Small Wars Journal

Responses and Reactions to the Threat of Organized Criminality Across Levels of Analysis

Thu, 07/10/2014 - 8:43am

Responses and Reactions to the Threat of Organized Criminality Across Levels of Analysis

Irina Alexandra Chindea and Byron Ramirez

This is the third and last essay in the series that examines the rising threat of organized criminality and its spillover effects across levels of analysis. The article addresses the ways in which individuals, communities, states, regional and international organizations respond to the illicit activities of criminal groups. We have divided our analysis into two sections. The first section examines the upstream responses and reactions of the major non-criminal actors or stakeholders operating at each level of analysis to the threats of organized criminality, and how these responses interact with one another across different levels. By upstream we refer to the direction in which these responses flow: from the individual or micro-level to the community, state, regional and transnational or the macro-level. The second section assesses at each stage of the framework the downstream responses – or the reactions flowing from macro- to micro-level – to the threats criminal groups yield.

           Table 1: Interrelated Upstream and Downstream Responses

                       to the Threat of Organized Criminal Groups

Section 1: Upstream Responses and Reactions to Criminal Groups’ Threats

1. Individual Level Responses

At this level, given its distinctive nature, we encounter a wide variety of responses to the threats emanating from the illicit activities of criminal groups. These responses come from four major sets of stakeholders:

a. Victims of organized criminal organizations such as drug users; victims of human, sex, and organ trafficking;[1] unfortunately, the innocent dead caught at cross-fires between traffickers or between traffickers and the police cannot take action, but very often, their families or friends become the torch bearers and engage in efforts to combat the presence and activities of organized criminal groups. Some of these victims are able to escape from the web of nefariousness in which they were previously caught, and have the opportunity to testify against those who have damaged their lives. In this way they contribute to the community and government actions against, for instance, the Central American and Mexican groups that kidnap, rape, traffic and enslave women who desperately want to leave behind poverty and lives of misery in their home countries.[2]

b. Current or former members of criminal groups who at their turn have directly felt the impact and suffered the consequences of their groups’ or rival organizations’ illicit activities, and who have decided to reform and embrace a different lifestyle incompatible with organized criminality. For instance, in El Sicario: The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, Molly Molloy and Charles Bowden recount the life story of a hitman for one of Mexico’s largest cartels, who after spending two decades in the “killing fields” of Ciudad Juarez, becoming a drug-addict, and seeing his life irreparably devastated as a consequence of his association with drug gangs, turned to God and left behind the life of crime he had previously lived.[3] Along similar lines, in the United States, former gang members currently associated with Homeboy Industries, – a non-profit organization in the greater Los Angeles area that “serves high-risk, formerly gang-involved men and women,”[4] – engage in public speaking activities in an effort to raise the awareness of the high risks and lack of rewards associated with joining a street gang or criminal organization. By sharing their life stories as cartel or gang members, they aim to influence both individual choices of young people, help those already part of the criminal organizations to break with their criminal past and reform, while also targeting the leadership of communities and municipalities to shape the environment and contribute to the generation of resources needed to educate and reintegrate former criminals into society.

c. Family and friends of either direct victims or members of criminal groups: many of these individuals have lost children, spouses, parents or other direct family members and close friends to the activities of organized criminality or to its spillover effects, including random, senseless violence. Therefore, they feel motivated to engage in individual protests, activism to raise awareness, or organize their communities against the threat coming from criminal groups and their corresponding activities. In the Marita Veron case in Argentina, her mother Susana Trimarco posed as a former prostitute in brothels throughout the country in an effort to track her daughter who was kidnapped and forced into prostitution in 2002.[5] Trimarco’s activism against sexual exploitation resulted in increased awareness and recognition at national and international level of the threat posed by human trafficking, and she rescued dozens of victims.[6] Another telling example is that of the Mexican poet Javier Sicilia whose son, Juan Francisco Sicilia Ortega, was murdered in March 2011 by drug gang members. After the loss of his son, Sicilia became one of the prominent voices against the drug war that has plagued Mexico over the past years. The “Caravan for Peace,”[7] a 6,000 miles march he led together with other Mexican and American activists, represents the pinnacle of his campaign to raise regional and international awareness to the gruesomeness and senselessness of much of the drug related violence taking place in Mexico.[8] Such individual initiatives as illustrated by the cases of Susana Trimarco and Javier Sicilia demonstrate the way in which individuals are able to mobilize public opinion. The impact of their activism often transcends the individual level and generates outcomes at community, national, and regional levels.

d. Individuals who have not been directly or indirectly victimized, but who are part of a community that was heavily subjected to the threat of organized criminality and who feel compelled to take action against its activities before it ends up having a direct negative effect on them or their families. The rise of the vigilante movement in Michoacán as well as in other states across Mexico presents one such example. Individuals organized in self-defense groups do generate a response at community level against the rising threat of violence, extortion, and kidnapping posed by the Knights Templar[9] and their criminal peers in other Mexican states.

Additionally, we encounter cases of individuals who benefit from institutional and organizational backing (e.g., civil society organizations, financial institutions, law enforcement etc), who realize the importance of taking action against various forms of organized criminality, – be it human trafficking, the sale or counterfeit of pirated goods, money laundering and other types of financial crime,[10] – and who have the capacity to generate organizational support for such measures to be drafted, adopted and implemented at national, regional or even international level.

2. Local Level Responses

The connection between the individual and local levels runs deeply, and the lines often get blurred in the context of individuals mobilizing and organizing the community to undertake collective action against the activities of criminal groups as it has happened in Mexico with the rise of self-defense forces (grupos de autodefensa comunitaria) opposing the narco-traffickers. We witness in this case, as well as in others, individual initiatives that have spillover effects at local level and the reactions generated within communities, at their turn, yield spillover effects at the national level influencing government policies and initiatives dealing with the threat of criminal organizations.

Since 2013, the disappointment of citizens in communities throughout Mexico, and especially in the state of Michoacán, with the feeble response of the Mexican security forces to put an end to the violence related to narco-trafficking and other criminal activities in which the cartels engage, has been on the rise. This strong discontentment pushed a number of individuals together to organize, take initiative, and rise in the defense of their communities to fill the security vacuum left by the state. By mid-2013, beyond the state of Michoacán, vigilante movements operated “openly in 13 different states,” – among them Jalisco, Chihuahua, Veracruz, Tabasco, – and “at least 68 municipalities.”[11]

In most cases, the focus of the self-defense forces has been to uproot the violence and criminal activities taking place at the local level. Particularly, they have concentrated their efforts and resources on reducing, if not stopping, the “robberies, rapes, and other violent attacks” [12] that were taking place against the members of the community at the initiative of the drug cartels.

In Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, – two Mexican border cities deeply touched by drug related violence, – we encounter two other types of local level responses to the threat of criminal activities conducted by narco-traffickers and their associates. In Tijuana, at the height of the violence in 2010, the city decided to organize the mega-exposition “Tijuana Innovadora” (Innovative Tijuana) that would present to the world, – and particularly the young people in the community, – the potential that the city has in the areas of culture, education, arts, science and technology.[13] In this way, the community was hoping to create a “virtuous cycle” that would stimulate the creative and innovative potential of the city in these specific directions, attract many young people to “creative life alternatives,” and shift their attention from the destructive options offered by the drug cartels and a life of crime and violence.

In January 2010 in Ciudad Juarez, in a case of mistaken identity, narco-traffickers murdered 15 teenagers at a party. In the aftermath of the event, President Calderon made an off-hand statement in which he was relating the massacre of the teenagers to a settling of scores among narco-traffickers,[14] statement that generated an outcry from the families of the victims. The massacre of the teenagers occurred right when already high levels of violence were plaguing the city, and mobilized those related to the victims to demonstrate that the teenagers had no links to the drug cartels and their gang-proxies. This undertaking ultimately resulted in February 2010 in the program “Todos Somos Juarez” (“We are All Juárez: Let’s Rebuild our City”).

Although initiated by the Federal government in response to the January 2010 teenage deaths, the program is a partnership between four main actors: local civil society, the federal government, the Chihuahua state government, and Ciudad Juarez’s municipal government. The aim of the program has been to reduce the levels of violence in the city “by investing in various development projects and proving social benefits.”[15] Similarly to the initiatives in Tijuana and in other cities across Mexico, “Todos Somos Juarez” aims to shift the incentive structure of young people and adults who are susceptible to recruitment by the drug gangs, and so as to achieve this the program provides alternatives and opportunities for housing, education, job training, and health care.[16]

3. National Level Responses

At their turn, local level reactions to the threat of organized criminality generate spillover responses at the national level. In certain situations what happens in a certain area of the country remains contained in that specific region, and if the national government reacts to those events, its response is targeted to address the problems plaguing that specific community. At the same time, in the age of the 24/7 news cycle, even such localized responses reach audiences far beyond the community, and set a precedent for what the state’s responses are likely to be in similar circumstances.

In other cases, the issue afflicting a community is either too serious or nimble and, often, the government’s response too anemic and slow, that it spreads beyond the area of origin and affects other communities, federal states or provinces, until it may, ultimately, reach national proportions. In this second scenario, strong local level responses are likely to create pressure on the national government to respond with counter-measures to the expansion of criminal threats and activities.

In the case of Mexico, community-level vigilante justice backfired and added an additional grave challenge to the already embattled Mexican government. With the vigilantes securing key areas in the state of Michoacán, such as Apatzingán, and driving out the Knights Templar from their strongholds,[17] the Mexican government was forced to respond and undertake community-focused security counter-measures. The government sent police and federal forces into Michoacán, and initially tried to disarm the vigilantes, only to be met with stern resistance. Alongside the self-defense forces themselves, many civilian members of the communities rallied in support of the vigilantes.[18]

It was only a matter of time for the tide to turn, and for the vigilantes themselves to become feared within the communities where a few months earlier they had been received as saviors. The failure of previous efforts to disarm the vigilantes and the rising fears that the self-defense forces will morph into criminal organizations and engage in similar abuses of civilians – killing, extortion, – as the drug gangs they pushed out of the communities,[19] led the Mexican government to adapt its tactics. Hence, in a slight variation of the dictum “if you can’t beat them, join them,” the Mexican government ended up aiming to incorporate the vigilantes “into a so-called rural defense force that would patrol in conjunction with the federal police and the military.”[20] This approach attempted to “bring the groups under some measure of state control,” [21] transform the self-defense forces into anti-cartel fighting units with the government providing them with uniforms, weapons, and training,[22] but these measures still have to yield results.

An additional example related to the spillover effects of national government responses across levels of analysis is provided by the way in which Colombia tackled the question of human trafficking. In Colombia, which “is the country third most affected by human trafficking in Latin America – behind Panama and Venezuela,”[23] the state took measures to deal with this issue in the form of passing the appropriate legislation at national level. Unfortunately, the implementation has remained wanting given the lack of adequate funding[24] necessary for the legal measures to take effect and produce the results intended. The lack of political will to enforce the measures against human trafficking in Colombia has spillover effects both upstream and downstream. As many of the victims are taken out of the country and exploited in other countries in the region, such as Argentina and Guatemala, the lack of suitable reinforcement at the national level allows the problem to spread upstream and become entrenched regionally. In reverse, the inadequate economic support on the part of the Colombian state to combat the trade in humans results in direct negative “downstream” consequences for the individuals who fall victims to it.

The Mérida Initiative represents another example of a state level initiative against transnational organized crime that is implemented, and has spillover effects at regional level. The program, initiated by the United States government in partnership with Mexico and first funded in 2008 as a response to the “appalling violence in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras,”[25] is destined to “fight organized crime and associated violence while furthering respect for human rights and the rule of law”[26] in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.  However, one of the main criticisms of the Mérida Initiative is that despite its significant funding, the aid has been mainly directed to bolster military capabilities, while the financing of more inclusive solutions at local and national level has gradually and consistently decreased over time.[27]

In a similar vein, initiatives originating at the state level and addressing the threat of transnational organized crime have ultimately resulted in an international treaty with the signing in 2000 of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime or the so-called Palermo Convention, which came into force in 2003. In this international agreement, transnational organized crime was treated for the first time as a unitary, key problem as opposed to previous accords that mainly focused on drug trafficking and independently targeted specific illicit activities, losing from sight the big picture of the worldwide interconnectedness of criminal networks.[28]

To conclude this sub-section, at the state level we encounter two main types of responses to the threat of illicit activities and the presence of organized criminal groups. On the one hand, these responses come as a reaction to anti-organized crime actions undertaken at the local level. On the other, the state itself initiates its own independent proposals on to how to deal with the threat of criminal groups, and these initiatives at their turn translate into anti-organized crime responses at regional and international level. The downstream impact of state-level anti-crime measures on communities and individuals will be discussed separately in the second section of this essay, which is dedicated to the downstream impact and spillover effects of these measures across levels of analysis.

4. Regional Level Responses

In a similar fashion to the national governments’ expansion of local level anti-organized crime initiatives to the domestic one, national proposals also gravitate upstream into regional security measures to fight the activities and presence of criminal groups. At their turn, these regional measures produce spillover effects upstream at the international and transnational level, as well as downstream, feeding back into the national, local, and ultimately the individual levels. In practice, most anti-transnational organized crime programs in place at the regional and international levels are initiated by states, either in the cadre of a regional or international forum in which they already cooperate (e.g., UNTOC), or as the result of ad-hoc cooperation proposals undertaken by a handful of states particularly affected by transnational organized crime and that decide to come together to fight it (e.g., the Merida Initiative).

In this vein, in the past three decades, states across several regions of the world have come together and established cooperation forums charged with addressing the regional and international dimensions of organized criminality. Such initiatives have been pervasive especially in those regions of the world most affected by organized criminal activities such as the Americas and South East Europe.

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency and whose main mission is to assist the member states “in their fight against serious international crime and terrorism,”[29] encourages regional cooperation efforts to secure the borders, and produces annual organized crime threat assessment. The agency has also prioritized anti-transnational organized crime measures in two of the E.U. countries most affected by this threat: Bulgaria and Romania. Europol has also engaged in comparable efforts under the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe, but despite these initiatives, its overall impact is pretty weak due to the limited resources put at its disposal.[30]

Currently, the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) is the successor of the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe. It facilitates cooperation across police and law enforcement organizations that fight trans-border organized crime. According to Carla Ciavarella, the Regional Programme Coordinator at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “the region continues to be the primary transit zone for heroin destined for Western Europe that comes from Afghanistan. An estimated 80 tons of heroin transit the region annually.”[31] In this context, under the egis of the RCC, a number of regional initiatives have flourished,[32] which alongside combating terrorism and organized crime, aim “to enhance the protection of human rights, minorities and vulnerable groups in the area of justice and judicial reforms.”[33]

At the same time many experts, law enforcement officials and security professionals see the European initiatives to fight transnational organized crime as being weak and largely ineffectual. But despite this criticism and the fact that the E.U. member states could not agree to this date to what constitutes an operational definition of transnational organized crime,[34] Europe is the world’s region where law enforcement and judicial cooperation is the most developed.

In Africa, the region of the world with the second highest rate of intentional homicides in the past few years, regional efforts to combat transnational organized crime have been particularly weak. Over the past decade, organized crime has witnessed a surge in West Africa, and in this context the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has attempted to put into place “regional mechanisms to stem the tide,”[35] such as adopting “a moratorium on the import and export of light weapons.”[36] However, the initiatives and measures to fight organized crime have remained largely unsuccessful across the continent.

Other regional plans to combat transnational organized crime and its effects are the ‘Hemispheric Drug Strategy’ adopted in 2010 by the Organization of American States,[37] the capacity-building framework between Australia and the Pacific Islands Forum, as well as the norms against transnational crime agreed to by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.[38] As in the case of regional anti-transnational organized crime strategies adopted in Europe and Africa, these measures have not succeeded in stemming the expansion of transnational crime throughout Asia and Latin America.[39]

All these examples demonstrate how the lack of coordination, inadequate funding and support behind many of these regional initiatives allows transnational organized crime to flourish across several levels of analysis. Unfortunately, the responses of governments and regional bodies to the threat of organized criminality do not generate positive spillover effects that match – even less surpass – the negative spillover effects of the illicit activities in which criminal groups engage at the state, regional and international levels.

5. Transnational and International Level Responses

Even if not extremely successful and effective, – as the discussion in the previous subsection illustrates, – national and regional level initiatives against transnational organized crime also translate into responses and reactions at the level of international bodies or the creation of corresponding international regulatory organizations dealing with the transnational aspect of organized criminality. The Palermo or United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) previously mentioned is one such example of a state level initiative implemented at the international level, and which has both upstream and downstream spillover effects. The implementation on the ground of the UNTOC is the responsibility of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).[40]

Alongside the UNTOC, the UN General Assembly issued a significant number of resolutions, and sponsored “programs, commissions, working groups, campaigns, and even a research institute”[41] in its efforts to deal with the threat of transnational organized crime. Still, these efforts are not carried out seamlessly and they are plagued by coordination problems and ineffective action across the various units of the organizations. Although the UN is aware of the glitches present within the institution and has undertaken some measures to increase coordination across bureaucratic units, its approach to transnational organized crime continues to be fragmented, uncoordinated and, overall, disorganized.

Besides the Palermo Convention that takes a unitary and general view of the threat posed by transnational organized crime, most international initiatives on the matter are issue specific and deal exclusively with matters related to money laundering, sex trafficking, labor trafficking, migrant smuggling and exploitation, illicit weapons smuggling, etc. However, irrespective of whether the approach is holistic or issue specific, the lack of strong political will at state level dooms many international – as well as regional initiatives – from the start. For instance, in the case of weapons smuggling, and despite the recognition of its fueling internal violence in African and Latin American countries, according to a Council on Foreign Relations 2013 report on Global Crime, there is no strong and enforceable international treaty to govern the illicit trafficking in small arms and light weapons.” [42]

Once we arrive at the international and transnational level, we notice the extent of the interconnectedness among various levels of analysis and the ways in which actions taken at one level feed into those taken at upper levels only to have them subsequently feed-back into the lower levels. For instance, over time, the states members of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) took several measures to combat money laundering that ultimately resulted in 1989 in the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental body that sets standards and promotes “effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system.”[43] The anti-money-laundering regulatory norms set in place by FATF together with its effective policy of “naming and shaming”[44] the countries who do not comply with these norms, has resulted in legal measures at the state level that the countries have adopted to fight money-laundering.

In the same vein, in 2000, through the “Trafficking Victims Protection Act,” the United States was the first country worldwide to criminalize “the act of exploiting humans through forced labor.”[45] The initiative undertaken by a superpower in the international system as the United States, resulted in United Nations adopting the following year the Palermo Protocol that defined human trafficking as a crime for the first time in an international treaty. With the United States and the United Nations setting the example in this area, another 140 nations followed in their steps and sanctioned human trafficking as a crime.[46] In this way, a state initiative resulted in an international norm subsequently adopted by most states in the international system and with further ramifications flowing downstream to the local and individual level.

The Interpol and the Egmont Group represent two other main international bodies that are also involved in drafting and implementing measures against the threat of organized criminality at the transnational and international level. While the Egmont Group is an informal network of Financial Intelligence Units aiming to foster international cooperation against money laundering and terrorism financing,[47] the Interpol’s mission in the fight against transnational organized crime is to facilitate cooperation and communication across law enforcement agencies, manage international criminal databases, and provide training of police forces and operational support.[48] Moreover, similarly to Europol, Interpol is significantly underfunded[49] due to its reliance on member countries’ contributions. Unavoidably, this aspect undercuts its ability to tackle in a meaningful way the threats posed by the activities of organized criminal groups at the transnational level.

We would like to conclude this section on the upstream spillover impacts of the responses to organized criminality across levels of analysis, by outlining the important role played by the main non-criminal stakeholders who take action at the micro- or lower levels of analysis. Actors at the individual and local level have the ability to set into motion the chain of events that leads to an organized response against the illicit activities of organized criminal groups at the macro- or upper levels of analysis. At the same time, the state level is the one where most initiatives emanating from the micro-levels either become endorsed or, are buried down or terminated. Also, the proposals promulgated upstream at the regional and international levels, depend on the main actors who operate at the state level. The lack of political will and of sufficient resourcing on the part of the states that supported these proposals, ultimately results in the poor implementation and inefficacy of many regional and international policies that fight the threat of transnational organized criminality.

Section 2: Downstream Responses and Reactions to Criminal Groups’ Threats

In terms of the downstream spillover effects of the responses and reactions to the threats posed by the activities and presence of criminal groups and networks, their impact cuts both ways: when the measures taken at transnational, regional and national level are well designed, backed by adequate resources and implemented in an effective manner, they affect in positive ways the stakeholders present at lower levels. Unfortunately, – as already discussed in the previous section, – very often, such measures are designed in an imperfect manner, are not allocated the necessary human and financial resources that would allow them to be carried out with efficacy, and as a consequence, their implementation very often leaves much to be desired.

Additionally, given the predominance of the state as the main player in the international system and the aim of nation-states to protect their sovereignty and national interests, international and transnational institutions are designed in such a way that in many cases the measures they undertake related to organized crime related issues are pretty toothless, and they have no means or recourse to impose, control or sanction meaningfully their implementation or lack thereof. In this vein, the 2013 report on global organized crime from the Council of Foreign Relations aptly assesses the impact of international initiatives to fight organized crime: “International efforts to address transnational organized crime (TOC) are too weak to address the threat. Strategies focus too little on combating corruption and addressing the increasing interplay of TOC and political power.”[50]

Despite this criticism, the major international institutions and regional bodies that aim to tackle the issue of organized crime still have significant clout in a number of issue-areas. In addition to being responsible with the implementation on the ground of the UNTOC, – which defines a transnational organized crime group “as a structured organization with three or more members,” [51] – the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime “is mandated to assist Member States in their struggle against illicit drugs, crime and terrorism.”[52] In this context, the UNODC also institutes the legal standards against transnational organized criminality that the states are to implement internally, and aims to build investigative and law enforcement capacity to fight organized criminality in its local context.[53]

Hence, the United Nations has raised several times the alarm on the severity of the human trafficking problem in Colombia[54] in a number of reports[55] that it has issued over the past couple of years, but the lack of funding and political will at national level have resulted in this issue remaining largely untouched. However, what is interesting about this case is that the lack of domestic accountability of the government has made the human trafficking problem within the country more severe than the transnational trade on which Colombia has made considerable progress under the pressure of international bodies such as the U.N. Even if considered by many “toothless,” the pressure that the U.N. reports have exercised over Colombia’s government has been stronger than domestic pressures.

Moreover, in the context of the complex and long-standing domestic conflict and high number of internally displaces persons in the country, the Colombian government was more likely to respond by curbing first the transnational aspect of the trafficking in humans than the domestic one which resulted in more severe consequences at individual, community, and national levels.[56] Although not fully able to pressure the Colombian state to take major domestic actions against human trafficking, the UNODC reports forced the Colombian government to take the first steps into the right direction of tackling the issue, even if only for now it deals with its transnational aspect.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is another international body whose activities to combat money laundering at international level have resulted in similar initiatives being adopted at regional level and the appropriate ensuing legislation being passed at state level. On the model provided by FATF, eight similar initiatives[57] have been put into place[58] at the regional level with highly positive results both in the corresponding regions as well as in the individual states cooperating under the egis of the FATF regional initiatives. Similarly to FATF, the UNODC has regional offices around the world, particularly in the areas most afflicted by the threat of organized criminality. As illustrated in the case of human trafficking in Colombia and across its borders, the UNODC presence on the ground helps to address various anti-organized crime policy needs in the region, and drives the states to work with one another in issue-specific areas, as well as revisit existing policies.

Below the regional level, states also engage in a variety of measures against organized criminal groups and their activities, and these measures at their turn have consequences at local and individual level. In 2008, the Mexican government undertook a set of national-level anti-corruption measures aimed to put an end to the “state of impunity”[59] that had been afflicting the country for a good number of decades. In this vein, it launched Operación Limpieza (Operation Clean), to expel from among the police forces the corrupt elements associated with the narco-traffickers, and engage in capacity building efforts throughout the country.

In “Operation Clean,” several arrests were made among high-level officials,[60] and beyond the partial weakening of the corruption ties between the narcos and unprofessional elements within the government, the impact of the operation was mainly felt at local and individual levels. Violence among rival cartels and their criminal gangs proxies intensified across various communities throughout the country where one group of narco-traffickers or another lost their protectors or “guarantors”[61] among police or government officials. Unfortunately, in the case of Mexico, the national level policies joined with a complex set of underworld dynamics among the drug cartels, and translated into an increase in the levels of violence in many communities in which innocent civilians were caught in crossfires among the narcos, or between the narcos and the government forces.[62]

The United States also feels the effects of transnational organized crime at local level.  In spite of establishing a partnership with Mexico through the Merida Initiative[63] to fight organized crime, illicit drugs continue to flow into the United States and the levels of violence in American cities continue to soar.  A 2011 report[64] published by the Institute for Latino Studies at University of Notre Dame explains that in spite of the U.S. and Mexican authorities’ efforts to diminish the power of the Mexican cartels, the violence and flow of illicit drugs into the U.S. continues.  The report mentions the spillover of violence and criminal activity from Mexico to the U.S. and highlights the case of South Bend, Indiana, where there has been increasing criminal activity as Mexican criminal groups have expanded their distribution of narcotics into the state.  The report points out that Indiana has historically not had a large incidence of heroin use, but rates of use are increasing in many cities across the state, including South Bend. In the case of the state of Indiana, local state authorities are working alongside federal entities such as the FBI and DEA to address the threats presented by transnational criminal organizations that operate across national borders and which also attempt to control geographic regions.  

Although transnational in nature and part of the United States’ government regional efforts to stop the flow of illicit drugs at the source, Plan Colombia presents another relevant of example of state level anti-organized crime efforts with ramifications and effects at local and individual level. During the Pastrana administration (1998-2002), the U.S. government provided significant assistance to the Colombian government in its counter-narcotics efforts. Besides “substantial assistance designed to increase Colombia's counternarcotics capabilities,”[65] the U.S. government intervention helped the Colombians come up with a concrete and sustainable strategy in the fight against the narcos.

The counter-narcotics strategy laid out in Plan Colombia played out mainly at the domestic and local levels, and it was a systematic approach to combat the threat of organized criminality at these levels. The subsequent effects of plan Colombia consisted in the Colombian military and police going to various areas of the country to disrupt directly the effects of criminal and insurgent groups. Prior to Plan Colombia, they did not have a foot on the ground, while the Plan made their presence felt at provincial level. The Colombian government succeeded in making the police work at local level, contrary to the practices of the past when the national government was highly isolated in Bogota, telling everyone else at the local level what to do from afar.

While in Colombia the national level counter-narcotics efforts were successful, in El Salvador, the government’s “mano dura” (heavy/firm hand) policies against the Maras only increased recruitment into the gangs that subsequently led to higher levels of violence and criminality at local level across the country. As the “mano dura” policies were not yielding the responses the Salvadorian government was expecting, they were followed by a new set of even stronger anti-gang measures, entitled “Super-Mano-Dura.” The resulting utter failure of the “mano dura” policies was followed-up with a new set of “mano blanda” (light hand) measures that temporarily alleviated the situation of violence at both local and national level. The gangs reached a truce in March 2012 that lowered the levels of violence throughout the country. However, the lack of an agreement with the Salvadorian government on the terms that the gangs requested, led to a reviving of the violence in the first three months of 2014, with the gangs engaging in systematic violence against law enforcement officers.[66] Similar to the Mexican case, the anti-organized crime measures undertaken by the government have backfired, and resulted in more violence among the members of the criminal groups, between the criminal organizations and the state security providers as well as increasing violence against civilians.

Last but not least, the measures taken at local level against the presence and threats posed by organized criminal groups and their activities are aimed to improve not only the overall security of the community, but also individual security. The rise of the vigilante groups in Mexico targeting the drug gangs that have been extorting, kidnapping, murdering, and raping within the respective communities are one example of local responses aimed to improve both collective and individual security. To the present, the vigilante groups have been partially successful in restoring order and security at either local or individual level, but in contrast, the city of Medellin in Colombia presents us with a more successful version of community-driven responses to high levels of organized criminality and related violence.

At the time of the Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar’s leadership of the Medellin cartel, the city was considered to be the most dangerous and deadliest in the world. After Escobar was taken down in 1993, the city of Medellin channeled its energies towards reinventing itself, and “closed the door to crime and opened the door of opportunity,” in the words of Sergio Fajardo, one the city’s former mayors.[67] The resurgence of the city did not happen in a top-down fashion, but through a grassroots effort, bottom-up approach to conquer back the spaces lost to organized-crime-related violence in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.[68] The local-levels initiatives to transform the reputation and narco-culture of the city bore fruit. By 2009, Medellin was the Colombian city with the highest quality of life,[69] and in 2012, The Wall Street Journal ranked Medellin as the most “Innovative City of the Year”[70] worldwide. Although drug-related violence still endures in certain neighborhoods (comunas) of the city, the local measures to improve the standard of living have proved pretty resilient. Initiatives such as “Espacio” that aims to bolster the entrepreneurial spirit among the youth in the city and transform Medellin into the Silicon Valley of South America,[71] offer young people a sustainable alternative to joining a criminal gang.

To conclude this section, the responses and reactions of various non-criminal stakeholders to the threat of organized criminal groups and their activities generate both upstream and downstream spillover effects. However, these effects are very much interrelated and the real-life situation is indeed more complex than the model presented in this essay. The current article attempts to provide a simplified, unified and organized image of the upstream and downstream flow of the spillover effects that the anti-organized crime measures generate, while acknowledging the sheer complexity of the issue and the many positive and negative feed-back loops that in reality take place across the levels of analysis we propose in our model.


Criminal organizations threaten governance, State capacity, and national security for the reasons discussed throughout this essay-series. It is vital that domestic policy makers as well as the international community revisit current policies and approaches associated with dealing with the threats presented by criminal organizations.  States and policymakers should be concerned because criminal organizations undermine the State’s influence and authority.  They corrode domestic institutions from within. Moreover, they disrupt the economic and political wellbeing of the nation-state and affect its relations with other countries. 

Criminal organizations yield direct and indirect spillover effects at the individual, domestic, regional, and international levels that in turn amplify their overall influence.  These organizations are dynamic, complex, and adaptive in nature.  Accordingly, policies and countermeasures designed to thwart criminal organizations’ activities must embody a robust, dynamic, and adaptive approach.  It is suggested that policymakers consider and assess the linkages across the different levels of threats discussed in this series of essays and in response develop appropriate measures and policies that address the interactions between the levels of analysis proposed. 

Over time, criminal organizations have learned how to adapt to a changing environment, increasing their threats to domestic, regional and international security, and compromising individual wellbeing.  The tools and resources needed to improve the current policy approach towards organized criminality are within reach.  It is essential thus that security practitioners and policy makers alike now reevaluate and upgrade their approach to fighting criminal organizations. 

The main conclusion of this essay series is that as the threats yielded by organized criminality are deeply interconnected and engender spillover effects across levels of analysis; equally interlinked are the responses and reactions they generate upstream and downstream at individual, community, state, regional and international levels. Additionally, given the nature of these threats, a higher degree of funding, strategic planning, and cooperation among the main non-criminal stakeholders across all these levels of analysis is highly desirable to more effectively combat and contain the expansion of criminal networks and their activities.

End Notes

[1] “Organ Theft Investigation Casts Doubt Over Recent LatAm Scandals,” by Charles Parkinson, Insight Crime, May 7, 2014,

[2] “Men who Sold Women: Human Trafficking Networks in Central America,” by Oscar Martinez, Insight Crime, October 28, 2012,

[3] Sicario, et al. (2011). El Sicario : the autobiography of a Mexican assassin. New York, Nation Books.

[5] “Convictions in Landmark Argentina Sex Trafficking Case Blow Against Impunity,” by James Bargent, Insight Crime, April 9, 2014,

[6] “Convictions in Landmark Argentina Sex Trafficking Case Blow Against Impunity,” by James Bargent, Insight Crime, April 9, 2014,

[7] “The Peace Movement in Mexico: Efforts to bring justice to the victims of violence in the country,” on the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center website,

[8] “‘Caravan For Peace,’ Led By Mexican Poet Javier Sicilia, Protests Drug War In New York,” by Anna Sanders, Huffington Post, September 7, 2012,

[9] “The Rise of Mexico’s Self-Defense Forces - Vigilante Justice South of the Border,” by Patricio Asfura-Heim and Ralph H. Espach, Foreign Affairs, July-August 2013,

[10] “How Financial Institutions Lead Way in Battle Against Human Trafficking,” by Daniela Guzman, Insight Crime, May 6, 2014,

[11] “The Rise of Mexico’s Self-Defense Forces - Vigilante Justice South of the Border,” by Patricio Asfura-Heim and Ralph H. Espach, Foreign Affairs, July-August 2013,

[12] “The Rise of Mexico’s Self-Defense Forces - Vigilante Justice South of the Border,” by Patricio Asfura-Heim and Ralph H. Espach, Foreign Affairs, July-August 2013,

[13] “San Diegans endorse Tijuana Innovadora,” by Sandra Dibble, U~T San Diego, December 6, 2013,

[14] “13 Are Killed As Gunmen Storm House In Mexico,” by Elisabeth Malkin, The New York Times, October 24, 2010.

[15] ‘“Todos Somos Juárez” Program, Explained,’ by Justice in Mexico Project, March 18, 2010,

[16] “Todos Somos Juárez, the reality speaks by itself,” El Paso Times, January 25, 2011,

[17] “Foes of Mexican Gangs Pose Security Challenge,” by Elisabeth Malkin and Paulina Villegas, The New York Times, January 14, 2014,

[18] “Mexico Faces Obstacle in Curbing Vigilantes Fighting Drug Gang,” by Elisabeth Malkin and Paulina Villegas, The New York Times, January 15, 2014,

[19] “Battler Against Mexico’s Cartels Is Detained in Vigilantes' Deaths,” by Damien Cave, The New York Times, March 13, 2014,

[20] “Vigilantes, Once Welcome, Frighten Many in Mexico,” by Randal c. Archibold and Paulina Villegas, The New York Times, February 25, 2014,

[21] “Vigilantes, Once Welcome, Frighten Many in Mexico,” by Randal c. Archibold and Paulina Villegas, The New York Times, February 25, 2014,

[22] “The Vigilantes Fighting Mexico’s Drug Cartels Are Now Actual Cops,” by Alasdair Baverstock, Vice News, May 16, 2014,

[23] “Anti-trafficking Laws Not Enough to Save Colombia's Victims,” by Charles Parkinson, Insight Crime, September 24, 2013,

[24] “Anti-trafficking Laws Not Enough to Save Colombia's Victims,” by Charles Parkinson, Insight Crime, September 24, 2013,

[25] “The Merida Initiative,” Testimony by Thomas A. Shannon, Jr., Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Washington, DC, March 10, 2009, U.S. State Department Press Release available at

[26] “Merida Initiative,” description of the program available on the U.S. State Department’s website

[27] “The Global Regime for Transnational Crime,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 25, 2013,

[28] “The Global Regime for Transnational Crime,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 25, 2013,

[30] Europol – Finance, details and web page available at

[31] Carla Ciavarella cited in “Cooperation in the fight against organized crime must exceed regional borders,” Newsletter 3/2010, Our South East Europe,

[32] Southeast European Cooperative Initiative Regional Center for Combating Trans-border Crime (SECI Center)/future Southeast European Law Enforcement Centre (SELEC), the Police Cooperation Convention for South East Europe (PCC), the Southeast Europe Police Chiefs Association (SEPCA), the Southeast European Prosecutors’ Advisory Group (SEEPAG), the Regional Anti-Corruption Initiative (RAI), and the Migration, Asylum, Refugees Regional Initiative (MARRI), cited in “Cooperation in the fight against organized crime must exceed regional borders,” Newsletter 3/2010, Our South East Europe,

[33] Virgil Ivan-Cucu, Senior RCC Secretariat’s Expert on Justice and Home Affairs, cited in “Cooperation in the fight against organized crime must exceed regional borders,” Newsletter 3/2010, Our South East Europe,

[34] “The Global Regime for Transnational Crime,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 25, 2013,

[35] “The Global Regime for Transnational Crime,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 25, 2013,

[36] “The Global Regime for Transnational Crime,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 25, 2013,

[37] Details of the “Hemispheric Drug Strategy,” presented on the website of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) and the Organization of American States

[38] “The Global Regime for Transnational Crime,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 25, 2013,

[39] “The Global Regime for Transnational Crime,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 25, 2013,

[40] “United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime,” available on the UNODC website

[41] “The Global Regime for Transnational Crime,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 25, 2013,

[42] “The Global Regime for Transnational Crime,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 25, 2013,

[43] “Who We Are,” the Financial Action Task Force website available at

[44] ‘“Name and shame” can work for money laundering,” Financial Action Task Force on money laundering (FATF), OECD Observer, October 2000, available at

[45] “How Financial Institutions Lead Way in Battle Against Human Trafficking,” by Daniela Guzman, Insight Crime, May 6, 2014,

[46] “How Financial Institutions Lead Way in Battle Against Human Trafficking,” by Daniela Guzman, Insight Crime, May 6, 2014,

[47] “About the Egmont Group,” The Egmont Group website

[48] Interpol “Vision and mission,” available on Interpol’s website at

[49] Interpol – Annual Report 2012,” available on Interpol’s website at

[50] “The Global Regime for Transnational Crime,” Council on Foreign Relations, June 25, 2013,

[51]  “United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime,” available on the UNODC website

[54] “Report Reveals Extent of Human Trafficking in Colombia,” by Charles Parkinson, Insight Crime, November 18, 2013,

[55] “UN Warns of Rise in Human Trafficking Within Colombia,” by Miriam Wells, Insight Crime, April 16, 2013,

[56] “UN Warns of Rise in Human Trafficking Within Colombia,” by Miriam Wells, Insight Crime, April 16, 2013,

[57] Details available on the FATF website under the caption “FATF Associate Members,”

[58] “Eight FATFA-Style Regional Bodies conduct assessments on their member jurisdictions.”

[59] “Mexico’s State of Impunity,” by Laura Carlsen, The Huffington Post, May 6, 2010,

[60] “UN Warns of Rise in Human Trafficking Within Colombia,” by Miriam Wells, Insight Crime, April 16, 2013,

[61] “How Juarez’s Police, Politicians Picked Winners of Gang War,” by Steven Dudley, Insight Crime, February 13, 2013,

[62] “Fear and Loathing in Mexico: Narco-alliances and Proxy Wars,” by Irina Chindea, Fletcher Security Review, Volume I, Issue 2, May 22, 2014,!chindea/c1l3f

[63]  The Merida Initiative.

[64] Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations and U.S. Drug Policy.

[65] “Plan Colombia,” Website of the Embassy of the United States in Bogota, Colombia,

[66] “El Salvador: Gang Truce Fails to Ease Violence, Officials Say,” The Associated Press, April 7, 2014,

[67] “Smart cities reading list: 5 takes on city challenges (and ways to overcome them),” by Liz Enbysk on April 30, 2014 for the Smart Cities Council,

[68] “Medellín, Colombia: reinventing the world's most dangerous city,” by Ed Vulliamy, The Guardian, June 8, 2013,

[69] “Medellin has highest quality of life in Colombia: study,” by Colombia Reports, November 6, 2009,

[70] Wall Street Journal “City of the Year” -

[71] “Medellin, The Silicon Valley Of South America,” in Medellin Living, October 26, 2012,



Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. Irina A. Chindea is a Political Scientist with the Washington D.C. office of the RAND Corporation. Irina's research interests focus on transnational illicit networks, irregular warfare, asymmetric threats, the nexus between finance and the activities of non-state armed groups, with a regional focus on Latin America and the Middle East. Irina has conducted extensive field research in Mexico,Colombia, El Salvador, and Canada for her doctoral dissertation on patterns of cooperation and conflict among criminal organizations. She holds a PhD in International Relations and an M.A. in Law and Diplomacy from The Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a B.Sc. in Business Administration from the Academy of Economics in Bucharest, Romania. Prior to joining RAND, she was a post-doctoral research fellow in the International Security Program at the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and a Visiting Assistant Professor with University at Albany (SUNY), where she taught classes on International Relations Theory, Comparative Foreign Policies, Homeland Security, and Research Methods.  Dr. Chindea is a Small Wars Journal-El Centro Fellow.

Dr. Byron Ramirez is a researcher and analyst who specializes in international political and economic affairs.  He completed his PhD in Economics and Political Science at Claremont Graduate University and holds an MA in Economics, a MS in Management, and an MBA.  His areas of research include geopolitics, international affairs, globalization, economic and social development, and illicit economies. His most recent publication is the co-edited work Narco-Submarines Specially Fabricated Vessels Used For Drug Smuggling Purposes. Fort Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Office.