The Globalization of Crime

The Futurist has a very interesting overview of the links between globalization and criminal networks (sorry, no link, but you can cough up $3 for a PDF version of the article, $5 for the whole issue… or you can go to your closest library and grab a paper copy) by Stephen Aguilar-Millan, Joan E. Foltz, John Jackson and Amy Oberg in their November-December 2008 issue.

There is no doubt that criminal organizations have entered the information age as much as businesses have done and that they are an integral part and users of the network society.

"Just as it has happened in the business world, the vertical and horizontal hierarchies or organized crime dissolved into a large number of loosely connected networks. Each node within the network would be involved in any number of licit and illicit operations. Networked systems spanned the globe. An event in one place might have a significant impact on the other side of the world. In short, crime became globalized. (…) Just as the business world has benefited from globalization, so has organized crime." (42)

As such, the globalization of criminal networks and activities is a direct product of the processes and mechanisms of global capitalism, especially the transportation revolution and the information revolution. In this sense, global criminality is just business dealing with illegal products and services and they are affected by the same processes such as outsourcing and offshoring. As much as any other activities, global criminality is an integral part of the network society.

And just as the global financial crisis has raised awareness of the need for global governance, so has global criminality. Defining and dealing with criminal behavior is still largely the purview of the nation-state but global processes and flows of people, illegal goods and merchandise as well as the deterritorialization and relocation of criminal activities over the Internet have raised the issue of jurisdiction. Virtual banking services have made money laundering easier than ever along with other shady transactions.

For the authors, this has revolutionized the nature and extent of white-collar crime, in which they include not just the usual financial transactions (embezzlement, insider trading and fraud) but also counterfeiting, intellectual property crimes, credit card fraud, cybercrimes and cyberterrorism.

"The spread of capitalism promotes open markets and aims to maximize opportunity but blurs the line between what is considered creative money management and what is considered criminal behavior. The increasing opportunities for white-collar crimes and their potential pay-off is extremely enticing to individuals who do not fit the typical criminal profile." (44)

Translation: upper-class, richer white guys. And the amounts of money involved are staggering. What the authors emphasize is the lack of clear line between creative and criminal but also the fact that getting into the criminal is not a bug but a feature of the lack of regulation and global governance of financial matters.

"Without guidelines and a definitive identification of what constitutes punishable criminal activity, new business models will be created that stretch the systems and threaten economic stability, such as the subprime lending debacle." (49)

For the authors, an era of stricter global regulation is inevitable as criminal and non-criminal behavior have become more disconnected from individual states and jurisdiction. Global cooperation is inevitable and in its infancy.

Where I disagree with the authors is where they state that there is a lag between the opportunities opened by the double revolution (transportation and information) and a proper regulation regime. I would argue that, again, this is a feature, not a bug. State deliberately denationalized entire segments of their regulatory regimes to accommodate global liberalization under the auspices and the edicts of the Washington Consensus.

The main global institutions (IMF, WB and WTO) actively promoted such lack of regulations in the name of "free trade" and rammed structural adjustment programs down the throats of developing countries, with devastating results. It is not a matter of lag, but a matter of which social class wielded its power to obtain a global economic system to its liking.

The article also includes several case studies illustrative of the globalizing and globalized nature of global criminality:

  • Drugs and US-Mexico border

  • The modern slave trade

  • Cybercrime and counterfeiting

  • Gangs

  • Heroin

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