Organized crime and the violence associated with it is the preeminent problem in Latin America and the Caribbean today. The region is currently home to six of the most violent countries in the world that are not at war. Four of those countries are in Central America, where we centered our research. Public opinion polls also consistently show that crime and insecurity are at the top of the region’s concerns. Governments and multilaterals have channeled vast resources towards dealing with this issue, and international aid and humanitarian organizations have shifted their mandates to better confront its effects.

The problem is as broad as it is deep. It touches all aspects of society, politics and business in these countries. Organized crime is undermining democracy and distorting economies. It is fueling small gangs and international criminal syndicates that use their money and weapons to co-opt or subvert the security forces. It is penetrating the state, breaking apart the institutions that were established to protect citizens and promote prosperity, and turning them into tools for wielding power. And it is changing the dynamics of international affairs, politics and elite relations in these countries.

However, the analysis of organized crime has not kept pace with these developments. Indeed, the idea for this study came from scanning governmental and non-governmental reports on organized crime and realizing that too often it is characterized as separate from, rather than integrated with, the communities in which it operates. In the traditional conception, criminal economies are considered to be parallel, not essential, to the lives of those who live where they operate. The protagonists are identified as gang members, thugs and hoodlums; rarely as bankers, politicians and security forces personnel. Governments rarely look inward at their own history, their geography, or their failing institutions to find out why organized crime is thriving in their country. They blame what they see as outsiders -- frequently foreigners -- or those on the margins, particular the poor. There are Italian, Russian, Colombian and increasingly Mexican mafias that are considered to be somehow distinct and ruthless because of their upbringing, their culture, or their ethnicity.

The result is a distorted view of who the criminals are and how they gained such a solid foothold in the region. Traditional assessments have little concept of organized crime’s activities and businesses, the role it plays and how it is integrated into the economy, politics and social life of communities. These assessments have yet to measure how crime impacts governance and democracy, from local community associations to the national vote. And they struggle to conceptualize the role crime plays in the formation of the state, from both an economic perspective and a security perspective.

What’s more, most assessments focus on two aspects of the government’s efforts against organized crime: its ability to reform or beef up its judicial system or security forces; and its ability to implement social and economic programs to keep potential recruits from joining organized criminal gangs. The emphasis of these assessments is greatly influenced by the principal ways in which they view crime, i.e., as the result of a “failed” state or a “failed” economy.

This view leads to a false choice, one in which governments, multilaterals, foundations and others must decide between “good guys” and “bad guys” in a zero-sum game. This is a dangerous way to frame the issue, as it cuts off huge portions of society, politics and the business sector who, whether they like it or not, must operate within or around organized criminal activities. It also ignores the West’s own history, in which pirates, bootleggers and others played important roles in the construction of social, economic and political structures.

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This is one part of a multipart series concerning elites and organized crime. Read full introductory section (pdf). See other parts of the series here.

In our study, we are seeking to expand the notion of how organized crime works. We see it as something that is integrated into society, into the development of a country’s economy, its governance structures, and social groups. Organized crime does not penetrate as much as it blends in with the various parts of the community, the political class and the business moguls. This includes the “elite,” i.e., decision-makers, influencers, political operators, and those who control capital and the means of production.

By expanding who we include in our study, we can see the whole picture, one that is not restricted to a zero-sum game of cops and robbers, but considers more nuanced and little-understood factors to identify why this phenomenon is so hard to eliminate, and what we can do to foster a society that does not reward criminal activity, especially activities that rely on violence. Specifically, we are interested in exploring three areas that deserve more attention: organized crime’s interaction with economic development, governance, and social and cultural dynamics.

On the economic side, organized criminal groups are overrunning local economies by buying large tracts of land, purchasing huge quantities of local goods, commandeering public works projects, and developing economic conglomerates. In many cases, they are emerging as a new elite. In other cases, they are working closely with traditional economic powers. In both instances, economic development may begin as a secondary concern for the criminal group, but its activities can result in lucrative ventures that fit into a country’s larger economic project and contribute mightily to a country’s economic growth. This can also give the criminals an avenue to climb the social ladder and gain legitimacy.

Still, the impact of organized crime on something as complex as economic development is hard to determine because it is not uniform. Organized crime may retard economic development if it strengthens traditional, less labor-intensive industries such as cattle farming, or if illicit monies are used to undercut competitors and distort the market. However, a community may also flourish if criminal groups invest heavily in labor-intensive business such as road-building or other construction projects, move capital through the local financial system, or purchase large amounts of local agricultural goods.

In essence, criminal groups have diversified their business portfolios and have sometimes become integral players in bringing about what some might call economic progress. They are critical actors in rural investment plans, agro-industrial projects, tourism, real estate, the mining industry and other capital-intensive economic projects throughout the region. Their interests regularly intersect with those of the government and private economic groups through a complicated web of partnerships and alliances. Their participation, and injection of resources, can ensure the long-term health of these projects, which many outside observers consider the bulwark of economic development in the region. This leaves us with the critical question of whether organized crime’s participation in economic activity is uniformly negative, as it is often portrayed.

There is less ambiguity with regard to organized crime’s impact on governance, which is overwhelmingly negative. Criminals have infiltrated political parties or co-opted them with large campaign or other contributions. In some cases, they have created their own political parties. In all cases, it appears that they are using increasingly decentralized political systems, or co-opting centralized systems, to establish virtual islands where criminals hold power. The exercise of power in these islands answers to the criminals’ interests, rather than to the public interest, thwarting political activity, undermining democracy, and subjugating minority, women and ethnic groups’ interests in the process.

There are also indications that organized criminal groups are undermining the entire political system in countries across the region by developing strategies to control local and national elections. They are securing resources by placing allies in key political posts, ministries, and committees. And they are altering the checks and balances system by penetrating high courts and influencing the selection of candidates for many sectors of government and the security forces.

Finally, organized crime is altering social and cultural relations in communities across the region. Partnering with or coercing community, religious, indigenous or intellectual leaders, these organized criminal gangs are usurping power across multiple milieu and influencing how leaders organize, how they interact with other state and private actors, and how they develop relations with their constituents. The links between these leaders and organized crime have broad implications for community dynamics, especially in cultural, educational and religious environments.

In sum, we began this study with the belief that we could deepen our understanding of how organized crime had become part of the communities, the governing structures and the economic elites who make the decisions that shape these societies. We have spent two years developing case studies in four countries that illustrate the complex, intertwined nature of these relationships. But before we go into the details, we need to outline our methodology and set out the limitations of our study. 

The research presented in this investigation is the result of a project funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Its content is not necessarily a reflection of the positions of the IDRC. The ideas, thoughts and opinions contained in this document are those of the author or authors.

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