On whose side are they dying?: Reflections on organized crime

Our region is paying the price for the dictatorial regimes we endured in the past: the authoritarian political culture is having an astonishing impact on the decline of the social order and the collapse of justice in the democratic system. Exactly the same as during the time of the military governments, Latin America is now witnessing a huge number of deaths and disappearances due to organized crime: youth gangs involved in arms trafficking and employing various methods of extortion and intimidation; hired killers from the world of drug trafficking who become dangerous destroyers of public safety; and, with people trafficking, the return of new forms of slavery.

Organized crime moves millions of dollars and is mixed up with foreign capital, the sources of which – known to be easily accessible – have been penetrated in different ways and different categories by the criminal underworld. The unstable politics and economies of Latin America are unable to confront this international and almost uncontrollable phenomenon efficiently.

These globalized criminal organizations are not only involved in trafficking drugs, arms or human beings. They have also managed to infiltrate every sector of society by setting up ghost companies that may even be legally constituted and participate in public tenders.

The methods used by the criminals enjoy illegal advantages in the market, allowing them to impose their blood law which claims thousands of innocent victims every year. In politics they find a convenient setting for the satisfaction of mutual interests, enabling the mafia culture to replace the state itself in many of its functions by buying off high-ranking officers in the police, the armed forces and the courts, for example. State structures all over the continent are being corroded by the disguised social anomie of the criminal gangs.

This issue of The Americas Political Folio argues that organized crime is growing at a dizzying speed and its consequences will probably be irreparable. The relative success of democracy and the rights-based system is at the same time being tarnished by anomalous situations such as the impact of various murky businesses linked to indiscriminate terror, where civil society is left to its fate as respect for human rights begins to disappear. Thus, values and morality gradually dissolve and cease to be a legitimate standard of behavior. They are being extinguished by the force of crime, which is elevated to the seat of honor and admired for its audacity and abundant wealth, becoming the model to be imitated because of how easy it is to deploy a series of systematic violations against the law and public safety.

The socio-political web of crime

The mafias – especially drug trafficking as the one with the greatest threatening influence – have a web-like structure: a system of connections that is also linked to the contraband arms trade, terrorism, people trafficking, kidnapping and corruption, together with the trafficking of influence. This dense web of interests has incorporated into its activities the social symbolism of fellow men, but far from showing solidarity with the poorest, or playing the role of Robin Hood, what predominates is the use of people as tools.

The immediate result is an extremely cynical exploitation of social ties whereby the only thing valued is untrammeled pleasure and direct access to wealth. Criminal gangs turn human beings into tools that can be used and thrown away, manipulating them with the sole objective of obtaining easy money from illicit activities. Organized crime will never represent an effort to help the poor or a survival strategy, or indeed a way to redistribute wealth in society. Quite simply, it constitutes egotistical behavior leading to the ruin of institutions and the constant devaluation of life, because money and unbridled appetites will always take precedence over fellow feeling and the state.

The mafia bosses have different forms of cheaper and more effective labor at their disposal, taking advantage of the absence of state mechanisms to support excluded groups lacking in opportunities. This is compounded by the mediocre and ineffectual attitudes of governments and economic policies that have been unable to put in place the conditions required to overcome poverty and protect their young human resources in the short, medium and long term.

When the mafias operate, they do so using business strategies with a good knowledge of the type of market in which they are going to act. They do not hire professionals but people with no future of any sort who have nothing to lose. It would be naive to think that organized crime works by offering opportunities to young technicians and professionals. On the contrary, its influence is so negative that it recruits people who are willing to kill, to die, to be humiliated and to undermine any type of control, laws or formal institutions. In its different forms of organization, the criminal underworld is a genuine school for scoundrels and for those groups who have no fear of disappearing from the social system.

Criminal organizations are only interested in professionals or people with a high level of education if they can make use of them, and specifically if the professionals can facilitate contacts with the top echelons of power. Organized crime also seeks the privileges that come with being at the top: within the state and as part of a society’s hegemonic elites.

The illegal cocaine trade, for example, gains in importance from the economic power it generates. The battle being waged against it by Latin American countries is not leading to effective control, despite their efforts. No-one can explain how is it possible that the highly sophisticated technology and espionage services deployed by the United States are able to track alleged terrorists drinking tea (including filming them), but unable to spot the light aircraft and trucks plying the routes chosen by the traffickers to bring people and arms out of US territory and sell them in exchange for cocaine base paste, despite all the comings and goings of experts who propose to eradicate drug trafficking. In short, the criminal gangs are being protected and democratic civil society does not know how to act when corruption reaches the nerve centers of political power.

Furthermore, organized crime is now completely globalized because it can communicate online, and is even able to shift from one territory to another and develop better synergies. The mafia move around as they see fit, without respecting the sovereignty of any state. Indeed, Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Guatemala and El Salvador are the most vulnerable countries, as the criminal underworld has managed to infiltrate national and local politics, the business world, the military, the police, the security sector and the judicial system.

Neither can we ignore the fact that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other armed resistance groups seemingly influenced by socialism or communism have totally abandoned their utopias of radical social change and justice as a result of their close ties with drug trafficking and organized crime. Enjoying the associated advantages of their arms and money, these groups provide support and protection for such illicit trades that move millions of dollars. White-collar crime also finances various election campaigns and is able to participate legally in public tenders, with the aim of laundering its ill-gotten gains.

The profits and power of organized crime are immense, in both industrialized and developing countries. According to the United Nations, the annual revenues of transnational criminal organizations around the world are likely to total about a billion dollars, a figure equivalent to the combined gross domestic product (GDP) of all low-income countries, with a population of 3 billion. These estimates include profits from the trafficking of drugs and nuclear materials, as well as other services controlled by the mafia such as prostitution and gambling. What these figures do not adequately reflect, however, is the magnitude of the investments regularly made by the criminal underworld in legitimate commercial businesses, or their control of the means of production in many areas of the formal economy.

In Venezuela, the narco-mafias are alleged to have tried to use the Banco Latino and another 19 of the country’s banks to launder their money in 1994. At the time, the financial system was controlled by the family of Pedro Tinoco, who was president of the Central Bank of Venezuela under the government of former president Carlos Andrés Pérez and played a key role in designing the structural adjustment program that was applied from 1989 onwards. This program proposed to liberalize all sectors of the economy as fully as possible, promote the widespread privatization of state enterprises, and thus modernize Venezuela. However, the effects of the alleged links between politicians and organized criminals involved in drug trafficking generated new types of patrimonialism; in other words, they used state structures to make illicit profits at the cost of undermining the institutionality of the political system.

As part of organized crime at the global level, the drug cartels have created a symbiotic relationship between the economy and political structures. Therefore, in Latin America and in the rest of the world, the relationship between the criminals and the banking system has enabled the underworld to subtly make its mark on certain macroeconomic policy trends, as many political authorities have had links with some trafficking cartels.

In another context, it is conservatively estimated that the banking system in the United States allows organized crime to launder about 100 billion dollars per year. In some cases, they even used the biggest banks in Manhattan. Various studies highlight the role played by the major investment firms in New York and the currency and gold traders linked to Wall Street, who likewise have an interest in laundering the cartels’ money. This suggests that the patrimonialism practiced by public institutions to benefit private interests and the abuse of power extends to the very heart of those countries where the idea of a solid democracy has long reigned. This is an illusion, because the organized mafias have been eroding every corner of the democratic system, promoting various murky businesses in a globalized environment.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) calculates that the offshore assets of suspect corporations and individuals amount to US$5.5 billion, a figure equivalent to 25 per cent of total global income. Furthermore, the ill-gotten wealth that certain Third World elites have deposited in foreign bank accounts is likely to amount to US$600 billion. A third of this money is thought to be held in Switzerland.


Organized crime represents a threat to regional security throughout Latin America. It must be acknowledged, however, that poor countries are making efforts to combat global crime, despite a series of ideological differences. Coordinating international security policies is the only viable way to dismantle the various criminal networks.

Preventive measures within Latin America may allow the region’s countries to distance themselves from the usual anti-terrorism and counter-narcotics programs of the United States, which is accustomed to making its support conditional in order to ensure that its decisions and objectives in its own national interest take precedence over the multilateral interests of the region as a whole. The criminals, however, are those who benefit most from this unilateral policy stance on the part of the region’s most powerful country.

The problem arises with the evidence that those paying the price in terms of their dead citizens are the countries of the south, especially if we consider the violence that results from trafficking with immigrants forced to carry drugs, rampant corruption and the moral degradation of the whole of society when faced with complete anomie and fear.

The Union of South American Nations (Unión de Naciones Suramericanas – UNASUR) is trying to find some ways to respond by mobilizing the armed forces on all the borders of its member countries. Although certain shortcomings persist, these shared views of the best way to combat the many criminal networks in the region are praiseworthy.

It is essential to continue to hold dialogue with the European Union, setting aside differences in ideological and political positions to inflict a real defeat on the most powerful mafias. Otherwise, a series of lost wars will continue because, as each day goes by, the businesses and influences of organized crime are multiplying rapidly and infecting all the structures of the state like an epidemic. In short, crime is transforming the heart of society, allowing cynicism – together with access to dirty money – to dominate as a new set of symbols in which the law of the strongest, the most corrupt and the most hardened criminals triumphs.

The figures

Within organized crime, “trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation accounts for the highest proportion of people trafficking in statistical terms: 76% of the victims of this crime worldwide are recruited for prostitution, according to United Nations figures. At the global level, this black market moves more than 32 billion dollars a year. It is the illicit trade that moves the third highest amount of money, after drug trafficking and arms trafficking, according to statistics from the United Nations Agency for Refugees (UNHCR).” Source: http://ciperchile.cl/2012/09/06/red-de-%E2%80%9Ctrata-de-personas%E2%80%9D-para-la-prostitucion-opero

The quote

“I don’t see a God of life anywhere, I only see blind people adorning their crimes with God.” Elías Canetti, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 1981

Communication, contributions, suggestions and comments to: franco.gamboa@aya.yale.edu