Addressing paramilitary violence and organised crime in war to peace transitions

CIVAD and the Serious Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Evidence (SOC-ACE) research programme are hosting a policy lab, bringing together policymakers, practitioners and researchers whose goal is to support sustainable war to peace transitions in contexts affected by paramilitary violence and organised crime. The policy lab aims to explore new approaches to, and models of, policy and practice around peacebuilding. It was inspired by the policy lab organised as part of the Drugs & (dis)order project in 2021.

The 2024 policy lab, “Addressing paramilitary violence and organised crime in war to peace transitions” has been developed as a follow-up to a research programme, funded by SOC-ACE on Para-statal armed groups, illicit economies and organised crime.

This programme resulted in a three-part, research paper series examining the nexus between paramilitaries, illicit economies and organised crime, with a particular focus on the borderlands of Afghanistan, Myanmar and Colombia. The papers draw upon data and analysis generated by the Drugs & (dis)order project.

Coercive Brokerage: The Paramilitary-Organized Crime Network in Borderlands and Frontiers – Working Paper 1

By Patrick Meehan and Jonathan Goodhand

This research paper is the first in the three-part series. It presents a conceptual framework for analysing the nexus in borderland and frontier regions and outlines how this concept advances the growing body of recent literature on militias and paramilitaries. We challenge two dominant policy narratives around paramilitaries: first, the idea that these organisations are symptomatic of state breakdown and flourish in marginal spaces suffering from ‘governance deficits’. Second, paramilitaries can primarily be understood as apolitical, predatory, and self-enriching actors driven by economic motives and operating outside formal political systems.

In critiquing these narratives, we develop an alternative approach that studies how paramilitaries become embedded in enduring systems of rule in borderlands shaped by protracted conflict and illicit economies. At the centre of our approach is the concept of ‘coercive brokerage’ which provides a lens for exploring how paramilitaries play a crucial role in shaping power relations by mediating between different scales, jurisdictions and policy domains.

Coercive Brokerage: Paramilitaries, Illicit Economies and Organised Crime in the Frontiers of Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar – Working Paper II

Ghani Khel bazaar Nangarhar province
Ghani Khel bazaar, Nangarhar province. Photo by OSDR

By Jonathan Goodhand, Patrick Meehan, Camilo Acero & Jan Koehler

This research paper is the second in the three-part series analysing the nexus between paramilitaries, illicit economies and organised crime in borderland and frontier regions. A set of detailed case studies are presented that explore coercive brokerage in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar, drawing upon data and analysis generated by the Drugs & (dis)order project, and other relevant research. 

In Afghanistan, the case study focuses on Nangarhar, on the eastern border with Pakistan, and the north-eastern province Badakhshan, which borders Tajikistan, Pakistan and China, where in both cases, government-backed militias were deployed as anti-Taliban counter-insurgency forces. 

In Colombia, research focuses on Putumayo, in southern Colombia, on the international border with Peru and Ecuador, where paramilitaries played a similar counter-insurgency role in relation to leftist guerrillas and over time became key players in the legal and illegal economies. 

In Myanmar, we present case studies from the northern Shan State, close to the China border and Karen State bordering Thailand, where army-backed militias were an important counter-insurgency force whilst providing security for businesses in contested, resource-rich borderlands, as well as carving out a role in the country’s booming heroin and methamphetamine trade.

Working Paper III 

This policy brief, which will be published later in 2024, outlines a set of policy implications based on the key findings from across the case studies. It addresses the question, what policies or policy combinations can more effectively address the phenomenon of coercive brokerage in conflict-affected borderlands? This is a significant policy challenge given the fact that some of the world’s poorest and most marginalised communities live in regions shaped by paramilitary rule, whilst the criminal activities that sustain these groups have complex diffusion and spill-over effects, internationally and globally. The nexus between paramilitaries and organised crime represents an urgent development and security challenge that contemporary responses fail to adequately address.