‘The End of Power’ for LatAm’s Underworld

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“From boardrooms to battlefields and churches to states, why being in charge isn’t what it used to be,” reads the front cover of best-selling book “The End of Power.” The same is true for underworlds across Latin America. 

In his book, author Moises Naim lays out how and why power is seeping out of the hands of traditional elites and into those of upstarts around the world. Naim stresses that this process is occurring in a wide range of our most cherished institutions, from political parties to militaries to businesses and religions. However, a similar dynamic is also playing out within the confines of a much more nefarious realm: organized crime in Latin America.

Below, InSight Crime identifies four ways in which the changing nature of power outlined by Naim also applies to the region’s organized crime landscape.

1. The Fall of Big Power

Naim states that by the beginning of the twentieth century, power had become synonymous with size. “Whether we call it Big Business, Big Government, or Big Labor, this triumph of large, centralized organizations validated and reinforced the increasingly common assumption that big was best,” Naim writes.

The Big revolution didn’t take place in Latin American organized crime until the latter half of the 20th century, but when the movement hit, it quickly made up for lost time. Criminal organizations that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s such as the Guadalajara Cartel in Mexico and the Medellin Cartel in Colombia were large, highly organized structures capable of moving enormous quantities of cocaine and controlling multiple links of the drug supply chain.

But Big power is fading. In business, the dominance of powerful media companies such as the New York Times is eroding, even as the ability of large armies to protect national security interests is diminishing, Naim argues.

If anything, the fall of Big power has occurred at an even faster clip among organized crime syndicates in Latin America. Due in part to sustained security crackdowns, the powerful cartels that once dominated the Mexican and Colombian underworlds have fragmented. Once boasting a power base that often rivaled or outmatched that of the state, groups like the Gulf, Juarez and Tijuana cartels in Mexico and the Cali, Medellin and Norte del Valle cartels in Colombia are now either defunct or a shadow of their former selves.

It is worth noting that this diffusion of criminal power has not only taken place in Mexico and Colombia, although that is certainly where it has been most pronounced. For example, a series of arrests of high-level criminal bosses has also led to the fragmentation of Honduras’ underworld.

2. The Rise of Micropowers

According to Naim, large corporations, political parties and churches are increasingly being threatened by what he calls “micropowers.” These new start-up companies, religious movements and grassroots political parties are challenging and even supplanting established institutions like never before, the author states. 

This argument would resonate with anyone familiar with the wave of small, localized criminal groups that have sprung up across Latin America in the wake of the downfall of the big cartels. Many of these “micropowers,” as Naim would describe them, are now operating independently or maintain only loose affiliations to larger, transnational criminal networks.

To extend the analogy further, some of these emergent criminal groups have managed to seize enormous amounts of power from the established cartels. Largely unknown just months ago, the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG) has quickly become “among the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in Mexico,” according to the US government. Meanwhile, the Guerreros Unidos — a splinter cell of the once muscular Beltran Leyva Organization — gained international notoriety last year for their participation in the disappearance of 43 students in the southwest state of Guerrero.

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Again, these changes aren’t just occurring in Mexico and Colombia. There is growing evidence fragmentation has enabled smaller criminal outfits in countries like Costa Rica, Argentina, and Paraguay to take on a larger role in the transnational drug trade as well.

3. Power is Decaying

Perhaps the most provocative argument Naim makes is not that power is shifting, but rather that it is in fact decaying. As a result of global revolutions in technologies, attitudes and mobility, leaders of fields and institutions are seeing diminishing returns on their power, the author says. “Even as rival states, companies, political parties, social movements, and institutions or individual leaders fight for power as they have done throughout the ages, power itself — what they are fighting so desperately to get and keep — is slipping away,” Naim writes.

Likewise, criminal groups in the region find themselves fighting for dominance in a world in which their influence is shrinking. To be sure, drug traffickers are still able to wield significant power over the state by corrupting politicians, security forces and other government institutions. As recent corruption scandals in Guatemala have shown, in some cases high-level political and criminal operators are in fact two sides of the same coin.

Nonetheless, criminal groups in Latin America can no longer use brute force to hold security forces in check like they once could. In the 1980s, notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar and his Medellin Cartel waged war against the Colombian government over the issue of extradition — and won. As recently as the late 2000s, a fierce battle between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels quickly turned Mexico’s northern border city of Ciudad Juarez into the murder capital of the world.

Probably the closest thing to an all-out assault on law enforcement today is the escalating conflict between street gangs and security forces in El Salvador. A breakdown of the country’s 2012 gang truce has led to historic levels of violence amid increased clashes between gangs and police, resulting in a security climate resembling that of a low-intensity war.

4. End of Power Leads to Instability

Naim suggests the fall of large bureaucracies steeped in institutional knowledge, coupled with the rise of rule-breaking newcomers, has made our world increasingly unstable. “If the future of power lies in disruption and interference, not management and consolidation, can we expect ever to know stability again?” Naim asks.

That same question could be asked about Latin America’s organized crime landscape. Of course, underworlds have always been prone to seismic shifts — instability is an inherit feature of an environment in which the most dominant players can be captured or killed at any moment.

That being said, the fall of powerful criminal leaders has injected a much greater deal of uncertainty into the region’s underworld. The criminal lifespans of top bosses is now months, not years, raising questions about how the balance of criminal power may shift in the future. 

Might the emerging micropowers in countries like Argentina and Paraguay assert themselves by grabbing a bigger stake in the transnational drug trade? Will the region’s last truly dominant power, Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, manage to avoid the fate of its fallen counterparts? And what would be the implications for Colombia if the country’s largest guerrilla group — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which is believed to make no less than $200 million from the drug trade — were to lay down their arms and sign a peace agreement with the government?

These are some of the most burning questions facing InSight Crime as Latin America’s criminal landscape transitions to the “end of power” stage.

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