Fall 2017

Organized Crime, Illicit Economies, Civil Violence & International Order: More Complex Than You Think

Vanda Felbab-Brown

This essay analyzes the multiple threats that organized crime and illicit economies pose to states and the international order, with a particular focus on the security dimensions of the crime-conflict nexus. In analyzing the range of responses by states and the international community to the nexus of criminal economies and civil wars, insurgencies, and terrorism, this essay also highlights how premature and ill-conceived government efforts to combat illicit economies have counterproductive effects, hampering efforts to suppress militancy and, in some cases, generating dangerous international spillovers of criminality. The second part of the essay examines various pathways out of the conflict-crime nexus, including defeating militants without suppressing illicit economies, suppressing crime and illicit economies without ending conflict, and state co-optation of illicit economies. The essay concludes with policy recommendations.

VANDA FELBAB-BROWN is a Senior Fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy Program at The Brookings Institution. She is the author of Narco Noir: Mexico's Cartels, Cops, and Corruption (forthcoming 2019), The Extinction Market: Wildlife Trafficking and How to Counter It (2017), and Aspiration and Ambivalence: Strategies and Realities of Counterinsurgency and State-Building in Afghanistan (2013).

Several years ago in the south of Afghanistan, the core of the Taliban’s insurgency effort, the Taliban hammered up posters offering to protect villagers against government attempts to eradicate the illegal poppy fields and seize opium stocks. The Taliban insurgents left a cell phone number to call if a government eradication team sponsored by the United States showed up. In one village near Kandahar, the villagers caught on to a sting operation in which a counternarcotics agent posed as an opium trader.1 After his visits to the village to buy opium were followed by raids on the villagers’ opium crops, the villagers phoned the Taliban. The Taliban instructed them to invite the suspected informant back, capture him, and force him to call the police. When the police arrived in the village, the Taliban ambushed them, killing several policemen, including the police chief. The Taliban scored a success against the government and limited its presence in the area. . . .


  • 1I am grateful to Sarah Chayes, an aid worker in Kandahar at that time, for the information on the sting operation in the Kandahar village.
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