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The Rise of the Mafia State

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There have always been countries whose leaders have behaved criminally. Today is no different and in most of the world's nations, graft, dishonesty in the use of public funds and the "sale" of government decisions to the highest private bidder are common. Corruption is the "norm" and we have become inured to it.

Unfortunately, the assumptions that there is nothing new regarding crime and corruption and that these plagues are an inevitable part of the human experience are clouding an important change: the ascent of the mafia state, an old player that has gained renewed potency.

These are not just countries rife with corruption or where organized crime controls important swaths of the economy or even entire regions. Rather, these are countries where the state controls and uses large and powerful criminal networks to defend and advance the national interest and -- as importantly -- the personal interests of the governing elite, their family and friends. This is not new and pirates and mercenaries were commonly used by monarchs and rulers since time immemorial. Even democracies, like the United States, at times relied on criminals to achieve national security goals. Perhaps the best known example occurred in 1960, when the CIA hired the mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro. The execution of this mission was as inept as the decision itself and the botched attempt only served to embarrass the U.S. government and expand Castro's popularity.

But in the last two decades a series of profound transformations in politics and the global economy have added new capabilities to mafia states thus spurring their influence. These are countries in which the traditional concepts of corruption, organized crime, or government agencies infiltrated by criminal groups do not fully capture the phenomenon in all its complexity, magnitude, and consequences. In mafia states, it is not the criminals who capture the state through the bribery and extortion of officials, but it is the state that controls the criminal networks. It runs them for the benefit of government leaders and their network of accomplices and associates. When it takes over existing criminal cartels it's not to stamp them out, but to control and use them for the benefit of the criminalized government elites.

In countries like Bulgaria, Guinea-Bissau, Montenegro, Myanmar, Ukraine, North Korea, Afghanistan, or Venezuela, the national interest and the interests of organized crime are inextricably intertwined. In Bulgaria, for example, Atanas Atanasov, a member of Parliament and former head of counterintelligence has famously said that "other countries have the mafia; in Bulgaria the mafia has the country."

In Venezuela, the former Supreme Court Justice Eladio Aponte is providing ample evidence confirming that senior Venezuelan government officials double as the heads of important transnational criminal gangs. In 2008, the United States accused Venezuelan General Henry Rangel Silva of "materially assisting the narcotics trafficking activities." Earlier this year, President Hugo Chávez appointed him Minister of Defense. In 2010, another Venezuelan, Walid Makled, accused by various governments of being the head of one of the largest drug cartels, confessed upon his capture that he had documents, videos, and recordings incriminating 15 Venezuelan generals, the brother of the Minister of the Interior and 5 members of the National Assembly.

In Afghanistan, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's brother and governor of Kandahar, killed in 2011, faced repeated accusations of involvement in the opium trade, the main economic activity of the country. According to the Financial Times, in Afghanistan the amount of money illicitly moved overseas by traffickers and officials in suitcases stuffed with dollar bills is roughly equivalent to the total national budget.

This criminalization of the state is not confined to war-torn countries like Afghanistan, failed states like Guinea-Bissau, or those overwhelmed by drug trafficking. It is impossible, for example, to thoroughly understand the dynamic, the prices, the intermediaries, and the structure of distribution networks of the gas imported by Europe from Russia and other Eurasian nations through Ukraine and other countries, without taking into account the role of organized crime in this lucrative business. It is naïve to assume that the governing elites of these countries are only victims or passively watch as bystanders how a massive trade that is based on opaque corporate entities and furtive owners generates immense profits that are vaporized through clandestine channels. Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Balkans, or Eastern Europe are also rife with criminal enterprises whose daily activities are simply too large and visible to assume that governments are not actively involved in their management, protection and promotion.

This suggests that contemporary mafia states have acquired an importance that should prompt us to rethink traditional concepts based in a world order fundamentally composed of nation states and nongovernmental organizations like businesses, religious and scientific institutions, charities, terrorists, rogue criminals networks etc. The modern mafia state is a hybrid whose behavior and reach we do not understand well. Largely because we have not yet fully grasped its dangerous mutation and the heightened danger it poses.

Moises Naim is a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International peace and the author of "Mafia States: When Organized Crime Takes Office" in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. Follow him on twitter @moisesnaim