The Coming Crime Wars

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Wars are on the rebound. There are twice as many civil conflicts today, for example, as there were in 2001. And the number of nonstate armed groups participating in the bloodshed is multiplying and today’s warriors are just as likely to be affiliated with drug cartels, mafia groups, criminal gangs, militias, and terrorist organizations as with armies or organized rebel factions.

This cocktail of criminality, extremism, and insurrection is sowing havoc in parts of Central and South America, sub-Saharan and North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Not surprisingly, these conflicts are defying conventional international responses, such as formal cease-fire negotiations, peace agreements, and peacekeeping operations. And diplomats, military planners, and relief workers are unsure how best to respond. Situated at the intersection of organized crime and outright war, they raise tricky legal, operational, and ethical questions about how to intervene, who should be involved, and the requisite safeguards to protect civilians.

This new breed of crime conflicts involving cartels, gangs, and militia is challenging established norms about what is, and what isn’t, war. The need for binding international humanitarian and human rights law, domestic obligations, and constraints for these armed groups is real, even if it is controversial. Some humanitarian agencies are already testing out new approaches to mitigating the suffering generated by these conflicts.

But a more comprehensive approach is needed, one that is upgraded to today’s realities. If the world fails to see crime wars as wars, the humanitarian and political cost of them will only rise.

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