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Global Crime Wave? | The Nation

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Global Crime Wave?

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The Rise of the Narco-state

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Michael T. Klare
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the defense correspondent...

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Convulsions of violent conflict from Iraq to Nigeria to Ukraine are all being fueled by the same thing—fuel.

An increase in carbon sales to non-OECD countries will help create a humanitarian catastrophe of apocalyptic dimensions.

These developments and others like them naturally beg the question: To what extent can any increases in violent crime in the coming period be attributed to the global economic meltdown?

Certainly the situation in Mexico suggests a close correlation. Like other countries dependent on exports to the United States, Mexico has been reeling from the current crisis. Total exports fell 32 percent in January, while automobile exports--a major source of economic activity in Mexico's border states--fell by 50 percent in the first two months of 2009. By one account, Mexico's export factories have lost 65,000 jobs since October, a number that experts believe understates the loss. Many economists now predict a painful 5 percent contraction in the Mexican economy in 2009.

One Mexican export business, however, is thriving in bad times: the drug trade. With so many people out of work or facing diminished incomes, the attraction of being employed by it has certainly risen. By some estimates, illegal trafficking, mainly to the United States, nets the Mexican drug cartels nearly $25 billion each year, making this one of the country's most lucrative industries, and despite an attempted government crackdown, there seems to be no downturn in sight. True, narco-traffickers risk being apprehended and doing jail time, but so many of Mexico's police and court officers are evidently on cartel payrolls that the likelihood of that happening remains modest for higher level operatives. With other job opportunities for poor young men dwindling, the appeal of easy money--not to mention the faux glamour of an outlaw's life--must seem irresistible to many.

The crackdown on drug trafficking being conducted by the Mexican government with strong US backing has, paradoxically, made the narcotics trade more appealing as a profession. This is so because increased drug seizures have driven up the street price of drugs, thereby increasing profits for those who succeed in eluding the police and antidrug agents. Given the general economic environment, this is certain to prove a self-perpetuating system that will continue to lure ambitious or desperate young men into the drug trade.

As Professor Francisco E. Gonzalez of Johns Hopkins University suggests in explaining this predicament in Current History magazine, "[I]t goes without saying that conditions of hopelessness and extreme life choices abound in developing countries such as Mexico. As long as these conditions persist, and as long as the system put in place to counter the narcotics trade leads to the generation of exceptional profits, there will continue to be individuals willing to play this lottery."

In fact, this observation applies no less well to many other countries suffering from severe economic distress. Take Guinea-Bissau and its neighbor Guinea, both essentially indigent countries that are widely described as "narco-states" (that is, states whose political and economic institutions have been thoroughly infiltrated by the Latin American drug cartels). Guinea-Bissau holds the ninth spot from the bottom on the overall UN human development index released in December, which measures living standards, health and quality of life globally. In terms of gross domestic product per capita, however, it's fifth from the bottom, just ahead of Liberia and Burundi. Hardly surprising, then, that a government almost incapable of otherwise generating income is thought to be heavily penetrated by the cartels.

According to UN officials, Guinea-Bissau reaps as much as $1 billion per year in illegal proceeds from the drug trade, a vast bounty in a country so poor. Drug trafficking "is indeed a factor in the current crisis," observes Carlos Cardoso, a researcher at the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa. "Drug trafficking seems to involve the military. Given the ubiquity of the military in political life, anything that affects it, affects the state."

Neighboring Guinea, once known as French Guinea, presents a very similar picture. Ruled until December 2008 by the military dictator Lansana Conte, it, too, had become a haven for South American narco-traffickers. "In the past few years, as Mr. Conte's health declined, Guinea drifted toward chaos," Lydia Polgreen wrote in the New York Times. "South American drug traffickers, who ship cocaine to Europe via West Africa, infiltrated the government at the highest levels. Mr. Conte's son Ousmane confessed on television [in February] to aiding the cocaine traffickers who had turned Guinea into a virtual narco-state." Lansana Conte died on December 23 and power was usurped by a military junta headed by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara; the junta's young officers have pledged to clean up the country and oust the traffickers, but many Guineans express skepticism about their capacity to accomplish this Herculean task.

An environment of poverty and chaos has long prevailed in Somalia, home to the most determined and aggressive of the high-seas pirates. Of the 293 piracy incidents noted by the PRC in 2008, 111, or 38 percent, occurred in the Gulf of Aden or off the coast of Somalia. Many of the most daring incidents--including the seizure of the Sirius Star--also occurred in those waters. By their own account, many of the Somali pirates are former fishermen driven out of business when the collapsed Somali state could no longer protect the country's rich fishing grounds against predation by the highly organized fleets of other countries. Now penniless, these onetime fishermen have taken up piracy to support their families. "Killing is not in our plans," the hijacker of a guns-laden cargo ship told a reporter in October 2008. "We only want money so we can protect ourselves from hunger."

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