Hail to the King (and pay his nephew a bribe)

Originally Published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Available Here.

Dino Bouterse sits in jail, facing a formidable set of charges. According to prosecutors he traffics drugs, smuggles weapons, and openly consorts with terrorists. While lurid, the case would hardly be notable, save for who Dino Bouterse is and where he is being charged. Mr. Bouterse is the son of President Desi Bouterse of Suriname. While his crimes took place in Suriname, he effectively enjoyed immunity from prosecution there. It wasn’t until he was lured to Panama that he could be arrested, extradited, and put on trial in the United States.

Dino Bouterse is far from unique. Throughout the world, the relatives of heads of state have been caught consorting with transnational organized crime. The association is often mutually beneficial. A key challenge for organized crime groups is identify how best they can avoid enforcement of the law. Frequently, this leads them to bribe local security and justice officials on a large. However, it is far more efficient to bribe one high-level individual who enjoys the ability to impact government policy more broadly. The friends and family of a State’s leader can often have such an impact, especially in states in which the Executive wields absolute or a large degree of control.

More rarely, relatives of a head of state engage directly in organized crime. Dino Bouterse fell into this category, reportedly conspiring to import cocaine to the United States. A more notorious example is Rifaat Al-Assad, the younger brother of former Syrian President Hafaz Al-Assad, who was reportedly deeply involved in drug trafficking and car theft in the 1980s and 1990s. The rational behind this engagement in the illicit involves a mix of opportunity and reward. The obvious opportunity involves the inviolability these individuals, their position rendering them capable of evading legal responsibility for their acts. In some cases, as with Rifaat Al-Assad, their influence enables them to employ state resources to further their criminal endeavors. Collusion with or engagement in organized crime can be financially lucrative for the relatives of government leaders, enabling them to profit from their government ties, even if they do not receive a formal government salary.

The international community is challenged in its attempts to hold individuals such as Mr. Al-Assad or Mr. Bouterse accountable. They enjoy both effective immunity from prosecution and extradition in their home countries. Diplomatic concerns may also effectively stymie international efforts at prosecution. However, as Dino Bouterse’s case shows, when international will exists the relatives of heads of state can still be held accountable for their actions.

Illicit enterprises are certainly not the only entities to leverage family members of a national leader to gain a business edge. Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, son of Equatorial Guinea’s President, reportedly pocketed large bribes from foreign timber companies seeking to operate in the country. In Guinea (Conakry), the wife of General Lansana Conté, the nation’s former leader, reportedly assisted a small international mining company in gaining access to highly profitable iron deposits. Licit businesses do not pay under duress, but rather because they crave access and advantage over their competitors.