Imagine that your son or brother has joined a protest against government corruption. During the demonstration, police arrive and force them onto a bus. You rush to the site of the event; you ask about him, but no one tells you anything. You keep searching, your anxiety mounting because you know the depth of the corruption in the city: police and the mayor often collaborate with local drug traffickers. You comfort yourself, remembering that your son or brother was with a large crowd. As the days pass, however, you realize that they weren’t taken into custody by the police; your son or brother has vanished. Two, then three, years pass, and you’re told that it’s too dangerous to keep looking, because “important” people were involved—the mayor, in fact, may have ordered local drug traffickers to kidnap the demonstrators.

What level of corruption is required for the kidnapping and disappearance of 43 students, as happened on September 26, 2014, at the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College, State of Guerrero, Mexico—and getting away with it? It’s a corruption that goes beyond the traditional definitions that scholars advanced in the 1990s when defining administrative and systemic corruption, in which, say, a local political leader or police chief might receive kickbacks and bribes in exchange for going easy on crime. An international commission of experts investigating the Ayotzinapa events found something far more complex: the perpetrators “didn’t hide their identities,” and there had been possible coordination between the Guerreros Unidos crime syndicate, which was presumed to have killed the students, and at least 18 police patrol units from various municipalities, one state patrol unit, and government officials at various levels. Though some authorities received real-time information about the kidnapping, they didn’t act to protect the students. The commission also noted that Ayotzinapa is a hotspot for heroin trafficking to Chicago—but it is just one of 2,446 Mexican municipalities affected by the convergence of massive corruption and transnational criminal forces that traffic in drugs, arms, minerals, and human beings.

As bad as it seems, this is not just a Mexican problem: mutual coordination and co-optation between lawful and unlawful players are increasingly common worldwide. The 2014 mass killing in Mexico as well as several other cases reflect a crisis in the institutional architecture of nation-states in Latin America, Africa, former Soviet countries, and Southeast Asia, where new forms of corruption, sustained by vast macro-criminal networks, metastasize with a complexity that outstrips current institutional capacities, investigative methodologies, and judicial systems.

Most formal mechanisms for confronting global crime were designed when social and political power was strongly concentrated among nation-states and when the movement of people, commodities, and information was much slower and more expensive than it is today. After World War II, with a polarized geopolitical map opposing the capitalist and the Communist nations, the biggest threat to global stability was aggression between countries belonging to different ideological blocs. Citizens were connected through their national identities but disconnected by geopolitical borders. Multilateral conventions and instruments for promoting regional integration seemed like good solutions for preventing hostilities between nations and for establishing paths toward conciliation.

In the post–Cold War period, as populations became more urban and technology evolved, information transmission accelerated and the concentration of political and economic power mutated. National identities radically fragmented; worldviews no longer reflected a purely binary struggle between capitalism and Communism, and individuals began crossing national borders to a greater degree than ever before, while urban concentration kept increasing. According to the World Bank, 310 million passengers traveled by air in 1970; in 2015, that figure reached 3.4 billion. Computing capacities exploded, automating more and more social and productive processes through software and complex algorithms. With billions of smartphones, apps, and sensors, the latest technology links human beings together on a previously unimaginable scale; about 40 percent of the world population currently transmits data through the Internet.

All this has created new global patterns of criminal activity—facilitating, for example, transnational money-laundering and the transporting of illegal goods on an unprecedented scale. Not so long ago, financial transactions remained mostly executed by humans, not by autonomous algorithms. U.S. paper money would be physically moved as part of any money-laundering scheme; crypto-currencies weren’t commonly used; and drug-trafficking cartels generally trafficked only in drugs. In 2019, by contrast, money often gets laundered through multiple layers of façade enterprises and offshore accounts worldwide, managed by companies unrelated to the real owners. It’s practically impossible to trace the source of traded crypto-currencies such as bitcoins. Most “Mexican cartels” these days operate across countries, from the U.S. to Argentina and western Africa, organize themselves as horizontal structures and not as cartels, and engage in more criminal activities than drug-trafficking. La Familia Michoacana, for example, has smuggled ferrous material to China; Los Zetas moves human beings across Central America. Indeed, those “Mexican cartels” are neither purely Mexican nor cartels. Meantime, rigid bureaucracies find it difficult to adapt to, or even to understand, these changes.

Massive connectivity has produced a new form of globalization, in which legal and illegal commodities and services flow across and between countries, with major gaps in their income, quality of life, and institutional capacities. Consider the transnational market of trafficked minerals such as coltan or cobalt, required for satisfying the growing demand for batteries for electronic devices. As the number of smartphones sold worldwide increased from 120 million in 2007 to more than 1.5 billion in 2017, Chinese factories, where so many of the phones are manufactured, became insatiable in their need for the minerals.

As it happens, the main producer of cobalt and coltan is a country characterized by extreme poverty, corruption, institutional weakness, and wildlife trafficking, a nation that perfectly illustrates the African paradox of mineral and natural-resource wealth in tandem with economic sclerosis: the Democratic Republic of Congo. The nation produces 60 percent of the world’s cobalt—and about 90 percent of the cobalt used in China—yet in 2017, its GDP per capita ranked 186th among 187 countries, according to the IMF. Congolese coltan and cobalt are cheaper than that produced in other regions because of the lack of effective regulation and the country’s exploitative labor practices, which include employing children as young as ten. These labor conditions, combined with the massive operation of militias engaged in criminal extraction and smuggling, generate permanent institutional instability not just in the DRC but across trafficking routes in Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda. In north and south Kivu, in the eastern DRC, soldiers, militias, local political leaders, and private security services are all caught up in complex mineral-smuggling networks. As far back as 2002, United Nations experts identified networks of anti- and pro-government forces that fueled a “self-financing war economy centered on mineral exploitation.” The networks included armed groups from Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, government military forces of the DRC, local politicians, and Mai-Mai militias. The participants engaged in “embezzlement, tax fraud, extortion, [and] the use of stock options as kickbacks and diversion of State funds conducted by criminal organizations.”

Today’s DRC Ministry of Mines is marked by family ties, co-optation, and secrecy, without accountability in concessions and contracts. Until 2015, the ministry didn’t fully publish information related to mining contracts in the country. Domestic laws and regulations that merely target local actors for illicit activities are unavailing against such complex, transnational criminal structures.

Reductionist local solutions only displace the criminal networks to other regions. We’ve seen this happen before. After the U.S. increased its drug-fighting efforts in Mexico, Los Zetas intensified its activity in Guatemala; likewise, European organized-crime mobs shifted operations eastward as richer countries in northern Europe improved their security. Even when local authorities successfully confront such complex criminal structures, those structures don’t disappear—they evolve. This is especially true in Central African and Latin American countries, such as Colombia, where several types of dark and gray agents—former paramilitary and guerrilla members, drug traffickers, and local and foreign firms—converge around criminal mining of gold to launder profits, while enslaving indigenous populations.

A merchant measures gold flakes in Congo. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A merchant measures gold flakes in Congo. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Public attorneys, judicial investigators, judges, and journalists not only lack the sophisticated tools but also the institutional arrangements to track and confront these criminal enterprises. Without the right institutional framework—and up-to-date concepts, methods, and protocols—it is impossible for attorneys or judges to address the complex causality between local and global variables. They often have only the information they can glean from Google searches, newspapers, and their own intuition. For instance, Mexican officials “solved” the Ayotzinapa kidnapping by arresting the town’s mayor and his wife and concluding that the 43 students had been incinerated, bringing apparent closure to the grim case. Yet they said nothing about the complicity among officials, politicians, and criminals that had made the massacre possible and that continues to plague the country.

Unfortunately, multilateral entities such as the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization of American States often don’t fare much better. Their missions and task forces review field conditions through interviews and official data—only to learn that the criminal structures have taken new forms. The Electoral Observation Missions carried out by the Organization of American States in Venezuela were powerless to prevent the rise of an evident criminal regime in that country over the past decade. Likewise, the United Nations Refugee Agency has been unsuccessful in strengthening the capacity of governments in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to deal with the massive displacement of their populations, fleeing violence. The terrifying extent of human victimization in Central America has proved beyond the capacity of current institutional structures to address.

Public attorneys, judicial investigators, and judges sometimes acknowledge, off the record, that networked criminals remain many steps ahead of justice systems. The solution, though, is not to adopt equally flexible and unaccountable methods, such as the paramilitary groups that have emerged in Colombia and Mexico, which wind up participating in the same criminal activities that they were formed to oppose. Instead, innovative institutional arrangements need to be created with the capacity to make sense of the vast amounts of data currently produced and map the new complexities. Countries vulnerable to criminal networks need urgent upgrades to their jurisprudence, normative, and procedural frameworks.

Even in the best-case scenario currently, when judicial officials seek to unravel hyper-connected and transnational criminal networks, they run into theoretical and practical constraints—for example, the difficulty of preparing a courtroom for holding hearings with perhaps hundreds of defendants or the absence of laws for prosecuting high-level politicians, who often enjoy legal immunity while in office. Even today, in a country like Guatemala, a corrupt president has the power to dismantle every local and international anticorruption effort.

In some cases, the emerging complexity of crime escapes existing criminal sanctions entirely. In Colombia, the supreme court had to develop new jurisprudence to prosecute national legislators, mayors, and governors because the criminal code didn’t penalize their unjust actions. Some Colombian governors and legislators had been facilitating the operations of narco-paramilitary groups without taking old-fashioned bribes; they had not exposed themselves to prosecution for customary corruption, for which the laws would apply but instead had facilitated mass murders and massive forced human displacement. Developing jurisprudence related to aggravated conspiracy, as Colombia has, is especially vital in countries where criminal networks have penetrated all state branches.

The next step would be to incorporate that new jurisprudence into stable legislation—another daunting task in countries where legislative bodies have often become involved in domestic and transnational crime. Additionally, it is critical to train investigators, public attorneys, and local judges in methodologies and tools for understanding complex criminal networks, so that they find ways to substantiate the subtle interactions between corporate, financial, and political elites—interactions that are often legal, yet established with the sole purpose of favoring criminal interests. Finally, there is the imperative to design transnational institutional arrangements and build an international consensus around mechanisms to fight global crime.

Multilateral conventions may have been effective in the past, but they are inadequate for confronting criminal complexity nowadays.

Governments looking to meet the challenges ahead could look to the model of disruptive innovation in the private sector, where the most radical inventions aren’t just pieces of software or electronic gadgets but new sets of behaviors and rules—which means new institutions. A company like Facebook sells data describing the behaviors of more than 2 billion monthly users worldwide, with an efficiency unsurpassed by Latin American countries that have just a tiny fraction of that total in population. Facebook’s economic model isn’t desirable for a social institution, but a clear gap exists between its data analysis and predictive capacities and those of judicial authorities in Honduras or El Salvador.

Apple, Microsoft, Google, Tesla, SpaceX, and Facebook show that good ideas, from rockets to phones and algorithms, are nothing without the right institutional arrangements, or “ecosystems.” The same level of disruptive innovation is required today in public institutions, especially those tasked with battling global challenges, including transnational crime. U.S. agencies show some signs of understanding it, as the Pentagon’s ambitious DARPA projects reveal. Unfortunately, these types of projects are an exception in most of the world.

This is not to suggest that public institutions should be managed in the same way as private companies, but only that the public sector will require radical institutional innovation if it is effectively to combat the large-scale victimization being perpetrated on vulnerable populations by the hyper-modern, hyper-adaptive forces of transnational crime.

Top Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images


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