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From issue: Trafficking and Transnational Crime (Spring 2010)

AQ Feature

Narcotics International, Inc.

Vanda Felbab-Brown

Drug cartels exploit political instability and corruption wherever they take root.

Drug trafficking is not only the most lucrative manifestation of organized crime, but also one of the most insidious in terms of the challenge it represents to states around the world. Frequently associated with violence, the drug trade is one of the principal sources of human insecurity throughout Latin America.  Drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) have emerged as primary threats to democratic governance—either because they undermine the ability of states to exercise sovereignty through the corruption of law enforcement and the political process, or because they are active competitors for the political allegiance of the population.

But understanding the differences in how individual DTOs operate and obtain political capital is also crucial to fighting them effectively.

For example, the state of the economy can determine how well gangs function. For large segments of populations in Latin America and elsewhere in the world, participation in illicit economies is the only way to mitigate the consequences of underdevelopment.

Across the hemisphere, DTOs have used the illicit economy to degrade the state in the eyes of the population by becoming governing entities in areas where state presence is minimal or predominantly repressive—the coca-growing areas of Colombia or Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, for example. In this light, crime and illegality should not be viewed simply as an aberrant social activity to be suppressed, but as a competition in state-making between the government and non-governmental actors.

Many armed groups derive significant political capital from their involvement with the drug economy. They protect the local population’s reliable and often sole source of livelihood, the illicit economy. At the same time, they provide otherwise absent social services and public goods, such as clinics and infrastructure, and function as distributors of law and order by suppressing street crime. Armed groups even bargain with traffickers for better prices on behalf of the farmers. As both a de facto source of public safety and economic security, the link between drug trafficking and armed groups makes organized crime a formidable force.

Nevertheless, another important factor is the nature of the crime lords themselves. If the traffickers are thuggish and brutal, a strong central government and an uncorrupted security force can win the support of the local population with effective policies aimed at protecting security and providing an alternative, legitimate source of income. Indeed, the government response to the illicit economy (which can range from suppression to laissez-faire) affects the ties between DTOs and armed groups.

The ties between organized crime and armed groups are frequently subject to violence and hostility that is often as intense as the conflict with the state. Moreover, while crime groups frequently take on governing functions, they rarely can do so as effectively as belligerent groups. This provides yet another opening for the state to effectively suppress them. Still, as drug traffickers expand to fill the vacuum of power in many regions, it will be increasingly hard to take advantage of these opportunities. Two prominent examples—Mexican DTOs and Colombian bandas criminales who have replaced paramilitary organizations—demonstrate how these groups are increasingly seeking to dominate the political and social arrangements of communities.

Understanding organized crime as a complex and often unstable set of relationships, rather than as a monolith, is a prerequisite for developing the tools to combat transnational DTOs. Whether they are vertically integrated, ethnically fractured or organized as a franchise is significant. So are questions such as the kind of relationship DTOs have with armed groups and how they are linked to military conflict. What follows is a survey how complex political, institutional and economic conditions have shaped both the dynamic of local drug organizations and governments’ responses…

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