What I Learnt from Arms Trafficking, Drug Smuggling, and Oil Stealing that Can Help Europe Tackle People Smuggling

Long read

David Nyheim, Chief Executive of ECAS and Managing Partner and Chairman of INCAS Consulting Ltd. (Malta).

A picture from ECAS work on condensate bunkering in the Niger Delta in 2007.

A picture from ECAS work on condensate bunkering in the Niger Delta in 2007.

Some time back, I met with some European Union (EU) officials on efforts to manage the flow of refugees to Europe from North Africa and the Middle East. Aside from rescue efforts, the EU has focused much of its attention on the people smugglers that prey on refugees. EU governments have also rushed to fund academia, think tanks, and consultancies such as ours to build an understanding of people smuggling operations in Libya and elsewhere. The thinking is to develop sufficient insight to effectively disrupt the operations of people smugglers; and thus reduce refugee flows to Europe.

There are a few challenges with this approach. An obvious one is the limited attention given to the war-affected environments that enable people smuggling groups to thrive. Attention further down the causal chain, to the factors that drive people to leave their countries of origin for safety in the first place also does not figure much in EU discourse on strategy.

So what’s the solution? Well, here’s another problem. There are no easy solutions. What you would do in an ideal world is to tackle what causes people to embark on the perilous journey to Europe (such as the war in Syria), strengthen peace, law and order (in places like Libya) to restrict the activities of people smugglers, and then actively disrupt what’s left of the people smuggling operations themselves. That’s a big bite off any apple; and the appetite of many European governments is reportedly not that great.

“Enough about the problems”, my esteemed EU colleagues said. “Tell us what you’ve learnt from your work on dealing with drug smuggling, weapons trafficking, and illegal oil bunkering in war-affected countries.” Good question. Dealing with criminal activities and groups in war-affected areas is probably the most complicated work you can do in the business of making peace. But although there’s no one formula or blue print for doing it, there are some basic steps that you must take to understand what you’re dealing with and to inform strategy.

My brilliant colleague, Anton Ivanov, and I collected our thoughts last year, consulted with a few other colleagues who have also worked on stabilising areas affected by criminalised violent conflict (that’s the jargon for areas where there’s war and a lot of organised criminal activity going on), and pulled together a how-to guide on analysis and strategy. It’s an e-book (on Amazon) called Stabilising Areas Affected by Criminalised Violent Conflict: A Guide for Analysis and Strategy, but we’re now making it available for free as a PDF on the ECAS website.

So here’s what I said on what I’ve learnt from drug smuggling, weapons trafficking, and oil stealing, specifically when it comes to developing strategy to fight people smuggling in war-affected places. There are nine analytical steps involved and a few strategy-related ones, too.

Step 1: Is it criminal or is it political? Revisiting how the problem is defined It is often tempting to focus on the ‘crime’ dimensions of conflict when criminal or quasi-criminal/insurgent groups are numerous and active. However, once a problem is defined as ‘crime’, it narrows the scope of actions you can undertake and precludes other ways of understanding the issues. Indeed, in many cases today, it is possible to argue that the problem of ‘criminalised violent conflict’ is not a crime problem, but one with strong political dimensions, where, for example, money from criminal activities is used to fund election campaigns.

Step 2: War necessities: Money, firepower, and people. Where’s the criminal interface? Violent conflicts become possible when there are certain basics in place; the money to finance fighting, a pool of (often under-employed or unemployed young) people who can be recruited to fight, weapons to fight with, and pretexts for the use of violence. We call this the ‘infrastructure of violence’ and it is in this ‘infrastructure’ that you’ll find the links (often in finance for armed groups and trafficking of weapons) between organised crime and violent conflict.

Step 3: Who is who and who is doing what? The relationships between criminal and political armed groups 
 Armed groups cost money – and many political armed groups (‘freedom fighters’, included) will therefore set up income streams related to crime. At the same time, individual combatants often hold multiple armed group memberships – and use their weapons for a range of purposes, including political and criminal ones. Getting to grips with these multiple identities and relationships between groups is tricky but important.

Step 4: It’s not only about greed; there’s grievance too
 Organised criminal activities in conflict areas often have roots in grievances. Understanding these grievances and how an organised criminal activity originally evolved (e.g. piracy in Somalia as a response to over-fishing; crude oil bunkering in Nigeria as part of reclaiming resources) informs and enables more nuanced responses.

Step 5: The nuts and bolts of organised criminal activities 
If you want to diffuse a bomb, you’ve got to know how it’s made. The same goes for organised criminal activities. How you detail the mechanics of an organised criminal activity depends on the sector, as with any business. For the mechanics of drug trafficking, you must understand the types of drugs, production areas and processes, trafficking routes, buyers/markets, involvement of other actors, local-national-international linkages, seizure and counter-activity.

Step 6: It’s a business, run like a business, and governed by many of the same rules It is important to understand the market dynamics associated to the criminal activities carried out by armed groups. Specifically, understanding three elements is critical: demand and supply of the illegal product; 
links between organised criminal activities 
and the black/grey/white economies; and organised criminal activity links and inter-dependencies (e.g. how drugs is related to arms trafficking).

Step 7: Follow the money Following the money involves assessing its flow (from an expenditure/income perspective and how it makes its way through a laundering process to become white), how it grows (value chains, investment in scale and expansion into new areas), and its other usages (politics, weapons, bribery, etc.). This is probably the most difficult step to complete as these are guarded and secretive processes.

Step 8: The Godfather and Godson: Links between organised criminal activities and political and economic elites/ local communities Many organised criminal activities depend on elite and community patronage. Such patronage may take the form of political or business elites “turning a blind eye” or providing active support for activities, and/or communities allowing criminal groups to operate in their midst, either out of fear and/or because there are associated benefits.

Step 9: Face it, it’s actually not all bad This is controversial but true. Organised criminal activities in conflict areas have a range of both positive and negative impacts. Criminal businesses will provide employment, market access, social services, etc. – and often take on the role that government should play. This partly explains why communities sometimes resist law enforcement clamp-downs on criminal syndicates, but it also offers an insight into what one must do to regain community trust.

Then there is strategy Strategy, of course, is the most important part and there are a few must do’s. First, it has to be based on evidence and that evidence must be based on the nine steps outlined above. Second, an integral part of strategy to deal with criminal activities in conflict affected areas is about defining achievable peace-building outcomes. There is no sustainable alternative to peace and stability if the enabling environment for people smuggling is to be tackled. Third, key strategic principles to underpin strategy development and implementation must be drawn. There are a few to consider here. For example, a principle may include “thinking transition”, as sometimes you need to transform a criminal business sector into a legal one (another can of worms, by the way). Principles must also involve clearly defining which groups to engage with on what, when and how. Fourth, decide on what tactical measures have the best chance of making a difference. These, of course, need to be directed by an explicit theory of change and focus on key entry points, such as actions to dismantle the infrastructure of violence, affect the relationships between criminal and political armed groups, address underlying grievances, origins, and behaviours, and so on. And finally, all interventions in violent conflict settings have positive and negative knock-on effects. Projecting these before going ahead with strategy implementation is much needed basic due diligence.

Interested in the full picture and the details? Access the free PDF version of Stabilising Areas Affected by Criminalised Violent Conflict: A Guide for Analysis and Strategy.

So what’s the photograph? It is a picture from our work on condensate bunkering in the Niger Delta in 2007. If you want to learn more about it or our work, just get in touch.


David is the Chief Executive of ECAS and Managing Partner.  He is also the Chairman of INCAS Consulting Ltd. (Malta).  He has extensive experience in dialogue process design and facilitation, stabilisation strategy development, early warning and risk assessment, and work on armed violence reduction. Prior to joining ECAS, he served for six years as the Director of the Forum for Early Warning and Early Response (FEWER) and held several policy and research positions in the European Commission and universities (Belgium and United Kingdom). As a consultant, David has worked for governments, United Nations agencies, and corporations in the North Caucasus, West and East Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. He is trained in political science (McGill), public health (Louvain and LSHTM), and economics (London School of Economics). Based in Malta, David is fluent in English, French, Norwegian, and Italian; and proficient in Spanish.

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