A comprehensive look at the world of illicit trade
Though mankind has traded tangible goods for millennia, recent technology has changed the fundamentals of trade, in both legitimate and illegal economies. In the past three decades, the most advanced forms of illicit trade have broken with all historical precedents and, as Dark Commerce shows, now operate as if on steroids, tied to computers and social media. In this new world of illicit commerce, which benefits states and diverse participants, trade is impersonal and anonymized, and vast profits are made in short periods with limited accountability to sellers, intermediaries, and purchasers.
Louise Shelley examines how new technology, communications, and globalization fuel the exponential growth of dangerous forms of illegal trade—the markets for narcotics and child pornography online, the escalation of sex trafficking through web advertisements, and the sale of endangered species for which revenues total in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The illicit economy exacerbates many of the world’s destabilizing phenomena: the perpetuation of conflicts, the proliferation of arms and weapons of mass destruction, and environmental degradation and extinction. Shelley explores illicit trade in tangible goods—drugs, human beings, arms, wildlife and timber, fish, antiquities, and ubiquitous counterfeits—and contrasts this with the damaging trade in cyberspace, where intangible commodities cost consumers and organizations billions as they lose identities, bank accounts, access to computer data, and intellectual property.
Demonstrating that illicit trade is a business the global community cannot afford to ignore and must work together to address, Dark Commerce considers diverse ways of responding to this increasing challenge.
Shelley (Human Trafficking and Dirty Entanglements), founder and director of George Mason University's Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center, acknowledges the inevitability of illicit commerce in this revealing study. The estimated annual revenue generated by criminal trade, at somewhere between $1.6 trillion and $2.2 trillion, constitutes a staggering 1.5% of global GDP, Shelley notes. Further, the modern dark economy possesses the potential to irreversibly damage the planet and human health: illicit trade in narcotics, human trafficking, and the sale of antiquities plundered in wartime support terrorist armies; and the illegal trade in rhinoceros horn wrongly thought to have aphrodisiac and medicinal properties may drive this endangered species to extinction. Shelley is less than sanguine about the prospects for eradicating illicit commerce, as doing so would require a degree of coordination and cooperation among nations that is seldom practically achieved, and larger economic and social problems income inequality and corruption that foster criminal activity; corrupt officials and unscrupulous kingpins who exploit the desperation of the poor, the addicted, and refugees fleeing poverty, violence, and war show no signs of abating. Nevertheless, Shelley sees hope in activist countries, companies, and communities that have creatively and successfully battled illegal trade, for example, by finding ways to identify and shame the perpetrators. This is an informative study of the vast and pervasive problem of criminal trade.