Around the world, criminal organizations and governments are fusing to an unprecedented degree, blurring the distinction between national interests and what suits the gangsters. Mafia states enjoy the unhealthy advantages of their hybrid status: they’re as nimble as gangs and as well protected as governments, and thus more dangerous than either.
OLD WHINE, NEW BOTTLES
According to Moisés Naím's essay "Mafia States" (May/June 2012), the world now faces a grave "new threat": governments that have been taken over by organized crime. These "mafia states" are so dangerous, Naím argues, that they are no longer merely a law enforcement challenge but a full-blown national security threat.
There is just one problem with this scary picture: it is hardly new. For every eye-popping contemporary example that Naím gives of a criminal organization linked to a state, there are many more equally striking parallels from the past. The state and organized crime have never been as separate as Naím seems to imagine they once were.
Consider the Balkans. Naím labels tiny Montenegro, a cigarette-smuggling hub, a mafia state, and points to Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi's alleged complicity in the heroin trade. Smuggling is indeed a lifeblood of some Balkan economies today. But it pales in comparison to the large-scale organized crime sponsored by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's regime in the 1990s, when Serbian customs agents evaded UN sanctions and facilitated all sorts of smuggling.
Or look at Latin America. Naím points to the current Venezuelan government's alleged high-level military links to drug trafficking. But Venezuela under Hugo Chávez is no more a mafia state than some of the region's corrupt regimes of the past. Manuel Noriega's dictatorship in Panama allowed Colombian cocaine and dirty money to flow freely through the country until he was overthrown by the United States in 1989. In Bolivia, General Luis García Meza had such close ties to drug traffickers that his 1980 takeover was dubbed "the cocaine coup." In the 1940s and 1950s, Cuba under Fulgencio Batista offered a welcome mat for some of the United States' leading organized crime figures. In many places, from Latin America to Southeast Asia, the Cold War created a tolerant climate for states to back criminal enterprises -- links that were often overlooked for geopolitical convenience.
Going back earlier in the twentieth century, one has to wonder if Naím would classify Prohibition-era America as a mafia state, considering that entire police departments were bought off and bootleggers delivered booze directly to Congress. Canada, too, might earn Naím's designation. The Canadian government at the time granted licenses to bootleggers in Windsor, Ontario, to store alcohol right on the banks of the Detroit River, and Canadian customs officials routinely signed off on paperwork falsely indicating that the goods were not destined for the United States.
The British authorities in the Bahamas also operated a mafia state of sorts during Prohibition, letting their territory become a transshipment point for rumrunners. (Officials reprised the role in the 1970s and 1980s, when they allowed the Colombian drug kingpin Carlos Lehder to turn a Bahamian island into his own private airstrip for U.S.-bound cocaine shipments.)
Examples of countries that would qualify as mafia states under Naím's definition extend even further back in history, undermining the ostensibly "unprecedented" nature of the phenomenon even more. In the nineteenth century, the United Kingdom oversaw the flood of opium smuggled into China; the British East India Company, which shipped the opium, had far more power than any of today's so-called drug cartels could ever dream of.
To match the supposed newness of the threat he describes, Naím resorts to newfangled language. But the very term "mafia states" is flawed, misleading, and applied so erratically as to become nearly meaningless. After all, the word "mafia," with origins in nineteenth-century Italy, has now been so used and abused in popularized descriptions of organized criminal activity that it has lost much of its analytic value. As Giovanni Falcone, an Italian judge who was killed by the original Mafia in 1992, cautioned, "I am no longer willing to accept the habit of speaking of the Mafia in descriptive and all-inclusive terms that make it possible to stack up phenomena that are indeed related to the field of organized crime but that have little or nothing in common with the Mafia." Naím compounds the problem further by coining a catchy but frustratingly fuzzy new term.
Strangely, Naím never even mentions Italy, despite the long and intimate relationship between government authorities and organized crime in the country. But were Naím to have included Italy on his list of mafia states, he would have undermined his own argument about how new the threat is. Naím is also silent about Japan, where the nexus between politics and the Yakuza criminal syndicate is deeply entrenched. One suspects that is because, as in Italy, the story there is an old one and does not sit well with Naím's alarmism.
Some of the examples Naím does offer actually weaken his argument. For instance, he points out that "a succession of generals who held the chief antidrug post in Mexico are now in prison for taking part in the very kind of crime they were supposed to prevent." Naím is correct that the Mexican government has a drug-corruption problem (although that is hardly a new phenomenon). But if Mexico were actually a mafia state, then these generals would presumably be not in prison but running the drug trade.
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