Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Illicit Networks: Rethinking the Systemic Risk in Latin America

Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Illicit Networks: Rethinking the Systemic Risk in Latin America

Article excerpt

Criminals dressed up as Rulers: Out! read one of the signs brandished by protesters who have returned time and again to the streets of Guatemala during a wave of corruption scandals in the Central American nation.1 Borrowing from previous episodes of public indignation against graft in government from Mexico, Brazil, or much further afield, and prompting in its wake an unprecedented series of demonstrations in neighboring Honduras, the Guatemalan protests are directly linked to the exposure of illicit activities located at the commanding heights of the state. Primarily the work of a UN-led investigative commission, the revelations began in April with the first arrests linked to a customs racket that plundered an estimated $325,000 a week.2 This was followed soon after by cases of embezzlement and money laundering in bodies across the Guatemalan state and political system, leading to a string of indictments against the country's once untouchable elite. Among them stand the president and vice-president, both of them charged and imprisoned while still serving in office, as well as the former head of the tax service and the former head of the Central Bank.

A charge-sheet of this sort suggests not merely that some holders of high office were seeking illegal material gain; nor just that they were conspiring to do so in corrupt conclaves. Instead, as the protester's placard suggested, the various cases uncovered by the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) indicate that the core apparatus of the state system and its most basic services - not just the long corrupted National Police, but Congress, taxation, and elements of the financial system - had become protected spaces in which political appointees could exploit the law and their mandates for personal and factional advantage. The law of the land, in short, had become a gift and a goldmine for criminal endeavors.

The eventual consequences of the current Central American thaw are as hard to foresee as its recent equivalents in the Arab world or Eastern Europe, not least because of the isthmus' long history of rapidly aborted democratic awakenings. However, the potential impact of these cases stretches far beyond any immediate political shifts or potential counter-reformations. At their core, the scandals in Guatemala, or the ire in Honduras over an estimated $300 million embezzlement of social security to fund political party spending (among other things),3 challenge the predominant understanding of the crises, threats, and developmental concerns facing Central America, as well as other parts of Latin America.

For over a decade, the Central American publics, their political leaders, and the international community have broadly agreed as to what are the main menaces affecting the region: flourishing drug trafficking routes;4 crime rates that place Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in the top eleven countries in the world in terms of their lethal violence;5 and, as a result, the mass exodus of child migrants to the U.S. border.6 Instead, it would now appear that the violation of the law is a far more complicated and systemic phenomenon than the common understanding of criminalized groups or mafias involved in trafficking rackets and terrorizing local populations. Of course, rates of violent crime remain alarming; in El Salvador, murder rates have recently touched a post-conflict high.7 But the public outcries of recent months underline the fact that the identification of criminal enemies and criminalized spaces, and the sense that they can be fought by the state and security forces as they currently stand, involves a profoundly mistaken conception: the legal order and illegality are not binary opposites.

This blurring of frontiers between law and illegality now poses acute dilemmas for every effort to contain the security crises that threaten Central America, and which spill over to various other countries, including the United States, through flows of drugs, arms, and migrants. …

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