Suits: The New Face of Latin American Crime
By Josefina Salomon
Drug lords switching out gold chains for bespoke suits, politicians proposing to legalize cocaine and judges acquitting cocaine traffickers on compassionate grounds. The criminal underworld in Latin America, the world’s most violent and unequal region, is changing faster than you can say Narcos.
Forget everything you thought you knew about its drug barons. Those glitzy TV shows are out of date — the reality is a lot murkier. This week’s Sunday Magazine takes you on a journey through Latin America’s modern-day drug underworld, highlights some of the boldest ideas for tackling trafficking and violence — and adds a dose of crime-ridden soccer.
Hard drugs, including heroin and cocaine, are as popular as ever across the globe and especially in North America and Asia. With the world’s largest cocaine producers, and some of the most powerful crime organizations operating from Latin America, this corner of the world finds itself trapped in a new cycle of lawlessness, government corruption, crumbling judiciaries and widespread poverty. The result: a region that’s home to some of the most violent cities on the planet.
Fewer Gold Chains, More Suits
Who is behind all this? Today, your typical Latin American underworld boss looks a lot less like the suave, showboating Pablo Escobar as depicted on Narcos and much more like a suited office worker. Why? Because a criminal flying under the radar is a criminal less likely to get caught. “The new drug lords are different. They have gone to universities, they have [legally qualified] accountants, they know about the law, how to present information to avoid justice,” Angela Olaya Castro, co-founder and researcher at the Conflict Responses Foundation, tells OZY. Crime organizations from Colombia, Brazil, El Salvador and Mexico are smart, well organized and very specialized.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
Traffickers know drugs, and also business. That’s why they are increasingly pursuing new consumers with deeper pockets in Europe and Australia. That’s not all. In Colombia, they are experimenting with new technologies that allow them to produce much more cocaine on smaller tracts of land. And when they are not making enough money from drugs, criminals in Mexico, Brazil and across Central America are diversifying and trading in anything from arms and gold to endangered animals and people, even during the pandemic. In the end, it’s all about making a quick buck.
The Billion-Dollar Answer
If you have been paying attention to the news, you’ll know drug decriminalization is a big thing across the Americas (look at the U.S., Uruguay, Mexico and Peru). In Colombia, senator Iván Marulanda is taking things a step further. In December, he proposed a bill to legalize cocaine, like in Bolivia. How would it work? The government would buy all coca leaves and give them to Indigenous communities to produce food, medicine and fertilizers. At a cost of around $680 million, Marulanda says this plan would cost half the money authorities currently spend trying to destroy crops, without much success.
The Exit Door
But don’t get too excited just yet. Decriminalization alone, experts say, is not a sure-fire antidote to Latin America’s organized crime problem. Héctor Silva Avalos, a researcher from El Salvador, explains that government corruption is what facilitates criminal activity. Without real political will, tackling it has been nearly impossible. Another problem? This is a very unequal fight, says Olaya Castro. “While organized crime can pay the greatest experts and quickly adapt to any situation, governments [in Latin America] don’t have enough resources to investigate and fight them. That is unlikely to change in the near future.”
There’s marijuana, cocaine, heroin . . . and an endless list of new, illicit chemical highs. Medical advances unfolding in research laboratories, such as brain implants to manipulate moods and apps that provide digital highs (minus the risk of overdose), could potentially replace the current slate of illegal drugs. Does that mean the balance of power could shift from Colombia and Mexico to Silicon Valley? Don’t write off the criminals just yet. “If demand for one drug decreases, criminals will look for the next thing because there will always be a next [illegal] thing people want,” Olaya Castro explains.
Wanna know what else is going to change? The way drugs are bought and sold. Shrouded in secrecy, dark web markets already popular in Western countries are spreading across the digital globe, providing users with new avenues to buy their next high. What’s worse, authorities appear unable to shut them down for good. Can these markets replace the old-fashioned drug cartels? Not entirely, says author and expert Mike Power. He told Vice that drug sellers are unlikely to ever operate at the same level as large crime organizations, which effectively serve as wholesalers with connections on both sides of the supply chain.
The Cure for Addiction?
Off the streets, another “war on drugs” is being fought inside labs, where scientists have been looking for ways to make illicit drugs less harmful. Among the potential solutions is a vaccine that could tame a person’s desire to use cocaine. Another is early DNA sequencing, which could help professionals diagnose a person’s potential for becoming an addict. Other scientists are trying to develop drinks that can produce the same pleasurable feelings as alcohol, minus the negative side effects. Sounds great, right? Well, such advances carry many ethical implications (just imagine what governments could do if they had access to everybody’s DNA sequencing).
Crime and Punishment
Technology is already changing the way we think about justice (think online courts, police cameras, DNA databases). But in cash-strapped Latin America, where prisons have reached their breaking point and corruption is common, deploying such state-of-the-art measures to combat crime looks to be a long way off. While the region’s governments have relied on mass incarceration — even for nonviolent drug offenses — to tackle crime, there is still hope for new strategies. In Argentina, for example, authorities recently acquitted a woman who crossed the country’s border with Chile with 6.6 pounds of cocaine taped around her waist. The judge said she had been forced to smuggle drugs to cover the cost of surgery for her ailing son. Another example is Uruguay, where an “open” prison that allows inmates to work and receive an education has been lauded for its positive results.
WHAT’S SPORTS GOT TO DO WITH IT?
Giving Soccer a Bad Name
Well before international soccer megastars like Lionel Messi became pristine pictures of health, the “wilder” soccer type was very much in vogue in South America. What changed? “Money is the new cocaine,” Silva Avalos says. “The [soccer] idol today is a professional who takes care of his body and his health.” Still, behind the scenes, not all is picture-perfect. Crime has been embedded in Latin American soccer for so long that it is practically a part of the game. From shadowy fan gangs controlling the sport in Argentina to accusations of top-level corruption among regional soccer executives, this sport has earned itself something of a bad name.
The Right Stuff
But before you burn your jersey, listen up: It’s not all bad. As the most popular sport in Latin America, soccer has also been deployed as an important force for good. From the marginalized communities of Colombia’s Medellín to the shantytowns of Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, social organizations have embraced it as a means for getting kids off violent streets and away from the predatory arms of crime groups. “The principle [of those projects] is good,” Silva Avalos says. “The problem is that sports by itself won’t fix the root causes of crime and violence: the rupture in the social contract.”
Stars of the Future
Still, there is hope that kids in South America can be encouraged away from crime and drugs. Consider Thiago Almada. The 20-year-old soccer midfielder who currently plays for Argentina’s Vélez Sarsfield has already been dubbed the new Carlos Tevez — the Argentine superstar who grew up in an environment marred by drugs and murder. (Check out the Netflix-made dramatization of Tevez’s life here). Almada was born in the same marginalized Buenos Aires neighborhood as Tevez and sees football as the door to every opportunity he’s enjoyed. Now valued at more than $23 million, Almada appears to have attracted numerous international clubs eager for the young star’s signature.
- Josefina Salomon, OZY Author Contact Josefina Salomon