Small Wars Journal

Illicit Structures of Power

Mon, 03/06/2017 - 9:14am

Illicit Structures of Power: What is Done and What Should be Done?

Insights Into Political-Criminal Nexuses

Magdalena Defort

“The main foundations which all states, whether they are new or old or mixed, must have a good laws and good armies; and because these cannot be good laws without good armies, and where there are good armies there must be good laws.”[1]

“He who obtains the principality with the aid of the magnate, maintain his position with greater difficulty than he who obtains it with the aid of people…”[2]


Corruption and the formation of Illicit Structures of Power (ISP) are critical issues deserving examination.  Therefore, this essay seeks to identify ways which the state and its institutions can strengthen its landpower through understanding corruption, illicit networks, and their effects on governance and security. Such understanding can enable security structures that can counter weak state pathologies and their corrosive effects. This essay aims to inform recommendations for how the Army and other military and security forces can interact with civil institutions to address asymmetric threats related to endemic corruption. As a consequence, the erosion of state institutions and emergence of activities of non-state armed actors (insurgency, radicalized extremists and civil wars) result in the convergence of crime and war. This extreme violence threatens security at local (municipal), national, regional, and global levels. The Illicit Structures of Power’s activities must be discussed in terms of corrupt networks, state transition, and public perceptions of legitimacy.


The conception of illicit activities as a phenomenon unique to the underworld is an illusion according to Moíses Naím.[3] Global criminal activities are creating new norms, new players, and, at the same time, are reconfiguring power and economy on both national and international levels. Criminal groups traditionally rely upon the state because of its monopoly on armed forces and justice, which guarantees their protection. From this perspective, criminal organizations come from outside and modify a situation that should be acceptable to democratic institutions. However, in some cases, the security agents (i.e., the police, armed forces, intelligence agencies) or government personnel (i.e., leaders, municipal official and provincial governors) cooperate with criminal organizations and perform or enable the criminal activities required in order to maintain power.  As a consequence, the state morphs into a criminal organization and not the inverse. This phenomenon could be called a “virtual state-mafia” in which institutional activities are inter-connected with criminal ones.  In general terms, the nexus between illicit wealth and political power defines the Illegal Structures of Power (ISP). They are built and cemented through the criminal activities of state groups (security forces and policy makers), non-state armed actors (paramilitary forces, warlords), and criminal organizations (illegal traffickers, mafias, and gangs). Illegal wealth plays an important role in fighting for maintenance of illegal political power that it is managed by ISPs. This faculty can survive because of the violent repressions and patronage activities which constitute an engine of criminalization of both public and private sectors. In addition, ISPs can capture the state or they can act as its violent opposition.

According to Naím, “the national borders create the opportunity for smuggling networks and weaken nation-states by limiting their curb [on] the onslaughts of the global networks that hurt their economies, corrupt their politics, and undermine their institutions.”[4] For example, on the borders between countries, e.g., Colombia and Venezuela where the elite originated from the powerful trafficking of gasoline the illegal economy created new politics in the twenty-first century. Other groups who are a base for illicit networks are the paramilitary and guerillas. These non-state armed actors have a long history of activity in regions such as Latin America, the Middle East or North Africa.

In Colombia, for example, the state and paramilitary actors formed a spider’s web of criminal relations and dependencies with the emergence of Colombia’s Bandas Criminales (BACRIM) in 2006, the descendants of the now formally demobilized paramilitary groups. BACRIM emerged from the Colombian Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) and today these gangs form a new cadre of organized crime in Colombia.  For example, Águilas Negras and Rastrarojos represent new paramilitary actors. This illicit structure of power (the intimate ties of a paramilitary group with government representatives) based on mutual dependencies is known as the “parapolitics” that exists in “democracies” where the criminal organizations support the political candidates for local or federal posts, who after being elected return the favor to their criminal advocates.

Colombia is one of the Latin American countries where the “parapolitics” nests alongside conventional politics. In addition, these small but equal violent groups build a web of criminal relations with the Venezuelan irregular forces (guerillas) that are part of the Venezuelan National Guards. According to Claudia López, an expert in paramilitarism, every structure that manages a criminal organization with global character has to have four pillars: economic, armed, political and social. Organized crime needs the state to exist.[5]

In weak states where criminality and power are becoming legitimized, the leaders gain their authority when the political scenarios create a suitable ground for its development. For example, a leader gains power during the country’s regime change.  Mohamed Morsi, from a radical political wing known as the “Muslim Brotherhood,” came to power following the Egyptian Revolution in 2011.  However, this political solution didn’t succeed as there was an increase of rampant violence in the streets.  Morsi was removed from the post by the military in 2013.  In other cases, the military intervenes in the state system built on corruption and the power vacuum is filled by actors supported by a criminal (network) web. For example, today, the Iraqi government is unable to consolidate its institutions and perform its authority in many issues, e.g., fighting terrorism. The Iraqi government is portrayed as a mafia network and illegal economy. Currently, it is not a long-term political strategy to maintain stability in Iraq after the war. For example, reconciliation among the disgruntled tribesmen is needed. A diplomatic presence should replace the boots on the ground to achieve peace.

In general terms, the criminal groups set up the alliances with the political parties and the state sectors. By doing so, they are providing benefits for the marginalized communities that the state had never done. There is a phenomenon of dichotomy. For example, in Latin America organized crime is embedded in the society and has become parallel to power. The interests of the state’s agents overlap with those of the criminal groups. The power is shared between politicians and politicized criminals. They learn how to manage, e.g. manipulating local elections to gain the legitimacy within society. The provision of social services to the marginalized communities is one of the forms used to gain legitimacy (social banditry).[6]

Preventing the formation and spread of ISPs requires the collaborative actions of a number of civil agencies and is a key strategic issue. Indeed, the Army can aid whole of government political efforts to eradicate corruption by setting conditions of security corruption and, as a result, limit the exploitation of a population by a poor or self-interested leader (warlord or capo). If the Army doesn’t respond adequately, serious problems arise: “…if the arising evils are discerned from far off (something which only the prudent are able to do), they are soon dealt with; but if they have not been discerned, but allowed to grown until everyone sees them, there is no longer any remedy.”[7] Without doubt, a comprehensive understanding of the ISPs’ nature and their erosive effects assure the Army of its real landpower and leadership in countering corrosive corruption and criminal threats to the state.

Effective strategic recommendations for how an Army can be in a better position to engage in interagency collaboration to address ISPs requires an understanding of their formation, development, and spread. Recognizing the military capacity and Constitutional framework for civil-military interactions is essential. A strong look at where the military institution fails in its understanding of the issue will be a driving needle in finding the adequate and effective strategies to target the weak states’ pathologies. Red teaming the ISP and scope of corruption and criminal threats is essential. What procedures might the Army (and its military and police partners) consider to react to avoid a growth and spread of ISP? Which are conditions prone to incubate corruption and its pathologies (criminal insurgents, traditional insurgents, revolutionary, and terrorist cells)?


This essay explored several representative ISP mechanisms in different regions in order to inform strategic recommendations to enhance critical capabilities so that strategies for combatting the ISP’s threat to national and international. To achieve it, the Army should engage academia and research centers toward collaborate research into the dynamics of corruption and state transformation. Network analysis, ethnographic and criminological studies are necessary to explore the human terrain and conflict environment.[8]  This will likely require interaction with the populace in the affected regions (interviews or inquiries). An in-depth knowledge of the political, security, and criminal scenarios at work in a country or region is crucial.  Developing effective and Constitutional roles for military participation in addressing hybrid criminal threats is imperative. This must address the interaction of military and civil justice in support of civil juridical structure and due process.

The centers and academia looking at mechanisms of corruption and ISPs should include military officers along with civil police and government officials. As a classic military strategist, Niccolò Machiavelli, outlined: “He (military man) should educate himself in them more in peace than in the time of war; this can be done in two ways-one by military exercise, the other by thought and study.”[9] Conversely, in the twenty-first century, the Army as a learning institution should open its doors to civil researchers and scholars. To assure the Army’s landpower, the civil-military collaboration is crucial in understanding and targeting a problem.

The Army is frequently deployed as the contingent forces to the regions with ISP where their effects are visible (e.g., insurgency in Afghanistan). Therefore, this party having direct access to gather intelligence on if illicit revenues played a role in fueling the conflict and pursuit of power in order to take a correct decision whenever the international intervention is needed. It is worth mentioning that determining if main state institutions are potentially part of the solution or if they were captured by the IPS. In case of their politicization, e.g., Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Forces (Quds Forces) or the Bolivarian Armed Forces (Venezuela), the appropriate strategy would avoid launching a massive capacity building program. In post-conflict or post-intervention settings, e.g. Iraq, it is strongly recommended to engage the civil organizations at both national and international level to assist with capacity building and assuring electoral processes while monitoring and supporting the rule of law and corruption-cleaning.  Avoiding the capture of new or reformed state institutions and humanitarian aid and development by criminal enterprises and renewing corruption is imperative.


A comprehensive understanding and in-depth knowledge of mechanism of corruption and the role of ISPs is an essential element of an Army’s landpower.  Understanding these illicit networks and mechanisms of criminal power and corruption are essential to ensuring security and containing conflict. Conflict early warning is a starting point for avoidance of crime wars and criminal crises and conflicts. Warning combined with early action, through intelligence and information sharing are the most effective strategies to avoid the formation, development and spread of the ISP.

End Notes

[1] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, (London: One World Classic, 2009), 36.

[2] Ibidem, 29.

[3] Moíses Naím, Illicit. How Smuggles, Traffickers and Copycats are Hijacking the Global Economy, (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 4-5.

[4] Ibidem, 6.

[5] HispanTV, “Paramilitares en Colombia:Águilas Negras - Parte 2.” YouTube. 14 September 2012,

[6] See John P. Sullivan, “Criminal Insurgency: Narcocultura, Social

Banditry, and Information Operations.” Small Wars Journal. 3 December 2012,

[7] Machiavelli, op.cit. 10.

[8] See for example Luis Jorge Garay-Salamanca abd Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán, Eds., Drug Trafficking, Corruption and States: How Illicit Networks Shaped Institutions in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico—A Small Wars Journal-El Centro and Vortex Foundation Book, (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2015).

[9] Machiavelli, op.cit. 44.


Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. Magdalena Defort served as an Intern Analyst at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies and as a Research Fellow at the Center for a Free and Secure Society. She recently received a master’s degree in National Security from the David Morgan Graduate School of National Security. She previously served  as a Scholar/Researcher in Latin American security issues at the University of Miami, Coral Gables where she directed an interdisiplinary research group on Latin American issues.. She holds a Ph.D. from the Universidad National Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM) and master’s degree from Universytet Wroclawski (Poland). She participated in post–doctoral studies at the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales (UNAM). Magdalena is the author of five books and various articles published in scholarly journals. Defort’s research interests include terrorism, drug trafficking, insurgencies, civil-military relations in Latin America and military collaborations in countering the new threats in the Americas.