In 2011 an eighteen year old Hmong woman from Northern Vietnam arrived at her remote hill village, bewildered and bedraggled, only reaching it after four terrifying days of being chased on foot. She was lucky, one of the many women from her remote region who are kidnapped for a forced marriage in China, this lady had managed to escape through her captors’ window and fled on foot to eventual safety. More typically women from the Vietnamese countryside are lured to the coast by a charming conman that speaks the Hmong language with the promise of a job or romance, before being drugged and smuggled to China where they are sold for marriage in a country which is notorious for its excess of men and lack of brides.
The great rise in trade between emerging markets has so far been dominated by commodities such as oil, copper and iron ore, as well as Chinese manufactured goods and now increasingly financial flows and services. These trends have been well documented on this site and noted by many think tanks, academics and governments. What perhaps understandably has flown under the radar is the trade in illegal products, cross border black market transactions have grown rapidly alongside legal products. Most people think of illegal drugs in this context but they make up just a tiny fraction of the goods traded. Weapons from AK-47s to anti-aircraft missiles; illicit minerals, such as illegally mined coltan and gold to wildlife products such as live parrots to rhino horns; as well as art, people and counterfeit medicine are moving in increasing numbers between the world’s developing countries largely hidden from the view of law enforcement agencies, who are on the whole far more under resourced and demotivated than their western counterparties.
Perhaps unsurprisingly China is the biggest importer of these goods among the world’s emerging powers, its new found wealth has meant residents of Shanghai, Shenzhen and all the other metropolises of the vast country act like people anywhere else in the world with their craving for forbidden goods. In recent years this has led to demand for illicit ivory and wildlife products from Africa causing a disastrous and tragic increase in poaching among African elephants and rhinos.
At the same time Chinese organised crime groups have spread widely among the huge numbers of Chinese citizens that have moved abroad – leading to activities such as illegal gambling in Burma and Laos, racketeering in Angola and smuggling in Tanzania. Often they target their own countrymen – expats who have set up businesses abroad, relative Chinese cultural isolation in African and other foreign countries means these problems often go unnoticed by the police.
Perhaps the region that has the most potential for growth in transnational crime is North Africa, its sparsely populated Sahel/Saharan region and close proximity to Europe make it the ideal setting for numerous smuggling operations, including people trafficking to Europe, a drug transiting point from South America to Europe and military hardware in various directions. This crossroads involves everyone from Colombian drug cartels, Saharan based Jihadist groups to disaffected Libyan ex-soldiers, all keen to make money quickly. Poor governance and porous underpopulated borders make it ideal for shifting goods of all descriptions, while globalization creates both the access and the demand for these illicit goods.
The economic growth and growing middle classes of countries such as Nigeria and Ghana will undoubtedly lead to an upsurge and growth in transnational crime as newly minted West Africans start buying the same illegal drugs, art, counterfeit goods that Europeans have been for so long.
What we are witnessing is the rise of transnational crime between emerging economies, mirroring the process of globalization in these countries, the impact and scale of this trend has only just started, governments and law enforcement agencies will be hard pressed to contain the surge in criminality that will accompany the growth of linkages between developing countries.