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Structural factors and organized crime


The structural approach towards explaining organized crime focuses less on individual behaviour and emphasizes the role played by broader systemic factors, such as sociological, legal, economic, and political attributes of the international system. These factors may not necessarily cause crime, but they create the conditions in which organized criminal activity flourishes.

Weak States and organized crime

Weak and failing States as well as conflict regions have traditionally been considered as crime-facilitative environments. Organized crime emerges out of the power vacuum that is created by the absence of enforcement and good governance. Failed States have weak institutions and high levels of corruption, which can be both a symptom and cause of organized criminal activity. The incapability of state institutions allows criminal organizations to operate more or less freely and corruption attracts organized crime, as corrupt institutions are highly susceptible to influence. Therefore, organized criminal groups can take advantage of the governance void in weak States, as well as the lack of law and order, and use the State to further their interests.

The incapacity of States to control national borders is also closely connected to the ability of the government to ensure its presence in remote areas of the State. Abandoned, economically marginal and sparsely populated areas are thus more susceptible to turn into criminal havens. The conditions that impede economic development and diminish the State's incentives to develop the infrastructure necessary to maintain a robust presence lead to the emergence of shadow economies and black markets. Systematically corrupt police, judges, licensing agencies, and other State institutions result in the State structures operating as a criminal enterprise in demanding bribes, illicit fees, and compliance from citizens and businesses. In some situations, these institutions also receive bribes from organized criminal groups to protect existing illegal activities (please, see Module 4 for an explanation of the concepts of corruption, bribery and generally, methods used by organized criminal groups to infiltrate business and government).

State failure and State transition can result in the inability of the government to deliver key political goods and services. Economic failure, such as high unemployment, low standards of living, and reliance on underground markets, stimulates criminal organizations to supply goods, services and jobs. The more the State is absent or deficient in the provision of legal employment and public goods, the more communities are susceptible to becoming dependent on and supporters of criminal organizations (Felbab-Brown, 2012). From this perspective, organized criminal groups can accumulate political capital and broad public support. This makes them capable of acting as quasi-States.

A study of 59 countries found both State and economic failure to result in these outcomes and highlighted that a corrupt judiciary and the existence of black market activities emerged as the strongest political and economic correlates of organized crime (Sung, 2004). Of course, organized crime has also thrived in circumstances characterized by strong government structures, but the important feature is the extent to which the operation of government agencies reflects the interests of the public versus the private interests of corrupt officials or organized criminal groups.

In addition to State failure, the structure of the international system in itself can be seen as a contributing factor to the formation of criminal opportunities for organized crime. Some scholars contend that transnational crime is driven by structural differences between countries. From this perspective, inequalities of various kinds, the so-called "criminogenic asymmetries," embedded in the international system, create circumstances that criminal organizations are able to capitalize on (Passas, 2001; Zabyelina, 2014). From this perspective it can be argued that if one country makes a particular conduct legal whereas another government criminalized it, transnational organized crime can take advantage of the discrepancies between competing legal jurisdictions. These discrepancies are viewed as mechanisms by which illicit markets are created and trafficking routes developed (Block and Chambliss, 1981). For instance, because of the absence of effective enforcement of laws against the illicit organ trade and public tolerance of these practices, certain countries have attracted transplant tourists seeking organ donors. Likewise, cross-border illegal waste disposal is driven in part by different standards in environmental protection.

Table. 6.1.  Structural factors assumed to create opportunities for organized crime
Asymmetry of controls   The difference in ability of States to implement border controls and enforce laws.
Asymmetry of resources The disparity of allocation of natural and human resources in the international system.
Asymmetry of prices The disparity between States in terms of the distribution of economic assets and income.
Asymmetry of investments The disparity between investments of States in domestic crime prevention and criminal justice vs. reinforcing international legal, institutional and operational capacities (the former being considerably higher than the latter).
Legal asymmetries Disharmonization of legal systems and laws.

In light of the structural predisposition of the international system to make illicit markets profitable, there has been explicit acknowledgment of the fact that the fight against organized crime should be part of any comprehensive and effective strategy aimed at achieving the "qualitative" dimensions of development, such as human rights, access to justice, good governance, rule of law and security. These key dimensions of development are at the very core of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The Sustainable Development Goals

The 17 SDGs of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development were adopted by world leaders in September 2015 and came into force on 1 January 2016. The SDGs build on the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and aim to go further to end all forms of poverty. The new Goals are unique in that they call for action by all countries, poor, rich and middle-income to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. They recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and addresses a range of social needs including education, health, social protection, and job opportunities, while tackling climate change and environmental protection. While the SDGs are not legally binding, governments are expected to take ownership and establish national frameworks for the achievement of the 17 Goals.

Countering organized crime is explicitly referenced as a critical target in Goal 16, but the repeated references throughout the 17 Goals to the many manifestations of organized crime-from labour exploitation to poaching and trafficking of protected species of flora and fauna-evidence the fact that organized crime has become one of the key areas of developmental focus of the United Nations.

The SDGs and organized crime

While the SDGs are interconnected and often the key to success on one goal will involve tackling issues more commonly associated with another, UNODC particularly contributes to the achievement of Goal 16 focused on peace, justice and strong institutions and other related Goals. The figure below shows the main Goals UNODC aims to assist Member States to achieve.

Figure 6.1.  UNODC and the SDGs

Addressing organized crime requires a systemic and integrated approach focused on harmonization of laws and enforcement of regulatory frameworks, human rights protection, building of sustainable communities and raising social awareness. A systemic approach is required because of the interlinkages with major global risks such as corruption (both a driver and consequence of criminal behaviour), fragile states (massive illicit trade often being a cause and nearly always an important consequence), or economic disparities (which contribute to and are exacerbated by a lack of security and the rule of law) (UNODC position paper; Model United Nations Resource Guide, 2018).

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development affirms explicitly that "there can be no sustainable development without peace and no peace without sustainable development", thus recognizing that reducing crime, conflict, violence and discrimination are key elements of people's well-being.


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