Catching the Middlemen Who Fuel Organized Crime

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A new report released by the International Assessment and Strategy Center (IASC) highlights the role of specialized intermediaries, many of whom have connections to several illicit groups at once, in facilitating transnational crime.

The report (pdf), entitled “Fixers, Super Fixers and Shadow Facilitators: How Networks Connect” is authored by IASC Senior Fellow Douglas Farah, and will be included as a chapter in a forthcoming book on global organized crime published by the Center for Complex Operations at National Defense University. In it, Farah looks beyond well-known international illegal organizations, to the networks of shadowy middlemen who make their activities possible.

According to Farah, criminal and terrorist organizations that sell commodities like cocaine or illegally-mined minerals rarely have the necessary influence to access the international market on their own. Instead, they generally rely on well-connected middlemen to assist in moving the product and transferring payments. Whereas their clients may be motivated by ideology or political ambitions, these middlemen are more often driven by economic incentives, which gives them the ability to work with a diverse array of criminal groups. As Farah puts it, “These individuals are the crucial links or bridges between different worlds that do not often overlap.”

The chain outlined in the report begins with producers of illicit commodities like coca leaf growers and cocaine laboratory operators, who are frequently controlled by non-state armed groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). These producers often rely on a network of local political or business elites — whom Farah calls “local fixers” — in order to move their commodity out of the area of production.

But while these fixers are highly knowledgeable about the local dynamics of illicit commodity transfers, they in turn have to rely on so-called “super fixers” to move the product to the international market. These individuals have ties to several powerbrokers around the world, often organizing money laundering schemes and maintaining bank accounts in various countries in the region. A likely example of such an intermediary in Central America is Marllory Dadiana Chacon Rossell, who the United States government recently accused of managing a vast drug trafficking and money laundering network with operations in Honduras, Guatemala and Panama.

Yet even “super fixers” like Chacon may not have access to the kinds of services needed by the initial producers. An even more well-connected group, referred to by Farah as “shadow facilitators,” often assists with the procurement of specialized weapons, counterfeiting legal documents, and using front shipping companies to transport illicit goods.

A case study of this chain provided in the report which involves FARC fixers and an alleged connection to ex-Salvadoran guerrilla (and current secretary of the ruling FMLN party) Jose Luis Merino. Citing seized files found on the computer of FARC commander Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias “Raul Reyes,” Farah claims there is reason to believe Merino served as a super fixer for the Colombian rebel group in the early 2000s. According to him, the Salvadoran official assisted the FARC in financial matters and offered to connect rebel leaders with Australian shadow facilitators who could provide sophisticated weapons to the group.

Farah’s outline of these networks provides an extremely useful framework for understanding transnational crime. As he points out, the fact that these middlemen often work with several criminal groups at once means that pursuing them could provide law enforcement with the necessary intelligence to unravel multiple illicit networks at once.

At the same time, tracing illegal financial transactions often requires a significant amount of police resources and international cooperation, making these players much more difficult to catch.

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