Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Dangerous Liaisons: Organized Crime and Political Finance in Latin America and Beyond by Kevin Casas-Zamora (editor)

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Photo: Lars Klove

Reading Time: 4 minutes

What happens when a government is unwilling or unable to protect its citizens from organized crime? The proposition was tested recently in Michoacán, when “citizen self-defense forces” took up arms against the Knights Templar cartel in the absence of the state’s ability to protect them. Ultimately, federal troops and police joined the citizen militias to push the cartel out of its principal stronghold, but it took citizen vigilantes stepping in to make that progress. Michoacán, unfortunately, is emblematic of struggles elsewhere in Latin America, where criminal networks have been able to thwart state efforts to combat them, often by infiltrating the government—from local police to the highest ranks of elected officials—through bribery and corruption.

Despite efforts to improve public safety in the region, the corrosive impact of organized crime on democracy in the Americas is rarely addressed. Dangerous Liaisons: Organized Crime and Political Finance in Latin America and Beyond, edited by Kevin Casas-Zamora, makes an important contribution by examining the ugly triangle of criminals, money and politics.

Casas-Zamora, the secretary for political affairs at the Organization of American States (OAS) and formerly the vice president and minister of planning of Costa Rica, has assembled a knowledgeable group of experts to contribute to this work. The five case studies from Latin America—Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Mexico—are complemented by two studies from Bulgaria and Italy.

Latin American governments have been preoccupied with the relationship between money and politics for over two decades, enacting reforms to regulate election financing to counter the risk that money from organized crime and drug trafficking pose to the democratic system.

This book offers critical detail that has been missing in prior conversations and provides a useful framework for understanding the key factors that allow organized crime to penetrate politics: weak party systems; anemic enforcement of campaign finance rules; decentralization of power; the increased demand for campaign finance; and impunity for those who violate campaign finance laws. In addition, Casas-Zamora offers a fascinating account of ongoing efforts to keep dirty money out of politics through political finance reform in Costa Rica, where “the scandals kept bubbling up with disturbing regularity.”

Delia M. Ferreira Rubio of Transparency International offers a look at Argentina, where Mexican cartel money reportedly went to the 1999 presidential campaign of Peronist candidate Eduardo Duhalde and vice presidential candidate Ramón Ortega. Although campaign finance regulations were tightened as a result, she says implementation has remained lax. In Brazil, Universidade Estadual de Campinas professor Bruno Wilhelm Speck argues that rising public demands for accountability from public officials, a watchdog press and an independent judiciary have worked to expel lawmakers with criminal connections. Still, “the complicity of Brazilian lawmakers with organized crime has reached a critical point.” While signs going forward are hopeful, especially given the 2010 clean record law (ficha limpa), which disqualifies anyone convicted of a serious crime from taking political office for eight years, he recommends more reform.

Writing on Colombia, Universidad Externado de Colombia professor Mauricio Rubio Pardo discusses the narco-penetration of Congress and drug money in political campaigns, and the ineffectiveness of reforming campaign financing without also tackling tax evasion and ensuring clean accounting. He calls for more research into preventive measures to diminish gang members or vigilantes’ role in politics. Discussing Mexico, political analyst and researcher at the Universidad Autónoma de México, Leonardo Curzio, offers helpful typologies for analyzing the relationship between organized crime and political institutions, and says that parties at the state level have had to withdraw candidates and forgo primaries to prevent the cartels from capturing elections. Letting party bosses select candidates is certainly better than drug lords buying them. At the same time, he emphasizes the need for strong internal party controls and oversight. “Parties should ban cash donations […] increase their own transparency […] and be monitored by the authorities,” he says. But the most crucial issue for Curzio is not improving the quality of regulations, but enforcing them.

While the case studies on Bulgaria and Italy provide useful global comparisons, readers would have also benefitted from additional chapters on the northern triangle countries of Central America. In these countries the challenges of organized crime and narco-trafficking are especially acute, and the impact on politics, particularly at the local level, is pronounced. A recent study by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras documented that 37 local political leaders were killed in 2013.

Dangerous Liaisons argues that “organized crime has had it relatively easy in Latin America” when it comes to affecting political outcomes. The case studies make clear that no country has yet to discover a magic formula for immunizing politics from criminal infiltration. Casas-Zamora warns this poses a threat “not just for democratic institutions but also for the state’s very viability.” The question then becomes, what should states do? As shown in Brazil, political culture matters. Public pressure for accountability can achieve progress. Better regulation, more transparency and stronger institutions, including political parties, can also help, but only if coupled with better enforcement.

Casas-Zamora is explicit: Dangerous Liaisons is “a call to action” to leave behind “both indifference and […] political posturing.” As such, this book is a step toward developing a common methodology for analyzing the impact of globalized crime on democratic politics and identifying solutions. This is essential reading for public policy specialists on elections, campaign finance and hemispheric drug policy. It is also relevant for anyone worried about violence and associated risks to democracy. Unless the dirty money that has given cartels and criminal actors unparalleled power—and the politicians who take their money—are curbed, the region’s cycle of violence will continue.

Tags: corruption, Democracy in Latin America
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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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