Latin America’s Adaptive Gangsters

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.

Criminal factions – whether Mexico’s “cartels,” Colombia’s “bands,” or Brazil’s “commandos” – are only the most visible part of these networks. The totality is based on a series of complex relationships that connect legal and illegal worlds, including politicians, judges, and prosecutors who are willing to alter sentences for money; policemen and military personnel involved in illegal activities; and businessmen who launder money.