Mexicans are celebrating a victory over the drug mafia this month. The arrest of Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, the head of the Zeta drug cartel, is big news. Trevino, alias Z-40, made a name for himself as one of the most brutal gangsters in a country that has become sadly inured to violence. One can only hope that his imprisonment will put an end to at least some of the stomach-turning brutality he was accustomed to inflicting on his enemies. (At one point, it’s been revealed, he even considered shooting down the plane of then-President Felipe Calderon.)
But will Z-40’s arrest put an end to Mexico’s drug wars? There’s reason to doubt it. Demand for drugs from the cartels’ customers in the United States remains strong, and until that underlying structural cause is addressed, this lucrative trade will continue to thrive. Some experts point out that one of the biggest beneficiaries of Trevino’s downfall is likely to be JoaquÃn Guzman Loera (“El Chapo”), the head of the rival Sinaloa cartel, who can revel in the elimination of one of his most energetic competitors.
Analysts put the value of the global drug trade at some $350 billion a year — and that’s probably a conservative estimate. And yet narcobusiness comprises only one relatively small slice of the much larger world of global criminality. According to the World Economic Forum: “The cross-border flow of global proceeds from criminal activities, corruption and tax evasion is estimated at over $1 trillion, with illegal drugs and counterfeit goods each accounting for 8 percent of world trade.”
Organized crime lurks behind many of the stories in the headlines today, though the connection rarely becomes explicit. Alexey Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who was just convicted on probably spurious charges of embezzlement, made a name for himself by targeting the corruption that is so deep-seated in today’s Russia that it’s often hard to see where the government leaves off and the mob begins. European Union law enforcement officials warned recently that mobsters are capitalizing on the European financial crisis by taking advantage of black markets in goods and services. Meanwhile, the increasing prominence of the Internet in the global economy is fueling worries about the rising power of organized cybercriminals.
Gangsters are cropping up in all sorts of odd places. Criminal syndicates are implicated in everything from the poaching of rare wildlife to the counterfeiting of drugs and manufactured goods. That growing range of activities attests to the criminals’ skill at exploiting the possibilities offered by deepening global interconnectedness. Consider the opening of this story about a recent global raid by Interpol: “More than 6,000 people around the world were arrested in a two-month anti-counterfeiting sweep that netted tens of millions of dollars worth of fake shampoo in China, phony cigarettes in Turkey and bogus booze in Chile.” The investigators discovered everything from a subterranean factory in Ukraine manufacturing counterfeit cigarettes to a workshop in Peru that puts false labels on motors from China.
Mobsters thrive on instability. In the Syrian civil war, the same criminal groups that once played on their close ties to the government of Bashar al-Assad have now mutated into the shabiha, the feared paramilitaries that do the regime’s dirtiest work on the battlefield. But they’re not the only ones. “The link between insurgent groups and organized crime has long been a feature of intra-state conflict,” notes Asher Berman, an expert at the Institute for the Study of War. “Rebels often turn to criminal activity to obtain the weapons and funding they need to maintain the fight.” The rebels in Syria, desperate for cash, are increasingly resorting to mafia-like tactics of their own, ranging from car thefts to the looting of antiquities. Reports of systematic extortion — the familiar phenomenon of the “revolutionary tax” we’ve heard about so many times before — and economically motivated kidnapping are also on the rise.
What we’re seeing, though, is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Criminals, by definition, prefer to avoid the light of day, so the dimensions of the real mafia problem remain obscure. Was that Vatican official who was arrested in June on money-laundering charges merely trying to make himself and some well-connected friends a bit richer, or is he part of a much broader pattern of institutionalized corruption within the bank of the Holy See? Was that recent police raid in New Delhi that netted a huge haul of black-market weapons a victory over mobsters or terrorists? Did that witness who met an untimely end just before he was to testify in the Whitey Bulger case here in the United States really die of natural causes? Why did the Chinese harbor one of Taiwan’s most prominent triad leaders for 17 years before handing him over to Taipei earlier this month? In most cases, we’ll probably never know the whole story.
But there are a few things that we can say with certainty. First, organized crime in cyberspace is becoming a core problem, one that’s particularly hard to combat precisely because of its amorphousness. Indeed, there’s considerable anecdotal evidence that hackers-for-hire are increasingly lending their services to both governments and gangs. But the opacity of the culprits shouldn’t delude us about the scale of what’s at stake. A report issued earlier this week by a global financial organization noted that half of the world’s securities exchanges came under attack by hackers last year. That means that web-based criminals are potentially in a position to destabilize the global financial system — entirely aside from the untold losses to individuals and companies from mushrooming cybercrime.
Second, illicit financial flows are a big part of the problem. The biggest problem for large-scale criminals is banking their ill-gotten gains, and right now there are plenty of entirely legal lawyers, accountants, and offshore tax havens that are happy to help. Let’s put aside for the moment the theoretical arguments over the virtues and drawbacks of secrecy jurisdictions, and note simply that preserving the present system, which allows criminals to shift their profits almost effortlessly across the globe without scrutiny, will lead to disaster if allowed to continue unchecked. One recent report co-published by Global Financial Integrity and the African Development Bank claims that Africa alone lost up to $1.4 trillion to illicit financial flows. Surely the continuing existence of a system that allows for the existence of a “shadow financial system” on this scale is not good for anyone — countries developed and developing alike.
Third, powerful global crime syndicates are the enemy of good government. Democracy can hardly flourish when politicians meld with the shadowy forces of the mafia. It’s precisely this understanding that has spurred the recent wave of protests in Bulgaria, where demonstrators took to the streets after a thuggish young tycoon was appointed as the government’s top security official. Such concerns are by no means restricted to Eastern Europe, though. The wave of recent protests in places from Turkey to Brazil shows that citizens are increasingly worried about official malfeasance and the lack of transparency that allows it. From what I can see, they’re right to worry.
Christian Caryl, the editor of Democracy Lab, is a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy. He is also the author of “Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century.”