March 2, 2012
Organized crime and illegal economies generate multiple threats to states and societies. They often threaten public safety, at times even national security. Extensive illicit economies can compromise the political systems by increasing corruption and penetration by criminal entities, undermine the legal economies, and eviscerate their judicial and law enforcement capacity.
Yet, although the negative effects of high levels of pervasive street and organized crime on human security are clear, the relationships between human security, crime, illicit economies, and law enforcement are highly complex. Human security includes not only physical safety from violence and crime, but also economic safety from critical poverty, social marginalization, and fundamental under-provision of elemental social and public goods such as infrastructure, education, health care, and rule of law. By sponsoring illicit economies in areas of state weakness where legal economic opportunities and public goods are seriously lacking, both belligerent and criminal groups frequently enhance some elements of human security of those marginalized populations who depend on illicit economies for basic livelihoods, even while compromising other aspects of their human security. At the same time, simplistic law enforcement measures can and frequently do further degrade human security. These pernicious dynamics become especially severe in the context of violent conflict. Thus even criminal groups without a political ideology often have an important political impact on the lives of communities and on their allegiance to the state. They also often have political agendas, even without having an ideology. Effective state response to intense organized crime and illicit economies usually requires that the state address all the complex reasons why populations turn to illegality, including law enforcement deficiencies and physical insecurity, economic poverty, and social marginalization.
Vanda Felbab-Brown is a Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, in the 21st Century Defense Initiative and the Latin America Initiative. She is an expert on international and internal conflicts and their management, including counterinsurgency. She focuses on the interaction between illicit economies and military conflict, particularly in South Asia, Burma, the Andean region, Mexico, and Somalia.
Dr. Felbab-Brown is the author of Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs, which examines military conflict and illegal economies in Colombia, Peru, Afghanistan, Burma, Northern Ireland, India, and Turkey. She has conducted fieldwork in some of the most dangerous parts of the world, including in Afghanistan, Burma, Colombia, and Mexico. A frequent commentator in U.S. and international media, Dr. Felbab-Brown regularly testifies on these issues in the U.S. Congress. She received her Ph.D. in political science from MIT and her B.A. from Harvard University.
Dr. Felbab-Brown is also the author of numerous policy reports, academic articles, and opinion pieces, including "The Crucibles and Dilemmas of U.S. State-Building in Afghanistan," South Asia Journal (January 2012); "Bringing the State to the Slum: Confronting Organized Crime and Urban Violence in Latin America," Brookings (December 2011); "Calderon’s Caldron: Lessons from Mexico’s Battle against Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, and Michoacan,” Brookings (September 2011); "Not as Easy as Falling off a Log: The Illegal Timber Trade in the Asia-Pacific Region and Possible Mitigation Strategies," Brookings (2011); "The Disappearing Act: The Illicit Trade in Wildlife in Asia," Brookings (2011); "Deterring Non-state Actors," in U.S. Nuclear and Extended Deterrence: Consideration and Challenges, Brookings (2010); "Why Legalization in Mexico is not a Panacea for Reducing Violence and Suppressing Organized Crime," Brookings (2010); "Negotiations and Reconciliation with the Taliban: Key Policy Issues and Dilemmas," Brookings (2010); and "The Drug Economy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Security in the Region," The National Bureau of Asian Research (December 2009).