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Another Kind of Counterpart: What It Means to Negotiate with Criminal Groups

By March 12, 2021November 22nd, 2022All News, Event News

Somalia, Bakool. November 2008, two women discuss the situation about the food that the WFP brought while a member of the security team watches. (Photo: WFP/Guled Mohamed)

The Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation (CCHN) continually strives to research negotiation topics of interest to its community members. In February 2021, Hanalia Ferhan and Marcia Vargas, Negotiation Support Specialists for Africa and Latin America respectively, held a peer circle discussion on negotiating with criminal groups. This mix of African and Latin-American contexts provided an opportunity for community members from both regions to exchange lessons learned and good practices in conducting negotiations with counterparts labelled as ‘criminal’.

While the CCHN’s regular discussions on humanitarian negotiations generally involve local authorities or ideological groups as counterparts, members of our community of practice also find themselves engaging with a different kind of player, namely criminal groups. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased interaction between criminal groups and humanitarian agencies. In Colombia, for instance, the reduced presence of the State in some areas has enabled criminal groups to strengthen their hold. In Nigeria, the pandemic has prompted humanitarian agencies to provide relief to people in areas controlled by criminal groups, in particular in urban settings. During the peer circle discussion, community members from different realities in Africa and Latin America exchanged their experiences of the particularities of negotiating with criminal groups and the environments in which they operate. They shared their views and ideas on the different challenges and dilemmas faced and good practices established.

Defining criminal groups

During the discussion, several similarities were identified when it comes to negotiating with what are loosely labelled ‘criminal groups’ and other political or militant stakeholders active in places where there is a governance vacuum. However, one key, distinguishing characteristic of ‘criminal groups’ was their motivation. While many of the counterparts with whom humanitarian practitioners usually engage are driven by ideology (generally political or religious), criminal groups are primarily motivated by financial or material gain. In Colombia, for instance, criminal groups are involved in a wide range of activities, such as drug production, illegal immigration and extortion, mainly for their own financial benefit. In Nigeria, humanitarian organizations working in urban areas, including slums, have to negotiate access with confraternities involved in property destruction, kidnapping and looting, and with armed groups of hoodlums engaged in robbery and petty crime.

“During a distribution, a criminal group that is part of the community attacked the humanitarian organization. The group’s main interest was to resell the material for financial gain.”

Identifying and understanding criminal groups as counterparts

The first set of challenges discussed centred on understanding who are the criminal groups exerting authority over a given territory. Volatile conflict dynamics in English-speaking parts of Cameroon, for instance, mean that areas may switch hands daily, sometimes with new groups emerging. As a result, humanitarian practitioners continually have to adjust their analysis of the situation and their mapping of the groups operating there.

And even when the different groups have been identified, working out who to talk to within them may present a challenge. In some contexts, weak organizational structures and fluid chains of command within criminal groups make it hard to determine who is the most authoritative or representative person on a specific matter. This in turn makes it difficult for humanitarian practitioners to gain a clear picture of the groups’ positions and to understand the rationale and motives behind their actions. Complicating matters further, groups may evolve over time, both in terms of their motives and interests, often developing increasingly political agendas. This makes defining and understanding them even more elusive. In the Central African Republic (CAR), for instance, the anti-balaka are self-defence groups that are not well organized, and humanitarian practitioners may therefore struggle to identify them. And while they had no political motivations initially, they have increasingly become driven by political agendas and the ambition to achieve political results.

“What you want to do is establish a conversation with criminal groups to understand their motivations.”

Leveraging relations with other stakeholders in the criminal groups’ ecosystem

The practitioners involved in the discussion identified other key stakeholders to be taken into consideration when negotiating access with criminal groups. Above all, such groups are often embedded in the local communities (although to what extent depends on the context, of course). In parts of Cameroon, for instance, ‘war entrepreneurs’ reportedly come from neighbouring Nigeria and establish working relations with locals – a practice that was also reported in Colombia. In CAR, where the anti-balaka also has ties with communities, it was highlighted that they are quick to abuse their power and take advantage of their dominant position over locals.

“The criminals know the community and the community knows the criminals.”

It is therefore important for negotiators to determine whether and to what extent the positions of the criminal groups represent those of the wider communities in which they operate, and for this a stakeholder mapping is useful. An organization’s capacity to leverage its legitimacy and acceptance in the communities can be critical to its ability to gather or confirm quality information. It is also a vital means of mitigating security risks, which may be greater when delivering assistance in urban areas, including slums, than at fixed delivery points.

Local authorities were also presented as key figures to consider in any stakeholder mapping and context analysis with respect to criminal groups, even though such groups tend to thrive in a governance vacuum. The practitioners highlighted the dilemma that arises when constraints imposed by the authorities clash with professional standards. Thus, in Colombia, the legal framework makes it difficult or even illegal for organizations to engage with criminal groups depending on their mandate. In this context and others, such as the Northern Triangle countries in Central America, it was highlighted that humanitarian negotiators resort to community relays to establish contact with criminal groups.

In addition, field practitioners have to negotiate with law enforcement agencies that do not engage with criminal groups themselves (whether for lack of capacity, mandate, or willingness). This puts the negotiators and their organizations under increased pressure and makes it more difficult for them to establish trust with both types of counterparts. On the one hand, the law enforcement agencies may view the humanitarian organizations as providing legitimacy to the criminal groups. On the other hand, members of the criminal groups may be reluctant to trust humanitarian organizations that operate in a legal and institutional system that discriminates against them because of their group membership.

Clarifying humanitarian organizations’ interests, priorities and objectives

To build trust within criminal groups, the humanitarian negotiators explained that it is possible in some contexts to identify members of the groups who fit humanitarian organizations’ targeting criteria. By including them in beneficiary lists, they can exemplify how the humanitarian principles of humanity and impartiality work in practice, thereby demonstrating their trustworthiness and increasing their chances of securing access. Some participants also described how they have been able, at times, to count on criminal groups for certain aspects of their operations such as crowd control, in the same way that they would use local informal community institutions in other circumstances. These considerations are tightly linked to the negotiators’ capacity to rely on clearly defined red lines from their mandators.

Lastly, the peer circle further discussed the key dilemma of negotiating with criminal groups, namely the need to engage with them to secure direct access to people in need and mitigate security risks without legitimizing them.

Food for thought and next steps

Several of the tools put forward by the CCHN appear useful to humanitarian practitioners when planning negotiations with criminal groups. However, a number of significant specific challenges and dilemmas remain.

If you are a field practitioner holding negotiations with criminal groups, you may have found yourself facing similar issues. Or maybe your experience and practice are different. Please feel free to share in and further the reflection process we have started with the participants in this peer circle.

If you are not a humanitarian practitioner but are involved in the CCHN community, we would also like to read any thoughts and experiences you have that might be relevant to negotiating with criminal groups.

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