In Informality and Illegality authors Jorge Giraldo Ramírez and Carlos Muñoz Mora, both professors in Antioquia, Colombia, analyze how the gold and timber sectors have become a source of financing for armed groups. Rather than simply rehashing the old resource-curse debate, this slim, but dense, Spanish-language book performs a microlevel analysis of Antioquia’s extractive supply chains and impressively identifies the precise mechanisms that incentivize illegal armed actors to enter the market.
According to the authors, the confluence of informal extractive markets with high levels of socio-economic inequality and the absence of a well-functioning state incentivizes nonstate actors to assume the state’s role and engage in criminal activity. This “criminal ecology” is a self-perpetuating system that is characterized by ineffective state intervention, weak regulation and penalization, and high levels of political and economic leverage by nonstate actors. Ramírez and Mora’s findings are impressive, even if their data seems suspect: they find positive correlations between gold mining and the presence of illegal armed groups, informal land tenure, increased violence, and weak institutions.
The authors’ concluding discussion of contemporary policy recommendations, currently being debated in a variety of forums, including the country’s mining code reform and ongoing institutional restructuring process— though appropriate—is too theoretical to be of much use. Moreover, given the dominant role multinational corporations (MNCs) play in Colombia’s legal, security, and political spheres, their limited analysis of the relationship of MNCs with Antioquia’s supply chain ignores a large part of the policy debate. Though repetitive and dry, Ramirez and Mora’s work is a unique take on a polarizing debate. Their framework of the complex relationship between a traditionally informal economy, illegal crime, and the international demand for a scarce resource (gold), while specific to Antioquia, is widely applicable to any number of countries and contexts.