Beware of the Pax Mafioso

Corruption plagues many democracies, emerging or otherwise. Here are a few tips for those who want to fight back.


For a two-time mayor in Zilupe, Latvia, the beginning of the end came with mysterious traffic jams. According to Artis Velss, deputy chief of the Latvian State Police, one day in 2009 townspeople began to notice that some trucks trying to cross the nearby Russian border spent days standing idle in queues of up to 4 miles and 2000 vehicles, while others were waved through the "green light" lane with a minimum of fuss. The investigation triggered by that anomaly continues today, and so far it has resulted in the arrest of a mayor and 25 of his associates, including officials from Customs, the State Revenue Service, the Border Guards, and  the State Police, on charges including tax fraud, smuggling, money laundering, bribery, and abuse of official position. According to law enforcement officials who have asked to remain anonymous, the border crossing was used by networks specializing in smuggling between Russia and the European Union. Working with the local authorities, smugglers arranged for a "green corridor" to allow the expedited crossing of illicit goods… for a fee, of course.

Latvia boasts a reformed democracy that has made great strides to limit the influence of the wealthy in politics, encourage the growth of civil society, and secure economic growth. Freedom House ranks it among successfully "consolidated democracies" and the nations that have a truly free press. However, though the government has made genuine efforts to develop a state built on an accountable and responsive political system, it must simultaneously combat the legacy of the former KGB presence, a pervasive lack of transparency across of social and political organizations, and the presence of illicit networks that undermine justice and rule of law.

In Latvia and elsewhere, understanding the relationship between crime networks and democratic governance is deeply challenging, given the inherent complexities and the clandestine nature of these dealings. Illicit networks are deeply engaged in politics around the world not because of ideology, but out of common (business) sense, forging relationships with politicians based on mutual benefit. When criminal networks provide politicians with money and "muscle," they are paid in kind through impunity, lucrative contracts, and favorable regulation. It’s a "win-win" equation for everyone — except citizens, of course, who see their political rights violated and institutions corrupted. While these relations also exist in authoritarian contexts, they do great damage to democracies by weakening key principles of democratic governance such as rule of law, equal exercise of citizenship rights, responsiveness, and transparency.

The challenges of understanding how illicit actors influence political processes and institutions cannot be overstated. Those engaged in these issues — anti-corruption activists, journalists, and law enforcement agents, among others — are grappling with a phenomenon that is shadowy by nature, poses a high risk to their personal security, crosses borders, and is often protected by political privilege. In 2010, International IDEA launched its "Protecting Legitimacy in Politics" initiative to include both investigative research and support for national political reform. Through its activities in the Baltic States, Latin America, and West Africa, IDEA has identified several key lessons to help policymakers better analyze and address this growing phenomenon:

1. Don’t focus only on "emerging" democracies.

The influence of organized crime is not unique to failed or rogue states. Although illicit interests do take advantage of institutional vacuums, no region or country is immune. A recent report that looked at three EU member states — Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia — found high vulnerability to criminal networks. Their borders with Russia, hefty banking sectors, and EU membership make them an attractive hub for smuggling and money laundering. Latvia’s recent entrance into the Eurozone is sure to create further challenges for authorities seeking to curb the nexus between organized crime and politicians.

Even the strongest democracies must remain alert to this threat. Consider the city of Sodertalje, just 18 miles from Stockholm, Sweden, which is home to clan-based criminal networks. There, a crime syndicate called "the Network" and its leader, Bernard Khouri, resorted to methods like extortion and assassination to amass influence, while at the same time allegedly impacting politics. The 2010 brutal assassination of two brothers of a local gang leader is a case in point. The murders took place in an illegal gambling house rented out by a powerful local family that includes a parliamentarian. Though perpetrators of the violent acts have been brought to trial, the impact on political structures — including the influence of clientelism — is pernicious and far more difficult to address. Stockholm University sociologist Amir Rostami compares Sodertalje to Sicily, noting that "there is a criminal structure that has created… a kind of parallel system… with the ability to affect the regular system of political, economic, cultural, religious and legal spheres…. It is a parallel state that relies on families and feeds and sponges off the official state."

2. Clarify the connections between crime and democracy.

Helping citizens and politicians connect the dots between strong, transparent democratic institutions and reduced vulnerability to illicit networks can help move the issue up the public agenda. Development and democracy practitioners often fail to see the link between their goals and the criminal justice agenda. Though these organizations might have reasons for keeping law enforcement at arm’s length, they can benefit from using these agencies’ intelligence and calibrate their activities accordingly. In a recent report for the Center on International Cooperation, Camino Kavanagh recommends that development actors carry out political economy assessments that are "organized-crime sensitive" including analysis that addresses five core dimensions: political process, criminal justice system, economic and social policies, civil society and the media, and intelligence gathering and analysis.

Savvy policy entrepreneurs can even take advantage of the media buzz created by high-profile organized crime cases to draw more attention to their democracy or development agenda. If properly regulated and enforced, elements of the political finance framework — including public disclosure, funding sources, spending/donor caps, and public funding — may help mitigate the importance of money in elections. The media, however, generally perceive political finance legislation as overly "wonky." If citizens are made to see the threat that corruption and crime pose to democracy, they may better understand that today’s shadowy political finance system is the political equivalent of a "gateway drug" to tomorrow’s narcostate.

3. Don’t view elections as a one-off.

Election campaigns offer the most evident target for illicit influence (fielding and funding of candidates, vote buying, and intimidation and violence against candidates, voters, or journalists). Yet these are not the only areas that are susceptible to corruption. Elections must be seen as multi-year processes.

During the pre-electoral phase, the threat of intrusion by criminal networks must be analyzed and addressed through political finance regulation, security policies, protocols for candidate screening and disclosure requirements, independence of the election commission, development of civil society election monitoring, and media freedom and protection of journalists. The post-electoral period should be used to evaluate the legitimacy of the campaign and propose meaningful reforms to improve the next electoral cycle. Too frequently, election observation missions operate in isolation with little concrete follow-up resulting from their recommendations. As an International IDEA report on election integrity recommends: "It should become common practice that there is in-country, post-election dialogue among international observer groups, domestic observer groups, electoral authorities, and political actors in countries in which elections have been observed." Civil society may also adopt measures to monitor the behavior of elected officials.

4. Pay attention to the local level.

Too often, media attention and reform efforts focus on criminal networks’ influence on national actors, such as presidents, parliaments, and parties. Research by Uribe and Villaveces, however, has shown that connections between illicit networks and politicians hinge on "long-term family or friendship ties that often date back to school, or ties developed through shared interests and social associations (country clubs, sport clubs, and the like)." Local institutions are more vulnerable. Honest would-be politicians are often "crowded out" at the local level because they cannot compete with illicitly financed competitors or because of threats and intimidation to themselves or their families.

Although the lack of genuine electoral options may simply result in voter disgust and apathy, it can also provoke action. In 2011, Germán Antonio Londoño Roldán ran unopposed for mayor of Bello, Colombia, representing a political faction accused of links to drug trafficking networks. In response, civil society groups organized a courageous protest campaign and called for voters to cast blank ballots. Outrage was so high that the "none of the above" vote trounced Londoño Roldán 57 percent to 37 percent.

5. Don’t let stabilization trump democracy.

World Bank research shows that even the fastest-reforming countries need 15 to 30 years to consolidate institutions. In post-conflict countries, however, the overriding emphasis on stabilization can come at the expense of long-term prospects for democracy. While security is essential, a "peace at any cost" approach — which may include a push for early elections or investments in "strongman" leaders — does democracy no favors. Using security threats as their pretext, these leaders may become entrenched before the country has the free media, civil liberties, or unfettered opposition necessary to ensure competitive and transparent politics in the long term. That may leave room for organized crime groups to infiltrate. For example, in Peru in the 1990s, the (legitimate) battle against terrorist group Shining Path was also used to justify the creation of a security apparatus headed by Vladimiro Montesinos, a national security adviser who was outside the normal chain of command, and who later was convicted of various crimes, including trafficking arms to Colombian guerrillas. Police also found 170 kilos of cocaine concealed in the presidential plane, which was due to fly from Peru to Russia.

By the same token, improved security in a country does not necessarily mean defeat for criminal networks. It may simply be that a pax mafioso has taken hold that includes stable markets and territorial control without the need for violence. Conversely, an upswing in violence may signal fragmentation of criminal groups or a reaction to perceived threats from the media, civil society, politicians, or law enforcement in their fight against organized crime.

It’s easy to get discouraged in the face of these complex, highly influential illicit organizations. No region is unaffected and these networks have a foothold across diverse economic sectors. At the same time, their potential to engage with politicians in "joint ventures" that subvert democratic processes and institutions is immense. Progress will require concerted efforts between non-traditional allies, cross-border policy coordination, and out-of-the-box thinking. That is a tall order, but with the democratic stakes so high, business as usual is not an option.

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