Note: This piece originally appeared in Spanish on esglobal. To read the original piece, click here.
Recently, during a technical stop on President Jair Bolsonaro’s trip to the G20 Summit in Japan, Spanish police arrested a Brazilian Army Air Force sergeant at the Seville airport for transporting 39 kilos of cocaine. A few months earlier, a police inspector and a customs agent from the port of Algeciras were arrested for their connection to an organization dedicated to drug trafficking in the Strait of Gibraltar: they provided key information on which containers were to be registered, and when. The trial of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has revealed the corruption that entangles not only the drug trafficking business in Mexico, but also the drug war launched by Mexican authorities, allegedly reaching the highest levels of the administration of former President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Concerns over corruption related to illicit drug trafficking have increased in recent years. It has become an important concern of governments, citizens, civil society, and international organizations, particularly where corruption is widespread or affects the highest levels of the judiciary, security forces, administration or politics. And now, over more than two decades ago, this link began to gain relevance in the international agenda.
Corruption is present throughout the chain of illegal drug trafficking, especially at international or cross-border activities, which involves many types of intermediaries: military, police, officials, border and customs agents, illegal armed actors, and organized criminal groups. But to really understand and deconstruct the connection between drugs and corruption it is necessary to analyze it, not as the result of individual decisions by heartless drug traffickers and officials with no ethics, but as a consequence of deeper relations between the state and the economy of illicit drugs.
Corruption and drug trafficking are the symptoms of more profound social issues, such as the delegitimization of political regimes and the deterioration of institutions and society’s trust in said institutions. It is not possible to understand drug trafficking without analyzing the role of the state. This starts with realizing up from that the production, consumption and trade of drugs as illegal activities is a political decision taken by governments. Likewise, drug trafficking’s power and scope cannot be understood without considering the protection that the state has given it and the role it has played in its growth and consolidation, at least in certain contexts and moments.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has studied the links between illicit drugs and corruption. These are two areas in which the available data are scarce, not always representative and, in general, not very homogeneous between different countries and regions. Consequently, illustrating the connection between the two—and then detecting global trends—is especially complex. The UNODC considers that the link between these two phenomena usually manifests itself unevenly in some countries, depending on the levels of socioeconomic development and the strength of democratic institutions. In developing countries, it is not uncommon for drug-market-related corruption to reach the highest levels of government, police, judiciary, or armed/security forces. In some places, organized crime is even capable of influencing democratic processes by financing election campaigns or buying votes. In the European Union, for example, cases of corruption related to drug trafficking are usually of a lower level, in the sense that they are linked to people with a lower profile or responsibility in the institutional hierarchy, or their scope is local or more geographically limited. This could be due to greater transparency and control than in other areas, added to institutions that are stronger and more resistant to corruption.
The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime of 2000 obliges state parties to criminalize “the promise, offering or giving to a public official, directly or indirectly, of an undue advantage, for the official himself or herself or another person or entity, in order that the official act or refrain from acting in the exercise of his or her official duties” as well as the solicitation or acceptance by a public official of said undue advantage (article 8). This kind of definition coincides with the public’s opinion regarding corruption. However, when illegal drugs are factored into the equation, corruption goes far beyond the benefit obtained by the person who, for example, looks away to let a drug shipment through. Drug trafficking can have a great effect on the economy of a country, creating jobs and providing goods and services that the state is not able to provide: in short, drug trafficking can provide many benefits to a country’s economy as a whole even as it becomes a source of corruption. Initiatives to try to prevent and weaken the connections between illicit economies and corruption have been numerous and have yielded diverse results. They have emerged from governments, but also from organized civil societies and international organizations.
Below are some proposed ideas on how to move toward a better understanding of this link, its consequences and how to reverse them—illustrating them with examples of existing initiatives.
Generate more and better data on corruption, in particular on the link between corruption and illicit drug markets. While comprehensive global data on corruption is not available, Transparency International publishes the Index of Perception against Corruption each year, which measures the perceived levels of corruption in the public sector in 180 countries, allowing us to observe the evolution in the different countries and detect some trends. Several of the countries that are located within the international traffic routes of cocaine and heroin are among the most corrupt in that index. For example, according to the most recent survey Mexico is ranked 138 among all the countries (by way of context, Denmark the top position and Somalia the lowest at 180). Afghanistan lands in 172, as does Guinea Bissau. Colombia is around the median in 99th place, Morocco at 73 and Spain at 41. It is not possible to know what part of this score is directly attributable to illicit drug markets. However, the organization has conducted case studies on Guinea Bissau (a major traffic hub in Africa) and on Afghanistan (the world’s leading producer of opium and heroin), revealing the connection between the two phenomena and how this link makes it harder for these countries to fulfill the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There are also positive experiences, such as the anti-corruption initiatives in Georgia, Croatia and Sierra Leone outlined in the Drug Policy Guide of the International Drug Policy Consortium. This guide notes that corruption not only exists in the areas of international traffic, but that corrupt practices also occur at a smaller scale, manifested in the relationship between local police authorities and users who frequently suffer harassment and abuse, for example, by local authorities responsible for determining the threshold between personal use and intent to traffic.
Link the international drug agenda and the work of international organizations to illegal drug issues with those focused on corruption, including effective international cooperation and the adoption of international treaties that focus on the seriousness of the phenomenon and the promotion of the state justice. In addition to the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, the 2003 United Nations Convention against Corruption suggests multiple strategies to prevent or combat corruption. The range is very diverse and includes increasing public awareness of the causes and severity of corruption, the introduction of codes of ethics and conflict of interest resolutions; and in particular sectors, the rotation of officers in vulnerable positions, cooperation between government agencies and the private sector, the introduction of systems to encourage denunciation of public officials and witness protection, and the promotion of transparency in the financing of elections and political parties. Also, the final document of the special session of the 2016 United Nations General Assembly on the world drug problem, was one of the most important soft-law documents produced by the United Nations drug agencies in the United States in recent years, reinforcing the importance of combating the links between drug trafficking, corruption and other forms of organized crime. In the document, member states recommend a series of measures that point well beyond specific cases, such as the promotion of social development and inclusion and the connection between the fight against corruption to drug trafficking, with the most robust efforts for the improvement of the application of the law and the promotion of a culture of legality.
Link the corruption-illegal drug nexus with the social problems causing greatest harm. The Sustainable Development Goals included in the United Nations 2030 Agenda serve as an ideal framework in which to place anti-corruption measures linked to illicit drug markets. Specifically, Objective 16 is focused on “promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies.” Its16.4 and 16.5 goals clearly aim at significantly reducing “financial and illicit weapons flows, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets, and fight against all forms of organized crime,” as well as significantly reducing “corruption and bribery in all of its forms” by 2030. In this regard, Transparency International has also developed a methodology to assess the performance of countries in relation to the SDG targets focused on the fight against corruption. Although drug trafficking is not a central issue in these progress reports, it does appear as an important element for the cases of Peru, Argentina and Costa Rica, as well as in the recommendations of the report on Spain. As more countries are evaluated, it is expected that the link between illegal drugs and corruption will be more unraveled, studied and understood. And the understanding of a phenomenon is the first step to prevent and combat it.
Improve law enforcement and promote a culture of legality. Civil society organizations, given their non-governmental actor status, have an advantage for this task; it is a fundamental concern among civil organizations dedicated to drug and the defense of human rights. The organization Mexico United Against Crime—a reference in the fight against impunity, insecurity and for the promotion of fairer and more effective drug policies in the country—devotes much of its efforts to promoting the culture of legality both in the agencies of the Public Ministry and in the oral hearings of the Criminal Justice System. In Colombia, organizations such as DeJusticia promote the building of trust in institutions and in the justice system as “prevention” toward (among other phenomena) corruption. To do this, they work to strengthen and promote the mechanisms of transitional justice and transformative reparation. The Justice in Mexico project, based at the University of San Diego and focused on supporting the reform of the Mexican Criminal Justice System, has highlighted the difficulties current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador faces to unravel the links between drug trafficking, public authorities, and corruption. The efforts have laid on the table the deep-rooted problems Mexican society faces.
The fight against corruption requires public-private partnerships, as well as the involvement of international agencies. These alliances provide privileged opportunities to combine the knowledge and experience on the ground of civil society organizations, the financial capacity of some international organizations and the execution capacity of national governments. The project CRIMJUST, focused on strengthening criminal investigation and cooperation in criminal justice along the “cocaine route” of Latin America, the Caribbean and West Africa, is jointly implemented by UNODC in partnership with INTERPOL and the organization Transparency International. It is a project funded by the European Union Cocaine Route program and is an example of cooperation between relevant actors at various levels, although its impact on the link between corruption and illicit drugs is difficult to assess and measure.
The regulation of drug markets. However, as long as the use, production and trade of drugs remain illegal, and therefore remains in the hands of criminal organizations and continues to be one of the most lucrative illicit businesses in the world economy, it is difficult to envision that these previous strategies will produce major changes in the link between corruption and illicit drugs. In this regard, Ruth Dreifuss, former president of Switzerland and current president of the Global Drug Policy Commission, expressed in a recent report published by the Commission: “the consequences of the ban, [including but not limited to] the increase in the power of organizations, criminals and the violence and corruption associated with them, highlight the urgent need to change course and implement policies that are more effective and more respectful of human rights.” The prohibition of alcohol in the United States between 1920 and 1933, and the violence and corruption crises that it entailed, is very illustrative in this regard. At present, alcohol continues to be the substance that causes the most harm to both individuals who consume it and to communities and society as a whole. However, violence and corruption associated with its trade and use is practically non-existent since the criminal organization of this business was stripped.
Learning from experience has always been a good starting point in the search for solutions to global problems. As long as the drug markets remain controlled by organized crime, the fight against corruption in this area can only have a limited effect.