Global Economic Collapse Means Boom Times for Criminal Syndicates
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Neighboring Guinea, once known as French Guinea, presents a very similar picture. Ruled until December 2008 by the military dictator Lansana Conté, it, too, had become a haven for South American narco-traffickers. "In the past few years, as Mr. Conté's health declined, Guinea drifted toward chaos," Lydia Polgreen wrote in the New York Times . "South American drug traffickers, who ship cocaine to Europe via West Africa, infiltrated the government at the highest levels. Mr. Conté's son Ousmane confessed on television [in February] to aiding the cocaine traffickers who had turned Guinea into a virtual narco-state." Lansana Conté died on December 23rd and power was usurped by a military junta headed by Captain Moussa Dadis Camara; the junta's young officers have pledged to clean up the country and oust the traffickers, but many Guineans express skepticism about their capacity to accomplish this Herculean task.
An environment of poverty and chaos has long prevailed in Somalia, home to the most determined and aggressive of the high-seas pirates. Of the 293 piracy incidents noted by the PRC in 2008, 111, or 38%, occurred in the Gulf of Aden or off the coast of Somalia. Many of the most daring incidents -- including the seizure of the Sirius Star -- also occurred in those waters. By their own account, many of the Somali pirates are former fishermen driven out of business when the collapsed Somali state could no longer protect the country's rich fishing grounds against predation by the highly organized fleets of other countries. Now penniless, these onetime fishermen have taken up piracy to support their families. "Killing is not in our plans," the hijacker of a guns-laden cargo ship told a reporter in October 2008. "We only want money so we can protect ourselves from hunger."
A Syndrome of Crime, Violence, and Repression
China, of course, is no Guinea-Bissau. Millions of Chinese citizens live in relative luxury, the beneficiaries of a quarter-century of unparalleled growth; but millions more still live in extreme poverty, struggling to survive on minuscule farms in the countryside or working as migrant laborers in the cities, mostly in factories making consumer goods for the export market. So long as China's economy was booming, migrant laborers were able to find work in the coastal export factories and send a bit of money back to their families in the countryside. Now, with Chinese trade figures in a major decline and many factories cutting back or closing due to the slump in exports, at least 20 million of these workers are locked out and Chinese officials fear a spike in social unrest and crime.
That 20 million figure was provided by Chen Xiwen, a senior official who heads the Chinese Communist Party's office on rural policy. "For those migrant workers who have lost their jobs, what are they going to do for income when they return to their villages? How are they going to manage? This is a new factor affecting social stability this year," he said at a news conference in February in Beijing.
That many of the migrants will be able to find remunerative work in their own villages is inconceivable -- plots of farmable land are far too tiny and, despite a Chinese governmental stimulus package, there are as yet few other sources of income. As a result, most of these unemployed former peasants will head back to the cities in search of any sort of work. The danger is that many will be cheated out of their pay by unscrupulous factory owners taking advantage of their desperation or will simply find no work at all, leading to angry protests (known as "mass incidents" in China). Count on one thing: as in Mexico and elsewhere, some of them will be drawn into organized crime activities or other illicit pursuits.