Latin America Governed by Crime

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The ‘Tropical Spring’ protest against corruption in Recife, Brazil.

Yet another scandal flooded the pages of newspapers in Ecuador in 2012 and 2013: the former governor of Manabí, César Fernandez, was caught trying to smuggle drugs – and not for the first time. Fernandez had only just been released from prison following a 2003 conviction on the same charges: that time using his connections in the port of Manta, nearby a US military base, to transport drugs for the Sinaloa and Cali cartels.

This is not a one off case, nor is it exclusive to Ecuador. The nexus between illicit networks and politics is a major threat to the integrity and effectiveness of democracy today, and many countries in Latin America are struggling against it. In Colombia, the murky relationship between Members of Congress and organized crime are well known at home and abroad. The parapolítica scandal shook politics at every level, and continues to do so. One of these cases involved Congressional representatives Oscar and Olga Suárez-Mira, who have long controlled local politics by whatever means in their hometown of Bello – a poor town in the outskirts of Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city. So powerful and intimidating is the influence they exert that only one candidate – their candidate – stood in a municipal election in 2011. Local citizens responded in disgust by casting blank votes en masse. A second poll was kinder to the ruling clan, but only because paid thugs intimidated any semblance of opposition, threatening the local population on Election Day to stay away from the voting centres. Eventually, in 2013 Oscar Suárez was convicted for using paramilitary groups in election campaigns.

Criminal influence on politics in neighbouring Peru is less widely known, but also provides some startling examples. The isolated region of Puno (4,000m above sea level in the altiplano border with Bolivia), has been plagued by illicit activity. The local economy revolves around smuggling, illegal and informal gold mining, illegal coca leaf cultivation, and the production of cocaine. Whole communities are sometimes involved, and much of the revenue ends up funding political campaigns.

The new normal

How do these connections occur? What process forges these nefarious relationships? How solid and durable are they? What benefits do they generate for those involved? Our access to information has been limited to the few scandals covered in the media and dealt with by the courts, but sometimes the true nature of the region’s dirty politics reveals itself more plainly.

I tried to uncover more details in 2012 by spending several months in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, interviewing politicians, analysts, members of the security apparatus, civil activists and journalists to document a number of cases that show how the dynamics work when alliances form between criminal networks and politicians. This research was financed by a fellowship grant from the Social Science Research Council and is part of the project ‘Protecting Politics’ that International IDEA and other organizations are promoting in Latin America. A book compiling this research process will be published later this year.

Uncovering these cases was revealing in itself, but one question kept coming into my head: Why is there such scarcity of information about this issue in the first place? Even though in general it is hard for journalists and scholars to study organized crime due to the inherent security constraints, we tend to have much more information about other illicit activities – such as drug production and trafficking, or patterns of urban violence.

In fact, this dearth of information about the nexus between organized crime and politics is not only an issue in Latin America, but extends even to Europe, where the relationship between illicit networks and politicians is also relatively obscure. International IDEA did similar research in the Baltic States in 2012. Santiago Villaveces and I led this field work and we found a very similar phenomenon (see “Illicit Networks and politics in the Baltic States”).

Initially I thought the reason we know little about these cases is that most of them are rooted in local level politics, and therefore fall outside the mainstream media radar. That is a plausible explanation: what major newspaper would launch an investigation into the campaign funds of the head of the small jungle town of Carabaya in Puno? And even if a journalist dares to travel there and uncover the story, how long would interest in the scandal last? However, other cases that receive more intensive media coverage, such as the activities of the Knights Templar cartel in Michoacán, Mexico, seem to be contained within their local context. So there must be something more to it.

What these cases share is that they rarely involve violence. While the public and the media invariably pay attention to a rising death toll, it seems that corruption has become ‘normalized’: it is just the way business is done, especially in Latin America. These cases are no more prominent than many other corruption scandals that fill the headlines every day.

The violence bias

The lack of violence in cases of political and criminal collusion does not mean more security exists. I was struck by what one community leader in Bello (who asked to remain anonymous) told me during an interview: ‘Bello is nowadays a very safe and quiet place. Local bands control security in town. If you get robbed, the thief is dead the next day. We have nothing to worry about anymore. The only thing is that we can’t have any problems with “the boys” and we have to pay for that. But if you do that, everything is very calm’.

This paradox about security is no illusion, but is confirmed by a steady drop in Bello’s homicide rate – in clear contrast to increasing homicide rates in neighbouring Medellin, and in spite of the fact that 13 armed gangs currently operate in Bello. This is not a strange pattern. When local gangs work hand-in-hand with state institutions, they do not need to challenge them. Quite the opposite: their main interest is maintaining the status quo that allows them to run their business smoothly. Some scholars refer to this phenomenon as a ‘pax mafiosa’.

This veneer of security is further reinforced by the changing face of organized crime. In these countries, we see fewer ‘Pablo Escobars’ and more ‘Bill Gates’. The arrest of Sinaloa cartel’s chief Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán in Mexico, who positioned himself halfway between cartel leader and corporate CEO, marks another major step in this shift to business like crime. State institutions are no longer being hijacked by some menacing bad guys. On the contrary, institutions in these localities were often built around intimate relationships between politicians and business people, who were involved in legal and illegal activities. These quasi-criminals are the local elites, and constantly jump between politics and business.

Such was the case of Governor Fernández of Manabí: he was first and foremost a businessman (one of the region’s most powerful), who built his economic empire out of chickens and shrimps before handing it over to the service of the cartels when his firms went through a bad patch. Authorities found several kilos of drugs in his warehouses, hangars and airplanes, while he also used his multiple businesses to launder drug money. Most importantly, Fernández offered these illicit networks his status as a political power broker and his privileged position among the local elite so as to find out about proposed operations and prevent any probing around by law enforcement agencies. Many members of the security services told me (on condition of anonymity) how difficult it was for them to go after such a prestigious person with ties to powerful politicians, including to former President Sixto Durán Ballén.

As International IDEA’s research highlights, this sort of connection between criminals and politicians is strengthened by the new structure of organized crime. Unlike the traditional hierarchical groups, exemplified by Escobar’s Medellín cartel, we are now in the presence of looser networks. Each part of the network is semi-independent and requires little (if any) connection to the rest of the structure. This allows politicians to get involved in crime by laundering money, for instance, without engaging in any other part of the process. Here again, the example of Manabí’s former Governor Fernández is telling: he had control over the transportation of drugs and money laundering in a relatively autonomous way, and was not directly ‘employed’ by any supervising organization. This makes matters even more difficult for the police and other authorities, as they have a hard time tracing money to its illicit sources and making the connections between other links in the chain.

All these factors help protect organized crime’s key local interests and strongholds, be they the ports they use to move drugs and money, borders to smuggle goods across, or small and medium size companies to launder money. But if these problems remain unaddressed, a fundamentally self-seeking political class will stoke public grievances that may sooner or later surface. Exactly the same process, although with different causes, happened last year in Brazil, Peru and Colombia: a decade of economic growth ended up exposing rather than hiding the deep seated complaints of citizens over dire public services and corrupt political behaviour. Mass protests were the result.

Tackling these issues is not easy. A traditional focus on security and stabilization efforts (particularly in post-conflict settings) and hard-line policies of military intervention can help to reduce the violence caused by organized crime, but they do very little to prevent political corruption. Instead, other anti-corruption efforts and political finance reform must form an essential part of the national and international campaign against organized crime.

The forthcoming book that gathers this research, entitled ‘Illicit Networks and Politics in Latin America’, by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), The Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD), and The Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael, will be released in September 2014. Its aim is to support policy makers, law enforcement agencies and civil society organizations in their efforts to strengthen the mechanisms that seal political processes from the influence of transnational crime.

For additional reading on this topic please see our personal dossier:

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Weekly Dossiers and Security Watch.

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