Globalization: Drug Trafficking, Organized Criminal Networks, Militarization… all in Mexico

As we all know, despite very clear indicators of the global nature of many phenomena in the economic, political, social, cultural and criminal, talk of the demise of the nation-state has always been premature, and still is. Case in point, Mexico. Consider these three stories that zero in on the local, national and global nature of drug trafficking by organized criminal networks.

At the local level, read this incredible 4-parter in Der Spiegel on Ciudad Juarez:

It is also not hard to see the regional connections:

Do also check out the slideshow on this:

The power of organized criminal organizations is not limited to Ciudad Juarez, though:

Which is why the government relies on multiple levels of law enforcement but mostly on militarizing its war against drug gangs, as illustrated in the video below:

Globalization may be uneven but global access has been a boon to national and local criminal organizations, like Mexican gangs, who can now tap onto global trafficking markets for a variety of goods, such as drugs and people, while keeping on with the old-fashioned rackets, using one type of activity over another as the most profitable depending on the economic times:

Ciudad Juarez – Mexico – the Americas – The world… from the local, to the national, to the regional, to the global level, it is not a matter of one level superseding the other but rather hubs and nexus of interdependencies whether one is talking about world trade or illegal commerce, which, as we know, contributed to propping up the floundering global economy after the US economic collapse.

Narco-Transnational Network, Failed States and Globalization

Global Post has a very interesting (albeit depressing) report on the emergence of West Africa, and especially Guinea-Bissau as transnational hub for narco-trafficking from South America to Europe. It is a perfect illustration of the globally networked nature of such trafficking.

The series of photographs is indeed impressive:

There is a video as well but I can’t find an embed code, so, just head on over there and watch the whole thing.

The Global Fluidity of Cocaine Trafficking

A while back, Joseph Kirschke wrote a series of articles on the global reconfiguration of the cocaine trafficking as global flow whose fluidity allows it to reorganize itself when conditions require.

In this three-part series, he depicts a trafficking that is responsive to fluctuations in supply (as the Colombian cartels lost their absolute control over the traffic), distribution (as the US tightened its policies) and demand (which is soaring in Europe). All these conditions created the need for new routes for shipments to now go from Brazil and Venezuela to West African Gold Coast, and then on to Western Europe.

Additionally, the liquidity of this global traffic also adapts to changing economic conditions (for instance, as organized criminal groups switch from the US dollar to the Euro when it becomes more profitable to do so), racial profiling at border points (by switching from African mules – women – to white ones) and adapts to a variety of political realities in West Africa (by using failed states like Guinea-Bissau, recovering states like Sierra Leone or Liberia or mature democracies like Ghana).

The series also underlines the difficulties in establishing global governance in terms of trafficking as national considerations still largely prevail when it comes to law enforcement… and in places like Guinea-Bissau, law enforcement means corruption.

So, without further ado, part 1 lays out a general description of the changing nature of the traffic, focusing largely on the Gold Coast and especially Guinea-Bissau:

Part 2 gets into more specific instances of the impact of drug trafficking on the countries being now dragged into this global flow:

Part 3 focuses on Venezuela’s involvement in the traffic as Colombia’s cartels lost their grip on the business:

The whole thing is worth reading.

Book Review – King Leopold’s Ghost

KLG Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost – A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa seemed an appropriate book to bring with me to Africa. I don’t know why I hadn’t read it yet since issues of colonialism, neo-colonialism and slavery are never far from my thoughts.

Anyway, I am glad I did read the book. It is indeed a great read and a page turner. It is also a book of horrors: the horrors inflicted upon the Congo by the rule of Leopold, King of the Belgians in the late 19th Century, early 20th Century, out of greed. It is not a surprise that Joseph Conrad wrote his Heart of Darkness about the colonial Congo and modeled his Mr Kurtz based on real agents from the Leopold regime there.

The Congo never seems to make headlines even though it is a tormented country and it is a prime example of what Virgil Hawkins describes as stealth conflicts: conflicts with high death tolls and long-term nasty consequences, but largely ignored by the media. Here is a short introduction on the concept:

Similarly, the horrors of the Congo were by and large ignored in their time, until pioneers in the human rights movement made it impossible to ignore, but to this day, they are still largely forgotten. It is to Hochschild’s credit to have dug up the details of the untold story of King Leopold’s empire of horrors.

It is a kind of detective work that Hochschild engages in as he pieces together the truth about the Congo through a variety of sources (unfortunately, only a few sources reveal the voices of the victims of the regime, the Congolese, of course), and in spite of Leopold’s attempt to destroy the records of his rule in the Congo (in those days, embarrassing documents were burned, not shredded).

What this all boils down to is this: King Leopold (a relatively toothless constitutional monarch) got himself a colony over which he ruled without parliamentary oversight. His goal was not just to match the reach and influence of other colonial powers (and be part of the scramble for Africa) but also to enrich himself personally through the plundering of Congolese ivory and rubber. And of course, how does one lower one’s labor costs? Through forced labor, of course (all in the name of teaching the savages the value of work!).

It is this forced labor component, accompanied by the institutionalization and rationalization of racism, that opened the door to massive and violent exploitation that ultimately killed half the population of the Congo, either through direct elimination, starvation, overwork, disease (which spread more easily when a population is overwhelmingly malnourished and worked like beasts of burden), and a declining birth rate.

It is not like the natives did not resist. Resist they did indeed. Leopold’s rule was constantly challenged by rebellions that were incredibly violently put down through mass killings. The main tool of "order" in the Congo, was the brutal Force Publique that would burn villages to the ground if men refused to work to harvest wild rubber (a grueling work), take women and children hostage until chiefs gave in. And then, private companies had their own militarized forces that tortured and mutilated the natives in the name of discipline and productivity.

It is the productive nature of these atrocities that will ultimately be the downfall of Leopold’s rule as a young clerk for the main shipping company between Belgium and the Congo starts to notice what comes off the ship arriving at Antwerp (rubber and other goods) and what gets exported to the Congo (weapons, mostly) and realizes what is going on there.

The second half of the book is mostly dedicated to the heroes of what became a strong precursor of the human rights movement: E. D Morel and Roger Casement as well as George Washington Williams and William Sheppard . All these men worked tirelessly to expose the atrocities of the Congo and force change. In that last respect, they were not really successful but they did force Leopold (who had managed to fool the world into thinking him a great humanitarian) to divest himself from the Congo.

Because the book is not just a depersonalized account of the regime, but also a story of characters, it reads almost like a novel. We encounter famous characters: in addition to Leopold himself (and his miserable family life), Henry Morton Stanley, but also Joseph Conrad and a few others. Many of the actors involved in the regime in the Congo such as a variety of managers and districts heads appointed by Leopold. Through their correspondence or diaries, we see the banal dehumanization of the Congolese, the ease with which they tortured, exploited, humiliated and killed so many of them without much second thought.

At the same time, the book also makes clear that it is not free market capitalism and free trade (along with higher moral status) that sealed the West’s economic dominance but rather the plundering of the Global South that fueled industrialization and mass production (I would add that this plundering was made possible itself by the luck of the draw and "guns, germs and steel"). It seems that "free market", "free trade", etc. were as much ideological concepts (as opposed to reality) then as they are now. The type of unfairness may have changed (direct plunder is not as obvious now), but the rules of the WTO still guarantee that the Global South is still being exploited and disadvantaged in one form or another despite big talks of free trade.

In the last chapter of the book, Hochschild reflects on the face of the Congo. since the end of Leopold’s regime and the independence. This is a lesson on the long-term consequences of colonialism as well as the lingering influence of neo-colonial mechanisms. Without stating a clear cause and effect trajectory, Hochschild still asserts that Leopold certainly looks like a great role model for dictator Mobutu, all with the blessings of former colonial powers, once the CIA got rid of Patrice Lumumba.

Mobutu’s rule indeed looks a lot like a continuation of the plundering of the country, (then renamed Zaire) along with mistreatment of the population. Ultimately, misrule led to the Mobutu’s downfall and the persistent state of regional conflict at the center of which the now-named Democratic Republic of the Congo finds itself. Should we really be surprised that the social dislocation wreaked by Leopold’s rule has continued to plague the Congo to this day (with other factors, to be sure)? And that the Congo is still being plundered for its resources (not ivory or rubber anymore, but coltan and copper)? And that the world is still largely silent about it?

Trafficking in Boys in China

When something is a scarce resource and in high demand, it is very likely that it will be trafficked at redirection of distribution of said resource. Case in point, children, and especially boys in China.

As the article states, between 8,000 and 15,000 children (75% boys) are kidnapped and trafficked every year in China, and the authorities are not really interested in fighting this. Trafficking exists because there is a market for boys in that country. The main victims are migrant workers who travel with their children but are separated from their family. They work long hours and follow the rural custom of letting their (often unique) child play outside, on the streets of overcrowded and impoverished neighborhoods.

Who buys these stolen boys?

There seems to be three types of buyers: the childless, those who only have daughters, and those who already have a son but want more conform to the image of the traditional family. And since local authorities only report to the family planning office only births, these trafficked children are never reported. And as peasants get wealthier, they experience more pressure to pass down their wealth to their sons.

As soon as these children join local schools, their new identity is made completely legal and their biological parents have very little chance of ever finding them. This practice is relatively accepted. The parents who paid for these children take care of them, so, they do not feel they did anything wrong. Traffickers often tell them that the children come from extremely poor families or have been abandoned, so really, they are better off with a wealthier family. So, everyone turns a blind eye to this.

The Winners of The Global Financial Crisis

Because globalization always produced winners and losers and the current crisis will most likely increase / deepen the gap between the two.

If there is one thing that the Mafia does well, it is to take advantage of economic opportunities in times of social disruption and to diversify when necessary. Organized criminal groups are among the ones that very aptly adapted to globalization, along with transnational corporations and terrorist networks.

Global Recession – Brothels Edition

Unsurprisingly, the articles mentions that high-class brothels are still doing pretty well. It is below on the social ladder that economic conditions are felt more harshly. The article also mentions that there may be an increase in supply: more women turning to prostitution as economic conditions worsen. And, higher supply means lower prices in a more competitive market.

What the article does not mention is that beside the "nice" legal German prostitution, there is a darker side to this trade: it is that of sexual slavery and trafficking which is flourishing in general but as more women get desperate in already poorer countries in Eastern Europe, the chances of trafficking increasing are great. It is already dreadful economic conditions that have pushed a lot of women from Moldova and other former communist countries into sex trafficking. And anyone who has read Kevin Bales’s books on slavery knows that any category of people that becomes destitute becomes a prime target for slavery.

So, I guess the point of the article was more "it’s tough for everyone" kind but it ignores a significant aspect of economic recession that is germane to its topic.

Human Trafficking in Failing States

There is no doubt that criminal organizations thrive in an environment where the state is unable to maintain security and provide basic services as is the case in Iraq.

This seems to be a perfect illustration the intersection of different forms of global guerrillas (I am borrowing John Robb’s concept, book review to follow… soon, with more details on the concept): on the one hand, guerrilla groups undermine the state’s capacities, and on the other, criminal organizations and gangs take advantage of the political and social chaos to profit from illegal activities.

Additionally, of course, a corrupt state is also one in which criminal organizations will have an easier time functioning as they will gain access to state resources such as information and will be able to actually make state processes work for them.

And as sectarian groups, through undermining the state, damage the economy, more people will be vulnerable to certain practices, such as giving up their children to people they think are aid workers for adoption. After all, thanks to their access to state resources, traffickers are the right papers to reassure the parents of their "legitimate" activities.

And adoption is actually a better fate than what awaits some of these children:

The Italian Mafia: Last Creditor Standing

So, when the global economic system is credit-starved, guess who is flushed with available capital? The Italian Mafia is now buying out companies that are in trouble and recruited among the unemployed. As the article notes, the Mafia has enormous "dirty" capital available, roughly €130 billion, with roughly €70 billion in annual profit derived from the usual activities such as drug trafficking, racketeering, counterfeiting and prostitution. The Mafia is also now able to buy property on the cheap and therefore to more deeply infiltrate all sorts of legitimate economic activities globally.

And as businesses are starved for capital, they become less picky in their choices of investors. And as more people find themselves in financial difficulties, they are more likely to resort to usury, a sector that is practically completely under Mafia control:

So, as the legitimate economy fails, and banks and the state do not come up with support, the Mafia steps in to play banker of the last resort with interest rates from 100 to 200%.

This is bad news for those who try to fight the Mafia because, as its economic reach increases, thanks to the crisis, so does its power and grip over the country, making it harder to struggle against it. After all, increase in unemployment is one of the major contributors to the expansion of the Mafia. All the gains that might have been made in the past decades have been wiped out or at the very least severely undermined.

Globalization Losers – Migrants

How much more dehumanizing can it get? And no story of globalization is complete without trafficked workers.

This is another common thread we have witnessed: the militarization of the treatment of illegal immigrants. This is something debated in the United States when it comes to who should patrol the US-Mexico border and whether the Border Patrol has the capacity for the task. These questions, of course, are muddled by ethnocentric, nationalist and racist movements who wish to impose their framing on the issues.

Illegal immigrants are at the heart of globalization contradictions: impoverished rural populations, labor-intensive industries in need of labor-made-cheap to feed Western mass consumption, rise of trafficking networks, militarization of immigration policies, rise of nationalist / racist movements.

In the end, though, the powerless are made to choose between persistent poverty (potentially slavery in the form of debt bondage), trafficking into countries where they might find work, permanent avoidance of mechanisms of social control for fear of deportation (or planned death as illustrated by the case above), or potential violence at the hands of racist groups.

Book Review – Economic Gangsters

Economic Gangsters I am sure someone has already compared Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel‘s Economic Gangsters – Corruption, Violence, and The Poverty of Nations (website) to Freakanomics (the comparison is made more obvious with Steven Levitt’s blurb on the back cover). Economic Gangsters (EG) clearly belongs to the same class of books of economic vulgarization (in the French sense, that is, positive sense of making specialized knowledge and methods accessible to the general public). In this sense, I found the book extremely successful. It is a great and easy read. It uses fascinating examples. It is entertaining.

But what I found the most interesting aspect of the book was the social research part. The authors spend a lot of time detailing how to put a value on corrupt practices, how to measure corruption in the first place and all the different levels of corruption that may exist in different countries and how to figure out their quantitative and qualitative aspects. The topics covered in that fashion vary from the "value" of political connections under the Suharto regime in Indonesia (and the fluctuations of the stock market correlated with Suharto’s health reports), the diversity in smuggling practices in China and their economic impact, the oh-so-politically explosive topics of UN diplomats not paying their parking tickets in New York City, the connections between environmental pressures and war, and between war and post-war periods and poverty, to more general policy recommendations regarding poverty in developing countries. This diversity is part of the appeal of the book. If anything, it is not boring.

Throughout all these different topics, the authors make visible the connections between corruption, violence and poverty, defining corruption, following Transparency International, as "the illegal use of public office for private gain."

Where the book is frustrating is in its "economics explains (almost) everything" attitude, which is not surprising or presenting well-established connections as if for the first time. For instance, the connection between environmental pressure and social conflict has been widely studied to name one example, Michael Klare’s Resource Wars, among others. Similarly, the economic and environmental issues as partial factors in the genocide in Rwanda have been rather thoroughly illustrated by Richard Robbins and Jared Diamonds, each from its own perspective. And although the authors acknowledge that culture matter, they bypass other social factors to stick to a narrow focus, which would be fine, again without the "economics explains it all" stance. The case for good data and data interpretation is much strong in my view.

Similarly, especially when discussing the vast and question of global poverty, the authors write as if these problems were self-contained, as if there were no forms of neo-colonialism, as if the IMF and the World Bank had not been actors in some brutal economic disasters, and as if former colonial powers had no responsibilities in propping up puppet dictators in their former colonies, or as if the Asian Tigers had not been able to heavily restrict foreign trade and investments under the developmental state regime while African countries had structural adjustment policies forced upon them in addition to having to deal with the predatory state regime. And yes, predatory governance and poverty / violence are correlated and operate as a vicious cycle. Again, Manuel Castells has written quite extensively on these topics in his trilogy The Information Age.

As I mentioned already, it seems a convenient simplification to focus on only certain factors and then treat them as essential while not paying attention to others. That is my main issue with this book. But then, I would concede that vulgarization, by definition, requires some trade-off in terms of technical jargon and complexities but the overall tone of the book is not one of nuance but more of certainty that indeed, "economics explains it all."

Persistent Social Issues for 2009 – Slavery

As the year draws to a close, here is an issue that will still need fighting in 2009: slavery.

I have to say that this is sadly not surprising. As anyone who has read Kevin Bales books on the subject knows, social disintegration and brutal downward mobility for certain categories of people tend to enable an increase in slavery in a region. In this case, Darfur is currently a place of ethnic cleansing and genocide and the only surprising factor is that this issue has not be raised more loudly before. As the Darfur villagers are turned into war victims and displaced peasants, they become prime targets for slavery.

And, of course, what is happening to these abductees perfectly match the definition of slavery: exploitative work for no pay, control through violence and high disposable status.

Somalia: A Symbol of World (Dis)Order

It seems that Somalia now represents the nexus or ground zero of the world disorder. Two articles independently describe the situation there in pretty much the same terms.

And here as well:

It indeed seems that we have a lot of dynamics present there: weak to non-existent national governance, warlordism, religious fundamentalism, ambivalent exercise at global intervention and governance. The conflict in Somalia seems to indeed have all the characteristics of new wars: lengthy duration (not much has improved since the disaster of 1994 intervention), the presence of multiple warlords plundering the country, the massive victimization of the civilian population, and with religious fundamentalist groups who, not unlike the Taliban, look like the closest thing to law and order compared to what the warlords have wrought. Add to this the intervention of foreign forces that contribute to the problems and you have a pretty good picture of what is going on.

At the same time, efforts at exercises in global governance have not worked, either through UN Resolutions:

or through peacekeeping… and besides, what peace is there to keep in Somalia?

And the roots and sudden interests may have to do with this:

And it now looks like the Chinese have had enough of having their ships attacked and are sending their own forces in the Gulf Aden, for the first time since the 1420s… Plus ça change…