Speech on organized crime

Keynote Address

by Antonio Maria Costa

Executive Director -United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime-

Mr. Chairman,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me back to the annual conference of the International Scientific and Advisory Council of the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Program (ISPAC).

During the last three years, we have used this forum to explore tough issues—terrorism and terrorist financing;  the trafficking of drugs, arms and humans; and the nexus between crime and technology.  This year’s topic is especially close to my heart.  It is also an issue of vital importance to the United Nations—the role or stake of organized crime in the perpetuation of humanitarian disasters.

A few days ago, in New York, the United Nations issued a Report by the High Level Panel on the Reform of the United Nations. This Report takes note of “the inflammatory role of natural resources in wars in countries like Sierra Leone, Angola and Congo,” and points to the urgency of  imposing “measures, including naming and shaming of, and even sanctions against, individuals and corporations involved in illicit trade.”

The Panel also calls for tighter “legal mechanisms in the area of natural resources,” and indicates that conflicts over these resources “have been often an obstacle to peace.”

The UNODC has seen these connections in the field; our operational offices have also documented what we think are causal links between the presence of natural resources and organized crime, and I would like to think that our work has contributed to the revelations contained in the new UN Report.

These insights into the links between the  presence of natural resources in regions marked by conflict and the attendant presence of organized crime also support the position I want to advance today: I believe that organized crime perpetuates humanitarian disasters, that it has a vested interest in doing so, and that criminal organizations are invariably “silent partners” in the world-wide business of conflict.

Across the globe—in the Andean region, across most of sub-Saharan Africa, in the Balkans, in South Eastern Europe and the Caucus, and in South-East Asia—organized crime syndicates have financed, sustained, prolonged and capitalized on instability, violence and corruption. 

In many instances, organized crime has caused or aided the collapse of legitimate institutions responsible for maintaining security and the rule of law.  In other instances, they have prevented the emergence of remedial action, peacekeeping and peacemaking. In the past, it was generally believed that criminal enterprises, having turned multi-national in scope and aims, would favour the same, stable environment that supports legitimate commerce.

Wrong.  Very wrong.

The argument went this way. Economics is economics, whether ethical or not. Business is business, whether licit or not. Therefore, the fact that a corporation—let’s say an industry or bank—is owned and operated by criminal entrepreneurs doesn’t mean that best business practices, at least those affecting profit, no longer apply.  And it does not mean that best economic logic, at least that affecting management, does not apply. 

For example, since their inception over a century ago, the Italian N’dragheta, Cosa Nostra, Sacra Corona and the like – the founding fathers of world’s modern mafias – have made it a practice to cooperate and collude with white collar business and corruptible politicians. Their illegal transactions make their way into accounting books looking like ordinary business deals. Profits are diligently invested. Returns are properly shared, and retired mobsters, or criminal employees who’ve suffered ‘on the job injuries’—usually at gunpoint—receive retirement pensions or ‘disability payments.’ So the idea that criminal enterprise and legitimate industry operate in parallel ways and in similar environments has become part of our modern, commercial fork-lore.

But make no mistake. There are critical differences between criminal enterprise and legitimate industry. On one end of the spectrum are the corporations who behave like good citizens. Indeed, these are the majority of businesses, and they demonstrate, not only high levels of efficiency and direction, but also transparency, ethical business practices, concern for workers and customers, respect for our environment, and good private/public relations.

For organized crime, a competitive advantage may materialize in the form of a gun, a bribe, or a threat — or even through the destruction of a village and the untimely demise of all its inhabitants. 

So we have to be careful about drawing too many parallels between legitimate industry and criminal enterprise. Organized crime may mimic the processes employed by legitimate business when this is to its advantage.

But criminal networks are always on the lookout for new opportunities, and new environments in which to set up operations. In regions where conflict has created an culture where “anything goes,” criminals move in.  

War provides almost unlimited opportunities for illicit enrichment through the creation of profitable new trading opportunities. Insurgents, for example, often plunder a region’s natural resources and trade these resources for weapons. In conflict zones, criminal networks operate as intermediaries between legitimate businesses and black market or other illegal operators.  

Organized crime was involved in the trafficking of light arms during the Balkan civil war – arms which were re-exported to Liberia and the Ivory Cost.

There are reports that these same arms are now finding their way to Sudan and east Congo.

Light arms trafficking, in particular, has led to a dramatic increase in casualties in war-torn regions and states—and to criminal violence afterwards, something that needs to be considered by law-makers in countries that have not yet ratified the UN Protocol against Firearms.

Criminal organizations working with insurgents have also distributed drugs to child-soldiers, a technique used to turn these children into killing-machines. Ironically, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime is only able to reach these young victims after they have reached the age of adulthood. Nevertheless, in many cases, we are helping them cope with what becomes a lifetime addiction to drugs and violence.

A careful look at over 80 major conflicts during the past half-century reveals some interesting similarities: 

Invariably, conflicts tended to occur in the same regions – like earthquakes that periodically materialize along the same fault lines, mainly ethnic and religious, causing death and destruction;
In most cases, even before international peace-keepers even arrive, the foot soldiers of organized crime have parachuted into war-torn lands, ready to exchange money and weapons for the right to exploit area’s resources and make fast money;
All conflicts, even those which start on  identifiable political/religious/ethnic grounds, inevitably turn into large scale humanitarian crises in regions possessing valuable natural assets – forests in Congo, coca in Colombia, opium in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan; minerals in Sierra Leone and Congo, trade routes in the Balkans and the Caucasus, and even pipelines in Chechnya.
All these assets have been targeted by criminals, and their efforts to retain control of these resources has been a powerful incentive to prolong regional conflicts;
The presence of criminal groups in these crime prone areas has always led to the protraction of human suffering, in the forms of famine, refugees, and most recently, HIV/AIDS;
Corruption has been a companion to regional conflict, consistently feeding humanitarian crises in predictable ways: for instance, officials working at ports, airports, ministries, military checkpoints, or police barracks routinely accept bribes to direct criminals to  unsecured or weakly controlled trafficking routes and border crossings—a fact not sufficiently appreciated by peace-keeping officials.
Something else we frequently note during regional conflicts are “unholy alliances” between organized crime and local warlords.

We see this today in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar. Not too long ago, we saw the same thing in Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, and Somalia.  Local warlords – they’re also called insurgents, commanders, guerrillas, or contras — always have an interest in blocking progress toward conflict resolution. For both criminals and warlords, anarchy and lawlessness is good for business. 

This hybrid partnership between organized crime and local warlords is difficult to address, because these operatives frequently claim their behaviour stems, not from criminal motives, but from political or ideological beliefs.

These different criminal activities also defy a clear response because they include not just common or civil violations of the law, but war crimes as well—and our institutions are, in many cases, geared to respond separately to different types of crime. 

All of these criminal circumstances are present during a conflict and afterwards as well, even during the post-conflict period, when these states should be able to focus on rebuilding legitimate institutions and caring for citizens battered and displaced by war.

The symbiotic relationship between regional conflict and organized crime no longer allows for this kind of post-conflict recovery. 

Once organized crime has established itself in a region where lawlessness, violence and poor governance prevail, any incentive to abandon what has become extremely fertile and profitable territory is gone.

By this point, organized crime has become a major stakeholder in the crisis, and its only goal is to  nurture discord, to reopen old wounds, and to undercut the efforts of peacemakers. Organized crime has insinuated itself into the local economy, and established profitable relationships with private operators and local officials.  It may even be providing simple jobs to local workers.
Responding to these challenge won’t be easy. Together, we must help these states reinstitute the rule of law, and these efforts must extend far beyond the creation of local police forces to the construction of a legal and judicial system strong enough to offer the population a genuine sense of security. We must also help these states to strengthen their ability to prosecute criminals on a large scale, and to build and maintain adequate detention facilities.

Individuals tried for war crimes and found guilty must be jailed. Drug users must be offered treatment and opportunities for recovery. The victims of regional conflicts,  child soldiers, drug users and other populations scared by violence, must be rehabilitated and reintegrated into normal society.

You may have heard of something called the DDR programme in Afghanistan. DDR stands for “demobilization, disarmament and reintegration.”

In post-conflict situations, there are former paramilitary forces, many farmers and peasants, who need our help. We have to disband these militias, disarm these troops, many of whom were forced into military service, and send them home. This can be problematic, because these paramilitary troops have already realized that violence pays —huge profits can be garnered at gunpoint. So they have to be convinced that disarmament offers real benefits.

When a state fails, criminals and opportunities rush in to fill the void. Criminal economies sustain at least parts of populations desperate to survive the economic ravages of war. Criminal gains during conflicts can supersede ethnic divisions or seemingly contradictory ideologies.  

As a result, the inclination to sustain discord and instability—which prolongs and expands humanitarian crises—is a strong one in post-conflict situations. Economic development is blocked. Opportunities to rebuild national infrastructure and legitimate institutions are derailed. And democracy, peace, and security remain distant goals for thousands of men, women and children who continue to look to us for leadership and support.  


Thank you.

Source: United Nations Office on drugs and crime-Vienna-

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