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The link between politics and organized crime in the Andean region

Since 2011, International IDEA has led a global initiative called “Protecting Legitimacy in Politics”, looking at the threats transnational crime pose to the legitimacy of democratic politics around the world, including in the Baltic States and Latin America. This initiative is designed to address these threats by (a) generating empirical knowledge (b) fostering policy debates with decision makers at local, regional and global levels, and (c) partnering with inter-governmental organizations in the implementation of locally-led initiatives at national level.

As part of generating empirical knowledge, a series of case studies on the Andean Region have been prepared. They explore the relationship between politics and organized crime networks in Puno (Peru), Manabi (Ecuador) and Antioquia (Colombia). The material builds upon previous research commissioned by International IDEA and carried out by local experts.


Local level organized crime


Manta Port, Ecuador: important transit point   
for licit and illicit goods.   
Photo ©: Catalina Uribe Burcher/IDEA

Ecuador, Peru and Colombia illustrate how organized crime and political actors establish and maintain links at the local level in the Andean Region. In Ecuador, for instance, Manabi has become an important region for the transport of drugs to Central America. Foreign cartels have built relationships with politicians and businessmen: as was the case of former Governor (now convicted) César Fernández. The case of Puno, Peru, is also relevant: goods are smuggled from Bolivia and illegal mining and the production of coca paste are the basis of the local economy, something that has permeated the political scene through contributions to electoral campaigns. In Antioquia, Colombia (particularly in the Municipality of Bello), local criminal groups have maintained semi-open relationships with local politicians for many years, providing financial and logistic support to election campaigns.



Common trends:

  • Direct involvement of politicians in organized crime networks    
    In the Andean Region local politics is usually reserved for the elite that control important economic interests in their respective regions. These local leaders are the ones who often use organized crime for their own benefit (e.g. to gain and/or maintain political control in key territorial areas and increase funding for personal and political purposes by forging strategic alliances with these networks). This becomes apparent with the type of structure that organized crime increasingly uses in this region: operating as a network (where the various links in the chain work together but are independent) rather than an organized group. Those involved are not always connected to each other and they often operate through temporary arrangements in a non-hierarchical fashion. This type of structure allows political forces to participate in the business without being subordinated to a particular group.


    Puno, Peru: Protests and social unrest   
    Photo ©: Catalina Uribe Burcher/IDEA


  • Strategies that prioritize alliances and functional ties over violence    
    Even though violence is still an important tool for organized crime, it often draws too much attention to the network’s activities. This is why many opt to create strategic alliances to get the State’s support (by means of action or omission). The benefit crime networks often derive from political actors is not always in the form of direct quid pro quo arrangements, but rather is paid off by a series of diffused favours. Contributions are often in the form of the omission by State institutions to take action against a crime network - in the same way that politicians can “facilitate” the business activities of legitimate interests.
  • Use of charities and civil society organizations to get public support and create political pressure   
    Alliances between organized crime and the State are not only established through traditional political leaders, but also through foundations and institutes that have important contacts (and sometimes contracts) with the local establishment. Some criminals carry out charity work around their communities to gain popular support and create a shield to protect them against state pressure.


Identified institutional and public policy challenges

  • Focus on war tactics   
    Partly due to the gravity of organized crime activities in the region, as well as popular pressures to see concrete actions taken against them, State responses have often been limited and fail to tackle the real driver of criminal activity (i.e. money). However, in some countries the authorities have increasingly moved towards identifying and prosecuting the financial structures of these networks. And in so doing they often tackle those with links to the political establishment.
  • Poor decentralization processes    
    Despite decentralization of responsibility, many local authorities still do not have either the capacity or the resources to deal with organized crime in their communities - without mentioning the lack of coordination with national authorities in this respect. National interventions often ignore local processes in state building, which often prove to be inadequate for these tasks.
  • Problems with money laundering   
    Even though authorities increasingly recognize and understand the importance of controlling financial flows in order to successfully combat organized crime, there are still many cracks through which money manages to penetrate. This includes the non-formal economic sectors at the local level, as well as industries that have economic interests outside the financial system.


    Bello, Colombia: Transportation companies allegedly   
    involved in illicit markets   
    Photo ©: Catalina Uribe Burcher/IDEA


  • Lack of adequate controls over money in political campaigns   
    Many politicians and political parties in the region depend almost exclusively on private donations for political campaigns, at a time when public financing is reduced or constrained (if it exists at all). This creates an excellent opportunity for criminal networks to gain the favour of politicians and parties by injecting money into campaigns. It also has the added value of laundering money that would otherwise be difficult to introduce into the legal economy.


Policy recommendations to battle the influence of organized crime in politics

Based on the challenges mentioned above:

  1. States should increasingly focus their interventions on sustained and long-term strategies that not only concentrate on the crime network’s armed activities but rather their financial structure and money flows, particularly through small and medium scale money laundering and local campaign financing.
  2. States should strengthen their decentralization processes and ensure that local authorities have the capacity to respond to these challenges; and also to coordinate with the national level.
  3. Each country has its own particular challenges in order to develop an adequate public policy to confront this phenomenon. But considering that this is a transnational phenomenon with local implications, the region needs to improve inter-state cooperation mechanisms for investigation and prosecution.

This research was assisted by a grant from the Drugs, Security and Democracy Fellowship Programme, administered by the Social Science Research Council and the Universidad de los Andes, in cooperation with and with funds provided by the Open Society Foundation and the International Development Centre, Ottawa, Canada.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the organizations involved.

About the authors

Former staff member - Catalina Uribe Burcher
Senior Programme Officer
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