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Gangsters, militants exploit environment for cash

Gangsters and militants take their cut from the illegal trade in ivory, gold and other products
Gangsters and militants take their cut from the illegal trade in ivory, gold and other products AFP
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Paris (AFP)

Reckless exploitation of the environment has taken over from drug trafficking as the top source of income for organised crime syndicates and armed groups, the international police agency Interpol said in a report Wednesday.

Ivory trafficking, gold mining, illegal "taxes" on natural resources and other environmental crimes make up 38 percent of the funding of conflict and armed groups, according to the "World Atlas of Illicit Flows" report.

It added that while groups like the Islamic State grab the headlines, they account for just four percent of the $31.5 billion (26.8 billion euros) generated in conflict zones worldwide each year, with the rest going to organised crime groups.

The report, compiled with the Norwegian risk analysis centre RHIPTO and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, is billed as the first global overview of trafficking routes used by such groups.

It maps out some 1,000 routes used for the trafficking of everything from oil, gold and diamonds to drugs, people and ivory.

"Organized crime is increasingly undermining peace, security and development," said Mark Shaw, Director of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

"It has become a global phenomenon, represented in a confluence of conflicts from Africa, to the Middle East and the Americas," he said.

Illegal mining makes up some 17 percent of the funding of armed groups, with gold in the eastern DR Congo and coltan (used in mobile phones) in Latin America among the minerals targeted.

Organised crime groups are also involved in the lucrative trade of poached African elephant ivory as well as rhino horns sold to Asia for use in traditional medicine, though the report stressed the $165 million of such sales made up a tiny proportion of their total earnings.

After "environmental crimes", drug trafficking remains the second biggest source of funding, accounting for 28 percent of the total, according to the report.

Illegal taxing of civilians, as well as looting and extortion, account for another 26 percent.

In contrast, donations and kidnappings for ransom only made up three percent each.

- Shabaab 'tax collectors' -

Christian Nellemann, Head of the RHIPTO Center, said governments needed to start seeing the fight against organised crime as a key factor that could help end conflicts.

"In many instances, criminal groups, some closely connected to political elites, may have a vested interest in renewed and continued armed struggle to ensure their dominance over natural resources and trade routes," he said.

The report sheds light on how militant groups operate "tax collection" operations to extract money from civilian populations.

In mid-2017, it estimated, the Islamic State group was bringing in around $10 million in taxes from the territory it occupied across Iraq and Syria.

"Today, with dramatic losses of territory, Islamic State probably has at their disposal no more than a quarter of this," it said, while warning the group likely has "considerable reserves".

Similarly the report said Afghanistan's Taliban earned between $75 million and $95 million last year taxing heroin produced from the country's poppy fields as well as land and agricultural output.

In Somalia, Al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab Islamists make around 10 million a year through taxing everything from livestock to drinking water, or extorting "protection money" from companies.

The militants even have "tax collectors, identifiable by their uniforms", the report noted.

People trafficking is also a hugely lucrative source of funding for armed and criminal groups -- the fourth-largest criminal enterprise worldwide with an estimated worth of $157 billion, according to the report.

The smuggling of migrants across the Sahara desert nets armed groups up to $765 million a year, it estimated.

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