This study focuses on four countries: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Colombia. Each presents different challenges and opportunities for research, and makes its own contribution to our snapshot of elite groups and organized crime in the region.

The long history of organized crime in Colombia and the dismantling of some of the country’s largest criminal groups through a public peace process have created an incredible opportunity for judicial authorities and investigators to unearth the means and methods by which these groups co-opted so many and influenced so much. For this reason, Colombia provides the empirical base from which we draw general conclusions about modus operandi, and gives us a solid foundation to develop hypotheses about how criminal groups intersect with economic, political and intellectual elites on a regional level.

InSight Crime’s researchers in Colombia have been following this process for more than a decade. They have interviewed dozens of criminal actors and still have access to many of these actors in both Colombia and the United States. These include some of the top paramilitary leaders, who demobilized and remain incarcerated in both countries. The researchers also spoke to prosecutors and accessed judicial records and testimony that describe these connections and their development over a period of many years. These records, testimonies and interviews are the base upon which the researchers develop their hypotheses about how organized crime intersects with elites.

The Central American nations selected for study represented a much greater challenge. Judicial records are scant. Criminal actors are not as visible or public, and not nearly as accessible. Judicial authorities are less forthcoming and criminal cases often buried behind many layers of bureaucracy. In part, this is why it is so important to study these countries. There is a gap in knowledge and a limited public record of how the criminal and elite worlds intersect. While this represents a tremendous methodological challenge, which is delineated below, it also provided researchers with added motivation, and the ability to break new ground.

What’s more, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua represent an illuminating cross-section of criminal organizations and types of elites. Elite dynamics in each of these countries are different, but with important commonalities. The makeup, role and penetration of criminal groups into intellectual, societal, legal, government and economic circles is varied, but interrelated. Our findings give us a greater understanding of the local and national dynamics that influence these intersections between organized crime and elites, and allow us to draw broader conclusions about what unifies these examples.

We produced two case studies on each country. Broadly speaking, each case study illustrates a particular relationship between elites and organized crime. This relationship could be economic, political or social in nature. It could be direct or indirect. It could even be that organized crime was ultimately used as a pretext for an elite group to strengthen its control of the decision-making process, institutions, a political party or a business association.


This is one part of a multipart series concerning elites and organized crime. Read full introductory section (pdf). See other parts of the series here.

While we would have liked to select case studies that allow for seamless comparisons between countries, organized crime does not lend itself easily to that methodology. There are, in essence, very few cases of crime-elite links that are solid enough to publish and allow for meaningful discussion about the issue. There is little room for error in this regard. Publicly outing some of the most powerful sectors of these countries as having links to crime is a huge risk that we took with our partners, but one we thought necessary in order to push forward the debate about what should be done.

With our selection limited, we had to decide how we could develop a representative cross-section of studies that would allow us to draw conclusions applicable across borders. We initially sought to approach that challenge by dividing the project into social, economic and political elites. That too proved impractical, given the significant and complicated overlap between these different types of elites. The issue, of course, was uniformity. Each of these countries has different types of organized crime. Their governments have different levels of stability. Their elites have different bases of power. Their geography varies. In sum, there are simply too many variables and no perfect way to tackle this issue. So, in the end, we opted to keep the categorization of our case studies broad: one we deemed “national;” the other “local.”

The “national” case studies have certain characteristics no matter the country in question. First, the cases are illustrative of a national-level phenomenon — the criminal groups’ modus operandi, origins, their reach and penetration of the state, and their relationship with the elites are all elements that touch the country as a whole. Second, the cases involve at least one of the most important sectors of the elite. That elite group is a primary agent in the construction of society and the state, a major political or economic player, or some combination of these. Third, the cases reach the upper echelons of government and impact how the state deals with organized crime. This includes government efforts to jail suspects, prosecute them, and confiscate property. More importantly, the cases touch on how an elite manages questions of organized crime, and who ultimately makes those decisions.

The “local” case study is more limited in geographic scope but is just as illustrative, since it shows how elite-criminal relationships develop and evolve in a more intimate setting. The local case studies involve local politicians, regional economic elites and powerful social actors. These actors’ interactions with organized crime are not uniform but are similar enough that they help us draw region-wide comparisons about how the dynamics at the local level form the foundation from which national cases emerge.

Table1CountryCaseStudiesIn all the studies, we have used the same foundation to make our case for the connections between elites and organized crime. At its apex, this is based on court documents from cases that have been resolved; prosecutorial investigations that have led to convictions; testimony that has helped lead to jail sentences. In the best-case scenarios, we have spoken to the protagonists of these criminal acts or obtained their testimonies; and we have interviewed the prosecutors and government investigators who built these cases and readied them for judicial scrutiny. We have worked hard to obtain other documentation as well, such as property records, public works contracts and other government documents, where relevant and available.

When judicial and other documentation was not available — either because records were sealed or because there has not been any formal accusation against the criminal actors in question — we relied on sources close to the case to provide this foundation. These included prosecutors, police, military and intelligence officials; criminal protagonists and their lawyers; and eyewitnesses and others who could provide first-hand accounts. Some of this work was supplemented with government intelligence documents. However, we did not rely solely on intelligence documents for any part of our cases, and worked to get accounts from various sources to corroborate their information.

Finally, we pored over numerous press accounts, academic reports, non-governmental investigations and other third-party documentation. Many of these sources led us to primary sources or pointed us in new investigative directions. Others served as a means to double-check our information, or our investigative line of inquiry. We have added to our knowledge base by interviewing numerous experts, academics, political analysts, investigators and others. These interviews helped us establish sound hypotheses regarding the dynamics between elites and organized crime, as well as to frame the key concepts that bracket the study — organized crime and elites being the two most important.

In all, we have carried out more than 200 interviews in six countries. We have gathered paperwork from court files and other official documents in seven countries. We met on two occasions as a team to debate and determine lines of inquiry, form hypotheses, and to outline the reports. We have also held closed-door sessions with experts in each country to obtain feedback on our hypotheses and case study work.

Our case studies and the resulting conclusions provide the most comprehensive attempt to chronicle and analyze the proverbial elephant in the room: the elites’ relationship with organized crime in parts of Central America and Colombia.

Methodological Considerations on Data Collection

In an ideal world, each team would have worked with similar data and an equal number of judicial records and testimonies across multiple countries. The reality is that investigating organized crime is varied as well as difficult. The variables are numerous, and as complex as the subject itself.

To begin with, there is a wide variation in the quality and quantity of information available on this subject in each country. As noted above, Colombia’s long history of organized crime and its recent public peace process give researchers in that country a huge advantage over investigators in Central America, where criminal groups are an understudied, little-documented phenomenon. The resources available in Colombia, for instance, include not just judicial sources and statements from criminal actors, but a tradition of in-depth academic research, media coverage and public sector reports on this issue. To complicate matters, the levels of information differ in each of the Central American countries we have focused on. This means that the starting points are not equal, creating an uneven foundation for cross-border comparison.

Secondly, there is a question of access. Even if the documentation, testimonials and judicial records were of equal quality, circumstances can make access to this information difficult or impossible. Embedded in this issue is the question of safety, both for our investigators and our sources. Throughout the two-year process, many investigators felt inhibited by the subject matter. Some were forced to drop out of the project due to safety concerns. Others simply self-censored. We at InSight Crime followed strict safety protocols and implemented measures to keep materials safe from prying eyes. We have kept many sources anonymous in order to protect them from repercussions. But, inevitably, some things will go unreported.

Thirdly, the reliability of the documents collected varies widely depending on the country, region, subject matter, and numerous other factors. The motivations that officials and others may have for manipulating information in criminal matters, for example, are too many to delineate here. The quality of judicial investigations varies widely, due not just to officials’ fear of or alliances with criminal groups, but also to their level of competence. Despite this, judicial inquiries are generally given very high value on our scale, regardless of the training, motivation or position of the prosecutor in question. This is a limitation for any investigation that relies so heavily on judicial records.

To deal with these issues, we developed a means of documenting cases and analyzing the information obtained, breaking the information down by source. The result is a tier system that gave us an approximation of the reliability of the information we were working with, so as to better gauge its application to our case studies and our broader conclusions and analyses. It is not scientific. It is more of a guidepost, a broad set of standards by which to judge our work.


The information that comes from each source can be further broken down by type of information: eyewitness, protagonists’ accounts, hearsay, opinion, perception, analysis. Sometimes, a single source can provide each type of information. As noted above, for the purposes of this project, we attempted to construct our case studies using as many primary source and witness interviews as possible. We combined that information with judicial records and intelligence reports, corroborating this through secondary sources, media accounts and other documents.

We focused on gathering as much factual information as possible, but the nature of this study required that the interviewees give their opinions, analysis and perceptions as well. The essence of the project — that of defining who has enough influence to be counted as an “elite” — is based on perceptions, and so it was necessary to ask our subjects to share their judgments with us. Having said that, we worked hard to distinguish opinion, hearsay, perception and analysis from direct accounts by eyewitnesses or protagonists.

If we were to rank the information available on countries examined in our case studies, we would get a scale that puts Colombia at the top in terms of quality and quantity of information that was corroborated, verified and checked, and Honduras at the bottom, with Nicaragua and Guatemala somewhere in between. This assessment of the authenticity, accuracy and trustworthiness of the information is an important part of our overall effort to be as transparent as possible about our methods, and their limitations.

There are, in the end, a lot of limitations on the study of organized crime, which investigators have long acknowledged. Perhaps the best way to think of this type of research is to see it less like scientists working in a lab and more like — as Donald Cressey has put it1 — archeologists digging through the remains of long-lost society: we have too often arrived after the fact and are sifting through the pieces in order to reconstruct how that society operated.

We have done a lot of “archeology” in our two years tackling the question of organized crime and elites. The result gives you the basics about this issue — the paramount question in the region — and a framework to apply that knowledge across borders. This document is not meant to be the definitive account. It is meant to start a discussion, open the debate and push the dialogue forward.

*Graphics by Andrew J Higgens.


[1] Donald R. Cressey, “Methodological Problems in the Study of Organized Crime as a Social Problem,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 374, November 1967, p. 110.

The research presented in this investigation is the result of a project funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Its content is not necessarily a reflection of the positions of the IDRC. The ideas, thoughts and opinions contained in this document are those of the author or authors.

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...