On International Criminal Organizations as an Enemy of the State


By: Gerald F. Witherspoon, Sr. 20141126


On International Criminal Organizations as an Enemy of the State

This paper takes shape and develops by illustrating the commonalities between the behavioral characteristics of states and international criminal organizations (ICOs). ICOs, are thereafter, positioned as an enemy of the state in light of the threat they pose to legitimacy, sovereignty, and stability. The term “state” is used interchangeably throughout to represent states, countries, nations, and the modern nation-state. The analysis does not entirely concentrate on any particular ICO or territory, but centers on a broad based view of several which allows for a wide and diverse range of implications. The paper then culminates by offering implications on how future developments, through the process of globalization, will preserve the enemy of the state position. Finally, the influence of ICOs on government corruption is discussed as a key vulnerability and a human-centric view of security emerges.

States, ICOs, and the Threat they Pose

Without question, neither all states nor all ICOs, behave in absolutely identical ways. Nevertheless, both include a sizeable enough portion of those that do (primarily the most influential ones) to allow effective patterns to surface and weighty implications to be extracted. Still further, behaviors of one unit that may currently contradict those of others, may adopt commonality as group dynamics evolve. There are at least seven behavioral characteristics that commonly define nation-states; offers to protect to gain influence and legitimacy, interest in a steady acquisition of territory, strict desire for sovereignty, has an organized government, has a population that recognizes its existence and authority, ability to coerce through violence to achieve goals, and builds strategic alliances. ICOs have proved their capacity to demonstrate the same.

For example, the United States (as revealed in the Declaration of Independence – US 1776) was formed on the premise of offering protection to its citizens against the “long train of abuses and usurpations” inflicted by the King of Great Britain. Likewise, as Diego Gambetta wrote regarding the Sicilian Mafia’s offers of protection, “Landowners, herdsmen, olive and orange growers, peasants, entrepreneurs, politicians, doctors, shopkeepers, purse snatchers, smugglers, drug traffickers, arms dealers: all of them at one point or another have been protected” (1993, 54). Additionally, the NDragheta “began as a defense mechanism of impoverished peasants against oppressive landlords” (Skaperdas, 2001, p. 175). The Cosa Nostra offered protection to bookmakers, loan sharks, and other criminal entrepeneurs against contract violators and disputes, and, “…extortion by other gangsters or customer welching…” (Reuter 1995, 90). Even gangs (typically smaller, but connected to larger ICOs) in cities throughout the world, often found in low-income neighborhoods, offer protection against distrusted police and justice systems (Skaperdas, 2001).

In regards to territorial acquisitions and reminiscent to the age of imperialism where states rushed to expand their territories to compete with Britain, ICOs similarly take on an expansionist role. In fact, Mexico’s Zetas have expanded faster than their rivals, operate in at least 405 municipalities, and their militaristic members exhibit an unrelenting passion for taking over and controlling territory (Dudley and Rios, 2013). Additionally, reporting on Nigerian criminal enterprises, the FBI stated, “They are among the most aggressive and expansionist international criminal groups and are primarily engaged in drug trafficking and financial frauds” (FBI, 2014).

Regarding a strict desire for sovereignty, states have long demanded their right to be free from the interference of others in their internal affairs. The massive slaughtering of civilians that was tolerated by the international community during the Rwandan genocide is a horrific reminder of the historic precedence of national sovereignty. On the other hand, the recent explosion of violence in Mexico (41, 648 drug-related homicides in only 4 ½ years) demonstrates how ICOs such as the La Familia do not take kindly to interference from trafficking rivals or law enforcement officials (Rios, 2012).

In the U.S., the government consists of divided powers amongst legislative (includes Congress), executive, and judicial branches that make, carry out, and evaluate laws on behalf of the U.S. citizens (USA.gov, 2014). Similarly, during a public speech, Servando Gomez (leader of the Knights Templar) claimed his group has a “congress,” obeys the will of “the people,” and does what it believes “…is in the interest of the majority of the people” (Corcoran, 2013).

In many states, citizens recognize the authority of their respective governments by paying taxes, voting in elections, participating as jurors, and demonstrating allegiance by serving in the military. Recognition of existence and authority of ICOs can be evidenced by active involvement (i.e., membership in gangs, cartels, mafias, etc.), tattoos that reference individual allegiance, businesses and other actors seeking profits or protection (including human trafficking victims and migrants), and from other factors such as voluntary or involuntary dues paid by allied or rival criminal organizations. Most members who recognize the authority of ICOs typically share ethnic and family backgrounds, but others coalesce around common economic, social, or political goals or schemes (Federation of American Scientists, 2000).

As Charles Tilly stated in regard to the state’s ability to coerce through violence, “Instead, the people who controlled European states and states in the making warred in order to check or overcome their competitors and thus to enjoy the advantages of power within a secure or expanding territory” (1982, p. 4). ICOs use violence to protect territory and profits against rival groups and governments. The Zetas are one example of an ICO employing military technology to coordinate kidnappings and killings in an attempt to gain control of key trafficking routes throughout various territories (including prisons) in Mexico and beyond. The group has employed violence against illegal migrants, a mayor, gubernatorial candidate, allies, and rivals such as the Gulf Cartel, Familia Michoacana, and Sinaloa Cartel (InSightCrime.org, 2014).

In The Origins of Alliances, Stephen Walt (1987) demonstrated how states build strategic alliances to balance significant threats to their survival. The primary threats faced by ICOs include seizure of products and profits, apprehension of organizational members, and group infiltration (Williams, 1995). Accordingly, ICOs build strategic alliances in order to improve their chances of survival and maximize profits. For example, Columbian cartels have allied with Mexican drug-trafficking families in an attempt to reduce the risk of transporting drugs across U.S. borders, whereas, the Mexican groups (i.e., the Sinaloa drug trafficking organization) consider the alliance an important means of participating in the cocaine industry which allows higher profit margins than the marijuana industry they have historically engaged (Williams, 1995). Chinese ICOs allied with Mexican groups to traffic illegal immigrants into the U.S. to minimize the risk of detection.  The Columbian cartels and Nigerian drug trafficking organizations allied to offer access to new or additional markets through product exchange (Williams, 1995). Still further, higher profits on cocaine and lower counter-narcotics activity could be obtained in Europe, and therefore, the Cali Cartel entered into relationships with the Sicilian Mafia (Williams, 1995). Arguably, one of the most disturbing implications from alliance building is the prospect of strategic alliances between ICOs and terrorist organizations. Terrorists rely on financial support to further their political objectives, and criminal activity is the most realistic means of acquiring such. Accordingly, ICOs may benefit from the ability to utilize terror to enhance power and increase profit and perceive such an alliance as invaluable. Finally, by building alliances with governments and law enforcement officials through corruption or coercion, ICOs can benefit from trafficking assistance, avert arrests and prosecutions, and minimize many other threats (Williams, 1995).

ICOs as an Antagonist

Relationships are either antagonistic or friendly. Accordingly, despite the tendency to mirror identical behaviors to states, ICOs have a much darker side. Whereas states attempt to establish order and peace in the community, ICOs often wreak havoc on communities by cultivating conflict and disorder. Thus, the antagonistic relationship is cemented. According to the international relations theory of realism, anarchy within the international community inspired the formation of states. That is, states organized in an attempt to mitigate the risk of extinction and threats posed by other states that were considered the principle actors within the international system. However, anarchy did not cease to exist after states formed. Moreover, even when viewed as non-principle actors, ICOs thrive in anarchy and their crimes present the modern principle threats. In much the same way as priests need sin – where there is no transgression there is no need for a mediator between God and man, both states and ICOs need human insecurity – where there is no insecurity there is no need for a provider of security. Thus, it is within the context of security provision that states and ICOs share competing interests and ICOs pose a competitive threat. Charles Tilly also argued the formation of nation-states was not intentional and the “powerholders” did not foresee that it would emerge from their engagement in “warmaking, extraction, and capital accumulation” (1982, p. 3-4). This is important because ICOs are typically distinguished from terrorist organizations on the premise of intentions. Although ICOs make war, extract resources, and accumulate capital, they typically do so to profit, not overthrow governments. However, it begs to reason that the threat ICOs pose to the state could evolve irrespective of their intentions. For example, the Knights Templar’s attempts to “remove themselves from state control,” without aiming to overthrow the government, represents a “fundamental shift from traditional groups” (Corcoran, 2013).

Legitimacy, Sovereignty, and Stability

A state’s legitimacy, sovereignty, and stability is an essential means to its security and survival and thus any actor (state or non-state) that effectively undermines these evinces itself as a threat that demands risk mitigation. Still further, that ICOs can evolve into a criminal state, as in the case of North Korea-which will be discussed later, should allow ample opportunity for any student of international relations, even the proponents of classical realism, to view ICOs as an enemy of the state. A legitimate government should not pose a threat to its citizens, but should shield them against those who would. A legitimate government should never turn a blind eye to widespread violence and other activities that endanger the lives of its citizens. A legitimate government should not oppress its citizens and extract from them in order to enrich a few. Security breeds legitimacy. According to Phil Williams, “Indeed, if individual security is inversely related to the level of violence in society-the greater the violence, the less the security enjoyed by citizens-then drug trafficking and its associated activities pose a serious security threat” (1994, p. 329). For example, ICOs perpetrate violence against citizens and law enforcement officials alike within a given state in the process of trafficking “crack” cocaine.  Likewise, various other crimes against people and property are committed by drug users to acquire money to support their habit. Further, drug abuse negatively impacts the national healthcare system, hampers productivity, and cripples competitiveness in the licit economy. In Columbia, the Medellin Cartel perpetrated violence against the government, nearly extinguished the Colombian judiciary, killed journalists, and corrupted state institutions. In Italy, the Sicilian Mafia carried out violence against and infiltrated all levels of government dating back to at least the 1980s (Williams, 1994, p. 330). In regard to sovereignty, states wish to remain free to control the affairs within their borders, whereas, ICOs wish to remain free to control their affairs across borders. To that accord, it is difficult for any state to claim sovereign control over its territory when ICOs are trafficking drugs, arms, humans and other products through and across it. All of the above contributes to a state’s instability and also prevents weak states from stabilizing.

The gangs in Somalia (a developing state) shed light on how criminals thrive in anarchy and how a lack of legitimacy, sovereignty, and stability act as a springboard. Many Somalis perceive the state as an oppressive regime more concerned with dominating and exploiting the citizenry for gain than a provider of protection and basic necessities (Mandel, 2013). Accordingly, state offers of protection bear no more comfort than those from criminal groups. The location of Somalia has offered international illicit trade opportunities through transit operations. Robberies, illegal smuggling, and narcotics trafficking often occur, and deals have been brokered with al-Qaeda and the likes (Mandel, 2013). Under these circumstances, Somalia could serve as an ICO’s paradise or safe-haven resort.

The Mara Salvatrucha or MS 13 began as a street gang but evolved into an ICO rooted in the U.S. (developed state). Originally traced back to El Salvador during the civil war in the 1980s, millions of El Salvadorans illegally migrated to Los Angeles in search for personal security (Mandel, 2013). The gang immediately faced opposition from African American and Mexican American street gangs who were already settled, but financially and politically insecure because racism had led to their marginalization. The MS 13 grew substantially (reportedly 30-50,000 members worldwide) and began conducting high-profit crimes and high-profile violence (Mandel, 2013). Nevertheless, MS 13 effectively provided protection against violence from rival gangs in communities (particularly El Salvadoran) where the American government and law enforcement officials turned a blind eye.

The posses (gangs) in Jamaica highlight how a government’s inability to effectively provide protection leaves a power vacuum to be filled by criminals. In the face of poverty, unemployment, and political problems, at least 85 posses emerged with up to 20,000 members (Mandel, 2013). The Jamaican government has been confronted with one of the highest murder rates in the world and recognizes its inability to control the posses effectively and has succumbed in many instances. The local gangs copied what their politicians did to gain control and are now better equipped financially and militarily. Their ability to provide essential services to their communities and protect the marginalized populations has gained them a level of legitimacy that leads some to regard them as community leaders. Accordingly, the balance of power has shifted from elected political representatives to gang leaders. Kingston Jamaica links Columbia to the UK and the U.S. offering access to a US$3.6 million dollar crack-cocaine trafficking network which is half of Jamaica’s GDP (Mandel, 2013). Jamaican posses have worked with other Los Angeles based gangs and their activities span at least the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom.

The Yakuza in Japan (transnational criminal organization with approximately 86,000 members) offer another example of a criminal organization offering protection and gaining influence and legitimacy. On January 17, 1995 a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Kobe, Japan. According to Robert Mandel, “It had the equivalent impact of more than 340 kilotons of TNT, killed more than 5,500 people, left more than 300,000 homeless, and destroyed more than 199,999 houses, with total damage estimated at $95 billion” (Mandel, 2013, p. 141). Political agendas blocked immediate and effective relief efforts and demonstrated the unreliability of nearly all of those entrusted in government positions to provide security. The Yakuza enjoys unprecedented legitimacy compared to other criminal organizations as both law enforcement and members of Japanese society have embraced them to an extent. Police ignore Yakuza’s criminal activities and the Yakuza allow police to raid and confiscate weapons and illicit drugs to appear to be “doing their job.” Profit motives keep them at bay from one another as corrupt politicians, businesses, and the Yakuza reciprocate one another. The Yakuza participates in nearly every criminal activity that exists, and their black market earnings were recently estimated at $10billion. Moreover, the Yakuza gained community respect by providing assistance at a time when government had failed during a security crisis. This process repeated itself, when in 2011, the Sendai earthquake claimed the lives of 27,000 people and Yakuza groups offered shelter, delivered food, water, and toiletries, in Tokyo, Kobe, and Tohoku regions (Mandel, 2013).

The Process of Globalization: A Security Dilemma Defined

After the cold war, barriers to trade, migration, and capital flows were greatly diminished. Additionally, multilateral economic agreements throughout the world increased trade opportunities. Meanwhile, ICOs recognized newfound opportunities to expand their operations through the advent of modern communication, information, and travel technologies. For instance, cell phones offer criminals immediate and international opportunity to communicate deals with cohorts and syndicates while encrypting conversations. Computers and the internet offer instant access for conducting market research for the purpose of exploitation, gathering information for productive efficiency, counterintelligence, tracking law enforcement, and more.  In the U.S. alone, transportation of people and products across borders is at an all-time high.  The commercial and private flights that occur, along with the vehicles that cross borders, are in the hundreds of millions. Still further, out of the millions of containers that are shipped, less than 5% of the goods entering the U.S. are inspected by Customs officials (Federation of Amercian Scientists, 2000). The same processes that allow multinational corporations to complete major financial transactions are the same processes that allow ICOs to achieve money laundering schemes. These globalized developments undoubtedly accelerate opportunities to expand criminal activity throughout the international community as state borders grow increasingly porous. As pointed out by Samuel Ezeanyika and Charles Ubah, “Criminals from West Africa have developed a presence where there are criminal opportunities to be exploited for profits just as multinational legitimate corporations such as Shell, Mobile, Exxon, British Petroleum Oil companies (BP), Cocoa cola, Microsoft, IBM etc. establish shops where there are business opportunities” (2012, p. 3). Further, globalization has allowed local threats to become regional and regional threats to become international. Through alliance building, small gangs acquire international reach while larger organizations harness the specializations of the smaller groups to gain access to intricate markets. Likewise, partnerships with terrorists may also increase with the advent of modern weapons technology. In many ways, globalization has undermined state legitimacy, sovereignty, and stability. For example, the instant transmission of information that criminals are benefiting from has the dual capacity to further erode state credibility. That is, mass media portrayals of widespread violence and natural disasters will continue to illuminate the inability of governments to provide adequate protection to their populations. Still others, witnessing forms of protection historically denied them, will grow increasingly dissatisfied with their state’s lack of provision. Additionally, ICOs could increase their level of violent crimes and disorder on such a scale that certain states would be forced to intervene in the affairs of others leading to a further erosion of sovereignty.

ICOs and Government Corruption

It has been widely stated that there is a thin line between love and hate. So it is between legitimate and illegitimate governments especially in cases where there is evidence of corruption. For those with a schematic tendency or scholarly preference to view an “enemy of the state” only in terms of another state, North Korea offers a captivating example of how ICOs can threaten the state and how corruption must be addressed. One abstraction gained from pondering the evolution of ICOs is that North Korea might serve as a model for facilitating ICO’s end game. For ICOs who corrupt society, business, law enforcement, and governments, corruption is a means to an end; Profit. Corruption provides details on government policies and law enforcement initiatives, opportunities to avert investigations and prosecutions, business intelligence for staging front operations and gaining a comparative advantage when bidding on business contracts, and pushing for laws that make the commission of crimes easier (Federation of Amercian Scientists, 2000). An agenda that moves from partial corruption to absolute corruption of the state government would mirror the behavior of North Korea. North Korea does not use state sovereignty to protect its citizens, but to protect itself against outside interference while dedicating a portion of its government to committing international crimes (Kan, Bechtol, & Collins, 2010). This portion of government is known as Central Committee Bureau 39 or Office #39 of the Korean Worker’s Party (KWP). The Office #39 not only commits international crimes such as drug trafficking, counterfeit currency and cigarettes to strengthen its government, military, and political elite, but creates opportunities for instability in regions around the world (Kan, Bechtol, & Collins, 2010). Where ICOs must circumvent governments, North Korea has no need. North Korea does not turn a blind eye to crimes; it commits them. Where organized criminals typically attempt to penetrate the state, North Korea penetrates organized crime (Kan, Bechtol, & Collins, 2010). In essence, North Korea uses state power for criminal purposes. As ICOs constantly infiltrate governments and look for ways to increase their power and profits, they will have just as much incentive as terrorists to become or build alliances with criminal states.


In any competition, a rule that restricts one party, but is not applied to the others competing creates an alarming disadvantage. ICOs are inherently criminal and naturally ignore rules. As stated by Richard Haas, “The basic idea of sovereignty, which still provides a useful constraint on violence between states, needs to be preserved. But the concept needs to be adapted to a world in which the main challenges to order come from what global forces do to states and what governments do to their citizens, rather than from what states do to one another” (2006). ICOs may have well clarified how human insecurity is more of a threat to international security than nation-states. Where human insecurity exists, so do opportunities for ICOs to thrive. When ICOs thrive, states become vulnerable to instability, their legitimacy comes under question, and their sovereignty begins to erode. By solving human insecurities, states can reverse the trend and create a legitimacy crisis for ICOs. The women and children who may have volunteered themselves to be exploited as sex slaves through human trafficking, the drug users who attempt to desensitize themselves to their poverty and suffering, the unemployed who commit crimes to eat, the young men and women who join gangs out of fear from violent chaos, illegal immigrants who flee from oppressive and illegitimate governments in pursuit of better opportunities, would have their basic needs met, and would no longer be vulnerable to seeking protection or refuge from criminals.


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