Working Paper
The state and the ‘legalization’ of illicit financial flows

Trading gold in Bolivia

Most research on illicit financial flows (IFFs) has focused on illicit outflows from developing countries and the role of non-state actors in generating IFFs. Less attention has been paid to processes and interfaces through which IFFs enter formal value chains—in effect being ‘legalized’ before leaving the country—or the crucial role of state institutions as gatekeepers.

We develop a novel explanatory approach to account for the enabling role of state institutions in the ‘legalization’ of IFFs. Building on political settlement theory, we explain the performance of institutions in the regulation of IFFs as a function of political settlements.

Taking the case of the Bolivian gold-trading sector, we examine how the process of ‘legalizing’ illicit value flows works in practice and analyse the motives and underlying conditions that lead state institutions to permit the formal export of gold shipments that have been illicitly sourced or transferred.

Evidence from Bolivia indicates that the ‘legalization’ of illicit flows cannot be sufficiently explained by reference to corruption, illicit rent-seeking, or a general lack of administrative capacity. Rather, the process accommodates the interests of the cooperatives dominating the gold-mining sector, which are critical to maintaining the political settlement on which the incumbent government’s power is based.

By maintaining a status quo of non-enforcement, legal ambiguity, and pervasive informality, gold-mining cooperatives are permitted to reap higher benefits from resource extraction at the expense of domestic revenue mobilization.