Alleging mafia-states is loose talk

By Jonathan Power

The vigour of the recent elections in Mexico suggests that despite the massive number of drug related killings Mexico is not yet a “mafia-state”. The government remains the primary source of both political power and economic patronage. The mafia king-pins can dominate a town here or there, intimidate a regional government and assassinate policemen and journalists. But this doesn’t make it a mafia state, as some commentators suggest. It is a state which is still in control of its own destiny and one which with some bold decisions can probably get on top of what is an intolerable surge of criminality.

In Latin America many point a finger at the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez. The links between some high levels of the military and drug gangs have been well documented. But the Venezuela of today is no more a mafia state than the country’s corrupt regimes of the past. Chavez still rules the roost.

Or take the Panama of the dictatorship of Manuel Noriega which allowed Colombian cocaine a free passage. He was overthrown by the US in 1989- which was not a very difficult thing to do- and the problem came under control. In the 1940s and 50s Cuba under the thumb of dictator Fulgencio Batista welcomed the company of some of the US’s leading organized crime figures but he and his corrupt regime were overthrown by Fidel Castro.

The moral of the Latin American story is that the mafia can become dangerously influential but there is a tipping point and in the end they do not survive as such a big threat. It was the same with Prohibition in the US when alcohol was outlawed in the 1920s. The mafia built up its strength to scary proportions- but not enough to stop Congress reversing itself on Prohibition. Unfortunately even though the law was changed the gangsters did not go away- they went in for prostitution and today child and women trafficking. But they do not have the political power that they did in the era of Al Capone when judges, policemen and politicians were in their pocket. Even so at their peak of influence one would not have called the US- or even Chicago- a mafia-state.

Was Britain a mafia-state in the 18th and 19th century? Britain encouraged, oversaw and mightily profited from the opium trade between its colony India and China. It is a disgusting part of the history of Britain but despite its financial importance there was never a chance that it would turn Britain into a mafia state any more than the slave trade of the same period could turn the motherland into a slave state. These were arms’ length activities.

In Foreign Affairs an essay in June by Moises Naim raises the issue of “the alarming prospect of nuclear mafia states” warning that “as criminal organizations fuse more thoroughly with governments nuclear deterrence might become more difficult.” But where is this happening? There has been theft of nuclear materials in Russia but in recent years security has been much tightened. North Korea would never allow the mafia a foothold. Neither would India, Israel or China in the nuclear arena. Pakistan is the only nuclear state that is worrying- but that is not because of the mafia. It is because Islamic militants are infiltrating the nuclear establishment.

There are countries where the nexus between organised crime and democratic government has in some decades become too close for comfort. Italy and Japan are the best examples with their long tradition of mafia influence. But to say these are mafia-states is plain ridiculous.

Naim claims that “the scale and scope of the most powerful criminal organisations now easily match those of the world’s largest multinational operations”. Of Microsoft or Sony, of General Electric or Airbus? Come on!

As Professor Peter Andreas says in his new book, “Smuggler Nations: How Illicit Trade Made America”, illicit business would in some ways be easier to dismantle if it were controlled by large, monolithic and identifiable criminal organizations. Illegal cross-border commercial activities are hard to put out of business precisely because they are so diffuse and loosely organized”.

Governments, particularly in the West where the problem has been most acute and the banks most bent (as has been discovered recently with HSBC, a world-wide bank), are making steady inroads into money laundering on their territories. Nigeria has made enormous progress with combating a plague of counterfeit drugs. It came down to the will and vigour of President Olusegun Obasanjo and his drug tsar, Mrs Dora Akunyili. It took only two years to make an enormous difference.

The mafia control too much. In some countries, like Mexico, they are a dangerous force causing mayhem. But there is no likelihood of creating a mafia-state there or indeed anywhere else that counts.

© Jonathan Power 2012

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