Dark Logic: Transnational Criminal Tactics and Global Security
Robert Mandel
(Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2011), 255 pages.

Over the last two decades, the global shadow economy has flourished: according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), illegal trade—in guns, drugs, timber, elephant ivory, human beings, and virtually anything for the right price—generates an annual turnover of some $870 billion, the equivalent of nearly 7 percent of the world’s legitimate exports of merchandise.[i]

A recent UNODC publication reports that “states and international organizations have largely failed to anticipate the evolution of transnational organized crime.” The entire industry, it would seem, grew up hidden in plain sight, as if garbed in camouflage from its infancy. What countermeasures have been taken—mostly in the form of conventional law enforcement—“have done little” to stem its growth or minimize its impact.[ii] 

Few scholars are less surprised by these grim facts than Dr. Robert Mandel, professor of international affairs at Lewis & Clark College and author of Dark Logic: Transnational Criminal Tactics and Global Security. Mandel has been mulling over transnational organized crime for well over a decade, and his latest meditation on the subject can be read as a sequel to an earlier work: Deadly Transfers and The Global Playground: Transnational Security Threats in a Disorderly World (1999).

In Dark Logic, Mandel contends that there exists a major lacuna in policymakers’ understanding of the modus operandi of global crime networks. Commonly held assumptions about what triggers organized crime, the extent of its impact, and what might make for successful policy responses have been, on the whole, “controversial, wrongheaded, or ill advised.”[iii]

Mandel aims to get into the heads of transnational criminals and to cast a bright light on the contents within. He focuses on the “Big Five” criminal organizations: the Chinese triads, the Colombian cartels, the Italian mafia, the Japanese yakuza, and the Russian mob. When are their members likely to employ corruption as a tactic, and what circumstances will goad them to violence? Under what conditions will the ramifications of crime be borne by individuals, and past what point is the state itself imperiled? These are the central questions driving Mandel’s analysis.

In answering them, he hopes to provide global law enforcement and defense officials—to whom the book is dedicated—a “much deeper understanding of the roots of transnational criminal behavior.”[iv] In the end, Mandel’s objective is not to deliver a concrete program of solutions, but to provide law enforcement with “a richer interpretative context” that might serve as a wellspring for novel and more effective countermeasures.[v]

Mandel is at his best when he digs deep and strikes heavy at the roots of the problem. Conservative “law-and-order” readers will be disappointed to learn that the author does not share their Manichaean view of criminal enterprise. For Mandel, the battle is not between law enforcement and criminals, but between much deeper—and indeed, often unseen—forces. Throughout the book, Mandel returns, time and again, to two important drivers of transnational organized crime: poverty and the demand for illicit goods and services.

He observes that a preponderance of transnational criminals derive from the ranks of the poor. With few legitimate avenues for advancement open to them, marginalized, but otherwise law-abiding individuals seek to restore dignity to their lives by other means. Coca farming communities in Latin America furnish us with a patent example. So long as severe unemployment, deprivation, and other conditions “conducive to criminal recruitment” persist, any effort to reduce crime by way of law and order alone will prove to be an exercise in futility.[vi] Governments may build more prisons and accelerate the flow of inmates into them, but before the cell door slams shut on one offender, another will have already replaced him on the outside.

Equally unproductive are efforts that place too great an emphasis on reducing only the influx of illicit goods and services and not the demand for them. Mandel states in no uncertain terms that “without addressing demand illicit trafficking will continue uninterrupted.”[vii] Policy responses to reduce demand for many illegal wares will require ingenuity. In some instances, however, the way forward presents itself at once. In the case of drug running, for example, preventive measures might include a greater effort to provide “education, treatment, and rehabilitation” to illicit drug users—a self-evidently sensible measure, controversial only for its relative absence in the communities where it is needed most.[viii] 

Mandel’s call for “significant deviation from standard responses” to transnational organized crime, and for “considerable creativity” in formulating new ones, is welcome and inspiring.[ix] Less so is his suggestion that the effective restraint of transnational criminal organizations may necessitate a new balance between civil liberties and the latitude granted to law enforcement.[x]

He declares that the “self-imposed constraints on Western states’ security operations” impede efforts to apprehend the perpetrators of transnational organized crime, and that “more proactively disruptive counterintelligence operations . . . may merit consideration.”[xi] Wiretapping, sting operations, and the dissemination of false information to infuse paranoia and mistrust among criminals are all presented as viable options. These are bold claims and require something in the way of evidence or argument to substantiate. Mandel provides neither, and it is this that is perhaps the book’s principal weakness.

Dark Logic has its gems, but to reach them, readers will have to wade through a morass of jargon (e.g., “tactical syndromes”), banal metaphors (e.g., “cat-and-mouse”), tautologies (e.g., “previously unprecedented”), dehumanizing and tendentious labels (e.g., “illegal aliens” in lieu of the more neutral term “undocumented immigrants”), and bureaucratic vulgarisms borrowed straight from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (e.g., “enemies of the state”).[xii]

Still, the book’s humble aspiration is realized. Mandel succeeds in weaving new analysis from old (i.e., secondary) sources, and the ongoing discussion on how best to respond to transnational organized crime is indeed richer for it.    

[i] UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Estimating Illicit Financial Flows Resulting from Drug Trafficking and Other Transnational Organized Crimes (UNODC, Vienna: October 2011).
[ii] UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Action against Transnational Organized Crime (UNODC, Vienna: April 2011).
[iii] Robert Mandel, Dark Logic: Transnational Criminal Tactics and Global Security (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2011), 2.
[iv] Ibid., 10.
[v] Ibid., 143.
[vi] Ibid., 22.
[vii] Ibid., 170.
[viii] Ibid., 181.
[ix] Ibid., 6; Ibid., 159.
[x] Ibid., 187.
[xi] Ibid., 191; Ibid., 181.
[xii] Ibid., 137; Ibid., 169; Ibid., 25; Ibid., 91; Ibid., 113.