State-Organized Crime: Examples & Forms

Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

State-organized crime is crime committed by state officials in the course of their position as representatives of the state. It can include things such as state terrorism. This lesson examines different forms of state-organized crime.

What Is State-Organized Crime?

Do you trust your government officials? Do you believe that they are always following the law and doing the right thing? Working in the government allows state officials to gain access to power, and that power can be used for right or wrong. The history of state-organized crime — illegal acts committed by state officials in pursuit of their jobs as representatives of the state — shows that it is not unusual for government officials to commit state-organized crimes.

It is important to make it clear that state-organized crimes are not crimes that are committed for someone's personal benefit (like accepting a bribe or stealing public money). Instead, state-organized crimes are crimes that are supposedly in the interests of the state but violate state laws at the same time.

Types of State-Organized Crimes

Common state-organized crimes include misdeeds like spying on a state's own citizens, supporting terrorism, illegally selling weapons, smuggling drugs, and other acts, such as participating in assassinations.

The Iran-Contra Affair

One real-life example of state-organized crime was the Iran-Contra Affair in the 1980s. The United States, led by then-President Ronald Reagan, supported the right-wing Contras in Nicaragua against the left-wing Nicaraguan government. From 1982 through 1984, U.S. Congress passed three different laws to try to limit the ability of the government to support the Contras because the Contras had committed many different acts of terrorism in Nicaragua. However, the Reagan administration illegally went around the laws to provide arms to the Contras. Members of the Reagan administration secretly sold weapons to Iran so the Contras could use the diverted money for weapons.

A Lebanese newspaper first leaked the news of the scandal, and 11 members of the U.S. government were convicted of various crimes. However, the major players in the scandal, like National Security Council staff member Oliver North, were eventually pardoned. Oliver North had been convicted of three felonies: accepting an illegal gratuity (from Iran), aiding and abetting in the obstruction of a congressional inquiry (he tried to thwart the investigation into the scandal), and destruction of documents (he destroyed documents that revealed his role and the details of the affair). This is one major problem with state-organized crime: It is hard to hold the criminals responsible because they are so powerful. At the same time, many Americans defended Oliver North, and supported pardoning him because they believed he was only doing what he thought was best for America.

National Security Council staff member Oliver North played a major role in the Iran-Contra Affair.
Oliver North mugshot

The Iran-Contra Affair is considered state-organized crime because it was committed by state officials (like Oliver North) in their position as state representatives. The officials also didn't commit the crimes for their own personal benefit; they were committed in the name of national security.

Korean Air Flight 858 Bombing

Another example of a state-organized crime is the 1987 bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 by North Korea. Two North Korean agents placed a bomb on the flight from Baghdad, Iraq, to Seoul, South Korea. All 115 people on the plane, most of whom were South Korean, died. The bombing was apparently intended to frighten people away from attending the 1988 Seoul Olympics, as tensions were still hot between the two countries (even though North Korea and South Korea had signed an armistice in 1953).

Though one of the North Korean agents committed suicide before she was caught, the other was arrested and sentenced to death by a South Korean jury. However, the South Korean president pardoned her, believing her to be the victim of brainwashing by the North Korean government. While the North Korean government was designated by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism after the bombing, and isolated internationally, the murderous government remained in power, and other than continued international isolation, faced no real consequences for its crimes.

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