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From Netflix ‘Narcos’ to Peru: money, drugs and elections

The tribunal has managed to secure the support of a broad-ranging coalition of institutions. Many forces converge when it comes to adopting such controversial decisions.

Narcos Netflix Pablo Escobar, una replica de las tanquetas.Flickr/ John Murphy. Some rights reserved.The US 2016 presidential race, in which as in House of Cards and Breaking Bad, the villain is the star, is not only a game of fear, but also of money. Estimates suggest that more than $185 million USD were spent before December last year, when the campaign had barely started. While all eyes are on the United States, another pivotal election has been unfolding, one that can substantially shape the future of democracy beyond its borders. Money is also shaping the Peru 2016 general election campaign. But the sources may not be as clean.

The world’s leading country in cocaine production, Peru is struggling to keep organized crime away from politics. Are they succeeding? The truth is that we do not know. What we do know is that Peru has drug and human traffickers, illegal miners and smugglers. We know that they bring in lots of cash—UNODC estimates the global illicit economy amounted to $2.1 trillion USD in 2009, out of which cocaine is the most profitable. And we know criminals need to launder their money.

We also know that politics is expensive, political finance hard to regulate, and those regulations even harder to enforce. We know criminals have a stake in an election that might substantially change power structures in the country. And we know that criminals use dirty money to corrupt politicians. In return they get protection from law enforcement and drain the state’s coffers. So, the election is up for grabs.

Organized crime in politics

The capacity of organized crime to operate largely depends on its grip on corrupt politicians. In 2014 I co-authored the International IDEA book Illicit Networks and Politics in Latin America. Our investigation looks at how politicians cozy up to criminals. I visited some remote localities, from Bello – an industrialized town on the outskirts of Medellín, Colombia – to Ecuador’s seaport of Manta, and all the way down to the Peruvian altiplano in the border town of Puno.

In Peru, one of my sources (who wants to remain anonymous) was eager to explain how corruption erodes democracy: “It’s not only about election day. [Political corruption] trickles down to the entire administration, from border police, to tax authorities and judges”. What these cases have in common is their negative effects on people’s lives. A corrupt state reduces your children’s chances to go to school. It reduces the quality of healthcare you receive during childbirth. It reduces your taxes’ effectiveness in building functioning institutions. It reduces development in general.

Can authorities do something to prevent – or at least mitigate – the threat that organized crime corrupts politicians ahead of the election? Probably yes. The first step is to get a better idea about the most critical areas, geographical and institutional, where organized crime has more opportunities for corruption. The second step is to design strategies to mitigate that risk.

Understanding the problem

If you have been watching Netflix’s Narcos, you probably know a thing or two about how criminals manipulate politics. This fairly accurate depiction of my hometown Medellin in the 1980s (despite the hopeless accent of Wagner Moura who plays Pablo Escobar) gives me the willies. Growing up there, I witnessed how some politicians rapaciously consumed the dirty money that traquetos (how we call drug lords) fed them. To be fair, there were few alternatives. Under a “plata o plomo” (money or bullets) narco-system, those who resisted were often murdered.

Journalists have also brought to light horrific stories about the deals between criminals and corrupt politicians. Last year’s disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, Mexico, is a case in point. A drug gang working for local authorities executed the students. The mayor, José Luis Abarca, his wife and the police were involved. The students’ bodies were apparently dumped in the garbage.

So far, journalists and shows give us pieces of the puzzle. But systematic mapping of the institutions that are most vulnerable to the presence of organized crime would inform concrete state action. This is why my colleagues at International IDEA and I are building a free software-based threat assessment tool. Like trying to predict a hurricane’s disastrous path, we work with the police, ombudspersons and NGOs to focus on high-risk zones.

Prevention and mitigation strategies

So what? This is the question we often get asked after mapping the weak spots organized crime and corrupt politicians might exploit to work under the radar. Knowing you have a problem does not mean you can solve it.

Surprisingly for some though, many countries have advanced innovative actions to obstruct corrupt politicians and organized criminals to act undetected. Switzerland’s ‘Lex Duvalier’, for example, facilitates recovering the stolen state funds that corrupt politicians and organized crime rely on. The creation of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is another telling example of a successful instrument to deal with sensitive corruption cases. Last year’s resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina for accusations of colluding with criminals is the commission’s latest achievement.

Political will

Skeptics often point out that such change is not merely a technical question. It largely depends on political will. They are right. Politicians are ultimately responsible for political change. It might seem counterintuitive that they would push for reforms that substantially affect them.

But many forces converge when it comes to adopting controversial decisions. Public pressure in Colombia was the main ingredient in adopting the ‘Silla Vacía’ (empty chair) legislation. This 2010 initiative punishes politicians and parties alike for their links with organized crime. It is no surprise that it was adopted after a widespread public outcry in the aftermath of the parapolitics scandal, when more than half of the members of Congress were investigated for involvement with organized crime.

Way forward in Peru

The Peruvian Electoral Tribunal has courageously taken the lead in assessing the threat of a nexus between organized crime and politics in the country. This is a highly politically sensitive process. Yet the tribunal has managed to secure the support of a broad-ranging coalition of institutions. The National Police, the Electoral Commission and the Financial Intelligence Unit are among the 30 institutions that gathered in Lima last December to kick-start the assessment.

The meeting’s environment was charged. The stakes are high for an assessment process launched ad portas of an election. The results could enable initiatives that close the floodgates for organized crime to enter politics. Timing is fortunately on our side. Some weeks ago Congress issued a report warning about the presence of drug trafficking interests in politics. This puts pressure (aka political will) on all institutions to act swiftly.

Is this the beginning of an institutional coalition that champions reform in Peru? The seed has been planted, but we have to wait until after the election to see whether the assessment succeeded in preventing an organized crime ‘hurricane’ from spoiling democracy in Peru.  The threat of Trump becoming US president? Our tool unfortunately cannot prevent that.

About the author

Catalina Uribe Burcher is a Programme Officer for the Democracy, Conflict and Security unit at International IDEA. She specializes on research and policy-oriented analysis regarding the threats that transnational illicit networks pose to democratic politics, mainly in Latin America, the Baltic States and West Africa. She conducted fieldwork in Latin America as a research fellow for the Social Science Research Council, as part of the Democracy, Security and Drugs Programme. Prior to International IDEA, Catalina has worked as consultant and lecturer.


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