from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Are Criminals, Terrorists, and Bolivarians Teaming Up Against the United States?

September 10, 2012

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Transnational Crime

On August 16, Doug Farah, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, published Transnational Organized Crime, Terrorism, and Criminalized States in Latin America: An Emerging Tier-One National Security Priority. The monograph contributes in a major way to our understanding of the increasingly complex relationships that exist among criminal networks, terrorists, and sovereign states.

One of its most original contributions is to get away from the tired conventional wisdom about “failed states”—which suggests that it is the world’s basket cases that present the greatest opportunities for exploitation by illicit actors. In Weak Links , I’ve also suggested that the most dysfunctional, chaotic, or even collapsed states, do not provide conducive environments for most forms of crime (or for transnational terrorists, for that matter), since they provide little operational security from interdiction and are often too far removed from the sinews of global commerce.

Farah’s monograph takes that critique to another level, showing how variable the relationship between transnational criminals and states can be. He usefully distinguishes among three “ideal types” of states that facilitate TOC:

  • Shell states: This category encompasses weak and failing states that are legally sovereign but possess anemic institutions and unprotected borders, and alternatively governed regions in which illicit actors can operate with impunity. Such weak states—Farah calls them “shell states”—are easily captured or taken hostage. For example, tiny Guinea-Bissau, a country with miles of unpoliced coastline and dozens of clandestine airstrips, has become a major throughfare for Andean cocaine headed to Europe. Another sub-category here might be the breakaway republics or statelets like Transnistria, which some have called the “Walmart” of illicit activity.

  • Fragile states: This intermediate category includes fragile states that are slightly stronger but still have intense levels of corruption that transnational criminals can exploit. They also tend to have geographic areas that are essentially outside the control of the national government and national law enforcement where illicit nonstate actors can substitute their own form of governance, and even provide social services in some cases. Many of these take the form of “Swiss Cheese” states; there are pockets of functionality alongside institutions that have been subverted for criminal purposes. In the Central American states of Honduras and Guatemala, for example, nonstate groups effectively control swaths of land and portions of cities—and law enforcement has little ability (and sometimes little inclination) to disrupt pipelines of illicit goods, people, and money.

  • Functional criminalized states: Then there are the states that Farah considers truly dangerous—and which have gotten rather little attention. These are “stronger” functional states, but criminalized ones in which the institutions of sovereignty have been suborned—where the government participates directly, indeed sponsors, criminal activity as an element of statecraft, diverting and deploying the very emblems and accoutrements of state sovereignty—shipping registries, civil aviation, passports, diplomatic immunity, etc.—to facilitate and (not least) protect criminal activity. The state, in this scenario, becomes a fully-functioning criminal enterprise, like Charles Taylor’s Liberia in the past (which was only “failed” in aspects that Taylor did not care about) or like today’s North Korea, the classic “Soprano State.” An argument could be made that Hun Sen’s Cambodia (where the ruling family has exploited illegal logging) or the military regime in Burma (involved in numerous criminal activities) also fit. Within the Western Hemisphere, Farah places in this category Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and the rest of the Bolivarian alliance. A fundamental point that Farah’s analysis underlines is that we often pay too much attention to the baseline capacity of a state to combat transnational crime, without focusing on the more basic question of its commitment. That is, does the state have any intention to suppress crime? If we accept the logic of Farah’s argument, it becomes clear that the wave of transnational organized crime that the world—and particularly the Western Hemisphere—has been experiencing, and which has led the Obama administration last year to issue its Transnational Organized Crime Strategy, is not simply a function of globalization and reduction of barriers. It is a function of conscious decisions by sovereign governments.

To be sure, this typology (and I tried to create one in Weak Links), is artificial, inasmuch as the categories bleed into one another and real-life cases may straddle the boundaries. But in the same way that criminologists distinguish among source, transit, and destination countries for illicit commodities, it might be illuminating to create a global map that apportions countries of the world into these three categories. This method could then capture the distinctive “functions” or “services” performed by each class of state within the global criminal economy—as well as ask whether certain types of states are more or less associated with particular sectors of transnational crime (e.g. narcotics, money laundering, intellectual property theft).

The paper’s second major contention—and this is one that has been controversial over the past decade—is that the connections between transnational criminals and transnational terrorists are growing. In the past, it has been commonplace to describe these relationships as at best episodic and tactical. In Phil Williams’ words, the two groups might appropriate each other’s methodologies—so that criminals engage in terror to intimidate citizens, authorities, or rivals, while terrorists sometimes turn to traffic in drugs and other illicit goods to raise funds, as in Afghanistan or the Sahel. But ultimately, the argument held, these groups had different objectives—financial, in the case of criminals, political or religious, in the case of terrorists.

Farah seeks to explode that argument, pointing to the growing presence of Hezbollah in the Hemisphere and documenting its links to major criminal organizations, to insurgent groups, and indeed to governments. Some of this is persuasive, such as his description of fluid alliances, and “recombinant networks” that could exploit existing criminal pipelines to traffic in various kinds of commodities and channel illicit profits. But I was not always persuaded these were more than alliances of convenience, at least when it came to the relationship between Latin American transnational organized crime groups and terrorists from outside the region.

Nor do I think that the threat of WMD trafficking through such networks was as acute as he seems to suggest. To begin with—involvement in WMD trafficking—at least when it comes to nuclear trafficking—would presumably need to occur with the connivance of state authorities in possession of fissile material or weapons themselves. And it is hard to believe, particularly given WMD forensics, that a government—say Iran—would transfer those weapons or WMD materials to a nonstate actor whose behavior it, in the final analysis, cannot control. That would be a tremendous existential risk to assume.

Farah’s third major argument is that we must take the ideological, political and security challenge posed by the Bolivarian states seriously. Although it is tempting to dismiss Chavez as a buffoon, Venezuela under his leadership has formed what he considers an alliance of criminalized states with Correa’s Ecuador, Morales’ Bolivia, and Ortega’s Nicaragua. As is well known, all four countries share an anti-American agenda, seeking to reduce the dominance of the United States in hemispheric affairs, while advancing their own populist goals.

The real significance of the Bolivarian bloc, Farah suggests, is in the mutual diplomatic support it offers its members in their parallel criminal activities, their support for the FARC and other leftist insurgencies, their growing alignment with Hezbollah and other transnational terrorists, and their increasingly deep enmeshment with extra-hemispheric powers unfriendly to the United States—most notably Iran, which has been quietly expanding its political, military, intelligence and economic presence and ties in the region.

In the end, I wasn’t entirely convinced that the Iran-Bolivarian alliance represents a true Tier One security threat to the United States, as opposed to (in the title of a recent book) an “Axis of Annoyance”. To be sure, both sides share a mutual antipathy toward the United States. But the manuscript may overestimate the depth of Iranian-Bolivarian solidarity, as well as the staying power of the Bolivarian regimes themselves. Whether these populist regimes continue to wield influence or prove to be a sideshow would seem to be hugely dependent on the continued presence of Hugo Chavez and the high price Venezuela can command for its oil.  Furthermore, the growing presence of China and Russian in the Bolivarian countries—about which Farah frets—could very well be just another result of globalization, and hold benign implications for U.S. national security.