HomeNewsAnalysisFrom Street Gangs to Presidents: InSight Crime's Decade of Covering the Underworld
ANALYSIS

From Street Gangs to Presidents: InSight Crime's Decade of Covering the Underworld

COCAINE / 18 NOV 2020 BY SETH ROBBINS EN

At InSight Crime’s 10th anniversary conference, presenter Robert Muggah described the primary reaction he has received when collaborating with the organization across Brazil, Colombia, Peru and El Salvador.

“Wherever we went, we were always recognized -- and we were rarely loved,” said Muggah, the co-founder of Brazil’s Igarapé Institute.

The comment touched on one of the main takeaways from this brief exploration of ten years of covering organized crime: criminals -- whether wealthy businessmen, street gangs, drug trafficking kingpins, police or high-level politicians -- do not like being exposed.

Co-director Steven Dudley spoke about one of InSight Crime's first forays into this type of investigation, a three-year project on elites and organized crime that continues to be one of the most-read investigations on the site. The project put a spotlight on how “political and economic blocks were created and were fusing with organized crime interests in ways that were giving them huge amounts of power,” Dudley said.

SEE ALSO: Impunity in the Northern Triangle

But the difficulty with taking on these types of investigations, said Co-director Jeremy McDermott, is that they are “more difficult to get, more complex to tell and unfortunately more risky to do.”

The event kicked off with Juanita León, the founder and director of Colombia’s La Silla Vacía, who asked InSight Crime’s co-directors about the organization’s beginnings. In 2009, both McDermott and Dudley were correspondents in Latin America when they noticed news outlets cutting budgets for investigations in the region. With seed money from Open Society Foundations and support from American University in Washington, DC, the organization was born a year later.

But it grew in ways the pair never imagined. InSight Crime now includes a staff of more than 50 investigators across the Americas. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the InSight Crime team could be found on-the-ground in various corners of the region, often in “hairy places,” McDermott said.

Viewers were curious about what it takes to uncover the underworld. Dudley described how InSight Crime uses a range of sources, including community leaders, crime victims, law enforcement officials, court documents and when possible, the criminals themselves.

“It’s about small increments and working sources over a long period of time,” he said.

During the conference’s second half, Muggah, Dudley and McDermott delved into region-specific questions on the evolution of organized crime.

They started with Colombia’s role in the organized crime landscape, a proper place to begin given that the organization was born and is still based in Medellín.

Colombia, McDermott said, continues to produce record amounts of cocaine, and its crime groups have sought markets where wholesale prices for the drug have soared: Europe, Asia and Australia.

“Colombians have been the pioneers in the criminal world. That is as true today as when (Medellín Cartel kingpin) Pablo Escobar industrialized the smuggling of cocaine using aircraft,” he said.

SEE ALSO: ‘The Invisibles’ of the Drug World

The group later discussed the hyper-violence of criminal groups in Mexico that has led the country to be one of the most deadly in the world, starting with the example of the murderous Zetas. Dudley took viewers through the group’s origins as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. Gradually unleashed, the Zetas transformed into a criminal army that entered a range of activities, including extortion, kidnapping, contraband, prostitution and contract killings. The Zetas model “persists because the barrier of entry is much lower,” Dudley said.

Similar heavily armed groups are now in conflict across Mexico, and many maintain dynamic alliances and rivalries with larger international drug trafficking organizations.

“You can imagine the chaotic environment that creates and that is what Mexico is living right now,” he said.

Violence was also a topic of discussion on the MS13 street gang, in which Dudley described how participating in brutal acts leads to cohesion of gang members. Dudley, who recently wrote a book on the MS13 that used research he had done at InSight Crime, also debunked one of the great myths surrounding the group.

“There is this notion that they are this grand criminal group, with incredibly far reach and sophistication that can do things such as drug trafficking. And they cannot,” he said.

Muggah then turned to the biggest organized crime story in the region: Venezuela. McDermott said organized crime networks first infiltrated the state at the behest of late President Hugo Chávez and then came to prop up the regime of President Nicolás Maduro amid the country’s collapse.

“Now you have the situation you have today where Venezuela is exporting organized crime,” he said.

The conversation capped off with a look to the future of InSight Crime. Dudley described how he wanted to push the boundaries to little-explored questions, such as how the fear of sexual violence in prisons can foment powerful gangs.

McDermott said he wanted to continue to expose the top criminals, who are “sitting in congress, sitting in presidential palaces, or certainly are the top economic elites.”

“They are not being challenged and are enjoying utter impunity,” he said. “I want to rattle the cages.”

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

BARRIO 18 / 27 JUL 2016

El Salvador is the most violent peacetime nation in the world, seemingly stuck in a perpetual cycle of gang hostilities…

AYOTZINAPA / 27 NOV 2018

Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto ends his six-year term amid a rising body count, allegations of cover-ups, and having failed…

COLOMBIA / 23 AUG 2018

The restructuring of Colombia's underworld in the wake of the demobilization of the FARC guerrillas continues apace, with cells of…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime Tackles Illegal Fishing

15 OCT 2021

In October, InSight Crime and American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS) began a year-long project on illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing in…

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime Featured in Handbook for Reporting on Organized Crime

8 OCT 2021

In late September, the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) published an excerpt of its forthcoming guide on reporting organized crime in Indonesia.

THE ORGANIZATION

Probing Organized Crime in Haiti

1 OCT 2021

InSight Crime has made it a priority to investigate organized crime in Haiti, where an impotent state is reeling after the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, coupled with an…

THE ORGANIZATION

Emergency First Aid in Hostile Environments

24 SEP 2021

At InSight Crime's annual treat, we ramped up hostile environment and emergency first aid training for our 40-member staff, many of whom conduct on-the-ground investigations in dangerous corners of the region.

THE ORGANIZATION

Series on Environmental Crime in the Amazon Generates Headlines

17 SEP 2021

InSight Crime and the Igarapé Institute have been delighted at the response to our joint investigation into environmental crimes in the Colombian Amazon. Coverage of our chapters dedicated to illegal mining…