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Archive for Organized Crime

The Visual Du Jour – Getting Rid of TOC

August 9, 2012 by and tagged

In more ways than one, but in this case, it is organized crime. The UNODC has put out some new materials and videos on organized crime as part of a larger campaign against criminal organizations (no, not the banks!):

And one nifty chart on counterfeit goods:

Posted in Organized Crime | No Comments »

The Visual Du Jour – World Drugs Report 2012

July 16, 2012 by and tagged , ,

Anyone teaching deviance, criminology and other related fields should be interested in that one: the 2012 World Drug Report, published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. It comes with a lot of data and great visualizations.

WORLD DRUG REPORT 2012 from SocProf on Vimeo.

The report also contains some great static maps (Pdf) showing increases and decreases in seizures of various substances. [Click on the images for ginormous views)

Amphetamines:

Cannabis (herb):

Cannabis (resin):

Cocaine:

Ecstasy:

Opiates:

Posted in Organized Crime, Social Deviance, Trafficking | No Comments »

Book Review – Darkmarket

April 14, 2012 by and tagged , , , , ,

The darker side of the global economy is Misha Glenny‘s domain of predilection (see his previous book, McMafia on that). In Darkmarket, Cyberthieves, Cybercops, and You, he tackles the hacking world through an investigation into several Internet forums dedicated by carders for carders (carders are these people who steal your credit card numbers and PINs and use them to make money, a thriving business in the global economic / easy credit age).

While McMafia was about old-fashioned organized criminal networks as they adapted to the borderless, global environment created by the end of communism and the triumph of neoliberalism, Darkmarket is about the new breed of organized criminality, using the tools of 21st century technology.

The structure of the book is roughly similar to that of McMafia. Glenny follows a bunch of individuals, which gives us an insider look at their criminal world. The positive side of this is that it creates a fascinating narrative. The downside is that, at some point, it gets harder to see the forest from the multiplicity of trees. It is hard to get a grip of the larger context, extent of the problem and other objective, macro data on this (if they exist). So, in Darkmarket, we follow the rise and fall of the major carder forums (Carder Planet, Shadowcrew, Carder Market and Darkmarket) as well as that of their major players (minus one, still at large at the end of the book). So, anyhoo, here is what I could tease out on the macro side.

Among the individuals we follow throughout the book are also the cops who try to stop carders around the world, from the US, all over Europe and in Turkey. It is half-amusing, half-depressing to find the old-fashioned bureaucratic patterns being reproduced in law enforcement (with the US Secret Services conducting its own carding-busting operation without telling the FBI, doing the same, of course, and both agencies competing for resources and who will catch carders first).

Hacking as crime poses specific problems for law enforcement:

“We now find ourselves in a situation where this minuscule elite (call them geeks, technos, hackers, coders, securocrats, or what you will) has a profound understanding of a technology that every day directs our lives more intensively and extensively, while most of the rest of us understand absolutely zip about it.” (Loc. 81)

As the book shows, law enforcement agencies are still playing catch-up with technology and knowledge and hackers are always ahead of the game.

And then, of course, the global nature of Internet criminality:

“Most importantly, it is much much harder to identify when people are up to no good on the Web. Laws governing the Internet vary greatly from country to country. This matters because in general a criminal act over the Web will be perpetrated from an IP (Internet Protocol) address in one country against an individual or corporation in a second country, before being realised (or cashed out) in a third. A police officer in Colombia, for example, may be able to identify that the IP address coordinating an assault on a Colombian bank emanates from Kazakhstan. But then he discovers that this is not considered a crime in Kazakhstan, and so his opposite number in the Kazakh capital will have no reason to investigate the crime.” (Loc. 107)

And all this takes place in the context of the ever-expanding surveillance society where both governments and corporations compete over who is going to grab most of our information for their own purposes. Take encryption, for instance:

“The political implications of digital encryption are so immense that the government of the United States started to classify encryption software in the 1990s as ‘munitions’, while in Russia should the police or KGB ever find a single encrypted file on your computer, you could be liable for several years in jail, even if the document only contains your weekly shopping list. As governments and corporations amass ever more personal information about their citizens or clients, encryption is one of the few defences left to individuals to secure their privacy. It is also an invaluable instrument for those involved in criminal activity on the Web.” (Loc. 153)

Pursuing cybercriminality is a tricky game. One can always try to infiltrate forums where carders meet and exchange tricks of the trade and do business with each other. Figuring out with whom one is interacting is incredibly difficult as hackers and carders are justifiably paranoid to an extreme degree. From Glenny’s writing, one would thing that all these guys (and they are all guys) are all 15 year olds that never left high school. Forums are ridden with cliques, ingroup / outgroup conflicts where accusation of being from law enforcement are thrown around, individuals get taken down and thrown out of the forums on the basis of rumors started by business rivals. Trust is the main currency and it is hard to come buy, so, these forums are strictly monitored by administrators (criminals themselves) who manage the whole environment very closely.

And, of course, fighting cybercriminality means having to deal with the banks who issue thee credit cards:

“The attitude of most banks to cybercrime is ambiguous. While writing this book, a gentleman from my bank, NatWest, called me and asked if I had made any recent purchase at a jewellers in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Furthermore, he enquired whether I had spent 4,000 francs settling a bill with Swiss Telecom. I said that I had not. I was then told that my NatWest Visa card had been compromised, that I would need a new one, but that I could be safe in the knowledge that NatWest had cancelled the £3,000 for which the card had been fraudulently used. Like everyone else who goes through that experience, I was hugely relieved when the bank gently reassured me that I was not liable.

But who is actually paying for that? The bank? No, they are insured against such losses. The insurance company? No, because they set the premiums at a level that ensures they don’t lose out. So maybe it is the bank after all, given that they’re paying the premiums? Yes. But they recoup the money by levelling extra charges on all consumers. Essentially, bank fraud is paid for by all bank customers.

This is something that banks understandably do not wish to have widely advertised. Similarly, they do not like the public to learn how often their systems have been compromised by cyber criminals. Journalists find it impossible to get any information out of banks about the cyber attacks that rain down on them daily. That is understandable. What is less excusable is their frequent reluctance to work with police, in case the information be revealed in open court. By refusing to admit that their customers are victims of cybercrime, for fear of losing an edge against their competitors, banks are indirectly assisting the work of criminals.

(…)

Banks like to keep the extent of fraud quiet partly for competitive reasons and partly because they do not want their customers to demand a return to the old ways. Electronic banking saves them huge sums of money because the customer is carrying out tasks that were once the preserve of branches and their staff. If we were all to refuse to manage our finances via the Internet, banks would be compelled to reinvent the extensive network of branches through which they used to serve us. That would cost an awful lot of money and, as we now know, the banks have spent everything they have, along with hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ cash, underwriting egregious speculative ventures and their obscenely inflated bonus payments.” (Loc. 581 – 600)

And in the Age of Plastic, there are billions of cards around, and huge sums of money available for the criminal creative class and a lot of members of carder forums are from former communist countries where they are more or less left alone by law enforcement as long as they don’t mess with Russia.

So Carder Planet was the first of its kind and it lasted four years but it eventually fell, and in its place emerged a whole bunch of new forums dedicated to the same activities with a global reach:

“Websites modelled on CarderPlanet sprang up everywhere: theftservices.com, darknet.com, thegrifters.net and scandinaviancarding.com. There were many more, including one bound by the delightful acronym parodying American academic communities, IAACA (International Association for the Advancement of Criminal Activity).

But none succeeded like Shadowcrew during its two years of existence. And RedBrigade was one of the many carders on Shadowcrew who hit the jackpot. Law enforcement was just beginning to become aware of the extent of the business. Banks were effectively clueless, ordinary folk oblivious.

Hackers were streets ahead, and Mammon ruled everywhere – the hedge-fund managers, the oligarchs, the oil sheikhs, the Latin American mobile-phone moguls, the newly empowered black economic elite in South Africa, the old white economic elite in South Africa, Chinese manufacturers of global knick-knacks, techno gurus from Bangalore to Silicon Valley.

Hundreds of carders made vast fortunes during Shadowcrew, many of them sufficiently naive to piss it all away on the trappings of arriviste wealth. In those days there were no checks on your computer’s IP address when you made purchases over the Web. There was no Address Verification System on the credit card: you could ship goods anywhere in the world (except Russia and other former Soviet countries), regardless of where the card was issued, and nobody would cross-check it at any stage.

This novel crime took root well beyond its Ukrainian- and Russian-language nursery. It began to globalise spontaneously. RedBrigade recalled how established Asian criminals would now communicate with college kids from Massachusetts who were talking to East Europeans, whose computers overflowed with credit-card ‘dumps’. Behind some of the nicknames on Shadowcrew were criminal agglomerates like All Seeing Phantom, revered among his peers.” (Loc. 1466)

It is amazing that anyone can make any sense of this, let alone infiltrate it and identify the main participants and administrators in these operations.

But carding is only one form of Internet threat. Glenny identifies three:

  1. cybercrime: including carding, the theft and cloning of credit-card data for financial gain;
  2. cyber industrial espionage;
  3. cyberwarfare: the design and manufacture of both defensive and offensive cyber weapons.

And to that last, government have responded with a militarization of cyberspace:

“Computing networks had become so critical a part, both of the Defense Department’s infrastructure and of its offensive and defensive operational capability, that Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, made the momentous decision to create a new military domain – cyberspace. This fifth military domain – a sibling to land, sea, air and space – is the first-ever man-made sphere of military operations, and the rules surrounding combat in it are almost entirely opaque. Along with the domain, the Pentagon has set up USCYBERCOMMAND to monitor hostile activity in cyberspace and, if necessary, plan to deploy offensive weapons like Stuxnet. For the moment, the US is the acknowledged leader in the cyber offensive capability.” (Loc. 2774)

One can only imagine the level of surveillance and violation of any kind of legality happening.

The presence of Turkey as a hub for cybercriminality itself is an interesting example of global development:

“After the millennium Turkey had become an increasingly attractive venue for hackers, crackers and cyber criminals. In the late 1990s much cyber criminal activity had clustered in certain regions of the so-called BRIC countries. An economist from Goldman Sachs had conferred this acronym on Brazil, Russia, India and China as the leading countries of the emerging markets, the second tier of global power after the G8 (though, politically, Russia straddles the two).

The BRICs shared important social and economic characteristics. Their economies were moving and opening after several decades of stagnation. They had large populations whose combined efforts registered huge growth rates, while a resurgence in exuberant and sometimes aggressive nationalism accompanied the transition to the status of dynamic global actor. Their education systems offered excellent basic skills. But, combined with extreme inequalities of wealth, this spawned a new class of young men, poor and unemployed, but – in contrast to earlier generations – with great material aspirations as they absorbed the consumer messages that are an intrinsic part of globalisation. To meet these aspirations, a minority started beavering away in Internet cafés, safe from detection by law enforcement or indeed anyone else, where they found myriad online opportunities to educate themselves in the art of hacking.

Turkey qualified as an honorary BRIC, with an economy that, when compared to Russia’s, for example, looked much more dynamic. The country’s population, at around eighty million, and its growth rates were increasing even faster than those of the acknowledged BRICs. Everyone recognised its strategic importance, nestling against the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea while bordering Bulgaria, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Armenia: there is barely a neighbour that hasn’t experienced a major upheaval or war in the past two decades. The unpredictable has been ever present in Turkish politics but, as the millennium turned, Turkey’s burgeoning economic power and sophistication emphasised its pivotal role in several vital geo-strategic regions – the Middle East, Central Asia, the Black Sea and the Balkans.” (Loc. 2949)

Turkey is where the heart of Darkmarket was and the whole unravelling of the organization makes for a great read, involving kidnapping, beatings, double agents, women, just like any good thriller and the new character of the virtual criminal. But even though traditional criminal organizations tend to look at hackers as amateurs and second class citizens of the underworld, Darkmarket showed that such a conception was no longer sustainable. DM was a complex organization with different circles and divisions of labor:

  • The first were the administrators, moderators and others holding senior ‘bureaucratic’ positions on the site. These tended to be men with advanced hacking skills and certainly fluent computer skills who were not really making money (except for the big honcho).
  • The second circle mostly comprised skilful experienced criminals who worked largely on their own.
  • The third circle was home to highly professional criminals who were virtually invisible – unknown except by myth and reputation to the police and their fellow carders. Those were the ones making the real money.

But the whole operation was so mysterious, even DM has been shut down, no one knows for sure whether all the main actors have been identified and arrested, whether the site has been reconstituted further underground. There is absolutely no certainty in that domain.

So, mix all that with individual cases of hackers and you have a pretty compelling read, divided in 40 really short chapters. That was all well and good until we get to the little steaming pile that Glenny drops towards the end of the book. Throughout the book, you can tell that Glenny has a certain admiration for the hackers he writes about. He finds them intelligent and resourceful. So, his big idea is that throwing them in prison is a waste because they are so smart and they could be used for some other purpose and they are such nice guys after all. The real BS comes when Glenny invokes some evo psych garbage on the male brain versus female brain to explain why hackers are almost exclusively men.

There is no doubt that this is a macho / manly / dudely universe, but it is not because women don’t have the brain for it. It is more because of this:

“By now, it should surprise no one to hear that software development is a bit of a boys’ club. We’ve all read editorials bemoaning the lack of women in tech.

The easy explanation is that programming appeals more to a male mind-set. But while it’s easy, it’s also cheap. Things aren’t nearly so simple.

(…)

Some say the problem is our education system. Schools and colleges should be doing more to encourage girls and young women to explore computing. Right now that’s not happening. Overall enrollment in university computer science programs is up 10 percent from last year, but enrollment among women is down.

Others say companies should provide the encouragement. Some companies already are; Etsy, for example, is offering $50,000 in grants to send women to its Hacker School training program in New York City this summer.

That’s admirable, but it falls short of addressing the real problem, which is that software development isn’t just failing to attract women. It’s actively pushing them away. Worse, they’re not the only ones.

(…)

There are women who have a genuine passion for programming to rival any man. But even if they manage to get hired over their male counterparts, they often find themselves in hostile, male-dominated work environments.

“As the woman, I’ve been the only person in the group asked to put together a potluck,” writes Katie Cunningham, a Python developer at Cox Media Group. “I’ve been the only one asked to take notes in a meeting, even if I’m the one who’s presenting. I once had a boss who wanted to turn me into a personal assistant so badly, it ended up in a meeting with HR.”

Just as harmful, she says, were the casual jokes and comments from her male coworkers. If she didn’t shrug them off with a smile, she was told she had a bad attitude. Cunningham says the subtle sexism she encountered as a programmer was so discouraging that she once considered leaving the field for good. “I almost prefer outright sexism, because at least that you can point out,” she writes.

These problems certainly aren’t limited to programming. Women in all sorts of fields face similar discrimination. But the software development field’s hostility toward women may be symptomatic of a broader malady.”

And there is tons of research on the subject. And those of us old enough to have been around the Internet for a while remember the Kathy Sierra fiasco. There is no need to invoke some mysterious element of the male brain that make them better at coding and hacking. It is good old fashioned mysogyny. That nonsense was a bad way to end an otherwise interesting book.

Posted in Book Reviews, Global Governance, Globalization, Networks, Organized Crime, Technology | No Comments »

Global Governance and Criminal Plutocracy

November 10, 2011 by and tagged , ,

If you are going to read one author / journalist on the issue of global criminality, it should be Misha Glenny. His two latest books are strong indictments of the global governance system and its lack of teeth when it comes to global criminal organizations as well as national oligarchies’s role in destabilizing economies and profiting from the results.

In this Financial Times column, he clearly explains the two main issues that have precipitated Greece’s collapse (no quoting from FT articles, you gotta click on the link to read the whole thing):

  • Criminal organizations across the Balkan, milking fuel money out of Greece;
  • Oligarch families that evade taxes while waiting to make a killing on the privatization they are pushing for with global and regional organizations;
  • State corruption;
  • Media;
  • Politicians.

According to Glenny, it is especially these oligarch families that have stashed away Euros. They are waiting for Greece to exit the Eurozone and to start implement what are, in effect, structural adjustment programs, including privatization at basement prices, in Drachma. They will buy the whole lot for close to nothing. Papandreou, who unveiled the pan-Balkan criminality and was going after tax-evaders is the latest victim of their power. And, the media that these families control will cheer on any furthering of austerity measures and vilify anyone who dares trying to get in the way.

But Glenny also blames Western European countries for playing high and mighty with the reckless Mediterranean countries while ignoring what was very obvious for a while. After all, who is now clamoring for Greece to pay its debts to wealthy German investors or else? And which Western European (especially British) banks have turned down the unpaid taxes as well as “running away” Euros from the oligarchs? Yeah.

If one thinks this is a bit far-fetched and fin-foily, check out this other FT article on the dirty dealing of Russian oligarchs.

Who said nation-states no longer mattered.

These facts only reinforce the decade-old idea that the global governance system works only for the powerful of the world, and suffers from a major democratic deficit, a fact amply illustrated by the global panic caused by Papandreou’s proposal of a referendum on austerity measures. As Richard Morris writes, it seems that the price of saving capitalism is democracy.

The extraction of economic policy from the purview of democratic governance (something that did not bother a whole lot of people what that was imposed on developing countries during the lost decade of the 80s) is probably one of the towering achievements of neoliberal global governance as well as the ideological work done by think tanks and corporate media organizations.

Posted in Global Governance, Globalization, Organized Crime | 1 Comment »

Mafia Wars

August 11, 2011 by and tagged , , ,

Another great episode of Al-Jazeera’s People and Power on human trafficking from Nigeria into Italy and the subsequent Mafia wars between Italian mafia and Nigerian criminal organizations:

As this Guardian article notes, it is a familiar story:

“Illegal immigrants first came to Castel Volturno from Nigeria in the 1980s to work on the tomato farms in the countryside but when those farms went out of business there was no work, legal or otherwise. Some of them soon realised there was a different kind of money to be made – through the importing and selling of both drugs and humans in a district characterised by extreme poverty and high levels of violent crime. Since Castel Volturno sits in the heartland of the Camorra, a criminal network based in Naples, this could not be done without the consent of its local wing, the Casalesi clan.

But as Nigerian gangsters extended their reach in a town that is now home to one of Europe’s largest concentrations of illegal immigrants, the Casalesi reasserted its authority. In 2008 it killed six African men in a drive-by shooting – the horror of the incident and the riots that followed is captured in Là-bas, a film set to premiere at the Venice film festival. That same year, the campaign against the gangs – involving the police, the government and the local community – brought the singer Miriam Makeba to perform at a festival aimed at defying the Camorra and promoting tolerance, but Mama Africa, as she was known, had a heart attack and died backstage.

(…)

One officer, whose anonymity must be protected, says: “Prostitution is tolerated by the Italian mafia as there will always be people who can earn money through their presence. Nigerians pay [the mafia] and are allowed to continue with their illegal activities. But when this peace is broken there will be war.”

Women working on the Via Domitiana speak of shattered dreams, of €60,000 debts – a sum they had no concept of before they arrived in Italy – and of a deep, terrifying fear of breaking the juju ceremonies that bind them to their traffickers.

Isoke Aikpitanyi is a former prostitute who was lured to Italy with the promise of a hairdressing job. The salon did not exist and instead she became, she says, “a modern slave” trapped in the town’s dark underbelly. Standing on the road, she sold herself because her madam would “kill me because I have [earned] nothing”. She did so for a pittance. “Some have pity on you and give you 20 to 50 euros. But normally they give you 10.” Aikpitanyi escaped but others have not been so lucky.”

And with the extra twist of religion, it is even more appalling:

“Isoke Aikpitanyi, a former victim of trafficking and now the main reference point for Nigerian women in Italy, knows how this business is managed in Caserta’s area. As she walks in Castel Volturno’s historic centre, she explains: “Today in Italy there are almost 10,000 madams, each one in control of an average of two or three girls.”

Madams are the key, she explains. They are the main actors in this exploitation. They force girls into prostitution and ask for money to repay the debt. They work with “brothers”, men who are in charge of physically trafficking the “babies”, as girls forced into prostitution are called.

But Nigerian human trafficking is often associated with drug smuggling and a distorted use of religious tradition.

The women and girls are often forced to undergo a Juju oath-swearing ritual that commits them to repaying the money they owe to their smugglers on pain of death or insanity.

“The Juju, the voodoo rite, it’s not a bad practice. It was used to bring justice, but they ruined everything,” says Isoke with anger. “They don’t care how they make their money as far as they make it. They use Juju to enslave.”

Posted in Globalization, Migration, Organized Crime, Trafficking | No Comments »

Children of Cannabis

July 28, 2011 by and tagged , , ,

Another great issue of Al Jazeera’s People and Power:

The story is familiar: poverty, emigration with the “help” of smugglers, debt bondage and quasi-slavery, and criminalization.

Posted in Globalization, Organized Crime, Trafficking | No Comments »

This Is The Future

June 26, 2011 by and tagged , , , , , , , , ,

All explained through three items, that have been extensively discussed on this blog.

1. The global casino, ruled by bankers and drug cartels:

” Juarez has imploded into a state of criminal anarchy – the cartels, acting like any corporation, have outsourced violence to gangs affiliated or unaffiliated with them, who compete for tenders with corrupt police officers. The army plays its own mercurial role. “Cartel war” does not explain the story my friend, and Juarez journalist, Sandra Rodriguez told me over dinner last month: about two children who killed their parents “because”, they explained to her, “they could”. The culture of impunity, she said, “goes from boys like that right to the top – the whole city is a criminal enterprise”.

Not by coincidence, Juarez is also a model for the capitalist economy. Recruits for the drug war come from the vast, sprawling maquiladora – bonded assembly plants where, for rock-bottom wages, workers make the goods that fill America’s supermarket shelves or become America’s automobiles, imported duty-free. Now, the corporations can do it cheaper in Asia, casually shedding their Mexican workers, and Juarez has become a teeming recruitment pool for the cartels and killers. It is a city that follows religiously the philosophy of a free market.

“It’s a city based on markets and on trash,” says Julián Cardona, a photographer who has chronicled the implosion. “Killing and drug addiction are activities in the economy, and the economy is based on what happens when you treat people like trash.” Very much, then, a war for the 21st century. Cardona told me how many times he had been asked for his view on the Javier Sicilia peace march: “I replied: ‘How can you march against the market?’”

(…)

Narco-cartels are not pastiches of global corporations, nor are they errant bastards of the global economy – they are pioneers of it. They point, in their business logic and modus operandi, to how the legal economy will arrange itself next. The Mexican cartels epitomised the North American free trade agreement long before it was dreamed up, and they thrive upon it.

Mexico’s carnage is that of the age of effective global government by multinational banks – banks that, according to Antonio Maria Costa, the former head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, have been for years kept afloat by laundering drug and criminal profits. Cartel bosses and street gangbangers cannot go around in trucks full of cash. They have to bank it – and politicians could throttle this river of money, as they have with actions against terrorist funding. But they choose not to, for obvious reasons: the good burgers of capitalism and their political quislings depend on this money, while bleating about the evils of drugs cooked in the ghetto and snorted up the noses of the rich.

So Mexico’s war is how the future will look, because it belongs not in the 19th century with wars of empire, or the 20th with wars of ideology, race and religion – but utterly in a present to which the global economy is committed, and to a zeitgeist of frenzied materialism we adamantly refuse to temper: it is the inevitable war of capitalism gone mad. Twelve years ago Cardona and the writer Charles Bowden curated a book called Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future. They could not have known how prescient their title was. In a recent book, Murder City, Bowden puts it another way: “Juarez is not a breakdown of the social order. Juarez is the new order.”"

Emphases mine.

2. Extensive surveillance from public / private partnerships against people:

“Last February, three of these firms – HBGary Federal, Palantir and Berico, known collectively as Team Themis – were discovered to have conspired to hire out their information war capabilities to corporations which hoped to strike back at perceived enemies, including US activist groups, WikiLeaks and journalist Glenn Greenwald. That such a dangerous new dynamic was now in play was only revealed due to a raid by hackers associated with the Anonymous collective, resulting in the dissemination of more than 70,000 emails to and from executives at HBGary Federal and affiliated company HBGary.

After having spent several months studying those emails and otherwise investigating the industry depicted therein, I have revealed my summary of a classified US intelligence programme known as Romas/COIN, as well as its upcoming replacement, known as Odyssey. The programme appears to allow for the large-scale monitoring of social networks by way of such things as natural language processing, semantic analysis, latent semantic indexing and IT intrusion. At the same time, it also entails the dissemination of some unknown degree of information to a given population through a variety of means – without any hint that the actual source is US intelligence. Scattered discussions of Arab translation services may indicate that the programme targets the Middle East.

Despite the details I have provided in the document – which is also now in the possession of several major news outlets and which may be published in whole or in part by any party that cares to do so – there remains a great deal that is unclear about Romas/COIN and the capabilities it comprises. The information with which I’ve worked consists almost entirely of email correspondence between executives of several firms that together sought to win the contract to provide the programme’s technical requirements, and because many of the discussions occurred in meetings and phone conversations, the information remaining deals largely with prospective partners, the utility of one capability over another, and other clues spread out over hundreds of email exchanges between a large number of participants.

The significance of this programme to the public is not limited to its potential for abuse by facets of the US intelligence community, which has long been proverbial for misusing other of its capabilities. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect is the fact that the partnership of contracting firms and other corporate entities that worked to obtain the contract was put into motion in large part by Aaron Barr, the disgraced former CEO of HBGary Federal who was at the centre of Team Themis’s conspiracy to put high-end intelligence capabilities at the disposal of private institutions. As I explain further in the linked report, this fact alone should prompt increased investigation into the manner in which this industry operates and the threats it represents to democratic institutions.

Altogether, the existence and nature of Romas/COIN should confirm what many had already come to realise over the past few years, in particular: the US and other states have no intention of allowing populations to conduct their affairs without scrutiny. Such states ought not complain when they find themselves subjected to similar scrutiny – as will increasingly become the case over the next several years.”

I should mention that this kind of initiatives is exactly what Evgeny Morozov warns against in his book, The Net Delusion. The naive view that only the cool kids know how to use the tools provided by ICTs and that big and bulky corporations and governments are going to sit by, watch with incomprehension while faxing each other, is more than naive but downright dangerous.

As I have mentioned before, the surveillance society is thoroughly a public / private partnership and we are the data, which is why, really, no government will ever shut down the Internet, no matter what, because, otherwise, where would government agencies and businesses get the information they so desperately need about us.

3. The Cloud-Minders… stimulating the economy through their consumption… or maybe not:

“What is believed to be the only surviving authenticated photograph of Billy the Kid fetched $2.3m (£1.4m) at an auction in Denver, Colorado.

The tintype photograph was sold on Saturday to Florida billionaire and private collector William Koch at Brian Lebel’s 22nd Annual Old and West Show & Auction.

Auction spokeswoman Melissa McCracken said the image of the 19th-century outlaw of the Wild West was the most expensive piece ever sold at the event.

Mr Koch said after the auction that he plans to allow some small museums to display the photograph. “I love the old West,” he said. “This is a part of American history.”"

So, this is why we need to cut taxes for the über-wealthy? So they can “collect” incredibly expensive and exclusive items. Such purely status-related, conspicuous and recreational consumption does nothing for the economy (if you exclude the limited activities related to having the auction itself) but it does contribute to the ever-growing gap in lifestyle between the very top of the social ladder and the rest of us Troglytes.

Posted in Corporatism, Global Governance, Globalization, Hollow States, Organized Crime, Risk Society, Social Change, Social Inequalities, Social Stratification, Surveillance Society | No Comments »

The Underpinnings of The New New Economy

April 2, 2011 by and tagged

A while back, I blogged about the fact that, in the early states of the current depression, dirty money was the capital keeping the world-capitalist system from collapsing even more brutally than it already had.

Today, the Guardian has a great investigative piece on the case of Wachovia, laundering money for the Mexican drug cartels:

“During a 22-month investigation by agents from the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and others, it emerged that the cocaine smugglers had bought the plane with money they had laundered through one of the biggest banks in the United States: Wachovia, now part of the giant Wells Fargo.

The authorities uncovered billions of dollars in wire transfers, traveller’s cheques and cash shipments through Mexican exchanges into Wachovia accounts. Wachovia was put under immediate investigation for failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering programme. Of special significance was that the period concerned began in 2004, which coincided with the first escalation of violence along the US-Mexico border that ignited the current drugs war.”

They got busted, but for those of us who read The Power Elite blog (and those who don’t should), we know what happens with corporate crime:

“Criminal proceedings were brought against Wachovia, though not against any individual, but the case never came to court. In March 2010, Wachovia settled the biggest action brought under the US bank secrecy act, through the US district court in Miami. Now that the year’s “deferred prosecution” has expired, the bank is in effect in the clear. It paid federal authorities $110m in forfeiture, for allowing transactions later proved to be connected to drug smuggling, and incurred a $50m fine for failing to monitor cash used to ship 22 tons of cocaine.”

Seems harsh, right? Well…

“More shocking, and more important, the bank was sanctioned for failing to apply the proper anti-laundering strictures to the transfer of $378.4bn – a sum equivalent to one-third of Mexico’s gross national product – into dollar accounts from so-called casas de cambio (CDCs) in Mexico, currency exchange houses with which the bank did business.

“Wachovia’s blatant disregard for our banking laws gave international cocaine cartels a virtual carte blanche to finance their operations,” said Jeffrey Sloman, the federal prosecutor. Yet the total fine was less than 2% of the bank’s $12.3bn profit for 2009. On 24 March 2010, Wells Fargo stock traded at $30.86 – up 1% on the week of the court settlement.

The conclusion to the case was only the tip of an iceberg, demonstrating the role of the “legal” banking sector in swilling hundreds of billions of dollars – the blood money from the murderous drug trade in Mexico and other places in the world – around their global operations, now bailed out by the taxpayer.

Emphasis and double emphasis mine. I guess that makes us all partners in crime. Or are we supposed to celebrate the innovative minds of the financial sector for finding new ways of generating capital?

“At the height of the 2008 banking crisis, Antonio Maria Costa, then head of the United Nations office on drugs and crime, said he had evidence to suggest the proceeds from drugs and crime were “the only liquid investment capital” available to banks on the brink of collapse. “Inter-bank loans were funded by money that originated from the drugs trade,” he said. “There were signs that some banks were rescued that way.”"

What is equally interesting is what happened to the whistleblower – Woods – when, from London, he started sniffing out this stuff (he’s a former cop who worked for Wachovia precisely on anti-money laundering):

“On 16 June Woods was told by Wachovia’s head of compliance that his latest SAR need not have been filed, that he had no legal requirement to investigate an overseas case and no right of access to documents held overseas from Britain, even if they were held by Wachovia.

Woods’s life went into freefall. He went to hospital with a prolapsed disc, reported sick and was told by the bank that he not done so in the appropriate manner, as directed by the employees’ handbook. He was off work for three weeks, returning in August 2007 to find a letter from the bank’s compliance managing director, which was unrelenting in its tone and words of warning.

The letter addressed itself to what the manager called “specific examples of your failure to perform at an acceptable standard”. Woods, on the edge of a breakdown, was put on sick leave by his GP; he was later given psychiatric treatment, enrolled on a stress management course and put on medication.

(…)

But while the federal prosecution proceeded, Woods had remained out in the cold. On Christmas Eve 2008, his lawyers filed tribunal proceedings against Wachovia for bullying and detrimental treatment of a whistleblower. The case was settled in May 2009, by which time Woods felt as though he was “the most toxic person in the bank”. Wachovia agreed to pay an undisclosed amount, in return for which Woods left the bank and said he would not make public the terms of the settlement.”

But there will be no prosecution and no one will go to jail for any of this. Jail is for little people.

And, of course, one should not ignore the systemic and institutional aspect of this:

“What concerns Mazur is that what law enforcement agencies and politicians hope to achieve against the cartels is limited, and falls short of the obvious attack the US could make in its war on drugs: go after the money. “We’re thinking way too small,” Mazur says. “I train law enforcement officers, thousands of them every year, and they say to me that if they tried to do half of what I did, they’d be arrested. But I tell them: ‘You got to think big. The headlines you will be reading in seven years’ time will be the result of the work you begin now.’ With BCCI, we had to spend two years setting it up, two years doing undercover work, and another two years getting it to trial. If they want to do something big, like go after the money, that’s how long it takes.”

But Mazur warns: “If you look at the career ladders of law enforcement, there’s no incentive to go after the big money. People move every two to three years. The DEA is focused on drug trafficking rather than money laundering. You get a quicker result that way – they want to get the traffickers and seize their assets. But this is like treating a sick plant by cutting off a few branches – it just grows new ones. Going after the big money is cutting down the plant – it’s a harder door to knock on, it’s a longer haul, and it won’t get you the short-term riches.”"

But then, you don’t get to go on TV and boast about big drug busts and saving kids and you don’t reap any benefits for the next election cycle. So, it’s not worth it.

Finally, there is this:

“Antonio Maria Costa, who was executive director of the UN’s office on drugs and crime from May 2002 to August 2010, charts the history of the contamination of the global banking industry by drug and criminal money since his first initiatives to try to curb it from the European commission during the 1990s. “The connection between organised crime and financial institutions started in the late 1970s, early 1980s,” he says, “when the mafia became globalised.”

Until then, criminal money had circulated largely in cash, with the authorities making the occasional, spectacular “sting” or haul. During Costa’s time as director for economics and finance at the EC in Brussels, from 1987, inroads were made against penetration of banks by criminal laundering, and “criminal money started moving back to cash, out of the financial institutions and banks. Then two things happened: the financial crisis in Russia, after the emergence of the Russian mafia, and the crises of 2003 and 2007-08.”

So there you have it: (1) create a global economic system that is inherently unstable and crisis-prone; (2) deregulate the heck out of it in the name of free circulation of capital; (3) and when the system goes into shock, turn to the underground system that is discreetly using the same global flows as the legal economy; (4) get bailed out anyway; (5) be ineffective in your prosecution of corporate crimes, focus on the failed war on drugs, and (6) ignore the victims of the Mexican gang wars and drug trade, brown people do not count.

Posted in Organized Crime | No Comments »

Book Review – Murder City

December 18, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Last book review of the year!

I have been looking for some solid analysis regarding the mass killings of Ciudad Juarez, so, naturally, I downloaded Charles Bowden‘s Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and The Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.

This book is not Juarez 101. It is not a journalistic or analytical account of what happens there. It is more a personal journey, with lots of stream of consciousness writing. The narrative, if there is one, is not linear but disjointed (although there is a “death calendar” appendix, that lists the dead over a one-year period). There is a lot about the writer himself, what he felt, his own reactions, etc. That is the part of the book that I did not like. It made me want to shout “dude, this is not about YOU!”

As much as I understand that extreme violence at that depicted in the book has to take a toll on one’s sanity, he was still in the privileged position of being able to cross the border back in the US and rejoin his comfortable life at any time, as opposed to the people stuck in that non-stop violent world. So, no, I did not care one bit about his feelings.

That being said, the book is far from a complete waste of time. Once you skip through the first-person stuff, you get to the real story and the people I was really interested in: the people of Juarez, those who live and survive in the midst in continuous and increasing violence from all parts.

One thing that the book does well is to show how the mainstream reporting on Juarez violence explains nothing and covers up much. What goes on there is not government versus drug cartels, or drug cartels versus drug cartels. There are many layers of corruption and violence converging on Juarez: the drug cartels, of course,, bu the federal and state military accounts for enormous violence as well, along with the local police.

Often, police and military officers also work for the cartels, and military hotshots benefit from the drug trafficking. And much the conflict is funded by the US, either in the form of training Mexican soldiers (who then also work for the cartels), or direct money to the federal government in the name of the War on Drugs (is there any way in which that idea is not completely bankrupt?). The cartels bribe DEA and Border Patrol so they can ship the drug to the US without problems.

“In 1953, a flying school in Culiacan was closed to placate the United States, and yet by the late 1960s at least six hundred secret airfields flourished in northern Mexico (the beat goes on—in 2007, the Mexican army claimed to close two secret narco-airports a day). More recently, a series of agencies have tackled drugs. Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS), trained by the CIA, was supposed to eliminate drug merchants and radicals in the early 1970s. By the 1980s, its staff either worked for or led cartels, including the one in Juárez. In the mid-1990s, a new force under a Mexican drug czar flourished, until it was discovered that the czar worked for the Juárez cartel and so did many of his agents. It was dissolved. Under President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), a new incorruptible force, Fiscalía Especializada en Atención de Delitos contra la Salud (FEADS), was created. One part deserted, became the Zetas, and functionally took over the Gulf cartel.” (Loc. 1918)

In 1997, an organized crime unit was formed to tackle the cartels, and at the same moment in Mexico City, the agents of yet an earlier squad assigned to fight drugs were found dead in a car trunk. FEADS was finally dissolved in 2003 when it was found to be hopelessly corrupt. Under President Felipe Calderón, yet a new federal mutation emerged—AFI (Agencia Federal de Investigación). Its head was murdered in the spring of 2008. His dying words to his killer were, “Who sent you?” The government later determined the hit was done by the Sinaloa cartel, with the killers led by a former officer in the agency.” (Loc. 1926)

And the US government pretends that the Mexican government is the democratic wonder that fights the bad criminal organizations. That pretense and its maintenance has devastating consequences as the US media never reports the wrongdoings of the Mexican military and its responsibility in much of the killings as well as its involvement in the trafficking.

That attitude ruins lives. Take the case of a Mexican journalist – Emilio – who made the “mistake” of reporting on the wrongdoings of the military:

“The woman and Emilio collect his son. They stop by his house to get some clothes and then flee to a small ranch about six miles west of Ascensión, where he can hide. He is terrified. Later that night, a friend takes him back to his house once again. He wears a big straw hat, slips low in the seat. He sneaks into his house and gets vital documents. A friend delivers a small black car out at the ranch. All day Sunday, he tries to think of a way to save his life. He comes up with only one answer: flight. No matter where he goes in Mexico, he will have to find a job and use his identity cards and the army will track him down. He now knows they will never forget his story from 2005, that he cannot be redeemed.

He tells his boy, “We are not going back to our house. The soldiers may kill me, and I don’t want to leave you alone.” Monday morning, he drives north very fast. He takes all his legal papers so that he can prove who he is. He expects asylum from the government of the United States when he crosses at Antelope Wells, New Mexico. What he gets is this: He is immediately jailed, as is his son. They are separated. It is a common practice to break up families to crush the will—often jailing men and tossing the women and children back over the fence. He is denied bond, and no hearing is scheduled to handle his case. He is taken to El Paso and placed in a private prison. Had he entered the United States illegally and then asked for asylum, he would have been almost immediately bonded out. But since he entered legally by declaring his identity and legal status at a port of entry and applied for asylum, he is placed in prison because Homeland Security declares that Emilio has failed to prove that “he does not represent a threat to the community.”

It is possible to see his imprisonment as simply the normal by-product of bureaucratic blindness and indifference. But I don’t think that is true. No Mexican reporter has ever been given political asylum, because if the U.S. government honestly faced facts, it would have to admit that Mexico is not a society that respects human rights. Just as the United States would be hard pressed, if it faced facts, to explain to its own citizens how it can justify giving the Mexican army $1.4 billion under Plan Merida, a piece of black humor that is supposed to fight a war on drugs. But then, the American press is the chorus in this comedy since it continues to report that the Mexican army is in a war to the death with the drug cartels.

(…)

This was part of the Bush administration’s ‘Guantanamization’ of the refugee process. By locking people up, especially Mexican asylum applicants, and making them, through a war of attrition, give up their claims there at the camp. I’ve represented ten cops seeking asylum, and not one of them lasted longer than two months. Emilio lasted seven months. On the basis of he had his son and he knew he was going to be killed. There was nowhere that he could go and practice his profession.” There are forty reporters in El Paso—print, radio, and television. Only one or two tiny reports are published by any of them. And the matter of the Mexican army killing innocent Mexicans is not mentioned at all. Like the U.S. government, they apparently believe the Mexican army is some force of light in the darkness of Mexico.” (Loc. 3514 – 86)

And when such journalists try to tell their stories to the US media, they are ignored (as if we needed more evidence of the uselessness of that institution) because no one should destroy the myth of the Mexican government as faithful ally in the War on Drugs. There is so much money at stake in the drug business that everyone wants in, and not just criminal organizations. And Emilio is not allowed to live in the US as a refugee.

And so, the killing continues, more massive than ever. And it’s not just the young women who work in the Maquiladoras (although they are victims). Because the lines are so blurred between Federal / State military, local police and cartel killers, one can never know who killed whom. So, arrests are not made. Actually, it is even lucky if police officers leave their offices to go to killing sites because they are targets. Killings and kidnappings are not reported. And in a kind of collective amnesia, once the bodies are removed, the dead disappear from memory and are no longer mentioned (same goes for the kidnappings).

“The violence has crossed class lines. The violence is everywhere. The violence is greater. And the violence has no apparent and simple source. It is like the dust in the air, part of life itself.” (Loc. 484)

As are drugs, something Bowden calls “narcotecture.”

And yes, this has something to do with NAFTA:

“A recent study found over twenty thousand retail drug outlets in Tijuana, mainly cocaine and heroin. In Juárez, there are at least as many such venues. The peddlers earn three hundred dollars a week, there tend to be three shifts, so let’s posit for Juárez twenty-five thousand outlets (a conservative estimate) and figure a payroll of seventy-five thousand retailers. This amounts to a bigger payroll than that earned by the two hundred thousand factory workers earning on average seventy-five dollars a week. And of course, the real money is not in the retail peddlers but in the organizations that control them and import and package their products. This is the economy of the city. This is supply-side economics flooring the killing ground.

(…)

When Amado Carrillo was running a cartel that hauled in $250 million a week in the mid-1990s, Juárez was barely a speck in the mind of the American government or media. When he used the same private banker at Citigroup in New York as the then-president of Mexico, this, too, was of no interest. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) passed and went plowing into the lives of millions like a greed-seeking missile in the early 1990s, this city that pioneered using cheap labor to bust unions and steal American jobs continued to be ignored. Only brief flickers of interest in the dead women of Juárez captures any American audience.

(…)

In Juárez, the payroll for the employees in the drug industry exceeds the payroll for all the factories in the city, and Juárez has the most factories and is said to boast the lowest unemployment in Mexico. There is not a family in the city that does not have a family member in the drug industry, nor is there anyone in the city who cannot point out narcos and their fine houses, or who has any difficulty taking you to fine new churches built of narco-dollars. The entire fabric of Juárez society rests on drug money. It is the only possible hope for the poor, the valiant, and the doomed.” (Loc. 884 – 1030)

The drug trafficking cannot be separated from the Maquiladoras economy. So, the mass violence is the story of structural breakdown and hollowing of the state, where the only legal jobs keep one in poverty, barely at survival level or illegal immigration to the US. So, killing and drugs are legitimate career choices for young men. Killing is not deviance. It is where the incentives are.

If Bowden is right and Juarez is the future, it’s not pretty.

Posted in Book Reviews, Corruption, Economy, Failed States, Globalization, Hollow States, Mass Violence, Militarism, Organized Crime, Poverty, Risk Society, Structural Violence, Trafficking | No Comments »

Embeddedness: Globalization and Illicit Trade

November 10, 2010 by and tagged , , ,

My students have been working on this:

And then, there is this:

“RAS AL KHAIMAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — As free economic zones grow in size and number across the globe, they are increasingly popular spots for illicit trade.

Counterfeiting and money laundering can flourish in these zones, typically manufacturing and warehousing sites near ports and airports, where governments relax tax and regulatory requirements to attract foreign investment and ease the rapid movement of goods.

Conditions that attract honest businesses attract criminals, too.

“Organized crime and counterfeiters are very resourceful and creative,” said Stuart Jones, a U.S. Treasury financial attaché based in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. “They are also interested in free-trade zones to exploit the very ecosystem governments created to contribute to economic development.”

Globally, there are about 3,000 free-trade zones in about 135 countries, through which billions of dollars’ worth of goods are transferred every year. Most of the United Arab Emirates’ 36 free-trade zones are in Dubai, but other emirates are also creating them as investment vehicles, including Masdar, a green-energy zone in Abu Dhabi. The oldest free-trade zone in the Emirates, the Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone, is one of the largest in the world, and handles 11 million containers each month.

That volume is reflected in the crime statistics. According to data from European Union customs, the Emirates were the No.2 source of counterfeit goods, after only China, in 2008 and 2009, said Omar Shteiwi, chairman of the Brand Owners Protection Group, an anti-counterfeiting group based in the region.

The zones’ susceptibility to illegal activities was also cited earlier this year by the Financial Action Task Force, an international watchdog organization based in Paris that co-ordinates and monitors government efforts to block money laundering and terrorist financing. Free-trade zones do improve economic opportunity, but the characteristics that make these enclaves attractive to business also create chances for illicit programs that can finance terrorism, the task force warned.”

Well, duh. Illicit trade flourishes under conditions of (1) lack of governance and oversight, and/or, (2) the presence of a very vulnerable category of people that can be either used as victims or exploited in the trade, and (3) high demand, for instance:

“South Africa’s largest private medical group has pleaded guilty to performing illegal kidney transplant operations at one of its hospitals.

It follows a seven-year investigation into transplants carried out at the facility in Durban.

The medical group Netcare admitted that children were recruited to donate their organs, and said the hospital had wrongly profited from the operations.

It agreed to pay fines of nearly 8m rand (£700,000, or $1.1m).

The BBC’s Jonah Fisher in Johannesburg says the charges related to more than 100 operations carried out at the hospital in Durban between 2001 and 2003.

Poor donors, often from Brazil, were flown in and given thousands of dollars to have a kidney removed.

These were then given to those in need, who were often wealthy Israelis.”

Well, I guess “We all either work for rich people or we sell stuff to rich people” (that is sarcasm on my part, just sayin’).

Posted in Embeddedness, Global Governance, Globalization, Organized Crime, Trafficking | No Comments »

Book Review – Brave New War

October 8, 2010 by and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

BNW John Robb ‘s Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and The End of Globalization (Global Guerrillas Blog) adds a few concepts to the topic of new wars and the changing nature of warfare. At the same time, for those of us who have studied the changing nature of warfare and are familiar with the writings of people like Mary Kaldor or Herfried Munkler, there is a lot that is neither new nor original.

At the same time, John Robb’s perspective is different Kaldor’s or Munkler’s because he has worked in intelligence and counterinsurgency. His first hand experience in this field provides interesting insights as well as some issues.

Let me get out of the way the things I did not really like in the book. I think the author has a tendency to latch on to easily on all the fashionable concepts of the day: black swans, long tails, etc. And the author’s contention regarding resilient communities (the author’s idea of empowered communities able to resist oppression and terrorism) smells a bit too much of the fetishism of the local for my taste. Again, the local is not an automatic equivalent to empowered autonomy and resistance.

Things get a lot more interesting when we delve into the changing nature of terrorism and conflict in the global context. Specifically, Robb argues that one of the strengths of insurgent groups, such as the ones in Iraq is their open-source networked nature that lacks a clear center for greater flexibility. This has allowed for smooth and flexible connections between terrorist groups and organized criminal networks and these connections permeate the global economy.

According to Robb, the Iraq insurgency is the future of insurgency and terrorism with a new method: systems disruption: the disruption of basic services that are essential to smooth societal functioning and whose disruption damages the legitimacy of governments and nation-states. One problem here: this is not new. This used to be the tactic adopted by white African groups (the Executive Outcomes type) again newly independent African nations. To attack power plants and water treatment centers repeatedly would force these new governments to spend enormous resources rebuilding them. And if it led to government failure, then, it would prove that Africans were unable to govern themselves.

However, one can clearly see, as the author argues, the rise of “virtual states” in the sense of “superempowered groups” who can challenge national governments (and, I would say, especially, failed states) and connect to other groups and criminal organizations through ICTs. Which is why many peripheral conflicts are not fought between states but between a mix of sub-national actors dedicated to system disruption.

“This new method of warfare offers clear improvement (for our enemies) over traditional terrorism and military insurgency. It offers guerrillas the means to bring a modern nation’s economy to its knees and thereby undermine the legitimacy of the state sworn to protect it. Furthermore, it can derail the key drivers of economic globalization: the flow of resources, investment, people, and security. The perpetrators of this new form of warfare, however, aren’t really terrorists, because they no longer have terror as their goal or method. A better term might be global guerrillas, because they represent a broad-based threat that far exceeds that offered by terrorists or the guerrillas of our past.” (14-5)

But global guerrillas are not only distinctive because of system disruption. Their organizing structure – the decentralized network – is also a specificity, as opposed to hierarchies. These global guerrillas are main actors in what Robb calls fourth generation warfare (4GW), the first three being

  • Mass warfare: use of massive firepower on clear conflict fields, such as the Napoleonic wars or the US Civil War.
  • Industrial warfare: wearing down of the opposing state through greater mobilization and firepower, such as World War I.
  • Blitzkrieg: taking down of an enemy army and state through maneuvers, deep penetration and disruption, such as World War II (I would argue that WWII was also industrial warfare).

And here, Robb was prescient:

“The use of systems disruption as a method of strategic warfare has the potential to cast the United States in the role that the Soviet Union held during the 1980s – a country driven to bankruptcy by a foe it couldn’t compete with economically. We are staring at a future where defeat isn’t experienced all at once, but through an inevitable withering away of military, economic, and political power and through wasting conflicts with minor foes.” (32)

As an aside, this is something Michael Mann had already written about in Incoherent Empire.

The issue I have then is the supposed big discovery of the changing nature of warfare (decentralization, networks, etc.) as if this were the first book about this. Seriously, Mary Kaldor is not even mentioned or referenced even though she wrote the book (literally) on New Wars. And P.W. Singer and others have also written quite extensively about the de-nationalization of warfare and the emergence of non-state actors and their prevalence in contemporary conflicts. And it has been long known that these global guerrillas and global criminal networks have been pretty savvy with ICTs.

Robb also argues that global guerrillas be distributed according to the long tail model (as opposed to Gaussian distribution).

There are several reasons for this:

(1) War is cheap. The barriers of entry due to costs have declined considerably and one can conduct warfare with AK-47s and child soldiers at really low costs (which create some incentives).

(2) Also, the decentralization of warfare and system disruption mean that small events can create massive costs for the injured party.

(3) Networking technologies allow for a “long shelf life” on ideas driving the guerrillas whose number don’t have to be large. Social networking allows like-minded people to easily find each other. Here, I would add that the strength of weak ties is also relevant as absolute consensus and strong ties are not necessary for a global guerrilla to be operational (and for someone so in love with concepts, I am surprised – disappointed – that Robb did not consider that one).

So, beyond the Iraq insurgency groups, who would count as a global guerrilla? Robb mentions the Chechen guerrilla as well as the Niger Delta movement or the Balochs in Pakistan. How do states fight back against guerrillas that are so adept at asymmetrical warfare? Robb mentions the use of paramilitaries including the US minutemen. And here is another source of annoyance for me:

“Armed to the teeth with semi-automatic weaponry and survival gear, this paramilitary force has formed organically to police the U.S.-Mexican border.

Though many Americans have lamented their existence, few have tried to explain it.” (87)

Really? I guess David Neiwert has not been writing about all this for years now, and showing how such movement has not arisen “organically”. And Robb displays a disturbing respect for these paramilitary groups (including those the US used in Central America) even as he acknowledged their corruption and human rights abuse. It is unconscionable to me to legitimize their use.

Also included in the global guerrillas category are what Robb calls third generation gangs (3GG).

  • First generation: turf protection, unsophisticated leadership, opportunistic petty crime.
  • Second generation: organized around business and financial gain; broader geographical footprint, violence used for intimidation of commercial competition and against government interference.
  • Third generation: global, sophisticated transnational operations, political control in failed government and state areas, high interference in state function.

“Third generation gangs fit the model of global guerrillas perfectly. They operate, coordinate, and expand globally. They communicate worldwide without state restriction, often via the Internet. They engage in transnational crime. They participate in fourth-generation warfare, and their activities disrupt national and international systems. Finally, they coerce, replace, or fail states that stand in their way. In all these categories, they parallel the development of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Like Al-Qaeda, these gangs are rivals of nation-states.” (93)

All these groups engage in system disruption as main tactic, targeting specifically (or trying to) what Robb calls Systempunkt, the crucial point in a system whose disruption can create system collapse. These may be economic or infrastructural. Anything whose disruption will trigger a collapse in global flows (Appadurai’s scapes) is such a Systempunkt. In the current context, one could argue that global guerrillas are not the only ones who can engage in such system disruption. “Legitimate” economic actors seem to do so as well.

For global guerrillas, then the structuring in scale-free, decentralized and flexible networks allows for capillary kinds of disruptions (Foucault’s micro-power) that can trigger cascading failures, as opposed to coordinated yet non-networked attacks of former generation terrorist groups.

Finally, the last characteristic of global guerrillas is open-source warfare (OSW):

“In OSW, the source code of warfare is available for anyone who is interested in both modifying and extending it. This means the tactics, weapons, strategies, target selection, planning, methods, and team dynamics are all open to community improvement. Global guerrillas can hack at the source of warfare to their heart’s content” (116)

As with open-source software, the main characteristics are as follows:

  • Early release and continuous updates
  • Constant problem solving through community sharing
  • Community members as allies and co-developers rather than competitors
  • Simplicity and easy adaptability of solutions

OSW is one big bazaar of warfare solutions.

I have already mentioned above and throughout this pose the issues I had with the book. I would add that there is too much conflation of security = protection of assets and defense of the capitalist system as it is (or whatever is left of it at this point). Too much defense of paramilitary seen as legitimate actors. And not enough recognition of the work done before on this topic. Some of the ideas in the book are useful in terms of conceptualization but there is too much grasping of fashionable concepts from a variety of fields.

That being said, the book is a quick an interesting read and I would recommend also bookmarking the blog (link above). But I would also say: go read Mary Kaldor first.

Posted in Book Reviews, Failed States, Global Guerrillas, Globalization, Hollow States, Mass Violence, Nationalism, Networks, New Wars, Organized Crime, Religious Fundamentalism, Risk Society, Social Change, Technology, Terrorism | No Comments »

Behold The New New Economy: Unemployment and Organized Crime

September 14, 2010 by and tagged ,

Via Ezra Klein (I know, I know):

Which means that even if there were to be a recovery (big if), first, a lot of the lost jobs will be come back, but also those who are able to find jobs will find themselves with considerably lower income than they had. None of this will help the demand crisis we are currently experiencing.

The only economy that seems to be working right now? The illegal one, and it keeps the system afloat:

“Leading banks around the world, desperate for cash in the financial crisis, turn to the proceeds of organised crime as “the only liquid investment capital” available, eventually absorbing the greater part of a staggering $352bn of drugs profits into the global economic system, laundering that vast sum in the process.

Sounds far-fetched, but that’s no fiction. That tale was published in the Observer in December 2009, when the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime admitted that colossal piles of drugs money had kept the world financial system afloat when it looked dangerously close to collapse.

The story broke long after Le Carré had finished Our Kind of Traitor, but it confirmed everything the new novel is saying: that a huge slice of the global economy, as much as a fifth on some estimates, is made up of the fruits of organised crime; that the criminals behind that money have found a thousand ingenious ways to disguise its origins – and those we might expect to stand in the way, including reputable banks and elected politicians, instead help smooth its path out of the black economy and into the white.”

If that is not the ultimate proof that there is something really rotten, I don’t know what is. How does it work?

“The scale is enormous. The Serious Organised Crime Agency – Soca – puts revenue from organised crime in the UK alone at £15bn and admits that is likely to be a very conservative (and dated) estimate. Add in profits from Russia, India and beyond and the numbers reach the stratosphere.

None of that wealth would be much use to the gangsters if it stayed in telltale cash, betraying its tainted origins. So these real-life Dimas devise ever more ingenious ways to pass it off as legit. Property is a favourite: buy a house, sell it on and the proceeds become clean. A department store works just as well, as does a football club. Or create a series of shell companies registered behind a brass plate in faraway Vanuatu or the Solomon Islands, one owning another owning another, financial Russian dolls that “exhaust and bamboozle investigators”, according to Misha Glenny, whose book McMafia is the go-to guide to this new realm of international, multibillion-dollar crime.

Sadly, he includes London in that roll call of safe havens, places attractive to those with illicit fortunes to bleach clean. Once Gordon Brown set his heart on London outstripping New York as the world’s financial capital, Glenny argues, the inevitable result was lighter regulation, “no stress entry” for big fortunes, non-dom arrangements and an entire legal architecture hospitable to the mega-wealthy.”

Posted in Labor, Organized Crime | No Comments »

The Revolution Will Not Be Twittered but Mafia Messages Will Be Texted

August 24, 2010 by and tagged , ,

I have blogged before about my skepticism regarding the potential for social organizing and social activism through web 2.0 media. More than that, it may actually hurt:

“A battle is raging for the soul of activism. It is a struggle between digital activists, who have adopted the logic of the marketplace, and those organisers who vehemently oppose the marketisation of social change. At stake is the possibility of an emancipatory revolution in our lifetimes.

The conflict can be traced back to 1997 when a quirky Berkeley, California-based software company known for its iconic flying toaster screensaver was purchased for $13.8m (£8.8m). The sale financially liberated the founders, a left-leaning husband-and-wife team. He was a computer programmer, she a vice-president of marketing. And a year later they founded an online political organisation known as MoveOn. Novel for its combination of the ideology of marketing with the skills of computer programming, MoveOn is a major centre-leftist pro-Democrat force in the US. It has since been heralded as the model for 21st-century activism.

The trouble is that this model of activism uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing. It accepts that the tactics of advertising and market research used to sell toilet paper can also build social movements. This manifests itself in an inordinate faith in the power of metrics to quantify success. Thus, everything digital activists do is meticulously monitored and analysed. The obsession with tracking clicks turns digital activism into clicktivism.

Clicktivists utilise sophisticated email marketing software that brags of its “extensive tracking” including “opens, clicks, actions, sign-ups, unsubscribes, bounces and referrals, in total and by source”. And clicktivists equate political power with raising these “open-rate” and “click-rate” percentages, which are so dismally low that they are kept secret. The exclusive emphasis on metrics results in a race to the bottom of political engagement.

Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change. Instead, subject lines are A/B tested and messages vetted for widest appeal. Most tragically of all, to inflate participation rates, these organisations increasingly ask less and less of their members. The end result is the degradation of activism into a series of petition drives that capitalise on current events. Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links. In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.

Exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests, clicktivists damage every genuine political movement they touch. In expanding their tactics into formerly untrammelled political scenes and niche identities, they unfairly compete with legitimate local organisations who represent an authentic voice of their communities. They are the Wal-Mart of activism: leveraging economies of scale, they colonise emergent political identities and silence underfunded radical voices.

Digital activists hide behind gloried stories of viral campaigns and inflated figures of how many millions signed their petition in 24 hours. Masters of branding, their beautiful websites paint a dazzling self-portrait. But, it is largely a marketing deception. While these organisations are staffed by well-meaning individuals who sincerely believe they are doing good, a bit of self-criticism is sorely needed from their leaders.

The truth is that as the novelty of online activism wears off, millions of formerly socially engaged individuals who trusted digital organisations are coming away believing in the impotence of all forms of activism. Even leading Bay Area clicktivist organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to motivate their members to any action whatsoever. The insider truth is that the vast majority, between 80% to 90%, of so-called members rarely even open campaign emails. Clicktivists are to blame for alienating a generation of would-be activists with their ineffectual campaigns that resemble marketing.”

But you know who is tech-savvy? The Mafia:

Mafia clans have used a popular football show on Italian television to send secret messages to jailed godfathers held in isolation, a magistrate has revealed.

Imprisoned crime bosses were kept up to date on mob business through mobile phone texts sent to the show, Quelli Che il Calcio, which unwittingly scrolled them across the bottom of the screen, among innocent messages from supporters of Italian football teams.

Enzo Macri, a magistrate tipped off after a letter advising a jailed boss to watch the show was intercepted, cited one of the texts, “Everything is OK – Paolo,” as being sent by a clan affiliate.

Jailed mobsters have few, carefully supervised contacts with the outside world, thanks to Italy‘s tough prison regime designed to stop them keeping control of their criminal empires.

But as prison authorities clamp downon the passing of messages to the outside world, mafiosi dream up new ways to fool their guards. In 1998 investigators in Palermo discovered that affectionate greetings sent by bosses to family members were coded orders to carry out murders in an ongoing turf war.

Prisoners allowed to meet their families have also been caught stuffing their children’s pockets with messages while hugging them. The Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta mafia went as far as buying a radio station to broadcast songs which had a pre-arranged significance for affiliates.”

Personally, I think that’s what Real Housewives of New Jersey is all about!

Posted in Networks, Organized Crime, Technology | 6 Comments »

Extreme Masculinity, Extreme Religion, Extreme Violence

July 21, 2010 by and tagged , , , ,

I recognize I’m stepping on The Grumpy Sociologist‘s turf, but I found this connection between extreme masculinity, extreme religion and extreme violence both unsurprising and horrifying:

“One of the most astonishing religious stories on the web at the moment comes from Mexico, where a particularly brutal and feared drug gang, La Familia Michoacana, has been buying up the works of a Colorado evangelical, John Eldredge, and making new recruits read them as part of their induction process.

According to Religion News Service, “Family values and religion are emphasized during the recruitment process, [to La Familia] which includes daily group prayer sessions and mandatory readings.”

Then they get taught to chop people’s heads off; that is the signature of the gang. All the Mexican drug gangs are notoriously violent, but La Familia is the only one to use decapitation so much that the local Catholic clergy have had to get guidelines for burying bodies without their heads attached. There have been twenty in one town alone this year.

La Familia’s leader, known as El Más Loco (the craziest one) started off as a small-time assassin, but dealing cocaine in the USA in the 90s was very impressed by the evangelical preachers he heard. Since then the gang has grown until it now supplies about half the the $20bn methamphetamine market in the USA.

El Más Loco wrote his own little book of Thoughts (vanity published, but no doubt he got very good terms from the publishers) but he is also greatly impressed by John Eldredge‘s book Wild at Heart.

“Eldredge’s theology is based on a ‘muscular’ view of Christianity, one that emphasizes an ‘authentic masculinity’ that has been lost” according to Religion News Service.”

Of course, this toxic combination is not really that different from the Taliban and other fundamentalist movements (and weren’t the Taliban also involved in heroin trafficking?). Movements such as gangs and religious revolutionary movements have to find ways of disciplining the young men they recruit (and these are almost always young men, of course, emphasis on strong religion and violence are translated into masculine rituals) but also ways of systematically unleashing violence in ritualized and spectacular (as in generating a visual spectacle) ways.

And pardon me for taking exception to the author’s contention that functionalists would love this. For one, if that were so, then functionalism is definitely no longer a useful theory but a bankrupt ideological construct. Also, the author fails to note that both religious fundamentalist movements and gangs often direct q great deal of their violence against women (Ciudad Juarez, anyone? And need I say anything about the Taliban and gendered violence?).

Also, both groups are likely to flourish in failed and/or hollow states.

Posted in Gender, Mass Violence, Organized Crime, Patriarchy, Religious Fundamentalism | 4 Comments »

Violence Stabilization as Market Stabilization

April 11, 2010 by and tagged ,

It just so happens that, last week, I was discussing gangs and violence and territorial control using, as examples, City of God and Tsotsi. I mentioned to my classes that violence peaks when competition is fierce between rival gangs, fighting over territory and control over trafficking and other illegal activities. The more competition there is, the more violence there will be as this is the only mechanism gangs have to “settle” conflicts.

For instance:

Moreover, because gang norms and values come to dominate social life and socializing practices, it is not surprising to find killings not simply related to the economics of gang warfare but also related to status signals:

Performances of power is indeed an interesting, albeit not new, concept but one to keep in mind.

As I mentioned to my students, if/when a given gang prevails and comes to dominate an area (as Lil Ze’s gang does in City of God), violence recedes somewhat. In other words, it looks a lot like market stabilization whereas competition has been eliminated or coopted or somewhat disabled. I made the prediction that that might ultimately happen in Mexico.

And next thing you know:

And in those areas of severe poverty, smart gang leaders will turn from violent organization to proto-governments, providing services to the population in one form or another. That’s what Pablo Escobar did in Medellin. It contributes to delegitimizing the government in the eyes of the population and can ultimately be a major source of destabilization. But it seems that weak states have limited options.

Posted in Mass Violence, Organized Crime | No Comments »

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