Crime, the New Hit Word in International Affairs

Maybe it is the result of too many TV shows about organized crime and bad guys that romanticize the whole criminal life. But crime is making its way in IR and political science. State-building and development discussions have brought in all these informal actors that play a much bigger role than expected in the peace and development process of so-called fragile states. In fact, criminal versus political motives seems to be the new greed versus grievance. Yet, the empirical literature of the last decade has taught us that if this distinction is easily made on paper, it is rarely as clear in practice.

In the context of IR, what does “crime” and “criminal agenda” refer to exactly? Is it strictly about illegal behaviors, or does it also include informal activities outside of the state’s reach? Does it encompass matters of corruption and rent-seeking by government officials? Often, criminal actors and their agenda are pictured as being free of any political ambitions. If it is recognized that political actors can use illegal or criminal means to pursue certain ends, criminal actors are rarely allowed political purposes as well. The whole discussion about the current truce in El Salvador is a prime example. The debate at the national level focuses on the pros and cons of negotiating with criminals, delinquents. Several foreign analysts also put the emphasis on the negotiated cease-fire between gangs, the role of the FMLN government in the negotiation of the truce, the reduction of homicides, and the state of extortion in Salvadorian cities declared free of violence. Yet, the story rarely told publically is the one about what the gangs demanded at the local level to broker such a deal with state’s officials and the adversary gang: social and economic reinsertion programs, access to employment, education and health care. This is a prime example of how criminal actors can actually have individual and collective political grievances, beside strict criminal interests.

If we want to bring crime in the IR field of study, we need to ask ourselves what it means exactly. We need to problematize this concept in order to come up with definitions that enable a fruitful discussion that goes beyond the negative connotation associated to criminality in the big Western world. As North Americans or Europeans, crime sends us back to the legality aspect, which is so closely linked in developed societies to the element of legitimacy and state’s formality. What is outside of these boundaries is considered informal, illegitimate, illegal. Yet, in fragile states and post-conflict countries where the formal sphere is limited and the state does not hold the monopoly on the means of violence and is often distrusted by the population, the informal regulates and organizes many social and physical spaces. It is therefore important to not equate systematically informality with illegality. By identifying groups as criminal, we take away from them any form of legitimacy. This is why so many people are opposed to the negotiation with the gangs in El Salvador. The dialogue gives these marginalized groups some form of political legitimacy that many Salvadorians and international actors have refused to acknowledge for so long. Yet, what El Salvador shows us is that these “criminal actors” also have power and authority that sometimes leads to legitimacy at the local level. The same goes with the Mexican drug cartels which control whole regions in Mexico’s back country and even provide some public services to the population living in these spaces.

Criminal agendas and criminal actors may just be a new trend to talk about non-state actors. It may also broaden the scope of the considered actors in peace and state building processes, beyond formal political actors and non-state armed actors such as guerilla and rebels groups. In the end, any fruitful discussion needs to be based on clear definitions rather than trendy terms that add questions and blurred zones rather than provide new solutions and insights on complex situations.

Gaëlle Rivard Piché, PhD Candidate, NPSIA


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