New Book Explores Organized Crime as Political Strategists

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A new book by an Australian strategist explores the overlap between criminal activities and political strategy, in wide-ranging study that moves from the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico to the Cosa Nostra in Sicily to the various illegal actors in Mali.

James Cockayne’s Hidden Power: The Strategic Logic of Organized Crime opens with a memorable and instructive vignette, about a fictionalized Russian who is simultaneously a government official, a prominent businessman, and a leading figure in organized crime.

Based on the Congressional testimony of a former CIA director, this may be an extreme example of the overlap between legal and illegal spaces, but the story’s implications — that the distinction between legitimate society and organized crime is a false one — reflects a longstanding reality in many parts of the world. A secondary implication of this story, that organized crime groups employ a wide variety of politically-minded strategies, is the chief focus of this new work.

Over the course of 300-plus pages, Cockayne digs into a series of different episodes that illustrate various criminal groups’ pursuit of sundry strategies at various points in time. To that end, Cockayne provides lively histories of organized crime’s associations with Tammany Hall, the New York City political machine of the 19th century; the origins of the New York Cosa Nostra in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the US Navy’s collaboration with the New York mob during World War II; the Italian mafia’s role following the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943; and the mafia’s invasion of and subsequent expulsion from Cuba during the mid-20th century.

Cockayne closes with briefer looks at two contemporary examples of organized crime mixing with political aims: Mexican drug traffickers and the criminal groups and insurgents in Mali, a key weigh station for Europe-bound cocaine, that contributed to the collapse of the government in 2013.

Hidden Power’s thesis is that criminal groups, from the 19th century Italian mafia to the drug traffickers of today in Mali and Mexico, often participate in what Cockayne terms the market for government, by which he means they seek to strategically bend governments to their interests. He offers six models for how they seek to appropriate functions of government: intermediation, in which criminal groups corrupt certain portions of government as needed; criminal autonomy, in which groups carve out spaces for their own absolute control; de facto mergers with government agencies; strategic alliances, in which a gang will ally with a government against a common enemy; terrorism; and the so-called “blue ocean” strategy of strategic relocation.

The book contains examples of each strategy. Per Cockayne, the Zetas in northeastern Mexico represents an attempt to create criminal autonomy. The mob’s move from Havana to the Bahamas following the Cuban Revolution is an example of the blue ocean approach. When it supported the Allied invasion of Sicily, aimed at throwing the fascists off the island, the mafia employed a strategic alliance.

The strict categorizations can seem a bit forced at times, but the most important insight underlying these models is the mere observation that criminal groups can be highly sophisticated in pursuing their political agenda. Not surprisingly, they employ a wide range of tactics in pursuit of their strategic ends. Like a business, criminal groups often employ persistent public relations campaigns, which is all the more noteworthy because their activities require some degree of secrecy. Cockayne compares their political strategizing to a company’s hedging in its investments, while its attempts to win control over government is not entirely unlike legitimate lobbying. As with a company, criminal groups seek not to usurp the government, they just want the privileges of controlling government decisions on issues of strategic importance without the burden of assuming all state functions.

The research leads Cockayne to a signal observation about state responses to politically-minded criminal groups: Much of the fight is a battle for social legitimacy, but the government spends most of its time focusing on interdiction and law enforcement, which have only a marginal impact on the issue of legitimacy. He ultimately spends only a few pages sketching out recommendations for state policies, and they inevitably lack the details of his examinations of Castro’s impact on Cuban gambling syndicates. But the recommendations — including vastly improving the anticorruption mechanisms in security agencies, developing stronger ways to measure the risk posed by organized crime, and increasing the emphasis on the government’s strategic communications — are uniformly wise and sadly absent in much of Latin America.

Cockayne’s nuanced description of the array of political strategies that criminal groups pursue serves as a bridge between theorists who would apply a counterinsurgency approach to Mexico and other violent nations on the one hand, and analysts who maintain that criminal violence is a challenge fundamentally different from that of a rebel group.

While its historical sections are eminently readable, Hidden Power turns into a bit of a slog when Cockayne turns his attentions to the strategic models. A conspicuous and admirable quantity of research from an extremely eclectic group of sources went into this book, but occasionally the prose turns into a recitation of prior studies, without a sufficient sense of what they have to do with the world today. Similarly, while discussing his theses, Cockayne’s prose is often overly wordy, with needlessly complex syntax obscuring the thrust of his observations.

One can also make a case that, while discussing the political motivations of criminal groups, Cockayne overlooks the profit motive. This is apparently not an accident, but rather a conscious decision; the author includes a vivid description from Sicilian mafioso Francisco Marino Mannoia about the appeal of his life not being the money he made, but the respect he was shown. Although the intrinsic appeal of an outlaw lifestyle is often overlooked, the raison d’etre of organized crime groups remains material advancement far more often than not.

But whatever its weaker points, Hidden Power is a well-sourced, thoughtful tome filled with useful insights. It offers nuance and originality while addressing a topic too often overrun with derivative fear-mongering.

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