State-Organized Crime Part 1
William J. Chambliss
State-Organized Crime Part 1
Sun Feb 20, 2005 00:08


State-Organized Crime
American Society of Criminology, 1988 Presidential Address
William J. Chambliss
From Criminology, 27:183-208 (1989)

There is a form of crime that has heretofore escaped criminological inquiry, yet its persistence and omnipresence raise theoretical and methodological issues crucial to the development of criminology as a science. I am referring to what I call "state-organized crime."


Twenty-five years ago I began researching the relationship among organized crime, politics, and law enforcement in Seattle, Washington (Chambliss, 1968, 1971, 1975a, 1975b, 1977, 1980, 1988a). At the outset I concentrated on understanding the political, economic, and social relations of those immediately involved in organizing and financing vice in the local area. It became clear to me, however, that to understand the larger picture I had to extend my research to the United States and, eventually, to international connections between organized criminal activities and political and economic forces. This quest led me to research in Sweden (Block and Chambliss, 1981), Nigeria (Chambliss, 1975b), Thailand (Chambliss, 1977), and of course, the Americas.

My methods were adapted to meet the demands of the various situations I encountered. Interviews with people at all levels of criminal, political, and law enforcement agencies provided the primary data base, but they were supplemented always with data from official records, government reports, congressional hearings, newspaper accounts (when they could be checked for accuracy), archives, and special reports.

While continuing to research organized crime, I began a historical study of piracy and smuggling. In the process of analyzing and beginning to write on these subjects, I came to realize that I was, in essence, studying the same thing in different time periods: Some of the piracy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was sociologically the same as some of the organized criminal relations of today – both are examples of state-organized crime.

At the root of the inquiry is the question of the relationship among criminality, social structure, and political economy (Petras, 1977; Schwendinger and Schwendinger, 1975; Tilly, 1985). In what follows, I (1) describe the characteristics of state-organized crime that bind acts that are unconnected by time and space but are connected sociologically, (2) suggest a theoretical framework for understanding those relationships, and (3) give specific examples of state-organized crime.


The most important type of criminality organized by the state consists of acts defined by law as criminal and committed by state officials in the pursuit of their jobs as representatives of the state. Examples include a state’s complicity in piracy, smuggling, assassinations, criminal conspiracies, acting as an accessory before or after the fact, and violating laws that limit their activities. In the latter category would be included the use of illegal methods of spying on citizens, diverting funds in ways prohibited by law (e.g., illegal campaign contributions, selling arms to countries prohibited by law, and supporting terrorist activities).

State-organized crime does not include criminal acts that benefit only individual officeholders, such as the acceptance of bribes or the illegal use of violence by the police against individuals, unless such acts violate existing criminal law and are official policy. For example the current policies of torture and random violence by the police in South Africa are incorporated under the category of state-organized crime because, apparently, those practices are both state policy and in violation of existing South African law. On the other hand, the excessive use of violence by the police in urban ghettoes is not state-organized crime for it lacks the necessary institutionalized policy of the state.


In the history of criminality, the state-supported piracy that occurred between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries is an outstanding example of state-organized crime (Andrews, 1959, 1971).

When Christopher Columbus came to the Americas in search of wealth and spices in 1492, he sailed under the flag of Spain although he himself was from Genoa. Vasco de Gama followed Columbus 6 years later, sailing under the Portuguese flag. Between Spain and Portugal, a vast new world was conquered and quickly colonized. The wealth of silver and gold was beyond their wildest dreams. A large, poorly armed native American population made the creation of a slave labor force for mining and transporting the precious metals an easy task for the better armed Spanish and Portuguese settlers willing to sacrifice human life for wealth. Buttressed by their unflagging belief that they were not only enriching their motherland and themselves but also converting the heathens to Christianity, Spanish and Portuguese colonists seized the opportunity to denude the newly found lands of their wealth and their people (Lane-Poole, 1890). Portugal, as a result of Vasco de Gama’s voyages, also established trade routes with India that gave it a franchise on spices and tea. Portuguese kings thus became the "royal grocers of Europe" (Howes, 1615; Collins, 1955).

In Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, nation-states were embroiled in intense competition for control of territory and resources. Then, as now, military power was the basis for expansion and the means by which nation-states protected their borders. Military might, in turn, depended on labor and mineral resources, especially gold and silver. The wealthier nations could afford to invest in more powerful military weapons, especially larger and faster ships, and to hire mercenaries for the army and navy. Explorations cost money as well. When Spain and Portugal laid claim to the Americas, they also refused other nations the right to trade with their colonies (Mainwaring, 1616). Almost immediately, conflict developed between Spain and Portugal, but the pope intervened and drew a line dividing the New World into Spanish and Portuguese sectors, thereby ameliorating the conflict. But the British, French, and Dutch were not included in the pope’s peace. They were forced to settle for less desirable lands or areas not yet claimed by the Spanish and Portuguese.

Although they lacked the vision to finance explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama, France, England, and Holland nonetheless possessed powerful navies. They were also the home of some of the world’s more adventurous pirates, who heretofore had limited their escapades to the European and African coasts. With the advent of Spain and Portugal’s discovery of vast new sources of wealth, other European nations were faced with a dilemma: They could sit idly by and watch the center of power tip inexorably toward the Iberian Peninsula, or they could seek ways to interfere with the growing wealth of their neighbors to the south. One alternative, of course, was to go to war. Another, less risky for the moment but promising some of the same results, was to enter into an alliance with pirates. France, England, and Holland chose the less risky course.

To transport the gold and silver from the Spanish Main (the Caribbean coast of South America) to Bilbao and from Brazil to Lisbon required masterful navigational feats. A ship laden with gold and silver could not travel fast and was easy prey for marauders (Exquemling, 1670). To complicate matters, ships were forced by prevailing winds and currents to travel in a predictable direction. These conditions provided an open invitation for pirates to exploit the weaknesses of the transporting ships to their advantage. Poverty and a lack of alternatives drove many young men to sea in search of a better life. Some came to the New World as convicts or indentured slaves. The lure of the pirate’s life was an alternative that for all its hardships was more appealing than the conditions of serfdom and indentured servitude.

The French government was the first to seize the opportunity offered by engaging in piracy (Ritchie, 1986). It saw in piracy a source of wealth and a way of neutralizing the some of the power of Spain and Portugal. Although piracy was an act second to none in seriousness in French law (summary execution was the punishment), the French government nonetheless instructed the governors of its islands to allow pirate ships safe portage in exchange for a share of the stolen merchandise. Thus, the state became complicitous in the most horrific sprees of criminality in history.

Message Board by American Patriot Friends Network [APFN]


messageboard.gif (4314 bytes)