Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Illicit Networks, Political Instability, and Criminal Violence

by Micah Zenko
June 13, 2013

FARC The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) set up explosives on the Caldono-Toribio road on June 4, 2013 to prevent the approach of government troops trying to regain territory held by the FARC in Cauca province. This soldier patrols the street. (Saldarriaga/Courtesy Reuters)


Two weeks ago, CFR’s Center for Preventive Action and International Institutions and Global Governance program convened a workshop on “Illicit Networks, Political Instability, and Criminal Violence.” The workshop intended to analyze trends in transnational criminal networks, examine the latest developments in the field, and identify gaps and challenges in U.S. and multilateral responses to criminal violence. In an off-the-record setting, we brought together government, academic, nonprofit, and private sector experts in the field of transnational crime from across the United States.

Participants discussed the evolution of transnational criminal networks in recent years and revealed that the relationship between the state and criminal organizations is far more complex than previously understood. Criminal organizations are moving from the periphery of society to the core, where they play an active role in domestic politics and international relations. Currently, two models exist to explain the relationship between states and criminal organizations, and it is essential that policymakers differentiate between them. The first is a state penetrated by transnational criminal organizations that benefit from particular areas of government. The relationship has traditionally been viewed through this model. The second is a “criminalized state” in which criminal organizations become instruments of state policy, which is rapidly becoming more prevalent.

Over time, illicit networks have evolved to incorporate characteristics once unique to the state and begun to comingle licit and illicit activities. To achieve this, criminal organizations sometimes seek sponsorship from a foreign government that will protect them from the local government; form their own sovereign principalities to gain control of a territory; or adopt a warlord strategy. Criminal organizations are gaining increased geopolitical importance and, at times, taking on sovereign characteristics and capabilities, including through land acquisition.

Participants identified three major gaps in the U.S. strategies to combat transnational organized crime. First, inflated threats, such as terrorism, and misunderstood realities of transnational crime pose a barrier to deeper understanding of the relationship between criminal organizations and states, a necessary component to combating newly emerging trends in illicit networks. Second, there is (unsurprisingly) a lack of interagency collaboration and information sharing within government that inhibits effectiveness, efficacy, and the establishment of best practices. Finally, there is a failure to engage with external actors including the nonprofit community, media, and the private sector, as well as regional and multilateral organizations.

To learn more about transnational organized crime and the workshop, read the full rapporteur note and the keynote address from Organization of American States Assistant Secretary General, Ambassador Albert Ramdin, and view a presentation from the office of the director of national intelligence.

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