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El Chapo Guzmán and Narco-Democracy in Latin America

By: Sofía Ramírez Fionda - Feb 26, 2014, 12:38 pm

Español On Saturday, Mexican authorities — assisted by several US agencies — captured the head of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, in a hotel in Mazatlan. Guzmán had been one of the most sought after criminals in the world after his escape from prison in 2001. Last year, J.R. Davis, president of the Chicago Crime Commission, declared El Chapo “Public Enemy No. 1.”

Indeed, the Sinaloa Cartel has extended across the entire globe as a network of criminal cells. InsightCrime reports that in addition to the traditional strongholds in the United States, Europe, and Latin America, Sinaloa has managed to extend its reach to Pacific regions of Asia and Australia. The cartel’s yearly profits are estimated at US$3 billion.

Guzmán’s capture was made possible by the preceding arrest of Daniel Fernandez de la Vega, an alleged narco who was captured and interrogated by Mexican marines on February 12.

As PanAm Post columnist Guillermo Jiménez points out in an article written in December of 2013, El Chapo’s escape from Federal prison in Mexico in 2001 occurred under very dubious circumstances. In fact, the Mexican government may well have been directly involved in Chapo’s prison escape, providing him with assistance as a fugitive for the last 13 years.

In the same article, Jiménez puts forth the investigative work of Anabel Hernández, a Mexican journalist who put five years of research into writing a book called Narcoland. Through her research, Hernández arrived at the conclusion that El Chapo is a figure created and maintained by the government itself, in order to justify the war on drugs, defense budgets, and control of the border.

If so, then to what end does the Mexican government seek to deepen the ongoing war on drugs?

The Drug Enforcement Agency of the United States (DEA) reported last year that drug trafficking was the planet’s largest illegal business, with over US$500 billion estimated annually worldwide. Such vast sums of money and the fight for its control are what give rise to the world’s most powerful organized crime syndicates. In this light, it is no wonder that Forbes designated El Chapo Guzmán as one of the most powerful people in the world — placing him 67th in global rankings.

Many years ago, the term narcodemocracia (or narco-democracy) entered into the public discourse. While used by political scientists, the term refers to a very real issue faced by governments throughout the world, especially in Latin America. A narco-democracy is defined as a state in which elections are still held to elect a government, but has been deeply penetrated by the financing of narcotrafficking. Consequently, narco-democracies allow organized crime to act with impunity in exchange for the cash needed to win elections.

In recent months, countries throughout Latin America have held regular elections, and the issue of drug money within electoral campaigns came to light once again. Absent official investigations or prosecutions into this activity, it was the press who essentially — although not exclusively — assumed the role of watchdog and highlighted the lack of transparency in the financing of Latin-American electoral campaigns.

In Honduras, ombudsman Ramón Custodio produced a statement urging citizens to reject any political party with ties to narco-trafficking during the presidential elections. Lisa Kubiske, U.S. ambassador in Tegucigalpa, also raised the issue and called on all presidential candidates to ensure their campaigns were free of money from illegal activity, since the Central American country is said to be used to launder drug money.

In Mexico, Phil Jordan, former DEA director in El Paso, Texas, said during an interview on Univision that El Chapo funded the election campaign of the current Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). “I never thought the PRI would arrest him, because Chapo gave a lot of money to Peña Nieto’s campaign,” Jordan asserted. “I was surprised when I found out he’d been arrested.” The DEA issued a statement distancing themselves from Jordan’s statements.

In El Salvador, José Luis Merino, an important member of the FMLN and a close friend of presidential candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén, has been linked by Spanish newspaper ABC to the Colombian guerrilla organization FARC. It is alleged that money gained from gun trafficking may have found its way to FMLN campaign coffers.

In Argentina, the digital outlet Tribuna de Periodistas, known for its investigative journalism, recently published several articles — in honor of El Chapo’s arrest — that allege links between Guzmán and the governments of Cristina Fernández and Venezuela. Since 2008, in fact, this news organization has been reporting on the supposed alliance between the Sinaloa Cartel and the governments of these countries. They allege that, during the 2007 presidential elections, an agreement was struck granting the Sinaloa Cartel the freedom to act with impunity in exchange for campaign funds. This cleared the path for drug trafficking to extend its reach into the southern parts of Argentina, where it has since established itself as a way to “diversify business.”

In December 2009, Congresswoman Elisa Carrió submitted a report which called for the investigation of campaign contributions to the newly elected Fernández. According to information contained within the report, former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Julio Cobos received a total sum of AR$14 million in contributions during the 2007 campaign — of which AR$12 million were reported as private contributions. Over a third of the funds (35.4 percent) were said to have been from the medicine or pharmaceutical industry, and there are undoubtedly more irregularities to be found within these donations.

Congresswoman Carrió makes clear in her report that the way organized crime operates in both Venezuela and Argentina is through financing the country’s politics — the cartel funds their campaigns, and the state protects their operations.

All of these allegations have been denied by the Argentine government, which has not acknowledged the penetration of drug trafficking cartels in the country. As expected, no government of Latin America has dared to recognize ties to terrorist groups. There have only been small hints by people like Hugo Chávez and Hebe de Bonafini, who dared to defend the FARC. Chavez even recognized the guerilla group as part of his “Bolivarian project.”

Latin America does indeed have problems of corruption, as Transparency International indicated in its 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. Latin-American states — with the exception of Chile and Uruguay — are afflicted with a lack of functional government. The type of organized crime and violence experienced in Latin America is similar to that of countries at war.

The issue of drug cartels and their penetration into political institutions won’t be solved as long as the governments of Latin America continue to deny that such a problem even exists and corruption within these governments is allowed to persist. The greatest challenge for the governments of Latin America in the next decade will be to face this reality and begin to find real solutions.

Translated by Guillermo Jimenez.

Sofía Ramírez Fionda Sofía Ramírez Fionda

Based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Ramírez Fionda is a former Spanish-language editor and journalist with the PanAm Post. She holds degrees in political science and international relations, and you can follow her on Twitter @SofiFionda.