Failed states, failed cities

by | Jun 12, 2008

Things keep going from bad to worse in Naples, where the piles of uncollected rubbish are still heaped up.  Last week, the head of a waste disposal firm turned ‘super-witness’ – who was due to testify about links between corrupt politicians and the Camorra, Naples’ mafia – was gunned down in the street. According to John Hooper in the Guardian:

The Carabinieri, the military police, said yesterday the killing was impossible to reconstruct because no one would admit to having seen it. However, after a search for bullets and casings, they concluded that at least 18 shots were fired from two 9mm-calibre automatics. Orsi was hit twice in the chest and once in the head, suggesting that, in classic mafia style, he was given a “coup de grace” by one of the killers as he lay dying.

Why the Camorra’s interest in trash?  Because they’re big players in the sector, Hooper explains – not least in illegally dumping toxic waste which they truck down from the north of Italy.  That’s also why the people in and around Naples are opposed to the government’s plan to build incinerators to get rid of the rubbish backlog; they figure that the Camorra would take them over within about ten minutes, and use them to burn the toxic stuff too.

Meanwhile, Mexico‘s also sliding.  Last month, the country’s acting chief of police was gunned down.  According to the Economist:

One of his bodyguards, who was also wounded, managed to wrestle the police chief’s assailant to the ground and arrest him. Mr Millán was conscious for long enough to ask his killer who was behind the hit, but died before he could get a reply. The answer to his question, provided later by investigators, helps cast some light on why it is so hard to end drug-related violence in Mexico. They say that his assassin was sent by José Antonio Montes Garfias, another federal police officer.

The week leading up to May 13 saw 113 murders in Mexico, including 17 in just one day – and estimates of total deaths due to organised crime range from 1,100 to 2,500 people this year. 2,700 federal troops have now been deployed.  As the Economist concludes, “the war on drugs has never seemed less like a metaphor”.  And here’s the real catch: “success in disrupting drug cartels only leads to more violence as gang members fight to fill power vacuums and continue to supply the ever-lucrative drug market”.  (See also John Robb’s recent write-up.)

In Naples and Ciudad Juarez alike, organised crime’s basic stance towards the state is the same as you’d find with Hezbollah in Lebanon, MEND in Nigeria or the Taliban in Afghanistan.  The aim is not to cause the collapse of ‘official’ governance.  Rather, it’s to keep the state ‘hollowed out’: so short of capacity and legitimacy that insurgents or organised crime can step into the gap, and then not only operate freely, but also start building up legitimacy powerbases of their own (c.f. another example of the Camorra in action).


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

More from Global Dashboard

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

As COVID-19 plunges the world into its most serious economic crisis for a century, a surge in demand for justice is inevitable. Businesses face bankruptcy – and whole industries may be insolvent. Similar pain is being felt in the public and non-profit sectors....

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

The murder of George Floyd and the resurfacing of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to heightened discussions on race in the international development sector. Aid practitioners in the North have not only condemned the systemic racism that they (suddenly) now see...