Reporting by InSight Crime in 2017 revealed how organized crime managed to infiltrate local politics in Latin America as well as the multiple ways in which criminal groups take advantage of this new form of political capital to futher their criminal interests.
In a three-part investigative series focusing on the election of criminally-linked mayors in the "Northern Triangle" countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, InSight Crime detailed how a growing number of Latin American officials affiliated with a range of political parties have been accused of participating in an extensive list of crimes, including corruption, murder and drug trafficking.
Much like the golden years for Colombia’s powerful drug cartels when they managed to successfully co-opt national politics in the region, the atomization of organized crime groups and the different links of the drug trade have driven organized crime groups to seek refuge in local power to ensure the continuation of their criminal operations.
Moreover, the decentralization of political power and other legislative changes throughout the region in recent decades have increased the role of mayors and governors in security matters. This has also loosened regulation of their activities as well as their allocation of resources and public works contracts.
In the case of Mexico and other countries in Central America, the relationship between politicians and criminals has also led to the cooptation of local courts and prosecutors. Criminal groups seek to corrupt these individuals and institutions in order to ensure impunity for themselves and the politicians who have aided their shady activities.
This type of relationship is mutually beneficial. Not only does it allow criminal groups to expand their activities, but it also allows politicians to gain or maintain power to impose their own agenda, which often includes lining their pockets with bribes and embezzled public money.
In the case of Apopa, one of El Salvador’s most important municipalities in electoral and economic terms, former mayor José Elías Hernández, alias "El Maistro," managed to break with the hegemony of the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) after reaching a series of agreements with the country’s gangs. The agreements included electoral favors and votes in exchange for seats in the mayor's office and the local security force, where some gang members even had monthly salaries of $5,000.
In Honduras, the former mayor of the town of Yoro, Arnaldo Urbina Soto, alias "El Negro," was convicted of money laundering. InSight Crime reported that he used local police to supervise the arrival of drug trafficking flights loaded with cocaine and kidnap people he allegedly killed at his house. The Attorney General’s Office alleges that the group led by the mayor was responsible for more than 200 homicides and disappearances, and that it also used the local forest conservation institute to serve its own interests in eco trafficking and land theft.
But the links between politics and organized crime are not always so clear. Sometimes they include negotiations with foreign authorities, as exemplified by the former mayor of Ipala, Guatemala, Esduin Javier, alias "Tres Kiebres." Despite allegedly having been in a confrontation with 30 armed members of the Zetas, and notwithstanding evidence of money laundering and drug trafficking, Tres Kiebres has managed to govern with apparent success and stay out of prison, all while being under scrutiny by authorities.
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Some of these mayors have also come to play a more important role in national politics, both through representing their interests in the Senate and directly financing presidential campaigns.
Other traditional organized crime players such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) have now entered the political arena as legitimate actors. While one of their top leaders has run as a Colombian presidential candidate, it’s more likely that the group’s power base will remain in local positions in remote, rural areas of the country. The FARC has had a presence in these areas for decades and even acted as a type of governing body at times.
The violent nature of the relationship between local politics and organized crime has on many occasions resulted in the assassination of different mayors -- some corrupt and others who have refused to collaborate with criminal interests -- whose security schemes are typically more vulnerable and tend to attract less attention and public outrage than the killing of politicians with greater visibility.
Top photo by Associated Press/Esteban Felix