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How does endemic corruption foster violence?

By Manon Dubois, student in International Economic Policy at Sciences Po Paris and International Governance at the University of St Gallen

· Gouvernance mondiale,Afrique,Amériques,Europe

On November 21st, jubilant crowds cheered wildly in the Zimbabwean streets. After 37 years of dictatorial rule, Robert Mugabe had resigned. When asked to share their hopes for the future, young citizens gave this graphic statement to the BBC: “We need a conducive economy (…) And we need fairness in the country, we don’t want corruption anymore[1]. According to Transparency International, corruption can be defined as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. Considering that it has costed Zimbabwe an estimated $1bn in 2016, the previous declaration is not astounding[2]. But whereas the economic repercussions of corruption are manifest, its links with violence are less easy to grasp. Yet, endemic corruption can be both a source of funding for criminal activities and a fertile ground for violent religious movements. This observation is nothing new: when he wrote The Education of a Christian Prince in the 16th century, Erasmus already noted that corruption was a plague likely to foster social hatred and lead to violent insurgencies.

Zimbabweans gather for a flash-mob against corruption at a market in Harare on Anti-Corruption Day 2013

© Transparency International Zimbabwe

A connivance link between criminal networks and civil servants

Corruption can act as a connivance link between criminal networks and State officers who contribute to fuel high level of national insecurity. A striking example is Mexico, which has been poisoned by drug trafficking for decades and remains mired in a war against cartels that has claimed more than 80.000 victims[3] since it was declared in 2006. Behind the scenes, corrupted civil servants are a driving force of this security crisis which rips Mexican citizens off their right to peace[4].

In 2010, Mexico’s Secretary of Public Security declared that the total sum allocated by cartels to bribery of municipal police amounted to $1bn per year[5]. Unsurprisingly, a parallel study by the National Conference of Secretaries of Public Security concluded that an estimated 93,6% of local policemen resorted to monthly bribes to make up for their low salaries[6]. High-ranking officials are not side-lined either: in 2008, Noé Ramírez Mandujano, Mexico’s former anti-drug Chief, was charged with accepting a $450.000 bribe to secretly transmit information to traffickers[7].

It comes as no surprise that citizens’ anger has been rising for years. In 2014, things went downhill when 43 students vanished in the State of Guerrero following violent altercations with municipal policemen. According to Mexican authorities, the attack had been orchestrated by local cartels and complicit bribed officers. But the counter-inquiry led by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently pointed out the very likely participation of the federal police and the military in what looks like a mass murder[8]. Considering the loopholes in the official investigation, the picture seems just as grim on the justice side. General statistics do indeed tell volume: whereas 35.000 killings linked to organized crime were identified from 2007 to 2011, only 1600 investigations were initiated and 22 suspects convicted during that same period[9].

This massive corruption is a self-perpetuating vicious system. Apart from enabling drug traffickers to breach the law with impunity and annihilating the central government’s efforts in its war on drugs, it ruins all attempts of collaboration with civil society: the more corrupted a power, the less collaborative the population. Whereas the latter could be a precious source of ground information, nearly 90% of Mexican citizens declared in 2015 that they believe State and Federal agents were deeply corrupted[10]. Accordingly, few are willing to work hand in hand with official authorities whose legitimacy has long been buried under millions of bribery cases.

The Mexican example illustrates well how harmful endemic corruption can be. Besides costing the country between 2 to 10% of its annual GDP[11], it also has dramatic security and social consequences on the whole society. While the State fails at exerting its Weberian monopoly over violence, many citizens feel betrayed by a political power which they believe has been deeming itself above the law for too many years. In this sense, institutionalized corruption not only support criminal violence: it is by essence a form of violence against society.

A structural violence exploited by populisms

When corruption is so deeply rooted in society that it has become institutionalized, it can be perceived as a structural violence sustaining systems in which private interests prevail over the common good. This pattern erodes the fabric of society and leaves citizens disillusioned, angry at a State which is blatantly inefficient at protecting individuals and allocating resources. Such a frustration is well conveyed by young Zimbabweans, whose main hope for the future of their country now lies in “fairness”.

This popular anger is a blessing for populist parties which craft their identity in opposition with the ruling elites. Even in the least corrupt countries, political leaders do not hesitate to capitalize on this rhetoric. In the USA, Donald Trump’s discourses about corrupt elites prompted him to nickname his Democrat opponent “Crooked Hilary”. In France, Marine Le Pen fine-tuned its “all rotten” strategy so far as to imply that the French political class was entirely corrupted. For instance, during a 2013 speech, she reacted to an Ipsos study in which 62% of respondents had declared believing that most politicians were corrupt: “Apparently, 38% are optimistic (…) Everyday, [elites] bring us the demonstration that France is probably one of the tenth most corrupted country in the world”[12]. Although far from grounded, this statement exemplifies one of the raiding patrols of populist leaders: only they can address the structural violence of corrupted elites against non-privileged citizens.

French populist leader Marine Le Pen referred to France as one of the tenth most corrupted country in the world in 2013

© Blandine Le Cain.

Unsurprisingly however, populism is a poisoned cure: whereas the fight against corruption was one of the campaign arguments of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, both countries have been downgraded in Transparency International Corruption Perception Indexes (see Table below) while experimenting growing autocratic and dictatorial abuses over the past years.

Whereas the popular anger stemmed from corruption is a boon for movements claiming to be the sole holders of the keys to a fairer society, populist parties are not the only one to tick the box. Indeed, violent religious extremisms also play on citizens’ resentment to swell their ranks of followers.

A fertile ground for violent religious extremism and terrorism

Aware of citizens’ temper against endemic corruption, radical religious leaders do not hesitate to present their doctrine as the only viable way to break with a tradition of immorality. When radical Islamism denounces the perversion of greedy and corrupt elites by money fanaticism, it does so to convert individuals weary of this creeping unfairness. Eventually, these radical and sometimes violent doctrines pave the way for terrorism, which thrives when governments have lost the confidence of citizens.

These tight links between corruption, popular anger and terrorism partly explain why the latter has been so flourishing in Middle Eastern kleptocracies. According to the award-winning reporter Sarah Chayes[13], lots of so-called failed states are in fact particularly successful at fulfilling their own mission: exploiting their people and resources to enrich ruling oligarchies. She notably explains how the Afghan government functions as a “vertical criminal organization” where financial gains from corruption go up from local officers to high-ranking officials, who in turn guarantee their protection to the loyal subordinate minions.

Endemic corruption obviously causes a social breakdown which acted as a driving force behind the Arab Springs. But the implications dig deeper: undermined by decades of poor governance, some individuals start looking for moral purity, take the path of religious radicalization and end up joining terrorist movements. This popular anger is even more likely to lead to radicalization since international democratic partners of these kleptocracies deal with corrupt leaders. Apart from further fostering the feeling of unfairness, this international inertia nurtures the discourse of violent leaders who claim that democracy is a pipe dream and radical Islamism the only reliable solution to moralize perverted States.

Reframing the narrative on corruption to embrace more its consequences on violence and extremism is crucial to draft policies that will point in the right direction. Citizens are hoping for the lines to the shift: in November, unconnected rallies against corruption gathering tens of thousands of protesters were organized successively in Romania[14] and Israel[15]. It is now up to political leaders to demonstrate their understanding of the issue and willingness to act. As Sarah Chayes explains, Western officials might notably want to rethink their orthodoxy of “security first, governance second”: considering how corruption fosters violence, reversing the causality order is likely to deliver conclusive results.

Table: Perceived corruption in mentioned countries

Note: The scoring scale goes from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (clean)

Transparency International Corruption Perception Index 2016.

Access the results here.

[1] “From tanks to resignation: Mugabe’s last days”, BBC News, 21 November 2017:

[2] “Zimbabwe losing $1 billion a year to corruption: report”, Reuters, 4 October 2016:

[4] In 2016 only, the Mexican “war on dug” killed 23.000 people and was ranked the world second bloodiest conflict behind the Syrian War. Source: BERNARD Philippe, « La guerre des cartels au Mexique est le conflit le plus mortel après la Syrie », Le Monde, 10 May 2017 :

[5] BLACKSTONE Samuel, “The amount of money Mexican drug cartels spend on bribes is staggering”, Business Insider, 15 June 2012:

[6] MORRIS S. D, “Corruption, drug trafficking, and violence in Mexico”, The Brown Journal of World Affairs, 2012, 18(2), pp. 29-43.

[7] “Noé Ramírez Mandujano Va A Prisión“, Expansion, 16 February 2009 :

[8] To date, only one victim has been found. Source: SALIBA Frédéric, « Deux ans après, la disparition de 43 étudiants au Mexique reste un mystère », Le Monde, 27 September 2016 :

[9] MORRIS S. D, “Corruption, drug trafficking, and violence in Mexico”, The Brown Journal of World Affairs, 2012, 18(2), pp. 29-43.

[10] Encuesta Nacional de Calidad e Impacto Gubernamental (ENCIG) 2015, Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía:

[11] La corrupcion en Mexico, Instituto mexicano para la competitividad : corrupcion_en_Mexico.pdf

[12] MESTRE Abel, « Marine Le Pen : "Les Francais pensent comme nous" », Le Monde, 26 January 2013 :

[13] CHAYES Sarah, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, W. W. Norton & Company.

[14] BRAN Mirel, « En Roumanie, nouvelles manifestations contre le gouvernement et la corruption », Le Monde, 27 November 2017:

[15] « Israël : manifestation à Tel-Aviv contre la « corruption du gouvernement », Le Point, 3 December 2017:

Cover Picture: A man and woman grieve beside the body of a boy shot dead outside his home in the Lomas Verdes neighbourhood of Tijuana. The Mexican war on drugs was the world second bloodiest conflict in 2016 behind Syria © Knight Foundation.

The opinions and interpretations expressed in the publications are exclusively the responsibility of their authors, in respect of the Open Diplomacy Institute’ statutes (article 3) and charter of values.

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