another, while profiting mutually from the transactions. Many of the groups operate in what have traditionally been called “ungoverned” or “stateless regions.” However, in many of these cases, the groups worked directly with the government or have become the de facto governing force in the areas they occupy.

(Credit: Bigstock)
(Credit: Bigstock)

This recognition of alternatively governed (non-state) regions is an important shift from the traditional ways of looking at stateless areas and serves as a prism that provides a useful way of understanding such regions and the interconnected threat that they pose to the Homeland.

There are traditional categories for measuring state performance developed by Rotberg and others in the wake of state failures at the end of the Cold War. The general premise is that that “Nation-states fail because they are convulsed by internal violence and can no longer deliver positive political goods to their inhabitants.”[1]

These traditional categories of states are:

  • Strong, or able to control its territory and offer quality political goods  to its people;
  • Weak, or filled with social tensions, and the state possessing a limited monopoly on the use of force;
  • Failed, or in a state of conflict, with a predatory ruler and no state monopoly on the use of force;
  • Collapsed, having no functioning state institutions and a vacuum of authority.[2]

This conceptualization, while useful, is limited. Of more use is viewing those alternatively governed spaces as existing “where territorial state control has been voluntarily or involuntarily ceded in whole or part to actors other than the relevant legally recognized sovereign authorities.”[3]

It is important to note that the “ungoverned” regions under discussion, as implied in the definition above, while out of the direct control of a state government, are not truly “ungoverned spaces.”

In fact, non-state actors exercise a significant degree of control over the regions, and that control may occasionally be contested by state forces. The underlying concepts of positive and negative sovereignty developed by Robert H. Jackson are useful in this discussion because the concept gives a useful lens to examine the role of the state in specific parts of its national territory.[4]

These regions, in fact, are governed by non-state actors who have, through force or popular support (or a mixture of both) been able to impose their decisions and norms, creating alternate power structures that directly challenge the state, often in the absence of the state. The Federation of American Scientists refers to these groups as “para-state actors.”[5] Regardless of the terminology, the absence of state presence or a deeply corrupted state presence should not be construed as a lack of a functioning government.

This definition allows for a critical distinction, still relatively undeveloped in current literature, between states where the government has little or no power in certain areas and may be fighting to assert that control, and states where the government in fact has a virtual monopoly on power and the use of force, but turns the state into a functioning criminal enterprise for the benefit of a small elite.

The latter is similar to the concept of a “captured state” developed by Phil Williams,[6] but differs in important ways. “Captured states” are taken hostage by criminal organizations, often through intimidation and threats, giving the criminal enterprise access to some parts of the state apparatus. A criminal state, however, counts on the integration of the state’s leadership into the criminal enterprise and the use of state facilities (aircraft registries, the facilitation of passports and diplomatic status on members of the criminal enterprise, accounts in the central bank, End User Certificates to acquire weapons etc.).

A further variation of the criminal state occurs when a functioning state essentially turns over or franchises out part of its territory to non-state groups to carry out their own agenda with the blessing and protection of the central government or a regional power. Both state and non-state actors share in the profits and proceeds from the resulting criminal activity.

Both of these models, but particularly the model of states franchising out their territory to non-state actors, are growing in Latin America, through the sponsorship of the “Bolivarian Revolution” (led by Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and including Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua) of non-state armed groups. While this will be addressed at some length further on, the principal criminal activity providing the revenues is cocaine trafficking and the most important (but not sole) recipient of state sponsorship is the FARC.

The traditional 4-tier categorization suffers from another significant omission. The model presupposes that “stateless regions” are largely confined within the borders of a single state. This is, in reality, hardly ever the case. Alternatively governed spaces generally overlap into several states because of the specific advantages offered by border regions.

The definition of a geographic “black hole” provided by Korteweg and Ehrhardt is useful in conceptualizing the use of border regions and the downward spirals they can generate in multiple states without causing the collapse of any of them:

A black hole is a geographic entity where, due to the absent or ineffective exercise of state governance, criminal and terrorist elements can deploy activities in support of, or otherwise directly relating to criminal or terrorist acts, including the act itself.[7]

For example, Latin America is almost absent from leading indexes of failed states. This is in large part because the indexes are state-centric and not designed to look at regions that spill over across several borders but do not cause any one state to collapse. For example, only Colombia (ranked 41) and Bolivia (ranked 51) are among the top 60 countries in the Foreign Policy Magazine and Fund For Peace 2009 Failed State Index.[8] Yet the governability of certain areas in the border regions of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize; the Rio San Miguel border region between Ecuador and Colombia; the Guajira Peninsula on the Venezuela-Colombia border; most of the border regions of Central America; and many other regions clearly qualifies them “black holes.”

(Credit: Bigstock)
(Credit: Bigstock)

This proliferation of black holes in border regions can be explained by examining the advantages offered by such regions.

As Kortewg and Ehrhardt state, terrorists (and the same thing is true for transnational criminal organizations) “seek out the soft spots, the weak seams of the Westphalian nation-state and the international order that it has created. Sometimes the territory’s boundaries coincide with the entire territory of a state, as with Somalia, but mostly this is not the case. Traditional weak spots, like border areas are more likely. Terrorist (and criminal) organizations operate on the fringes of this Westphalian system, in the grey areas of territoriality.”[9]

A 2001 Naval War College paper insightfully described some of the reasons for the occurrence of cross-border black holes in terms of “commercial” and “political” insurgencies. These are applicable to organized criminal groups as well and have grown in importance since then:

The border zones offer obvious advantages for political and economic insurgencies.

Political insurgents prefer to set up in adjacent territories that are poorly integrated, while the commercial insurgents favor active border areas, preferring to blend in amid business and government activity and corruption. The border offers a safe place to the political insurgent and easier access to communications, weapons, provisions, transport, and banks.

For the commercial insurgency, the frontier creates a fluid, trade-friendly environment. Border controls are perfunctory in “free trade” areas, and there is a great demand for goods that are linked to smuggling, document fraud, illegal immigration, and money laundering.

For the political insurgency, terrain and topography often favor the narco-guerilla. Jungles permit him to hide massive bases and training camps, and also laboratories, plantations, and clandestine runways. The Amazon region, huge and impenetrable, is a clear example of the shelter that the jungle areas give. On all of Colombia’s borders—with Panama, Ecuador, Brazil, and Venezuela—jungles cloak illegal activity.[10]

In parts of Guatemala and along much of the U.S.-Mexico border, these criminal groups have directly and successfully challenged the state’s sovereignty and established governing mechanisms of their own, relying on violence, corruption and largesse to maintain control. As the 2008 Joint Operating Environment (JOE) of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated:

A serious impediment to growth in Latin America remains the power of criminal gangs and drug cartels to corrupt, distort, and damage the region’s potential. The fact that criminal organizations and cartels are capable of building dozens of disposable submarines in the jungle and then using them to smuggle cocaine, indicates the enormous economic scale of this activity. This poses a real threat to the national security interests of the Western Hemisphere. In particular, the growing assault by the drug cartels and their thugs on the Mexican government over the past several years reminds one that an unstable Mexico could represent a homeland security problem of immense proportions to the United States.[11]

Control of broad swaths of land – increasingly including urban territory – by these non-state groups facilitates the movements of illegal products both northward and southward through the transcontinental pipeline, often through routes that appear to make little economic or logistical sense.

While the Venezuela-West Africa-Europe cocaine route seems circuitous when looking at a map, there are, in fact, economic and logistical rationales for the shift in drug trafficking patterns. West Africa offered significant comparative advantages – transiting illegal products through the region has been, until very recently, virtually risk free. Many countries in the region are still recovering from the horrendous violence of the resource wars that ravaged the region in the 1990s through the early years of this century.

The fragile governments, immersed in corruption and with few functioning law enforcement or judicial structures, are simply no match for the massive influx of drugs and the accompanying financial resources and violence. Guinea Bissau, the former Portuguese colony, has been dubbed Africa’s first “narco-state,” and the consequences have been devastating. Dueling drug gangs have assassinated the president, the army chief of staff and other senior officials while plunging the nation into chaos.[12]

In addition to state weakness, West Africa also offers the advantage of having long-standing smuggling networks or illicit pipelines to move products to the world market, be they conflict diamonds, illegal immigrants, massive numbers of weapons or conflict timber. Those controlling these already-established smuggling pipelines have found it relatively easy and very profitable to absorb another lucrative product, such as cocaine, that requires little additional effort to move. In addition, there is a long history in West Africa of rival groups, or at least groups with no common agenda except for the desire for economic gain, to make deals when such contacts are viewed as mutually beneficial.[13]

In order to illustrate how criminal and terrorist networks operate for mutual benefit in a criminalized state consider  two related cases that shed light on the relationship among different actors in such an environment.[14]

[1] See for example see Robert I. Rotberg, “Failed States, Collapsed States, Weak States: Causes and Indicators,” Failure and State Weakness in a Time of Terror, Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., January 2003.

[2] Rotberg, op cit.

[3] Anne L. Clunan, Harold A. Trinkunas et al, Ungoverned Spaces: Alternatives to State Authority in an Era of Softened Sovereignty, Stanford University Press, 2010, p. 3.

[4] Robert H. Jackson, Quasi-states: Sovereignty, International Relations and the Third World, Cambridge University Press, 1990. Jackson defines negative sovereignty as freedom from outside interference, the ability of a sovereign state to act independently, both in its external relations and internally, towards its people. Positive sovereignty is the acquisition and enjoyment of capacities, not merely immunities. In Jackson’s definition, it presupposes “capabilities which enable governments to be their own masters” (p. 29). The absence of either type of sovereignty can lead to the collapse of or absence of state control.

[5] The FAS lists 385 para state actors across the globe, accessible at: http://www.fas.org/irp/world/para/index.html

[6] See Bill Lahneman and Matt Lewis, “Summary of Proceedings: Organized Crime and the Corruption of State Institutions,” University of Maryland, Nov. 18, 2002, viewed at: http://www.cissm.umd.edu/papers/files/organizedcrime.pdf

[7] Rem Korteweg and David Ehrhardt, “Terrorist Black Holes: A Study into Terrorist Sanctuaries and Governmental Weakness,” Clingendael Centre for Strategic Studies, The Hague, November 2005, p. 26.

[8] “The Failed State Index,” Foreign Policy Magazine, July/August 2009, pp. 80-93, accessible at: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/06/22/2009_failed_states_index_interactive_map_and_rankings.

[9] Korteweg and Ehrhardt, op cit, p. 22.

[10] Julio A. Cirino et al, “Latin America’s Lawless Areas and Failed States,” Latin American Security Challenges (Paul D. Taylor, editor), Naval War College Newport Papers 21, 2001.Commercial insurgencies are defined as engaging in “for-profit organized crime without a predominate political agenda,” leaving unclear how that differs from groups defined as organized criminal organizations.

[11] “Joint Operating Environment 2008: Challenges and Implications for the Future Joint Force.” United States Joint Forces Command, Nov. 25, 2008, p. 34.

[12] Author interviews with U.S. law enforcement officials and: James Traub, “Africa’s Drug Problem,” New York Times Magazine, April 9, 2010.

[13] For an excellent case study of this issue see: Lansana Gberie, War and Peace in Sierra Leone: Diamonds, Corruption and the Lebanese Connection, The Diamond and Human Security Project, Partnership Africa Canada, Occasional Paper 6, January 2003.

[14] For a more complete look at the concept of the criminal state see: Douglas Farah, “Transnational Crime, Social Networks and Forests: Using Natural Resources to Finance Conflicts and Post-Conflict Violence,” Working Paper, World Bank Program on Forests, available at: http://www.profor.info/profor/sites/profor.info/files/draft-Transnational-crime-forests-post-conflict-violence.pdf