Measuring the Mafia-State Menace

Are Government-Backed Gangs a Grave New Threat?

Courtesy Reuters

Peter Andreas

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.

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