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Global Economic Collapse Means Boom Times for Criminal Syndicates

In a world on the brink, we must offer a global stimulus or else face an epidemic of global crime.

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On March 1st, in Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony on the west coast of Africa, unknown assailants killed Army Chief of Staff General Batiste Tagme Na Waie and President João Bernardo Vieira within hours of each other. The two men had long been political rivals, and it is widely believed that President Vieira was behind Na Waie's assassination and was then killed in retaliation by members of the country's security forces.

Guinea-Bissau, however, has also become an important way station for the transshipment of illegal narcotics from Colombia to Europe. Many observers believe that the assassinations were tied to in-fighting among the drug cartels and their associates within Guinea-Bissau's political and military elites. While the killings may have been sparked in part by "personal hatreds [and] ethnic rivalries," said Joseph Sala, a former State Department official with knowledge of the country, a factor was also "the growing involvement of Latin American drug cartels."

In Peru, the pervasive lure of illicit drug profits is reflected in the re-emergence of the Shining Path guerrilla movement -- this time as a cocaine smuggling operation. Originally a revolutionary Maoist organization, the Shining Path largely disappeared after its messianic leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured by Peruvian anti-terrorist agents in 1992. Recently, however, a surviving faction of the group has reappeared in a remote, impoverished jungle redoubt, promoting the growing of coca and its refinement into cocaine. Although still professing loyalty to its Maoist roots, the guerrilla faction appears to devote most of its time to fending off efforts by the Peruvian military to suppress drug trafficking in the area. The result has been a spike in armed violence with at least 22 soldiers and police officers killed in the region in 2008, the highest death toll in almost a decade.

As times get tougher, increased criminal violence is also evident in two other striking ways: as rising levels of piracy on the high seas and as a spike in capital punishment in China.

The increase in piracy has gained particular notoriety since Somali pirates hijacked the Sirius Star , a Saudi supertanker carrying more than $100 million worth of crude oil, in November 2008. In some sense, Somalia may be the poster child for what lies in store for far wider regions in a new era of criminalization. As a genuine failed state, after all, it has been experiencing the local equivalent of a great depression for years. While it has led the way on piracy, the phenomenon is on the rise elsewhere as well. The taking of the Sirius Star was only one of 293 incidents of piracy in 2008 – the highest number since the Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) of the International Maritime Bureau began compiling such records in 1992. According to the PRC's annual piracy report, 889 crew members were taken hostage in 2008, 11 were killed, and 21 are still missing and presumed dead; guns were fired in 139 of the incidents, up from 72 in 2007.

When it comes to China, whose booming economy was a global wonder until world trade took a tremendous hit last year, it's hard to gauge the level of violent crime, as officials there are said to systematically under-report it. However, there are indications that it is on the rise and that organized crime has secured a stronger presence in the country. In what is evidently an effort on Beijing's part to combat this trend, the government has vastly stepped up its executions of criminals found guilty of capital offenses. In 2007, according to Amnesty International, at least 470 convicted criminals were executed and another 1,860 (or more) sentenced to death. The just-released figures for 2008 show an enormous increase: 1,718-plus executions and another 7,003 people sentenced to death. Some of those killed may have been political prisoners falsely charged with criminal offenses, but most were, presumably, common criminals put to death to intimidate others who might engage in similar behavior.

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