Books: Cross-border conspiracies

This book blames globalisation for the criminal trade in everything from sex and drugs to money laundering and arms, but offers no solutions, says Howard Marks.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Terrorists, cocaine dealers and sex-slave traders use web-based e-mail, high street internet cafes and disposable cell phones. Chinese military officers control DVD piracy rings. North African human traffickers own complexes of condominiums in Spain.

Heroin smugglers operate banks in Cyprus. New cars are made with flawed counterfeit parts. Rat poison is sold on the net as an aphrodisiac. The illegal markets for organ transplants and endangered species are constantly increasing, as is every type of criminal activity. Governments are unable to slow down the trend.

Growing opium poppies in Afghanistan or copying Harry Potter movies in Far East sweatshops costs very little. If the finished product is worth much more in Western capitals, there will be a market, no matter what dangers are involved.

According to Moises Naim, former minister of industry and trade for Venezuela, editor of Foreign Policy magazine and author of Illicit, no government can 'stand between millions of customers desperate to buy and millions of merchants desperate to sell'. He blames globalisation for this worrying state of affairs.

Marshall McLuhan coined the term 'global village' in the 1960s to express his belief in the unifying power of electronic communication. Modern communication technologies and transport techniques have allowed sophisticated distribution networks to develop, which, in turn, have been exploited by the increased movement of people across national frontiers, the abolition of exchange controls and the lowering of tariffs.

The internet, originally an academic communal medium for sharing information, quickly became a tool by which international corporations could market their information products throughout the world. For Naim, this has been globalisation's real and most significant beginning.

Globalisation has clearly bestowed massive benefits on legitimate commerce, but it has been even more effective at promoting illicit trade. The factors that allow supermarkets to put Chinese-made appliances in their trolleys at very low prices have created an uncontrollable tsunami of crime, and increasing wealth has stimulated consumer demand for poached ivory, prostitutes and drugs, as much as it has for automobiles and electronics.

Naim explains how globalisation aids organised cross-border smuggling.

Currently accounting for 10% of the world economy, smuggling networks exploit the differences between the legal systems of states (as do international corporations), as well as frequently corrupting their governments. They meet the world's demand for drugs, undocumented workers, weapons, stolen intellectual property and money laundering, and they view terrorists as allies fighting for freedom from state control.

These networks intertwine invisibly with legitimate commerce and effortlessly convert their illicit economic strength into political power; in some cases (eg, Peru), they effectively acquire battered countries and turn them into wholly-owned subsidiaries.

Relying heavily on newspaper clippings and official reports but largely devoid of original reporting or research, Illicit details the depth and intractability of the problems. Naim's solutions range from generating sufficient political will among the countries affected to giving their law enforcement authorities the technological upper hand in legalising the drug trade, prostitution and the employment of migrant workers.

The first suggestion is naive. The US, the world's only superpower and the largest market for goods and services in the world, is reluctant to co-operate with other governments. During a UN conference in 2001 on illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, the US refused to restrict sales to 'non-state actors' because it would violate its own Second Amendment.

The US has also refused to sign the Basel Convention, which puts limits on the trade of hazardous waste.

Second, Naim forgets his own important point that criminal technology keeps abreast with that of law enforcement (illustrated perfectly by his most interesting account of Pakistan's AQ Khan). Here, he has my wholehearted agreement. Why not legitimise trade among willing participants rather than try to stop it? Does a country have a right to tax and control all trade just because it so desires? Cannot one choose one's own medicine or poison?

It is time we forgot moral denunciations about sex and dope, and concentrated on eliminating the most harmful trades, such as nuclear proliferation or large-scale trafficking in women and children.

Illicit Moises Naim William Heinemann £12.99 MT price £10.99 To order, visit

- Howard Marks is a reformed drug smuggler; his autobiography Mr Nice was published in 1996.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Public failure can be the best thing that happens to you

But too often businesses stigmatise it.

Andrew Strauss: Leadership lessons from an international cricket captain

"It's more important to make the decision right than make the right decision."

Ranked: Britain's best-run companies

These are the businesses rated top by their peers for their quality of management.

Unconscious bias in action

Would you dislike someone just because they’re from the Forest of Dean?

I ran Iceland's central bank in 2009. Here's what I learned about crisis ...

And you thought your turnaround was tricky.

"It's easy to write a cheque you don't have to cash for 30 ...

But BP's new CEO has staked his legacy on going green.