Fighting a Different War

Replay the panel discussion and read the summary below



Fighting Drugs, Terror, Organized Crime, Corruption:
a Different War (Panel 7)

Chaired by: Bruno Stagno Ugarte, Deputy Executive Director for Advocacy, Human Rights Watch; former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Costa Rica; PSIA Faculty. | Student Greeter: Jelena Solovjova, PSIA student, Master in International Security. Inclusive approaches, security too stressed, lack understanding of root causes, no or poor coordination

  • Alfredo Durante Mangoni, Coordinator for Anticorruption, Chair G20 ACWG, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Italy
  • Shervin Majlessi, Chief of Conference Support Section, Corruption and Economic Crime Branch, UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)
  • Paulina Rios Maya, PSIA student, Master in International Security
  • Susan Rose-Ackerman, Henry R. Luce Professor Emeritus of Law and Political Science and Professorial Lecturer in Law, Yale University, USA


At the same time as the world’s interconnectedness is growing, so is that of diversified criminal groups at all levels. Student greeter Jelena Solovjova and panel chair Bruno Stagno Ugarte opened the discussion by describing the growing nexus between organized crime, terrorism, and corruption and the transnational and regulatory challenges associated with such a nexus. 

New understandings

Organized crime organizations corrupting government officials to obtain beneficial conditions or to be able to conduct business as usual is one of the first images that crosses one’s mind when thinking of this topic. Yet, corruption is not only a tool for criminals, but can also be enabled through the secrecy created by favorable national security efforts such as military procurements. Thus, argues Susan Rose-Ackerman, corruption cannot be fought separately from other elements.

Alfredo Durante Mangoni added that politicians have recently started to make use of corruption themselves against other states. This weaponization process is called strategic corruption, whereby the goal is to advance national interest. In this context, the difference between the rule of law and the rule by law. In democratic states emphasizing rule of law, the law plays a prominent role in society by providing a “protection from power abuse.” When there is rule by law, “the law becomes a weapon in the hands of an oppressive government, and the law is usually bent in order to oppress and discriminate.” It is in this context that strategic corruption can be used.

But criminal groups do not necessarily desire to topple the government. On the contrary, Paulina Rios Maya highlighted how organized crime syndicates aspired to shape society.

Potential solutions

For Shervin Majlessi, solutions can be grouped in two groups: war and peace. War measures include political will; the legal and normative framework as provided by national and importantly global legislation such as various UN Conventions; and operational as well as institutional capacity, that is, how countries allocate their resources to fight transnational threats of organized crime, terrorism and trafficking. Peace measures address the root causes of such phenomena by fostering sustainable development goals, the rule of law and local capacity-building. Answering a question from the audience, Majlessi mentioned that blockchain technology “can be very efficient depending on how carefully they are designed and what the environment they are used in.”

According to Durante Mangoni detailed three main features of an efficient system to combat (strategic) corruption as well as organized crime: an independent judiciary, mandatory criminal action, and the freedom of press to express corruption. In practical terms, the G20 anti-corruption working group currently aims to integrate anti-corruption as part of bilateral investment treaties, and to define a unified framework for legal professions, as they can be “gate keepers helping institutions to fight corruption, or enablers” of illicit behavior. Lastly, building steps towards improved asset recovery processes can only participate in the fight against corruption, according to the speaker.

Rose-Ackerman warned on the dangers of fighting corruption alone, which could bring out even more violence. On the issue of asset recovery, “there is an underlying concern about how these settlements can support the sustainable development goals and the ordinary people” since “it may be the same regime in power that was engaged in the corruption in the first place.”

But when organized crime syndicates or terrorist groups take over the role of social providers in certain areas, what can the state do? Rios Maya argued in favor of maintaining public awareness through civil society. Indeed, “civil society organizations have a pivotal role in fighting corruption and organized crime and produce a double impact by influencing both the public and the authorities,” she claimed. Rose-Ackerman and Majlessi added that concrete steps should also be taken towards restoring the social contract and providing parts of the services they ought to. “Criminal groups can only step in when the modern state has failed to fulfill its tasks,” Majlessi declared.

Future trends

The current environment is a quite dynamic one: contacts, networks, paths keep on changing, and these processes are only speeding up. A situation such as the pandemic has for instance provided new opportunities for crime groups. While lockdowns have resulted in a drop in traditional illicit activities, illegal markets and territories have been further secured by crime magnates, who have sought to invest in businesses under stress and/or to smuggle medical equipment such as masks and even false vaccines. By injecting unprecedented sums of money into the economy to tackle the consequences of the pandemic with little accountability oversight, governments have unintentionally made corruption opportunities even greater. Globalization at large provides more and more avenues of corruption, Durante Mangoni added, and “it is affecting the democratic pact.” Reacting to a student’s question, Rose-Ackermann warned of the financial incentives that have led some (Western) banks to become enablers of organized crime groups by neglecting to demand where the money comes from.

The panel ended on a hopeful note when all participants encouraged the new generation to participate in elaborating new strategies to understand, fight and prevent organized crime.


(c) An article written by Emylie Bobbi, PSIA student in the Dual Degree program with MGIMO, 2021


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