Organized crime and extractivism

Chiapas Banner reads: “Chicomuselo Territory Free of Mining Mariano Abarca Environmental Foundation and The Mexican Network of those Affected by Mining.

By: Raúl Zibechi

Organized crime, parastate or drug trafficking, are the forms assumed by accumulation by dispossession/extractivism in the zone of non-being, that is, in the territories of the native, black and campesino peoples of Latin America. Although they are usually presented separately, as if they had no relationship, criminal violence, nation-states and the economic model form the same framework for the dispossession of peoples.

This conclusion is indebted to the work of the researcher Emiliano Teran Mantovani in a recent essay in which he links the three indicated modalities. [1] We know that organized crime dispossesses the commons from the peoples, breaks community fabrics, exploits and murders people, in addition to degrading the environment with its “economic” initiatives, with the support of both private companies and the states.

What most interests me about Teran’s work is his analysis, which considers organized crime as extractivism, from the displacement and intimidation of populations to the control of mines and productive territories, ending in the management of the “processes and routes for commercialization of the commodities.”

In his opinion, we must think of organized crime as “a clear expression of the politics of extractivism in the 21st Century,” therefore far beyond the economic dynamics it represents. On this point, I see a close relationship to the thinking of Abdullah Öcalan, when he maintains that: “capitalism is power, not economy.” In its decadent phase, capitalism is armed violence and genocide, however hard that may be to accept.

In one of his more brilliant pages, Teran establishes a gradation of crime’s way of acting, which takes us back to the a dawn of capitalism described by Karl Polanyi: subduing the local population through terror; control of economic forms seeking monopoly; incorporating a part of the population into the “criminal” economy, protecting that sector with its own services, naturalizing violence and, finally, converting “part of the population into war machines” by integrating it “subjectively, culturally, territorially, economically and politically into their logic of organized violence.”

Protesting the Ternium iron mine in Aquila, Michoacán. The banner reads: “Ternium, Enough of robbing the indigenous,”

The points of confluence between organized crime and extractivism are evident: they both confront the population that resists or doesn’t fold, they are both based on the same economy of dispossession and they both seek the protection of weapons, those of the State and their own.

There is something else, very disturbing: organized crime “has achieved becoming more and more a channeling factor for discontent and popular unrest, also being able to capture a part of the counter-hegemonic impulses of revolt, of antagonism with power, and potentially giving shape to possible insurgencies,” Teran maintains.

Terrible, but real. That should lead those of us who still want fundamental anti-capitalist changes to reflect on what share of responsibility we have in this decision of so many young people to join the criminal violence.

A first issue is to break with the desire to mask reality, of not wanting to see that the capitalism that really exists is a war of dispossession or fourth world war, as the Zapatistas call it. Crime and violence, in order to become the principal mode of capital accumulation, must have the support and complicity of the states, which are being converted into states for dispossession.

That’s why the problem is not the absence of the State, as progressivism says. We gain nothing by expanding its sphere, it being the primary one responsible for violence against the peoples.

Protesting Bonafont’s extraction of water for bottling – Cholula, Puebla, Mexico.

A second issue is to understand that “the social fabrics are in themselves a battlefield, a disputed field, as Teran points out. Crime, narco-paramilitarism (inseparable from the State’s armed apparatus), are determined to break social relations to rearrange them to serve their interests, hence the racist violence and the femicides.

That’s why the self-defense groups anchored in the communities that resist have become essential. Not only must they defend and care for life and nature, but also human relations.

Lastly, not just a few intellectuals talk about the “alternatives to extractivism,” always thinking in technocratic terms and that they will be implemented from above. Impossible.

Today, the real alternatives are the Indigenous Guards, Cimarrons [2] and Campesinos of the Colombian Cauca, the autonomous governments and autonomous demarcations of the Amazon, the recuperation of Mapuche lands; the Zapatista National Liberation Army, the CNI, the bonfires of Cherán, the community guards and the multiple forms of self-defense. There are no shortcuts, only resistance opens paths.


[1] Emiliano Teran Mantovani, “Organized crime, illicit economies and geographies of criminality: other keys to thinking about extractivism of the 21st Century in Latin America,” in Conflictos territoriales y territorialidades en disputa, Clacso, 2021.

[2] Cimarron – A Maroon (an African who escaped slavery in the Americas, or a descendant thereof), especially a member of the Cimarron people of Panamá.

Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Friday, January 13, 2023, and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: