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Organized crime and illegal economies generate multiple threats to states and societies. But 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. 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 the marginalized populations who depend on illicit economies for basic livelihoods.
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. Criminal groups also have political agendas. Both belligerent and criminal groups can develop political capital through their sponsorship of illicit economies. The extent of their political capital is dependent on several factors.
Efforts to defeat belligerent groups by decreasing their financial flows through suppression of an illicit economy are rarely effective. Such measures, in turn, increase the political capital of anti-State groups.
The effectiveness of anti-money laundering measures (AML) also remains low and is often highly contingent on specific vulnerabilities of the target. The design of AML measures has other effects, such as on the size of a country’s informal economy.
Multifaceted anti-crime strategies that combine law enforcement approaches with targeted socio-economic policies and efforts to improve public goods provision, including access to justice, are likely to be more effective in suppressing crime than tough nailed-fist approaches. For anti-crime policies to be effective, they often require a substantial, but politically-difficult concentration of resources in target areas. In the absence of effective law enforcement capacity, legalization and decriminalization policies of illicit economies are unlikely on their own to substantially reduce levels of criminality or to eliminate organized crime.
Effective police reform, for several decades largely elusive in Latin America, is one of the most urgently needed policy reforms in the region. Such efforts need to be coupled with fundamental judicial and correctional systems reforms. Yet, regional approaches cannot obliterate the so-called balloon effect. If demand persists, even under intense law enforcement pressures, illicit economies will relocate to areas of weakest law enforcement, but they will not be eliminated.
Felbab-Brown, Vanda, "Human Security and Crime in Latin America: The political Capital and Political Impact of Criminal Groups and Belligerents Involved in Illicit Economies" (2011). Western Hemisphere Security Analysis Center. 40.
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