Trafficking and Transnational Crime

Americas Quarterly, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Trafficking and Transnational Crime


Narcotics trafficking and the transnational criminal organizations that sponsor it represent the gravest and most complex threat to democracy and human rights that our region faces today. In devoting our third anniversary issue of Americas Quarterly to this topic, though, we believe there is a much more multifaceted story to tell than what we typically see or read.

As heart-wrenching as the violence on the U.S.-Mexico border and other troubled areas of the hemisphere may be, the media's excessive focus on such violence has had a distorting effect. It's important to note, for instance, as Alma Guillermoprieto writes (p. 50), that the murder rate in Mexico has actually declined in recent years. This is not meant to deny the significance of the violence, which has taken an estimated 19,000 lives since President Felipe Calderón assumed office in 2006. But it is just one aspect of the deeply rooted social and economic problems and institutional weaknesses that have been both a cause and a casualty of this problem.

Such underlying challenges are what we consider to be the real story about transnational crime in the region. Our first article (p. 40), by Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch, highlights the difficulty in striking a balance between crime-fighting and democratic governance. The right to be free from violence and insecurity is itself a human right; but there is a risk that the responses by overzealous governments and poorly trained and managed police forces will themselves become a threat to human rights.

Narcotics are not the only "business" of today's criminal syndicates. They are in fact multinational, monopolistic money-making machines, and their profits corrode the sovereignty of governments, threatening to make these para-multinationals more powerful than the individual governments that are supposed to dismantle and control them. Vanda Felbab-Brown (p. 42) provides a compelling comparative analysis of international crime syndicates from Burma to Bolivia. And in our feature Charticle (p. 76), journalist Sam Logan helps us portray the true reach of these shadowy organizations across the hemisphere and the "products" they specialize in, along with a first-ever graphic depiction of the "family tree" connections between their leaders. It's a disturbing picture-made all the more worrying by the cool, business-like management of the cartels.

There are two other ways in which drugs and crime undermine our democracies. Carlos Lauria (p. 62) from the Committee to Protect Journalists documents the intimidation campaign against journalists across the hemisphere, which has taken a deadly toll over the past decade. Drug money flows through every crevice of politics in the hemisphere and, as Kevin Casas-Zamora notes (p. …

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