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Three myths about armed groups and the smuggling economy

Written by Florian Weigand

Hero image description: Pile of bullets, 2009. Image credit:Joe Loong Image license:CC BY-SA 2.0

Whether it be the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Myanmar or Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) in Thailand – insurgencies, rebel groups, and other non-state armed actors are routinely blamed for supporting transnational crime by trading and smuggling drugs and other illicit goods.

We often assume that smuggling in the borderlands of conflict zones is a murky business that occurs outside of the reach of the state, involving organised criminal groups as well as non-state armed group and insurgencies.

In academia and policy circles, the idea of a ‘conflict-crime nexus’ is increasingly gaining attention. However, certain myths about the role of non-state armed groups in smuggling economies persist. Overcoming these can help us to better address the challenges that underpin transnational crime.

At first sight, non-state armed groups appear to be the perfect partner in crime for smugglers as they cannot participate in the legal economy but need revenue to subsidise their political activities. Research conducted for the book ‘Conflict and transnational crime: borders, bullets & business in Southeast Asia’ however, shows that while many non-state armed groups certainly benefit from smuggling, they often play second fiddle to state actors.

The space for non-state armed groups to be involved in illicit activities is often surprisingly limited by practical, political and economic factors. In turn, state actors, often facing fewer such constraints in conflict zones, are a much more convenient partner for criminal networks and smugglers.

“Smuggling is what armed groups do”

In most conflict zones, the territory controlled by non-state armed groups is small compared to that controlled by the state. Many operate largely underground and members are actively targeted, making it much more difficult to engage in criminal activities.

For example, state authorities often claim that the BRN in Southern Thailand is responsible for drug smuggling. However, not having territorial control, the group not only lacks any comparative advantage to non-political groups, but due to surveillance of the group by state authorities, with many members being wanted, they are more likely to even be at a disadvantage.

Even armed groups that control territory usually only do so on a small scale, limiting their potential role in the smuggling economy to segments of the smuggling route that fall within their territory. Only when armed groups actually become de facto states, controlling large amounts of territory, as in the notable case of the Islamic State in 2014 and more recently the Taliban in Afghanistan, can they get involved in the smuggling economy on a more significant scale.

Non-state armed groups that fight for a political cause are also often concerned with their local legitimacy. They have to balance the need for popular support with the need for generating revenue. This limits the role that politically motivated non-state armed groups can play in the smuggling economy to those goods that, locally, are not considered to be too problematic.

As many armed groups make strong normative claims, whether based on religion or on other ideologies, they often avoid being overtly linked to products like drugs.

Hence, non-state armed groups are more likely to be involved in the smuggling of licit goods that do not have a harmful reputation.

For example, the KIA in Myanmar’s Kachin State is commonly accused of involvement in the smuggling of timber and jade. However it strongly rejects accusations of being involved in the smuggling of drugs and operates a tough policy on drugs in the areas under their control. The KIA shifted its approach in the 1990s after the negative impact drugs had on their constituents and soldiers became visible.

“Armed groups control illicit economies”

Economic constraints also limit the space for most non-state armed groups to get involved in transnational crime. In many ways, smuggling economies function just like any other economy. Anything and everything can be smuggled, from drugs and cigarettes to migrants and refugees.

This also includes mundane everyday goods such as rice and petrol. In many borderlands, ‘smuggling’ is the normal way of doing business and trading goods. While appearing remote, this economy is in some cases even informally regulated (subscription required) by state authorities.

Smugglers are best thought of as business people, who want to maximise profit and minimise risk.

Contrary to common perceptions, many smugglers avoid remote mountain ranges and deserts to cross borders, if they can use roads or seaways that are faster and offer more predictability, despite higher costs for bribing officials. Similarly, transporting goods through conflict zones bears unnecessary risks and unpredictability as they have to deal with frontlines, check-posts and territories controlled by different actors.

So smugglers, just like other business people, avoid and circumvent conflict zones if they can, further constraining the options of non-state armed groups to benefit from such activities.

This means that while conflict zones might be an origin of smuggled goods, they are unlikely likely to be a transit region. For example, at the Thailand-Malaysia border smugglers prefer operating in areas where there are no insurgents and where the presence of government security forces and check-posts is therefore also limited.

Rather than being involved directly in local smuggling economies or other facets of transnational crime, non-state armed groups more often tax the production and extraction of goods that are later smuggled – just as they frequently tax all business activities in the areas under their control.

For example, the KIA in Myanmar taxes companies extracting natural resources in the areas under their control and influence. What links this activity to smuggling, rather than legal trade, is the fact that the KIA is a non-state actor and that trade that is conducted in areas under their control is not subject to Myanmar’s customs regulations. The KIA also lack the legal status of de jure states that enables them to define what is legal and illegal.

“Smuggling lies beyond the reach of the state”

In Afghanistan, Taliban commanders tax poppy farmers (subscription required) and the production of opium in the same way they tax other farmers and businesses.

However, it is not only Taliban commanders who benefit. State officials tax the opium production – at times turning their fight against the Taliban into one over control of the revenue generated from opium.

State actors – and non-state armed groups that have de facto become states – often face fewer constraints in areas of ongoing armed conflict. The state usually controls most of the territory, depends less on local legitimacy in borderlands when supported by communities elsewhere, and is an attractive partner for criminal groups that want to facilitate the smuggling of goods without disruption.

Accountability of security and other government officials is also often limited in conflict zones, where defeating the enemy is the state’s primary concern.

This opens up a range of opportunities for corrupt practices of individuals within the state system such as border guards, police officers and soldiers. In some cases, it even results in more wide-spread and systematic involvement of state actors.

For example, an army general was among those convicted in 2018 for operating a human trafficking network that kept people in camps at the Thailand-Malaysia border to extract additional money from them. Similarly, a drug smuggler interviewed at the same border explained how cooperation with the security forces was a potent strategy.

State-supported militias often face even fewer constraints than the security forces and, in some cases, are even less accountable to local communities. For example, in Myanmar’s Shan State much of the methamphetamine is produced in areas controlled by state-affiliated militias.


There is clearly urgent need to move beyond the simplistic assumption of a ‘conflict-crime nexus’, especially with regard to the role of non-state armed groups. It is important to carefully distinguish what incentives and constraints shape the actions of different political actors.

Non-state armed groups are often constrained by the limited territory they control, their political ambitions and economic factors. Meanwhile, in conflict zones, state actors often face fewer constraints. So while we shouldn’t ignore the activities of non-state armed groups, we also have to bring the state back in when trying to gain a better understanding of war economies and transnational crime.