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date: 25 February 2018

Crime: The Illicit Global Political Economy

Summary and Keywords

Transnational crimes are crimes that have actual or potential effect across national borders and crimes that are intrastate but offend fundamental values of the international community. The word “transnational” describes crimes that are not only international, but crimes that by their nature involve cross-border transference as an essential part of the criminal activity. Transnational crimes also include crimes that take place in one country, but their consequences significantly affect another country and transit countries may also be involved. Examples of transnational crimes include: human trafficking, people smuggling, smuggling/trafficking of goods, sex slavery, terrorism offences, torture and apartheid. Contemporary transnational crimes take advantage of globalization, trade liberalization and new technologies to perpetrate diverse crimes and to move money, goods, services, and people instantaneously for purposes of perpetrating violence for political ends. While these global costs of criminal activity are huge, the role of this criminal market in the broader international economic system, and its effects on domestic state institutions and economies, has not received widespread attention from an international political economy (IPE) or political science perspective. Given the limits on the exercise of extraterritorial enforcement jurisdiction, states have developed mechanisms to cooperate in transnational criminal matters. The primary mechanisms used in this regard are extradition, lawful removal, and mutual legal assistance.

Keywords: transnational crime, international political economy, international community, human trafficking, smuggling, sex slavery, terrorism, globalization, criminal market, political science


Transnational crime has become a more visible area of concern for states in the past two decades. The collapse of the Soviet Union led states to reassess their national interests and corresponding policies. States recognized that an international underworld of criminal elements hampered and sometimes derailed programs and policies at home and abroad. Criminal enterprises outside the drugs arena arose that were highly profitable, and in cases such as the trafficking in human beings were even more pernicious to states and societies. By 1995, the US and other states began to classify “international” organized crime as a national security threat. States saw the need to further expand law enforcement beyond their borders, to sign treaties of mutual legal assistance, and to bring multinational organizations to bear on the problem. By 2000, the United Nations had enacted a Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime that institutionalized these goals. In one short decade, international or transnational organized crime had eclipsed the “war on drugs” as the primary concern of global criminal justice policy.

Many studies of transnational crime have focused on the phenomenon as a national security issue in the post–Cold War era (Picarelli 2008). The studies tend to focus narrowly on the organization of crime groups and how they undermine the sovereignty of the state. Yet international political economy (IPE) has contributed significantly to our understanding of transnational crime through its more comprehensive approach to the topic. The IPE literature on transnational crime constructs a more complex understanding of transnational crime by examining multiple actors in different forms of transnational crime throughout history.

Scholars of IPE have sought to answer the most basic questions about transnational crime while tracing also the complexity that surrounds it. Such theories see transnational crime as existing not in a vacuum but rather in a web of relationships of markets, states and other actors, societal institutions and concepts like sovereignty and authority. While security studies focuses primarily on criminal groups and their impact on states, an IPE approach considers both of these agents in relation to one another while also considering the role of firms, society, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other actors. IPE approaches also often locate illicit global flows within elements of the upperworld and underworld segments of global markets, and will also seek to identify what lies between these segments. Moreover, IPE locates transnational crime in the present and the past, demonstrating that processes like globalization serve as a lens to see how transnational crime has evolved over time.

The remainder of this essay explores transnational crime from an IPE perspective. It begins with the basic requirement of defining transnational crime, further exploring the different points of departure between security studies and IPE when it comes to the phenomenon. The review’s next section frames the IPE analytical framework of transnational crime as the combination of relationships with markets, states and society. The essay then turns to look at how this framework has informed IPE’s examination of major subjects in transnational crime – the illicit global flows of goods, money and people. It also examines the role of transnational crime in fueling significant challenges to global governance: corruption, contemporary conflict and terrorism. The essay concludes that IPE remains well placed to continue to answer the most pressing questions about transnational crime through future research.

Markets or Mafias: What is Transnational Crime?

Not surprisingly, experts vary on what they consider is transnational crime. One root of this confusion is the simple yet sometimes overlooked fact that transnational crime is a term applied both to organizations and to activities (Picarelli and Williams 2005). Many government and security theorists tend to define transnational crime through an organizational lens. Such definitions see transnational crime as an evolutionary step from more traditional organized crime groups and thus no longer simply a law enforcement issue. From President Clinton’s Presidential Decision Directive 42 (PDD-42) in 1995 and into the present day with the US Attorney General’s reconstitution of the Organized Crime Council, this analysis has posited that these groups now represent a national security threat to states worldwide.

Much of the early literature on transnational crime focused on defining and scoping the phenomenon as a national security threat. Security studies views transnational crime as large cross-border organizations, often networked, that undermine the sovereignty of the state through smuggling and other criminal activities (Picarelli 2008; Berdal and Serrano 2002). In some cases, transnational crime even actively threatens the state through coordinated campaigns of violence and heavy doses of corruption that place criminal groups in charge of protection rackets that supplant the state (Schelling 1971). Some have even gone so far as to portray transnational crime as a series of interlocking conspiracies or coordinated criminal groups operating across borders with relative impunity. One of the more cited works along this line was Claire Sterling’s Thieves World (1994), a work that posited a “pax Mafiosi” wherein numerous ethnic and transnational mafia groups were coordinating the distribution of ill-gotten gains at the expense of nation-states. Similarly, John Kerry’s The New War (1997) argued that a linkage between five major criminal groups worldwide represented a “global criminal axis” that only US leadership could vanquish.

The transnational crime as an organization approach is important for state actors as well as academic theorists. For states, defining transnational crime as an organization sets a marker for law enforcement, homeland and national security agencies to target. The definition sets transnational crime apart from other forms of harmful transborder actors (e.g., gangs), serving as the foundation for national and international legal standards for transnational crime while also providing the criteria required for government agencies to lawfully execute policies protecting citizens from transnational crime. The focus on actors also provides security theorists with a more robust approach to securitizing transnational crime, allowing for theory to insert criminal syndicates as power-hungry actors acting at the expense of states or their interests. Understanding their organizational dynamics also allows comparisons with the composition and interests of other malevolent transnational actors like terrorists or insurgents.

The definitional emphasis on organizational structures carries over from states to multinational organizations This is not surprising given that member states set these definitions and as such the definitions reflect member state bias toward transnational crime as organization. The UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime defines transnational crime as “a structured group of three or more persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offenses” for “financial or other material benefit.” The European Union uses a similar approach to transnational crime, stating it is “one of the major threats to security. It damages the social, economic, political and cultural development of societies. It is complex. Organized crime has evolved in times of an increasing globalization and expanding international trade, so the range of organized crime activities has broadened and diversified” (European Commission 2009).

Yet to focus solely on large criminal syndicates spanning borders is to miss the forest for the trees. First, transnational crime is more about activities that are both cross-border and illicit than it is about the criminal syndicates that commit these acts for the simple reason that a range of actors engage in transnational crime. Large criminal syndicates like the Yamaguchi-Gumi of Japan, the Casalesi clan of Italy and the Gulf Cartel in Mexico engage in transnational crime and are worth the scrutiny of scholars and policy makers alike. But a significant amount of transnational criminal activity occurs outside the realm of these criminal organizations. Business firms, terrorist organizations and skilled entrepreneurs are but three in a range of actors that have been found to engage in criminal activities transnationally. Nor is transnational crime’s relationship to the state as monolithic as some definitions would have us believe. Transnational crime is not always a threat to the state. The state sometimes knowingly participates in transnational crime for its own benefit, and in other instances governments have profited from a symbiotic relationship with transnational crime. States are also not totally helpless before transnational crime. It is, after all, the state’s ability to segregate licit from illicit commerce worldwide that serves as the most basic foundation of any definition of transnational crime. Without agreement among states on what constitutes criminal behavior, transnational criminals would by definition not exist. A final problem with the focus on transnational crime as actors is that the approach often ignores the relationship between transnational crime and civil society. Cultural norms and civic groups play a crucial role in transnational crime’s breadth and depth in any given region, and thus are important elements of any analysis of the phenomenon.

The strength of an IPE approach lies primarily in its ability to embrace these complexities and craft a more nuanced understanding of transnational crime. The intersection of politics and economics across borders, the starting point for most IPE analyses, lends itself to complex explanations of complicated international phenomena. It allows for a focus on how the expansion and contraction of global financial, commodity, industrial and service markets impact governance, particularly at the state level. Thus IPE analyses have focused on how the interests of businesses, NGOs and other nonstate actors influence state regulation of these markets. Another strength of an IPE approach is that it has focused on how globalization and the information revolution have impacted societal structures and norms.

The other primary strength of an IPE approach is that it tries to understand how contemporary phenomena evolved from previous political and economic developments (Mittelman 2000; Watson 2005). Thus an IPE approach sees transnational crime as historically rooted and not just a contemporary phenomenon. While the origins of transnational crime are vague and difficult to decipher, a number of scholars have started to untangle its origin and evolution. Transnational crime is as old as the nation-state system itself (Fulvetti 2004; Gilinskiy and Kostjukovsky 2004; Lange 2004; Lowenheim 2007). One can argue that groups and activities similar to modern transnational crime existed prior to the Treaty of Westphalia and its resulting nation-state system. Such “transnational” crime schemes focused on defying the authority of city-state regents or the church rather than the state. For example, the underworld of the seventeenth century Dutch Republic was not concerned with the laws of a central Netherlands nation-state but rather concerned itself with the regulations and legal authorities in individual cities (Egmond 2004). While the remainder of this essay will not deal primarily with the historical roots of transnational crime, it is nonetheless important to recognize that IPE scholars are increasingly identifying how historical patterns influence present-day manifestations of the phenomenon.

Transnational crime demonstrates elements that either a security or an IPE approach can best explain, but adopting the more agent-centric definition found in security is too limiting for an IPE approach. Tapping a number of IPE studies of the phenomenon, a good point of departure for this essay is to locate transnational crime as originating with global flows that a number of states have defined as illicit. A number of IPE scholars such as Andreas (2004) have defined transnational crime in this way. Speaking of what he calls the illicit international political economy, Andreas defines transnational crime as “the relationship between states and illegal international markets. Through its monopoly on the power to criminalize certain economic sectors, the state defines the boundaries of illegal market activities.” The definition neither privileges criminal organizations over others that might participate in these illegal markets nor limits transnational crime to smuggling for profit, but allows for a wide range of market sectors to enter the discussion. From this definition, it is possible to move into the IPE treatment of transnational crime and capture a broad swath of the literature within it.

Composition of Transnational Crime

Rather than seeing the composition of transnational crime through organizational lenses, IPE sees transnational crime through its ties to markets, states and societies. The expansion of markets globally has had a profound impact on the manifestation or composition of transnational crime. Criminal markets that hitherto were limited to cities or regions rapidly expanded globally, paralleling the rise of global markets for commodities and other goods in the licit realm. States hindered the expansion of transnational crime through the regulation of international commerce, the enforcement of legal codes and the employment of criminal justice regimes. Societies are often ignored in favor of the other two concepts, but transnational crime cannot exist without some level of embeddedness in society. For example, demand for illicit goods and services cannot exist without norm structures that enable or excuse or otherwise ignore the participation of some members of society in purchasing these goods and services. Thus sociocultural structures and norms are the third key concept that is explored in this explanation of transnational crime.

Thus the key to understanding why transnational crime flourishes or flounders lies mainly in its relationships with states, markets and societies. Of course, state, markets and societies are not mutually exclusive categories and therefore IPE also considers how each relates to one another and transnational crime. For example, some IPE theorists have found that while societies sometimes view transnational crime as a way of social and economic advancement, they also sometimes sees transnational crime as a source of authority that is preferred over the state. As such, state authority is not a given but is a competition between state agencies and transnational crime groups.

Along these lines, globalization has served as a significant catalyst for all of these relationships. An underlying impetus for the evolution of transnational crime was the rapid expansion of market forces that undermined state sovereignty and authority. Few have crystallized this argument as well as Strange: “the impersonal forces of world markets, integrated over the postwar period more by private enterprise in finance, industry and trade than by the cooperative decisions of governments, are now more powerful than the states to whom ultimate political authority over society and economy is supposed to belong” (1996:4). The sections that follow explore markets, states and societies in more depth and provide some of the insights that IPE has brought forward in developing a more nuanced understanding of transnational crime.


Numerous policy makers and scholars alike have co-located the rise of transnational crime as the partial result of the expansion of neoliberal market economics. While most IPE analyses focused on the rise of multinational corporations or NGOs in the postwar era, others have applied the same logic to illicit nonstate actors like transnational criminal groups (Strange 1996; Bhattacharya 2005). For example, the advent of a global drug market provided criminal groups with incentives to operate transnationally and delivered significant profits when they did (Arlacchi 1986; Strange 1996).

Market forces have not only empowered the underworld, they have also offered opportunities for the upperworld to expand closer and closer to the illicit side of the global economy. Naylor (2002) highlights this facet of the market in a skeptical tome on transnational crime, noting that “the real threat to economic morality comes from seemingly legitimate business types intent on seeing how far they can bend the rules before they have to pay politicians to rewrite them.” While this is easier to understand in an age of Enron and Bernard Madoff, the fact remains that market forces are not just empowering those operating in defined illicit markets but are also drawing those in licit firms and professions into the realm of the underworld.

Much of the study of the spread of markets and market forces is subsumed in the broader study of globalization, and therefore globalization serves as a lens for examining transnational crime’s relationships with markets. For example, globalization has fostered an increase in cross-border trade due to states adopting probusiness deregulation of cross-border flows, and an increase in the interconnectivity of economic actors globally (Rosenau 1990; Friedman 1999). While numerous firms and businesses have benefited from this change, so too has transnational crime (Rosenau 1997; Naim 2005).


The relationship of transnational crime and states is not as clear-cut as one might expect. The construction and maintenance of power and authority are primary concerns of many IPE analyses of international relations and thus are central to understanding transnational crime. For most scholars of international relations, the international system combines an anarchical structure with nation-states as actors. Authority in this system resides within nation-states, which Max Weber asserts derive their authority from the monopoly of the legitimate use of force. But numerous scholars have questioned whether authority in the international system is solely a function of nation-states (Jackson 1993). Strange (1996; 1997) stated that theoretical paradigms focusing solely on states missed the power of firms, crime organizations and other nonstate actors and could not see that deregulation and other market-friendly policies fashioned spaces for the expansion of criminal activity. Strange therefore approaches authority in international relations from a fairly traditional perspective, the collection and employment of power, but expands the paradigms to consider the power of state and nonstate actors.

A more novel approach is found in the edited volume of Hall and Biersteker (2002). Where Strange sees power as the basis for authority, Hall and Biersteker explicitly de-link power from authority, noting that what “differentiates authority from power is the legitimacy of claims of authority. That is, there are both rights claimed by some superior authority and obligations recognized as legitimate on the part of subordinates or subjects to that authority.” Hall and Biersteker see authority as a construction, a social relation that nonstate actors can exercise in much the same way states do. The edited volume thus examines how a range of nonstate actors, including transnational criminal groups, obtain and promote their authority in certain locations. Abraham and van Schendel (2005) approach the issue of transnational crime from much the same starting point, using the “origin of regulatory authority” as a way to parse activities as “illicit” (i.e., where societies determine the legitimacy of an act) and/or “illegal” (i.e., where states determine the legitimacy of an act).

But it is Rosenau’s notion of a sphere of authority (SOA) that is the most comprehensive picture of how the trade in human beings operated as a system. According to Rosenau (1997), a SOA is a form of governance that involves “all levels of human activity – from the household to the demanding public to the international organization – that amount to systems of rule in which goals are pursued through the exercise of control.” The SOA is an institution of governance for a specific issue or phenomenon and is founded on relations between controller and controllee in a way similar to those Hall and Biersteker posit. But Rosenau goes further by including the important dimension of time. For Rosenau (1997), SOAs are borne of “regularity, a form of recurrent behavior that systematically links the efforts of controllers to the compliance of controllees through either formal or informal channels” (emphasis added). Hence, both state and/or nonstate actors collaborate over time to maintain control (i.e. authority) over a particular issue or phenomenon. Transnational crime becomes a source of private authority in local or regional areas that crowds out the state’s writ (Gambetta 1993; Shelley 1995; Varese 2005).

Yet IPE scholars have made the equally valid observation that the state is not as powerless as it might appear. States retain the power to define licit transnational business and illicit transnational crime. One of the best examples of this phenomenon in history was the state’s decision of who was deemed a privateer and who a pirate (Lowenheim 2007). States also retain the ability to regulate markets, and their regulatory decisions impact both the licit and illicit realms (Andreas 2004; Andreas and Nadelmann 2006). Some therefore assert that states are not necessarily retreating but rather are reconstituting themselves to adjust to new global realities (Andreas 1998).

One of the more sophisticated analyses of the state’s relationship to transnational crime is found in Nadelmann’s (1990) seminal concept of a prohibition regime. For Nadelmann, a prohibition regime is “a particular category of norms – those which prohibit, both in international law and in the domestic criminal laws of states, the involvement of state and nonstate actors in particular activities.” The regime serves as a mechanism by which both state and nonstate actors come to a general agreement that labels activities licit or illicit.

Prohibition regimes derive power when aligned with the state interests of the powerful, but Nadelmann notes the power derived from morality rooted in religion and humanitarianism. Hence the strong socializing processes of nonstate actors help improve compliance with prohibition regimes, creating a balance between state and nonstate actors seeking to improve authority over a certain issue (e.g., trading in slaves). Successful prohibition regimes are those that societies accept and that states, especially great powers, champion as central to their national interests. Nadelmann cites the end of the slave trade and slavery as a strong affirming case for his analysis.

The most important observation from this work is that the state is neither helpless nor retreating; it is expanding its capabilities to enforce its authority. The best exemplar of this trend is the expansion of law enforcement globally, especially by larger powers like the US (Andreas and Nadelmann 2006). The expansion of law enforcement is cited as an example of states seeking to form a universal international society grounded in largely European, cosmopolitan norms (Nadelmann 1990). The expansion has resulted, by and large, in an enhancement in US power as other states have harmonized their legal codes to resemble the US, have accepted US technical assistance and shared significant amounts of information (i.e. intelligence) with the US about transnational and other criminals (Nadelmann 1990; Andreas and Friman 1999).


A third relationship that IPE has explored to explain transnational crime is the one with societies. While this is most often the realm of sociologists and anthropologists, a number of IPE studies of transnational crime have drawn on their work or utilized IPE tools to explore the relationship. Overall, there are two ways to approach the relationship with society as it pertains to transnational crime. One is to fashion a space opening between society and the state due to either an inability of the state to extend its authority or society’s refusal to view the state as legitimate. Criminal groups insert themselves into this void, operating in place of the state and, ironically, further exacerbating the tensions between society and the state (Arlacchi 1986; Gambetta 1993; Shelley 1994; Cox 1997; Varese 2005).

The other way to approach this relationship is from the perspective of responses to transnational crime. Some have also examined the opposite of this phenomenon, noting that it is important for the state to reconstruct links with civil society in order to successfully eliminate transnational crime (Jacobs 2001). Such studies most often focus on the Antimafia movement in Sicily, a long-term movement of assorted NGOs that sought to steer civil society back to state governance and away from the criminal groups that dominated Sicily until the 1990s (Stille 1995; Jamieson 2000).

Some of the newest scholarship on transnational crime is on norms and identity from the constructivist tradition of international relations. From this perspective, transnational crime is not just a rational economic actor but also forms and reinforces long-held norms that enable the demand for their illicit goods and services. For example, transnational crime groups have continued to engage in the practice of “othering” in order to excuse the sex buying and slave employment vital to maintaining demand for trafficked persons (Picarelli 2007b). Similarly, some have explored how transnational crime reacts to civil society’s views of some laws being legitimate (and thus worth enforcing) while others are not (Abraham and van Schendel 2005). Still others have located sociocultural differences in the way that transnational crime operates worldwide (Shelley 2003).

Last, the combination of globalization and society has yielded some interesting observations from IPE scholars on transnational crime. Globalization’s spread of market forces has put pressure on traditional cultures and in some cases has severed communal ties. Transnational crime can serve as a form of resistance to the neoliberal market forces associated with globalization that threaten societal ties (Mittelman 2000). Transnational crime is thus closely associated with populations that globalization marginalizes, especially the impoverished. Other scholars have observed that globalization heightens the desire for consumer goods but does not always deliver the means to acquire them. This is a recipe for global anomie that leads some in societies to turn to transnational crime in order to acquire these goods, for it is only transnational crime that can deliver the money to access these goods (Passas 1999).

Forms of Transnational Crime

Examining specific forms of transnational crime best explains how the interconnectedness of markets, states and societies in a globalized world influences, shapes or is otherwise related to it. The literature on specific forms of transnational crime is significant enough to preclude anything more than a discussion of exemplars. In the following sections, therefore, the discussion centers on the three major categories of transnational crime: the smuggling of goods, the illicit movement of people, and the criminal financial sector. Each section examines how markets, states, societies and globalization influence the specific forms of transnational crime that fall into each category.


While estimates of the size and scope of transnational crime are dubious at best, there is little doubt that the majority of transnational crime involves the smuggling of illicit goods. Regardless of the product in question, Nadelmann (1990) lays out a compelling case for how each of the following “market sectors” followed a similar historical evolution. At some time, a combination of state institutions and moral entrepreneurs arrived at the conclusion that the harm associated with the good was worth its prohibition. The degree to which societies accepted this prohibition, and the relative cost of ease of smuggling the good across borders helped determine the size and scope of the transnational marketplace. The smuggling of goods therefore serves not only as the primary form of transnational crime but also as an excellent example of how relationships between markets, the state and society influence transnational crime.

Moreover, nothing attracts more attention than the illicit trade in drugs. Unlike other forms of smuggling, significant attention has been paid to modeling drug smuggling as an international industry (Clawson and Lee 1996; Phongpaichit et al. 1998). Like most industries, the methods of production, transportation and distribution vary according to the type of drug. This has led to studies of specific forms of drug trafficking, with marijuana, cocaine and its derivatives, heroin and other opiates, and synthetic drugs such as ecstasy and methamphetamines drawing the most studies (Clawson and Lee 1996; Zabludoff 1997; Keh and Farrell 1997; Thoumi 2003; Kenney 2007a; Marx 2008; Chin 2009).

A significant number of studies have also examined the responses to drugs, exploring the relationship of states and markets to global drug smuggling. The emphasis of these studies is often rooted in the prohibition regime concept, demonstrating that significant levels of state intervention into various drug markets has only resulted in changes in the organization and operation of these flows (Kenney 2007b). Interventions have shown little to no significant reduction in the flows (Brouchard 2007). Others have examined how drug smuggling groups have bonded with societies in states that were unable to extend their authority into rural areas or alleviate rampant poverty and other socioeconomic ills (Thoumi 2003).

Last, it is important to note that some are starting to examine the link between societies and drug smuggling. Clearly, prohibition regimes have not penetrated societies to the point where demand for drugs has lessened over time. While societal norms are but one part of the demand dynamic, a number of studies have demonstrated that norms against drug taking are powerful proscriptions against drug markets. Moreover, other studies have begun to note that criminal groups empowered through global drug smuggling tend to suffer losses in their home communities as a result. Placing profits from drug smuggling and other forms of transnational crime before tending to local issues like protection has led societies to more quickly reject crime groups in favor of the state as a source of authority (Arlacchi 1986).

Like drug smuggling, arms trafficking is a topic of significant interest for IPE researchers. Unlike drugs, however, arms trafficking has always presented a multitiered market with legal, semilegal and illegal trading schemes. The operation of the gray market for arms, wherein an arms sale is then diverted illegally to a third party such as a terrorist or insurgent group, is not unique to arms trafficking but is of significant interest not just for the complexity it adds to transnational crime but also for the aid it provides to other forms of malevolent nonstate actors (Lumpe 2000). For example, the gray market transfer of arms has garnered significant attention in the escalation of violence among and between Mexico’s drug smuggling organizations in 2008 and early 2009.

Like the drugs trade, arms trafficking is also heterogeneous in nature. The arms trade spans a wide range of lethality from small arms like handguns and assault rifles to weapon systems like helicopters and tanks and even to weapons of mass destruction like nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Each category of arms trafficking represents a different set of actors, a different challenge to the state and a different level of concern to society at large. Unlike drug trafficking, however, each form of arms trafficking has linkages to the upperworld and these linkages vary according to the type of arms smuggled. Nothing quite captures this as well as the numerous biographies and studies of the illegal arms smugglers that have thrived in the post–Cold War era (Farah and Braun 2007).

A field that is starting to draw considerable interest is the intersection of transnational crime and the environment. Early on, many of these studies focused on modeling the trade in illicit household and hazardous waste (Massari and Monzini 2004). More recently, however, studies have focused more on how transnational crime’s involvement in environmental crimes is exacerbating existing societal tensions or even strife. For example, the illegal harvesting of timber, the mining of diamonds and precious metals, and even the overfishing of waters off Africa have fueled societal conflict in Madagascar, Congo and western Africa (Duffy 2006; Boekhout van Solinge 2008; Siegel 2008). Often this literature notes the inability or unwillingness of the state to manage its natural resources, and the resulting gap between the state and civil society, as a key ingredient in environmental forms of transnational crime (Clapp 1999). For example, much of the literature on the trafficking in protected species of fauna and flora cites the state as part of the problem rather than the solution.

The international political economy of goods smuggling goes well beyond these three areas, but the level of research has not approached the levels seen in the aforementioned areas. Transnational crime remains active in the theft and sale of stolen arts and antiquities, and increasingly this form of crime is found in postconflict areas such as Iraq (Bernick 1998; Bogdanos 2005; McCalister 2005). The theft of intellectual property, either through counterfeiting of consumer items or through pirating of software and other media, remains a particularly thorny issue worldwide (McIllwain 2005). Smuggling networks that take advantage of differential tax rates on household goods such as cigarettes or fuel oil are also starting to garner significant attention as well (Griffiths 2004; von Lampe 2005). For example, the increasing interest in the Tri-Border Area of South America, centered on the Paraguayan tax-free city of Ciudad de Este, and the Transdniester region of Moldova often focus on how this form of transnational crime connects with terrorism and extremism worldwide (Costa and Schulmeister 2007; Galeotti 2004).


A second area that IPE has focused on is the illicit movement of persons worldwide. As a transnational crime, this movement takes one of two forms: trafficking or smuggling. In brief, human smuggling involves a one-time payment to a smuggler for movement into a country of destination, while human trafficking is the fraudulent recruitment of persons into a form of sexual or labor exploitation (for a more detailed definition of human smuggling in contrast to human trafficking, see Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center 2005). Both smuggling and trafficking demonstrate the same longitudinal pattern seen in the smuggling of goods (Kyle and Koslowski 2001). But while smuggling of persons to avoid border controls most closely resembles the prohibition regimes that Nadelmann and others have proffered, the trafficking in human beings for servitude connects into one of the oldest forms of transnational crime – slavery and the trade in human beings.

The development of human smuggling into a form of transnational crime has followed many of the patterns identified earlier. Some have focused on modern human smuggling as a coevolutionary process whereby increased state regulation of immigration and increased enforcement of those regulations led to greater demand for the services of smugglers, higher fees paid to smugglers and, eventually, greater levels of organization in the smuggling market (Andreas 2000). Others focus on how the push and pull factors of immigration tie into the supply and demand for human smugglers (Williams 1999). Still others examine the responsibility of some states that indirectly promote human smuggling to send laborers overseas and garner the benefits of remittances, or the demand generated from the desire for cheap labor from societies in developed states.

In the end, one quote best summarizes the complexity that IPE approaches to human smuggling have identified:

More than a subcategory of international immigration, the trade in humans and migrants is a topic that intersects contemporary anxieties concerning the global political economy, ethnic and gender stratification, multiculturalism, population growth, political corruption, transnational crime, the Internet, human rights abuses, and the (in)ability of states and global agencies to control any of these effectively.

(Kyle and Koslowski 2001:4–5)

The decisions of states to regulate the movement of people often run counter to push and pull factors strongly tied to domestic socioeconomic forces and global labor mobility. Add on top of this the variations different societies demonstrate in their willingness to accept migrants and one has a more complete picture for understanding why people are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars, euros and yen to smugglers for the chance at a better life.

Unlike any of the other forms of transnational crime explored in this essay, there is a long history of political economists providing a critical examination of slavery and the trade in human beings – the two components of what is today referred to as trafficking in human beings (van den Anker 2004a; Picarelli 2007a). Political economists generated three of the most famous studies of slavery and the slave trade. Genovese (1965) employed a Marxist interpretation of the American South as a precapitalist society wherein slaves could not sell their labor due to rules crafted by the ruling landowners (i.e. the plantation system). Genovese believed the only way the South could survive was geographic expansion of the plantation system, and thus the South’s economic development lagged behind the North’s and led to first the secession crisis and the eventual demise of the South. Likewise, Williams (1944) asserts that the slave trade was a necessary predecessor for England’s rise as an industrial power and for the development of the capitalist system through the rapid accumulation of wealth via slaveholding and the mercantilist system. Williams’s most lasting argument marks slavery’s demise not as a result of changed morality but as a function of the growing costs of maintaining slavery after the demise of the mercantilist system. Last was a study from Polanyi that argued that markets are social constructions and thus are heavily influenced by the cultures within which they are embedded (Polanyi 1944). Polanyi applied this theory to the slave trade, focusing on how cultural institutions in the African kingdom of Dahomey evolved over time and influenced the European conduct of the slave trade from the Atlantic port city of Ouidah (Polanyi 1967). Perhaps Strange (1996) captured the importance of this study best when she said, citing Polanyi, that “markets do not evolve organically, but are instead creations of vested interests exercising political power.”

Two contemporary studies of human trafficking follow in the footsteps of these master works. The first is the body of work Kevin Bales has produced. Bales has developed a model and a series of hypotheses to explain the origins and persistence of contemporary slavery through historical application (Bales 1999; 2004). In his theory, Bales concedes that the foundations of modern slavery are much the same as those of slavery in times past, and also acknowledges the need to account for social and economic forces when tracing the evolution of servitude. That said, the theory is essentially econometric, focusing on the interplay between declining costs for servitude, depressed economic progress in developing countries and increasing corruption to explain the turn to contemporary slavery. Moreover, the focus of the studies is on servitude, not the trade in human beings, which indeed he treats as an independent variable.

The other work is Le Breton’s (2003) study of slavery in the Brazilian Amazon. Her analysis begins with a brief historical trace that acknowledges the difficulty of ascertaining if slavery ever really ended in the interior of Brazil. She also notes the failure of the state to recognize prior forms of slavery as a contribution to current forms of debt bondage and peonage in the region. She then discusses the normative and economic foundations of slavery that began during the Brazilian colonial era and continue in some form today. Like Bales, however, the focus of Le Breton is servitude and not the trade in human beings per se. As such, the discussion of transportation is limited to internal movements of debt bondsmen.

Other studies of trafficking in human beings focus on socioeconomic “root causes” of the phenomenon. One such approach is to focus on models derived from microeconomic forces, like the inputs of supply and demand in a market, while others use a similar model derived from migration studies, focusing on push and pull factors (Williams 1999; Uçarer 1999). For example, Salah (2004) employs this model to explain how socioeconomic conditions, conflicts and environmental degradation lead to trafficking in sub-Saharan Africa. Other studies focus on globalization as a root cause of trafficking. For example, one study identifies globalization as exacerbating poverty and creating populations vulnerable to trafficking (van der Anker 2004b). Still others focus on trafficking as an abuse of human rights, laying blame on the unequal status of women or racial discrimination as root causes (Miller and Stewart 1998). Last are studies that model trafficking and alien smuggling as a business, focusing on the roles that different actors play to complete each type of transnational crime (Schloenhardt 1999).

Some of the more recent studies of trafficking have begun to focus on the importance of societal structure and norms on this transnational crime. Cultural foundations can serve as a way to form a typology of trafficking organizations and their behavioral traits (Shelley 2003). Others have begun to highlight the importance of enabling norms in trafficking. Dating back to the original arguments for holding Africans in a state of chattel bondage, these enabling norms have evolved over time to abet the trafficker’s enslavement of women for sexual exploitation, men for labor exploitation and numerous other permutations of this transnational crime. The contestation between these enabling norms and prohibition norms in societies are a factor in how trafficking operates in different societies globally (Picarelli 2007a).


The intersection of transnational crime and the global financial architecture has also garnered the interest of researchers. Most of this research focuses on capturing the complexity of how financial markets relate to the state, society and transnational crime. One area of particular note is the “offshore” banking system. The state’s lack of regulation defines these havens, which offer attractive levels of secrecy to a clientele larger than just transnational criminals. This analysis often connects to those who argue that states lack the ability to regulate the contemporary global financial system (Fiorentini and Peltzman 1995; Naylor 2002; Palan 2003). Interestingly, Palan notes that even in the post-9/11 world of transparency and aggressive moves against terrorist financing, the offshore realm continues to grow unabated. Others support this view of offshore, noting that licit firms and illicit transnational crime groups make financial decisions based on the options available to them (Tanzi 1997).

Money laundering has also generated significant interest among researchers. Here again there are connections to earlier themes concerning the role of the state and market forces. For example, globalization has opened the global financial infrastructure to skilled individuals, firms and criminal groups seeking to launder funds (Tanzi 1997), while states have proven unable to create a regulatory structure that fights money laundering without the voluntary cooperation of businesses and firms (Levi 1997). Some have focused on money laundering from a technocratic point of view, focusing on the mechanisms that criminals use to ensure their money is untraceable (Naylor 2002). Others look to money laundering as an imperfect term, one that captures the financial activities of not just transnational criminals but a range of actors from tax evaders to terrorists (Masciandaro 2004).

A third area of interest, financial fraud and white collar crime, again reflects the historical evolution of relationships between markets, states and societies. While an area of growing concern as transnational crimes, they are basically globalization-fueled outgrowths of more local forms of fraud that are quite old. For example, advance fee frauds and other scams existed well before the advent of the fax machine, yet it was this development that drove their classification as transnational crime since groups based in western Africa could now swindle bank accounts without traveling or meeting with victims in person (Albanese 2005).

Transnational Crime: The Broader Context

The examination of transnational crime within the IPE literature is not limited to the specific forms of criminal markets. Some IPE scholars have sought to place transnational crime into larger problems confronting the state system. Corruption is an issue that is certainly broader than just payoffs associated with criminal activity. Yet no description of corruption can avoid the impact that transnational crime has had on the practice in contemporary international politics. A similar description applies to contemporary conflict. Transnational crime is becoming a more central facet of conflict and terrorism worldwide. This section briefly explores how IPE scholars have sought to relate transnational crime to these systemic challenges.


Corruption is closely associated with transnational crime. Corruption is a topic of significant interest to IPE scholars and those in other fields. Corruption is, of course, also a very broad topic that includes studies of its operation in political, financial, military, academic, and other settings. Given the focus of this essay on transnational crime, the discussion of corruption is strictly limited to its association with transnational crime. To that end, the smuggling of goods, people and money all rely on corruption to varying degrees. For example, the role of corruption in promoting drug smuggling and human trafficking is well documented (Brophy 2008; Zhang and Pineda 2008). In these studies, corruption is more a tactic than anything else – a way for transnational criminals to obtain information about potential government actions or to acquire room to operate criminal acts.

Yet researchers have also pointed to corruption as a mechanism for linking the state and transnational crime. A “political–criminal nexus” is a merger of both, wherein it is difficult if not impossible to identify where a transnational criminal group ends and the state government begins. Reasons for such mergers include weak or nascent state institutions, authoritarian forms of governance and even certain cultural characteristics (Godson 2003). Others describe the situation as a “kleptocracy” or shadow state wherein business elites and political leaders merge and then sell the trappings of sovereignty that the state controls (e.g. trade regulation or passport issuance) to foreign firms and transnational criminals (Galeotti 1998; Perl 1998; Reno 1998; Bayart et al. 1999; Pellissery 2007).

A more penetrating analysis of corruption posited how corruption lies at the heart of links between criminal groups, political parties and business firms (della Porta and Vannucci 1999). The authors argued that there are two corruption markets in Italy, with political leaders controlling the market in the north and with a larger share of the market falling to the control of criminal groups in the south. Each market consisted of relationships between three entities – political parties, licit firms and criminal organizations. In each market, crime groups offered politicians political violence for dispute settlement, including intimidation by reputation alone; protection of political agreements (e.g. maintaining coalitions); and provision of votes. Crime groups also provided services to businesses, helping deter defection from cartels and protecting privileged information in return for money or access to corrupt politicians that can grant impunity. Politicians used public contracts as a resource for providing payments to crime groups for their services and payments to businessmen for blocs of votes. In short, corruption acted as the glue that held together a political–business–criminal nexus in Italy.

Transnational Crime, Conflict and Terrorism

The examination of transnational crime is not limited only to the direct forms of criminal activity that span borders. Some of the most recent studies of transnational crime focus on how it intersects with other areas of concern for international relations. Two prominent examples of this work are transnational crime’s relationships with conflict and with terrorism.

Transnational crime is now a regular fixture in contemporary conflict. Crime and organized crime are fixtures in almost every war. The breakdown of authority in conflict zones lends itself to a concomitant breakdown of the rule of law. But more recent conflicts have seen a marked difference in how crime and conflict relate. Rather than viewing crime as the result of conflict, IPE scholars are now looking at transnational crime as a central player within conflict (Looney 2005; Picarelli and Williams 2005; Andreas 2008). For example, Andreas (2008) argues that were it not for well-organized smuggling networks, the city of Sarajevo was sure to have fallen to the Serbian forces blockading the city in the mid-1990s. Moreover, transnational crime is also a significant issue for those seeking to instill peace and reconstruct war-ravaged regions of the globe (Picarelli and Williams 2005). Jung (2003), for example, makes the observation that transnational crime is one of the linkages between zones of peace in developed states and zones of conflict in developing states. The corruption of military forces and the resulting link to transnational criminals further complicates this process (Turbiville 1995).

Another area of growth is the examination of linkages between transnational crime and terrorism. Most studies of the phenomenon have concluded that such linkages are often ad hoc linkages for mutual benefit and do not last for long due to the different motives of criminal and terrorist organizations (Picarelli 2006). This “methods not motives” approach does hold true in the vast majority of empirical cases. Yet more recent IPE studies have found significantly more complexity in this relationship, wherein some crime and terror groups find more lasting relationships based on antipathy to the state and more politicized outlooks on the part of criminals (Picarelli 2006).

Future Research Directions

The application of international political economy to transnational crime has yielded a number of important observations. Complementing the work of security scholars who have provided significant analysis of crime groups and their relationship to the state, political economists have been able to locate the current forms of transnational crime in larger evolutionary patterns. By highlighting the importance of states, societies and market forces in the behavior and evolution of different forms of transnational crime, this research has been able to provide a more complete understanding of transnational crime.

IPE’s approach to transnational crime is an example of how academic studies that grasp complexity rather than seek parsimony can yield improved understandings of international phenomena. IPE’s approach to transnational crime has led to powerful lenses on transnational crime. Prohibition regimes help to explain not just the growth of transnational crime but also other forms of international regulation such as the ban on whaling. The IPE approach also allows for a better picture of how regulations might spawn unintended consequences. The importance of authority in international relations goes well beyond transnational crime as well, but the latter serves as an empirical case for understanding how the balance of authority between states and nonstate actors is evolving.

The impact of political economists is not limited to the academy, however. The advent of the Obama administration has led to a reevaluation of drug policy in the US that reflects some of the core tenets of IPE research. For example, New York State is revising its harsh Rockefeller laws on drugs based in part on research that has demonstrated that shifting resources away from supply interdiction to demand reduction would yield a greater impact on drug flows in the state. Moreover, a recent meeting between the US and Mexican Attorneys General resulted in calls not only for coordination in fighting drug flows but also increased attention to the flows of arms flowing south from the US into Mexico, a recognition that the political economy of northern Mexico’s drug smuggling into the US is more complex than once thought.

In the end, transnational crime remains a growth industry that continues to evolve and poses a series of questions that scholars and practitioners still cannot answer. This essay has demonstrated that IPE provides a series of tools that can help close these gaps and bring scholars and practitioners the answers they need to better understand this and similar phenomena.


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Transcrime. At, accessed Jul. 2009. Through an integrated approach that involves many disciplines (such as criminology, law, economics, statistics, sociology, and psychology), Transcrime (a joint research center on transnational crime between the Università degli Studi di Trento and the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan) aims to analyze trends in transnational crime. Particular focus is given to the local, national and transnational dimensions in which they expand, evaluations of whether crime reduction strategies work, and identification of solutions to improve the effectiveness and the efficiency of such strategies.

Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center. At, accessed Jul. 2009. TraCCC, at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University, is the first center in the US devoted to understanding the links among terrorism, transnational crime and corruption, and to teach, research, train and help formulate policy on these critical issues. TraCCC accomplishes its mission through international research partnerships engaging in fundamental and applied research projects.

Transparency International. At, accessed Jul. 2009. TI is a global network including more than 90 locally established national chapters and chapters-in-formation. These bodies fight corruption in the national arena in a number of ways. They bring together relevant players from government, civil society, business, and the media to promote transparency in elections, in public administration, in procurement and in business. TI’s global network of chapters and contacts also use advocacy campaigns to lobby governments to implement anticorruption reforms.

Standing Group on Organised Crime of the European Consortium for Political Research. At, accessed Jul. 2009. The group is dedicated to the study of organized crime and acts as a central focus for European, American and other transnational crime researchers, as well as providing an umbrella for common activities and projects across disciplines. The standing group helps facilitate the development of theoretical approaches as well as in-depth studies of empirical examples, networks members, and creates fruitful exchanges between disciplines with a regular flow of information on projects, etc.