James Cockayne, John de Boer & Louise Bosetti

Going straight: Criminal Spoilers, Gang Truces and Negotiated Transitions to Lawful Order

Changing Nature of Conflict | April 27, 2017 |

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UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

This post is a summary of a thematic report published as part of UNU-CPR’s Crime-Conflict Nexus Series

In a new UNU-CPR paper, James Cockayne, John de Boer and Louise Bosetti consider the role of negotiation in contexts where crime and conflict intersect. They examine negotiations between State actors and more traditional armed groups with criminal agendas as well as non-traditional negotiations involving State actors and criminal gangs (e.g. gang truces). The paper produces insights on the conditions that facilitate and spoil negotiated agreements where criminal agendas are involved and provides options for negotiators and mediators to consider when dealing with criminal agendas.

Criminal Agendas and Peace Negotiations

Organized crime and violent conflict can be linked in various ways. Where groups with criminal agendas develop governmental power over local markets, populations or territories, negotiations may be necessary to find ways to alter the situation. In such situations, negotiations can either work through coercion or find ways to compensate for the political and social capital derived from criminal activity through inducements. To be sustainable, any resulting agreement may also have to set in motion social, economic, or political reforms that alter the conditions that enabled armed groups to extract political and social benefits from criminal activity in the first place.

From Afghanistan to Colombia and Myanmar, labour-intensive illicit economies (drug cultivation, illicit mining or logging) have led to considerable political instability and violence. At the same time, they have also sustained the livelihoods of many impoverished communities who possess no viable alternatives.  Likewise, in countries such as El Salvador and Honduras, entering the “criminal economy” can be the only means of survival. Groups that control these illicit markets can prosper economically, but can also accrue political and social capital by establishing market rules, setting community norms and resolving disputes that emerge within the community. In some cases, this rudimentary ‘governmental’ power is the basis for which criminal groups develop capacities to influence formal political systems. Armed groups with criminal agendas often combine their street muscle and cashflow with political coercion to influence political actors, electoral processes and institutions of governance with long-term corrosive consequences.

To effectively deal with such groups, modern day negotiators and mediators need a clear and evidence-based understanding of how to effectively address criminal agendas and convince criminal actors to transition into the lawful order. Evidence suggests that inducement strategies may work, but only in quite particular circumstances. Creating and maintaining those circumstances, and exploiting them, will require particular forms of support from the international community, including bolstered political will, negotiation expertise, and specific coercion capabilities. In other cases, criminal agendas are more likely to be overcome through longer-term socialization strategies that transform the material incentives and normative order within the group with the criminal agenda. This will require quite distinct forms of support.

An additional point highlighted in this inquiry is that dealing with criminal agendas requires foresight. Criminal agendas evolve and adapt constantly. As a consequence, successful negotiations require planning not just for criminal agendas that can be identified today, but for those that can be expected tomorrow.

This material has been funded by UK aid from the UK government; however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.

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