Latin America’s Adaptive Gangsters

Many Latin American countries have made impressive gains in building state capacity and strengthening democracy in recent decades. And yet criminal networks continue to play a large role in these countries’ formal and informal economies and political institutions, rending the social fabric and threatening further progress.

BOGOTÁ – Many Latin American countries have made impressive gains in building state capacity and strengthening democracy in recent decades. And yet criminal networks – entrenched relationships between legal and illegal agents engaged in organized criminal activities – continue to play a large role in these countries’ formal and informal economies and political institutions, rending the social fabric and threatening further progress.

Criminal networks distort the most important sources of change: globalization, technology, open markets, regional cooperation, and democracy. In a context of weak institutions, persistent inequalities, and high levels of marginalization and exclusion, new growth opportunities for organized crime have emerged. Latin America has more (formal) democracy, higher foreign-trade turnover, a larger middle class, and more advanced technology than it had 20 years ago. It also has more organized crime.

These networks bypass formal institutions to take advantage of the changes in recent decades, exploiting lacunae in the international system and the vulnerabilities of Latin American democracies. As a result, they have expanded into global markets, enabled by an extralegal system of relationships based on clientelism and corruption. Rather than resisting change, criminal networks have adapted the forces of modernization to their own advantage.

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