Criminal gangs commonly promote themselves and their activities on the packages of the drugs they sell among disadvantaged populations. (Photo: Brazilian Army)
Criminal gangs commonly promote themselves and their activities on the packages of the drugs they sell among disadvantaged populations. (Photo: Brazilian Army)

Q24N – Organized crime occupies the spaces where the government is absent in many different ways and always with a lot of creativity. With minor variations, some of the activities have found a scenario that is quite fertile for replication in Latin American countries.

The context is usually adorned with the same ingredients: indifference to poverty, decline of the elite, demoralized politicians, social contrasts, corruption, and government inefficiency.

This scenario is favorable to drug traffickers who purport to be the “messiahs of the poor,” an opportunistic revision of the Robin Hood character. Among disadvantaged populations, they profess to be providers of wealth and instant justice and even claim to be mediators for family issues. This is just one of the features that characterize the failure of a democratic, rule-of-law state.

What takes place, in fact, is large-scale bartering. They take advantage of the extreme deprivation in poor communities, such as in the favelas (slums) within Rio de Janeiro, and buy support from those poor populations at a bargain. If that does not sound familiar, let’s look at some of the most classic cases.

In Colombia, for example, the cocaine barons’ main icon was Pablo Escobar (1980-1990); his luxuries included sponsoring soccer teams, using planes for advertising, building affordable housing in the lower-income areas of Medellin, using the press to portray himself as a victim of persecution, and many others.

The drug-trafficking leaders in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas have been financing funk parties (rave-like dances), medical treatment, home repairs, Christmas presents, fireworks for New Year’s Eve, soccer tournaments, etc. since the 1990s. At some events, people sing songs praising drug trafficking, sex, and hostility against the police with the connivance of corrupt elements within law enforcement.

In Mexico, “Chapo” Guzman is still seen by a significantly large part of the population as the great “sheriff” of Sinaloa for having distributed “confiscated” land, food, and construction materials.

There are other similar activities that still continue, including the systematic use of violence, targeted killings, infiltration, blackmail, extortion, threats to their direct enemies, and impressive escapes from prisons with the use of helicopters or underground tunnels.

Of course, technology accompanies the process, and cyberspace is often used for those practices. The most critical phase usually takes place when financing drugs is used as a way to provide authenticity for illegally obtained power. The main actions usually include hiring lawyers, recruiting people from Human Rights organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), financing political campaigns, and the ensuing election of mayors and members of parliament.

This phenomenon, which is now called narco-populism, deserves to be studied from a multidisciplinary perspective by professionals with different viewpoints. A flawed interpretation by less enlightened individuals and the gains of unethical opportunists make this scenario a direct threat to democracies that are still in the process of consolidation.

Finally, after more than two decades, there are still people in Medellin who lay flowers at Pablo Escobar’s grave every day. In Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, young drug dealers still spray paint walls with graffiti of Rogério Lengruber’s initials and those of other gang leaders who have been dead for over a decade.

Only by understanding the meaning of narco-populism can Latin American countries correctly choose effective actions to fight this scourge and encourage the population to adopt the right attitude.

*Sampaio Task Force Commander during the pacification of the Alemão and Penha Slum Complexes in 2011 and 2012. M.S. in Military Sciences.