In early 2009, Steven Dudley was in Medellín, Colombia. His assignment: speak to a jailed paramilitary leader in the Itagui prison, just south of the city. Following his interview inside the prison, he went to have dinner with Jeremy McDermott at his residence in Medellín. The two had a lot in common and had known each other for years.
McDermott and Dudley had reported on Colombia and the surrounding region since the early 2000s: McDermott for the BBC, the Economist and the Daily Telegraph, among others; Dudley for the Washington Post, National Public Radio and most recently, the Miami Herald. They were both doing projects for the Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP), a Bogotá-based thinktank. Still, they came from vastly different backgrounds: McDermott is a former British Army officer; Dudley worked in human rights. The conversation that evening led to an idea, then a draft proposal, which made its way to the Open Society Foundations (OSF).
2010 – The Launch
In May 2010, OSF gave its first seed grant to what had become the InSight Crime program at FIP. The FIP was a great fit, since it works on citizen security issues and would establish partnerships with other media-research projects like Verdad Abierta. InSight Crime also partnered with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS), which gave it a foothold in Washington, DC and another very solid institutional backer who provided a link to another audience: academia.
These partnerships would be InSight Crime’s three main pillars: part media, part thinktank and part academic research organization. On December 1, 2010, with four staff and one intern, InSight Crime launched www.insightcrime.org, with analysis and profiles of groups, personalities, countries and security initiatives in Mexico and Colombia.
2011 – Hitting the Ground Running
InSight Crime’s impact was felt immediately. In February 2011, in partnership with Frontline and the Center for Investigative Reporting, InSight Crime produced its first investigation on arms trafficking from the United States to Mexico. The project was an in-depth look at how this trafficking operated on both sides of the border, and it became the standard-bearer for investigations that followed. In September, InSight Crime produced a three-part investigation into the Zetas criminal incursion into Guatemala, which included a video (in English and in Spanish) that was seen well over 200,000 times. These were to become the hallmark of the organization: InSight Crime was on the ground, doing the investigations from the most dangerous spaces about the most dangerous groups.
2012 – Going Deep
In 2012, in an amicable departure from FIP, the organization established the Fundación InSight Crime (FIC) with the Medellín Chamber of Commerce. Meanwhile, our coverage expanded. From Mexico through Central America, the Andes and the Caribbean, InSight Crime distinguished itself with sharp, clear-eyed, independent analysis and reporting. It wasn’t just the reach, it was also the depth and the human optic InSight Crime provided.
As opposed to many media who sought to win readers with sensationalistic stories, InSight Crime covered how organized crime led to modern-day slavery and caused displacement. It explained the systemic violence against migrants, top-down criminal dynamics in Nicaragua, the impacts of the legalization of some drugs in the region (and later experiments of this policy in Uruguay). It covered the human and economic costs of criminal activities in cities such as Monterrey, Mexico. And it presented its first GameChangers, an overview of the major developments of organized crime in the region.
2013 – Covering War and Peace
As a Colombia-based organization, InSight Crime had an inside view of the decades-long war in that country and used this to give a deeper understanding of the evolution of Colombia’s principal guerrilla group, the FARC, and its relationship to the cocaine trade. Wars had impacted other parts of the region as well, including El Salvador, which still seemed to be climbing from its own civil conflict, as illustrated by the origins and metamorphosis of its police and the difficulties it had in establishing a truce among its most powerful gangs. Meanwhile, places like Ciudad Juárez and Nuevo Laredo were going through their own, criminal wars, all of which we covered from the ground.
2014 – Seeking Justice
Efforts to fight organized crime are impossible without a functioning state, and even more difficult when the state is subverted by organized crime. Those themes were at the center of our coverage in 2014, during which we detailed Guatemala’s difficulties in selecting attorneys general and high-court judges, as well as the emergence of powerful vigilante groups in Mexico. The process played out differently in places like Colombia, where a criminal organization known as the Urabeños emerged to fill the void left by groups that had long fought the FARC and Bolivia, where a strong, centralized state was seemingly incapable of containing organized crime.
McDermott and Dudley also launched InSight Crime’s Spanish-language website, with all news and investigations now posted in two languages, greatly expanding the foundation’s impact among Latin American audiences and decision-makers.
2015 – Challenging the Traditional Narrative
Throughout its history, InSight Crime has sought to challenge conventional notions of organized crime and efforts to combat it. And it has tried to report under-covered topics and strange occurrences. While Netflix was showered with praise for its depiction of “Narcos,” for example, InSight Crime noted that it was “caught between exoticism and a moral rhetoric that upholds the war on drugs as legitimate.” The organization also opened a three-pronged debate concerning the economic origins of organized crime in Mexico. It published three nuanced takes on the nexus between organized crime and terrorism in the region. And it undercut the classic clichés.
2016 – Deciphering Elites
InSight Crime’s theory of change is that comes from the top-down. In this regard, it has long sought to illustrate the ways in which political, economic, social and bureaucratic elites have worked with organized crime. This was the topic of our ground-breaking series in 2016, which included deeply researched investigations on Honduras, Guatemala and Colombia. The impact of the series was profound, leading to a better understanding of the topic and playing a role in the development of judicial cases against some of these elites.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime
2017 – Chronicling the Post-Conflict
InSight Crime chronicled the rollercoaster ride that followed the historic agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC, including how dissident groups were emerging in its wake and eventually how they coalesced into formidable criminal organizations. The coverage benefitted from years of traveling to over 150 municipalities most susceptible to rearmament and war – one of many projects InSight Crime was doing parallel with its flagship website project. Others included deciphering arms trafficking in Honduras, measuring the impact of organized crime and gangs on homicides in Guatemala, and investigating the development of prison gangs in Latin America.
2018 – Understanding Street Gangs
By 2018, InSight Crime had a regular slew of projects that fed into its website. One of the most ambitious concerning the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) gang was the first regional look at the gang’s history and evolution. It was, in some ways, a follow-up to what InSight Crime had done about gang dynamics in Honduras in 2015, as well as the regular coverage it offered concerning gangs over the years. The gangs were also behind most of the extortion in Central America, which InSight Crime investigated over a two-year period.
2019 – Investigating ‘Mafia States’
Venezuela’s descent into chaos and near-permanent crisis came after a steady erosion of government institutions, something InSight Crime deemed a “mafia state” in an earlier investigation of the country’s devolution. The Andean nation was not alone. InSight Crime investigated how Guatemala’s politicians illegally financed their presidential campaigns how Central American mayors created criminal fiefdoms, and how many of these same criminals escaped justice.
2020 – Tracking Invisibles
There are drug traffickers whose primary defense is not a good lawyer or a large army but rather anonymity. InSight Crime tracked one such “invisible” during a two-year period, illustrating the means and ways of a new generation of drug lords. The organization has also begun to research other “invisible” trends, such as the role of gender in organized crime and the surge of synthetic drugs such as fentanyl. And it is highlighting the role of organized crime in traditionally less visible countries such as Ecuador and Paraguay.