Rotten to the Core?
How America’s Political Decay Accelerated During the Trump Era
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.
In fact, Mexico was more of a mafia state a quarter of a century ago than it is today. During the last decades of the twentieth century, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was still in power and the political system had yet to open up, the Mexican state managed the drug trade in a more top-down fashion, allowing it to keep the various players in check and drug-related violence to a minimum. Compare this to the era of Felipe Calderón and his antidrug crackdown. Since 2006, some 50,000 people have died in the drug wars. Were Mexico a true mafia state, it would wield more monopolistic control over the drug trade, and the resulting stability and lack of competition would translate into far less violence.
Naím's historical amnesia and misleading terminology combine to produce excessive panic. Naím even raises "the alarming prospect of nuclear mafia states," warning that "as criminal organizations fuse more thoroughly with governments, deterrence might become more difficult." But he fails to explain how nuclear deterrence will break down and gives no explanation for why a criminalized state would value its survival any less than a noncriminalized one. Nuclear retaliation would not be good for business.
For all of Naím's warnings about criminal gangs turning to for-profit nuclear smuggling, such activity is in fact strikingly rare. After all, nothing attracts unwanted attention from the United States and other major powers more than black marketeering in nuclear material; indeed, illicit buyers often turn out to be undercover agents staging sting operations. Criminal enterprise is first and foremost about making money, and there are far easier and less risky ways to do so than by moving fissile material.
Ratcheting up his rhetoric still further, Naím claims that "the scale and scope of the most powerful criminal organizations now easily match those of the world's largest multinational corporations." This is pure hyperbole, and he offers zero evidence to suggest otherwise. No criminal group comes remotely close to ExxonMobil or Apple in size or power.
In fact, illicit business would in some ways be easier to dismantle if it were controlled by such large, monolithic, and identifiable criminal organizations. Illegal cross-border commercial activities, ranging from drug trafficking to human smuggling, are hard to put out of business precisely because they are so diffuse and loosely organized. Cracking down on them may therefore be even harder than Naím suggests. But the nature and difficulty of the challenge is not fundamentally new.
Peter Andreas is Professor of Political Science and Interim Director of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. He is the author of the forthcoming book Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America.
Peter Andreas' disagreement with me boils down to two points: that organized crime colluding with governments is not a new phenomenon and that this is not as big a threat as I portray it. He is wrong on both counts.
Contrary to Andreas' assertions, there is overwhelming evidence that the globalization of illicit markets has increased their size substantially and diversified the kinds of goods traded in them. The enormous and fast-growing illicit markets in counterfeit products, industrial waste, and human organs are just some of the obvious examples with no historical precedent. New technologies, moreover, have transformed old crimes. Money laundering, for example, has always existed, but given today's electronic money-transferring systems and integrated financial markets, it is hard to argue that modern money laundering is not that different from what it once was.
In my article, I make clear that "criminals, smugglers, and black markets have always existed" and that the collusion of governments and criminals is not a new phenomenon, either. But extending that observation to argue that nothing has changed flies in the face of available evidence and basic logic. Applying Andreas' reasoning to other areas, one could say that rising global inequality in the past decade is of no concern because, after all, there has always been a gap between the rich and the poor.
To back up his claim that states today are just as criminalized as they were in the past, Andreas points to Cuba in the 1940s and 1950s, Bolivia in the 1980s, and Serbia in the 1990s. "The nature and difficulty of the challenge is not fundamentally new," he writes. To believe that, however, one would also need to believe that not much else has changed in the world in recent decades. In fact, since the late 1980s, businesses, terrorists, charities, aid organizations, media, political activists, churches, and many other groups have taken advantage of globalization to expand their influence. If Andreas is to be believed, organized crime would be the only exception -- a bold assumption he apparently feels no need to explain.
Given the volume, international scope, financial implications, and extraordinarily complex logistical requirements of today's illicit markets, it is illogical to assume that governments are not more deeply involved in these criminal activities than ever before. What is more, some of these governments are not merely accomplices but the actual leaders of criminal enterprises.
Andreas is not ready to acknowledge this new reality. For him, the challenge posed today by Hugo Chávez's Venezuela, for example, is analytically indistinguishable from that posed by the weak government of Bolivia's Luis García Meza, a regime that barely lasted a full year. Venezuela today is one of the world's top oil exporters, and its government includes known drug traffickers and has close alliances with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), Cuba, Iran, and Belarus. It is absurd to place the country in the same category as Bolivia in 1980, an impoverished and isolated state run by a feeble military junta whose main illicit activity was selling basic coca paste.
Eastern Europe's natural gas sales offer another example that belies Andreas' argument. As diplomatic cables released by the whistleblower Web site WikiLeaks reveal, U.S. officials believe that Dmytro Firtash, the Ukrainian co-owner of the gas company RosUkrEnergo, has close ties to the Russian mafia. The sheer magnitude and geopolitical importance of this market and the role criminalized governments play in it are impossible to dismiss as more of the same.
Andreas also accuses me of hyping the threat that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of criminal networks. He correctly argues that this is risky business, writing, "Criminal enterprise is first and foremost about making money, and there are far easier and less risky ways to do so than by moving fissile material." But just because an activity is dangerous does not mean that criminals will never engage in it. From Andreas' perspective, A. Q. Khan and the illicit international network he built -- in close concert with the Pakistani government and others -- should never have existed. But it did, and it became the most important source of nuclear proliferation in recent times. The probability that criminals will acquire nuclear weapons may be small, but the consequences are too catastrophic for one to dismiss the threat as cavalierly as Andreas does. That is the most worrisome aspect of Andreas' response: the complacency his arguments might encourage.
Andreas is also bothered by my use of the term "mafia states." That is his right. But it is not his right to accuse me of arguing that the criminal groups I analyze are "monolithic" and "identifiable." I don't believe that, and I didn't write that in my essay. In fact, as my book Illicit documents, modern, large-scale criminal enterprises are loosely organized, and their alliances and arrangements are ever shifting. Indeed, it is criminal networks' constantly evolving nature, and their close association with states, that makes the threat so potent and so deserving of attention.