As Transparency International publishes its annual rankings on corruption, InSight Crime looks at how corruption is impacted in Latin America by one of its most powerful promoters: organized crime. 

In order to facilitate business, organized crime groups corrupt certain elements of the state -- particularly the security forces and the judiciary. Organized crime has also shown an interest in infiltrating the political arena in many parts of the region.

Non-governmental organization Transparency International (TI) has been releasing an annual ranking of the world's most corrupt countries since 1995 -- although the number of countries surveyed, and the methodology used for doing so, has changed over time, meaning that the more recent rankings are not comparable with the earlier ones. The NGO gives each country a score based on "how corrupt their public sectors are seen to be," according to their website.

This number is calculated by aggregating numeric scores calculated by 12 other institutions -- a combination of research NGOs like Freedom House, non-profit foundations like the Germany-based Bertelsmann Foundation, private companies like risk analysis corporation the PRS Group and the Economist Intelligence Unit, and financial institutions like the World Bank

According to Transparency International's most recent indexVenezuela and Haiti were perceived as the most corrupt countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, followed by Paraguay, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guyana. On the other end of the spectrum, Barbados, Chile, Uruguay and the Bahamas were perceived as being least corrupt.

However, ranking corruption within a country based on the power of organized crime groups may result in a very different list. It is one thing to have officials asking for bribes to get permits granted, make speeding tickets disappear and secure government contracts. It is something else to have entire municipal police forces on the payroll of drug cartels, as in Mexico; to have money from drugs traffickers or illegal gold miners fund political campaigns on a massive scale, as in Peru; or to bribe and intimidate an entire Constituent Assembly to outlaw extradition, as Pablo Escobar did in Colombia.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Police Reform

Organized crime seeks to corrupt state officials so they will either turn a blind eye to their activities or actually facilitate them. The priority is always the police, the very force that should be investigating their activities. Anti-narcotics police forces are a top criminal priority in Latin America. Other priorities for drug trafficking are the officials controlling the potential departure or transit points for drug shipments, like port and airport officials and police.

Investigations into organized crime are handled either by police or the attorney general’s office, both frequent victims of bribery or intimidation. If organized crime cannot prevent cases being investigated and presented, then it goes after judges. If all these attempts fail and criminals get convicted, then they try to run their businesses from jails, which in many parts of Latin America are finishing schools for hardened offenders and centers of criminal activity. Once convicted, there have been examples of criminals buying themselves a presidential pardon, as rumored in Peru.

Many organized crime syndicates have sought the ultimate protection: highly placed political figures. The highest profile examples of this have been in Colombia. In 1994 the Cali Cartel was believed to have paid $6 million to ensure that Ernesto Samper (today Secretary General of UNASUR) won the presidency. In 2002, the paramilitary army of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) managed to win more than 30 percent of Congress, in a bid to ensure favorable terms for a peace deal.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

In light of the above, InSight Crime has ranked Latin American countries based on our assessment of organized crime's earning power and ability to corrupt elements of the state. Our ranking is certainly not based on the same rigorous methodology of Transparency International, but stems from our experience studying organized crime syndicates across the region:

Mexico is ranked 103 out of 174 nations by Transparency International. For InSight Crime it has the most powerful criminal syndicates in the region, closely followed by Colombia, which TI ranks at 94. Venezuela, ranked as the most corrupt nation in the region by TI, is an important regional criminal center, acting as the transit nation for some 200 tons of Colombian cocaine headed to the US and Europe. Its organized crime is nowhere near as powerful as that of Mexico or Colombia, but is perhaps unique in the region as it is embedded in the Chavista regime -- a structure we call the “Cartel of the Suns,” in reference to the gold stars Venezuelan generals wear on their epaulettes. Paraguay, which also languishes towards the bottom of TI’s list, is an important producer of marijuana, but does not have native powerful transnational organized crime structures, although Brazilians do have significant presence.

What this limited exercise shows is that the presence of powerful organized crime does not guarantee that a nation will fare badly in Transparency International’s corruption index, although it is certain that this must be a contributing factor.

*Kyra Gurney, David Gagne and Elyssa Pachico contributed to this article. The research presented is, in part, 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.

IDRC logo blue full name