Two expert analysts explain how Guatemala’s criminal networks have penetrated the state, and shed light on the ways in which these networks can be combatted and eliminated.

When the state institutions that are supposed to make a democracy work — namely, the security forces, the courts, the attorney general’s office, congress and the executive branch — are influenced by illegal groups, this is when you can say that state has been “co-opted” by organized crime. When these groups make public officials their subordinates, then the “co-option” of that state becomes a fact. And when those illicit networks finance the campaigns of political parties looking to win power via elections, appoint officials, and direct public policy, that is when you can say the state has been “reconfigured” to benefit criminal interests and make those criminal practices legal. 

Over the last three decades, illegal networks that have co-opted the state — from within and from without — to facilitate criminal operations have left thousands dead in Latin America and generated impunity, fear, and unease. These illegal networks have stripped citizens of the resources meant to support their government. They have fomented corruption. They have made a culture of illegality and violence something normal, and they have deepened poverty and inequality in the region.

This article was originally published by Plaza Publica, and was translated and reprinted with permission. See the Spanish original here.  

Colombian academic Luis Jorge Garay Salamanca, who has a PhD in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is a pioneer in studying this phenomenon, which he calls “the principal danger to Latin American democracies.” His research, based on the analysis of social networks, has revealed the complex and sophisticated means by which these criminal groups penetrate state institutions, and the relationship between organized crime and politics, the economy, laws, and culture in Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala. 

Plaza Publica spoke with Garay in Guatemala in March 2015, alongside Samuel Gonzalez Ruiz, a Mexican national who helped create the special organized crime unit within Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office. Gonzalez is also a high-level expert for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and holds a PhD in philosophy and legal theory from the University of Bologna.  

How did the criminal networks that operate in Guatemala emerge?

Garay: Basically from the center of the government. During the transition between political regimes following the civil war, counter-insurgent structures were melded with criminality, and they advanced with the goal of co-opting the state.

Counter-insurgent structures? The officials from Army Intelligence?

Garay: Yes. The upper echelons of power, in some instances, are co-opted by legality and illegality, going both ways.

Somewhat similar to what happened in Russia.

Garay: Somewhat similar. In Russia, during the transition from the communist to market-based regime, there was a power vacuum that gave rise to a mafia state. Many government officials unfairly acquired state companies for their own purposes, and later ceded them to transnational capital. The system did not have rules or norms, it was all a mafia state. The leadership of the Communist Party, or some of its members, took advantage of this transition for their own benefit, including for criminal activities and with openly criminal intentions.

How do you actually identify illegal networks?

Garay: In the beginning it is very difficult because in many cases they maintain the appearance of legitimacy. When this occurs you must have a variety of indicators. When a network has been set up, one can do monitoring and anticipate some scenarios of how it will mutate and transform. I’m talking about complex criminal networks […] that act in a decentralized way, with structures that are increasingly horizontal and with greater levels of resilience. They have economic objectives (to generate wealth), but also political (to exercise territorial power and design public policy), and cultural objectives (to promote the values of illegality, violence, and criminality).

Gonzalez: They always behave with the appearance of legality, with legal and illegal actors, inside and outside of the institutions of the state, at the local, regional, and national level. They are continually diversifying their criminal activities; from drug trafficking, they move to kidnapping, extortion, contraband, arms and human trafficking. They use corruption, blackmail, and the buying of favors within the state to facilitate their illegal operations. They create legal institutions, companies, and financial entities to launder money; they have lawyers, businesses…

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

Can these networks act without the complicity of the state?

Garay: Basic criminal networks can. But the organized criminals and mafias cannot exist without the state. For the expansion and accumulation of nefarious social, political, economic, and criminal capital, these organizations require a relation with institutional elements of the state and society.

Gonzalez: These groups exist because the state permits it. The weakness of the state is what permits the formation of organized criminal groups, it is not organized crime that weakens the state.

To exist, these networks also need the support and participation of the private sector and other groups from society.

Garay: The institutionalization of the state and legality are fundamental for the development of criminal networks, just like with public-private relations. Without this, then complex and sophisticated illegal networks could not enter money they earn from their criminal activities into legal circulation. This money is worthless when it is illegal, and therefore the reason to belong to organized crime in order to accumulate financial capital disappears, it would suffocate by itself. There is a grey area that is opaque and vague, and this is where the interests of criminal groups, the private sector, and corrupt state functionaries converge. It is there where they interact, in a space that is not easily visible. They have various degrees of influence and relationships in the legislature, in the security forces, in state institutions, and in the financial system.

Gonzalez: Criminal groups need the financial system to launder money. They take advantage of young people — who the state has not provided with educational and work opportunities — to be their hired killers. Not just the cartels or criminal groups, but also legal corporations. They also buy and control judges and public prosecutors to obtain benefits. Banks, television and phone companies, they also have their lawyers who extort the judicial system. They infiltrate the state because it controls the security forces, political power, and judicial power.

Is violence an indispensable tool for these networks?

Garay: In the phase of the reproduction and creation of capital it is necessary, but not sufficient. Political and social connections are fundamental. There are networks that do not require violence, like the one directed by president Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004) in Guatemala, where there were no directly attributable deaths, but they instead used public institutions to develop a combination of illegal activities. Violence by itself does not imply the persistence of criminal networks; it depends on the situation.

The co-option of forces is not only done on the part of criminals targeting the state; oftentimes the state itself requires the use of criminal groups.

In what way do these criminal networks co-opt state institutions?

Garay: There are different stages of systemic corruption. One phase is state infiltration, when criminal organizations from outside the state, through methods such as bribery, coercion, or violence, co-opt and infiltrate the state. A more advanced, sophisticated, and complex stage is when criminality settles inside the state, co-opting it from within; and the other is how, from within the state, in a two-way process, institutions hook up with criminality, with the intent of transforming the state for the benefit of criminal structures. This is another step in the co-option and reconfiguration of the state. It is important to mention that the co-option of forces is not only done on the part of criminals targeting the state; oftentimes the state itself requires the use of criminal groups for criminal purposes. It is a two-way process. When there are no public ethics, when politicians and the civil service are lacking this ethic, institutions are more easily co-opted, or the doors of the state are more easily opened to crime.

Can this happen without the participation of political parties?

Garay: State institutions consist of officials who are chosen by the central government, which is linked to party competition in a democratic system, and therefore these officials belong to political parties. It is in these [political parties] that criminal networks are established within the state.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

How do criminal networks penetrate political parties? Through the funding of political campaigns?

Garay: This is the most basic and simplest way. But organized crime has also created its own political parties. The most common case is that they finance established parties, but they have also formed parties with openly criminal purposes. No longer content to influence the state through funding, they begin to act politically through their political organizations in order to reconfigure the state according to their criminal interests.

Fundamentally, a refounding of the state is required in which society and elites acquire an explicit commitment to legality.

How does one combat these criminal structures?

Garay: It requires new laws that take into account new research techniques, new penal tools, and expertise in the complexities of sophisticated crime operations. It requires transnational cooperation, because these networks are transnational in nature. But, fundamentally, a refounding of the state is required in which society and elites acquire an explicit commitment to legality.

Gonzalez: These phenomena are generated due to the weakness of the state. To combat them, the general rule is to strengthen the state in all its aspects, not just police, prosecutors, judges, and correctional institutions. It also has to do with strengthening the entire state through the creation of mechanisms to improve tax collection, improve public spending, and tackle corruption. That is what will generate resources for social programs that will prevent young people — who partake in criminal activities for practically nothing — from becoming cannon fodder for organized crime.

What about prevention?

Gonzalez: It requires two efforts: prevention and repression, with the state and civil society working together. The weaknesses of our governments mean that, before such strong forces, they lack the capacity for prosecution and investigation. At such times, only international aid can create mechanisms that deliver results. This international support can manifest itself in different ways, including education programs and training for local institutions, technical assistance, joint operations, or, as in the case of Guatemala, the development of an entity of the United Nations — the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) — which aims to support the Attorney General of Guatemala and assist in investigations.

For this to be possible, the political will of the state is needed, but when those who wield political power are part of criminal networks or have been co-opted by them, obviously they will not accept this…

Gonzalez: The Charter of the United Nations, in Article Two, Chapter Seven, points out that there is a moment when these elements of state co-optation and organized crime are so strong they pose a threat to international peace and security, and the UN Security Council can determine if the use of force is necessary. In Latin America there may come a time when organized crime reaches levels that threaten international peace and security, requiring such UN action.

Those who oppose extending the CICIG mandate argue — among other things — that this commission violates the country’s sovereignty.

Gonzalez: State sovereignty, which is what opponents of this type of aid allege, lies with the people. And the people are sovereign when they can exercise their rights, but if there are criminal organizations that prevent them from exercising their rights, the assistance of the international community in these cases is accepted and provided for in the framework of the UN. This is something that allows people to exercise their rights. It is a matter of sovereignty, yes, but also of the rights of the people: the people are sovereign because they can pass their own laws, but if criminal organizations prevent people from exercising their rights, it is legitimate to seek help from the international community to ensure their security.

But to speak of the “people” is somewhat abstract. In any case, it falls upon the elites to ask for this help.

Gonzalez: The groups that wield real power in a society are the ones who make the deals. But in this case, it is the people, the masses, not the elites, who are suffering the consequences of the actions of criminal groups. By that I mean it is the people who should demand their government work with the international community, through institutions like the CICIG, which help to reduce levels of violence, to combat state infiltration, and to reduce corruption. All countries in the world are subject to the same framework of support and development. Sovereignty is not just a question regarding intervention, but also a question of guaranteeing the rights of individuals.

There are also those who oppose the continuation of the CICIG because they fear being affected by its investigations.

Gonzalez: The international reality makes it so that the jurisdiction with transnational crime is international. That is, crimes such as the laundering of money that is earned through corruption may be pursued on an international level. […] The person or official who is linked to transnational crime, drug trafficking, corruption, or money laundering, and who thinks that by not having a CICIG in their country they will be protected, is wrong. That’s not true, because the crimes are transnational and affect different jurisdictions.

*This article originally appeared in Plaza Publica and was translated and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here.

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