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"Hyper-Modern, Hyper-Adaptive—and Deadly." Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán for City Journal.

Imagine that your son or brother has joined a protest against government corruption. During the demonstration, police arrive and force them onto a bus. You rush to the site of the event; you ask about him, but no one tells you anything. You keep searching, your anxiety mounting because you know the depth of the corruption in the city: police and the mayor often collaborate with local drug traffickers. You comfort yourself, remembering that your son or brother was with a large crowd. As the days pass, however, you realize that they weren’t taken into custody by the police; your son or brother has vanished. Two, then three, years pass, and you’re told that it’s too dangerous to keep looking, because “important” people were involved—the mayor, in fact, may have ordered local drug traffickers to kidnap the demonstrators.

What level of corruption is required for the kidnapping and disappearance of 43 students, as happened on September 26, 2014, at the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College, State of Guerrero, Mexico—and getting away with it? It’s a corruption that goes beyond the traditional definitions that scholars advanced in the 1990s when defining administrative and systemic corruption, in which, say, a local political leader or police chief might receive kickbacks and bribes in exchange for going easy on crime. An international commission of experts investigating the Ayotzinapa events found something far more complex: the perpetrators “didn’t hide their identities,” and there had been possible coordination between the Guerreros Unidos crime syndicate, which was presumed to have killed the students, and at least 18 police patrol units from various municipalities, one state patrol unit, and government officials at various levels. Though some authorities received real-time information about the kidnapping, they didn’t act to protect the students. The commission also noted that Ayotzinapa is a hotspot for heroin trafficking to Chicago—but it is just one of 2,446 Mexican municipalities affected by the convergence of massive corruption and transnational criminal forces that traffic in drugs, arms, minerals, and human beings.

As bad as it seems, this is not just a Mexican problem: mutual coordination and co-optation between lawful and unlawful players are increasingly common worldwide. The 2014 mass killing in Mexico as well as several other cases reflect a crisis in the institutional architecture of nation-states in Latin America, Africa, former Soviet countries, and Southeast Asia, where new forms of corruption, sustained by vast macro-criminal networks, metastasize with a complexity that outstrips current institutional capacities, investigative methodologies, and judicial systems.

Most formal mechanisms for confronting global crime were designed when social and political power was strongly concentrated among nation-states and when the movement of people, commodities, and information was much slower and more expensive than it is today. After World War II, with a polarized geopolitical map opposing the capitalist and the Communist nations, the biggest threat to global stability was aggression between countries belonging to different ideological blocs. Citizens were connected through their national identities but disconnected by geopolitical borders. Multilateral conventions and instruments for promoting regional integration seemed like good solutions for preventing hostilities between nations and for establishing paths toward conciliation.

In the post–Cold War period, as populations became more urban and technology evolved, information transmission accelerated and the concentration of political and economic power mutated. National identities radically fragmented; worldviews no longer reflected a purely binary struggle between capitalism and Communism, and individuals began crossing national borders to a greater degree than ever before, while urban concentration kept increasing. According to the World Bank, 310 million passengers traveled by air in 1970; in 2015, that figure reached 3.4 billion. Computing capacities exploded, automating more and more social and productive processes through software and complex algorithms. With billions of smartphones, apps, and sensors, the latest technology links human beings together on a previously unimaginable scale; about 40 percent of the world population currently transmits data through the Internet.

All this has created new global patterns of criminal activity—facilitating, for example, transnational money-laundering and the transporting of illegal goods on an unprecedented scale. Not so long ago, financial transactions remained mostly executed by humans, not by autonomous algorithms. U.S. paper money would be physically moved as part of any money-laundering scheme; crypto-currencies weren’t commonly used; and drug-trafficking cartels generally trafficked only in drugs. In 2019, by contrast, money often gets laundered through multiple layers of façade enterprises and offshore accounts worldwide, managed by companies unrelated to the real owners. It’s practically impossible to trace the source of traded crypto-currencies such as bitcoins. Most “Mexican cartels” these days operate across countries, from the U.S. to Argentina and western Africa, organize themselves as horizontal structures and not as cartels, and engage in more criminal activities than drug-trafficking. La Familia Michoacana, for example, has smuggled ferrous material to China; Los Zetas moves human beings across Central America. Indeed, those “Mexican cartels” are neither purely Mexican nor cartels. Meantime, rigid bureaucracies find it difficult to adapt to, or even to understand, these changes.

Massive connectivity has produced a new form of globalization, in which legal and illegal commodities and services flow across and between countries, with major gaps in their income, quality of life, and institutional capacities. Consider the transnational market of trafficked minerals such as coltan or cobalt, required for satisfying the growing demand for batteries for electronic devices. As the number of smartphones sold worldwide increased from 120 million in 2007 to more than 1.5 billion in 2017, Chinese factories, where so many of the phones are manufactured, became insatiable in their need for the minerals (...).

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