How Caribbean Organized Crime is Replacing the State

In Caribbean locations like the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, criminal groups have established clear-cut alliances with political parties and sectors of the state. By doing so, they are arguably bringing benefits to certain marginalized communities that the state has long proved incapable of serving properly.

Good or evil? When policy-makers and the general public actually pay attention to the debate on the social effects of crime, complex realities tend to be boiled down to this dichotomy.

This dichotomy is why government policies too often entail simplistic measures of suppression in drug-plagued communities. Such a strategy clashes with the reality lived by those most affected by criminal violence: poor and disfranchised populations, living in marginalized neighborhoods.

The problem with this dichotomy is that it obscures any meaningful understanding of a complicated phenomenon. Organized crime has become embedded in some Latin American and Caribbean societies to the point of becoming a parallel power, with interests that overlap with politicians, bureaucrats, and law enforcement officials. The confluence of all these factors defies any simple, conventional response.

That is the perverse reality that many Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are experiencing today. Organized criminal groups have gradually transformed both societies, creating violent, yet resilient political and social orders based on a precarious balance of illicit activities like drug trafficking.

The victory of evil? Yes and no. In both countries, homicide rates have doubled in the last seven years. Yet despite the negative impact of this increased insecurity, these same criminal groups provide opportunities and resources, occasional employment, and protection to those who live in the most-affected neighborhoods. That is something the state has not been able to do, and which elected officials cannot or will not accomplish during their four-year terms in office.

The type of criminality that has penetrated these — and other — Caribbean societies behaves very differently from ordinary street crime. Like plants that are “heliotropic” and always look for sunlight, let’s call this criminal behavior “statetropic.” By that we mean criminal organizations that gear themselves towards the state. Statetropic powerbrokers offer profits to public officials in order to gain their allegiance and protection.

Statetropic criminals prefer a scenario in which both high and low-level civil servants benefit from criminal activities. In turn, this puts the state in the untenable position of enforcing the law, while at the same time serving as an instrument exploited by criminal forces.

Statetropism is a useful term for describing conditions in Latin American and Caribbean democracies, but it manifests itself in different ways. Sometimes the state itself becomes an endorser of alternative political and social orders, by explicitly transferring power to non-state actors. This is the case in Jamaica and Haiti, where criminals groups (posses, yardies, and paramilitary forces) have become part of the political system. These criminal organizations have established clear-cut alliances with political party members and sectors of the state, which in turn transfer welfare resources to local powerbrokers, helping the government establish political control in garrisoned areas.

The phenomenon is now occurring in Puerto Rico as well, in public housing blocks called “cacerios.” Two of the biggest ones in San Juan municipality, Nemesio Canales (1,500 units) and Llorens Torrens (2,000 units), have the highest density concentration of gangs. These criminal gangs played a critical role in allowing former ruling party the New Party for Progress (PNP) to win multiple victories in the last three municipal elections.

Here you have two important types of powerbrokers. On one hand, there are political castes, based on family ties, that inherit the available political spots in most of the municipalities. On the other hand, there are gangs that have carved out territory for themsleves in these enclosed communities. This power sharing between politicians and politicized gangs in these neighborhoods compensates for the weakness of the state, ensuring a tenuous political stability that cuts across several political cliques.

In other cases, the state is so weak that it basically relies on clientilistic relationships with individuals, rather than the gangs. In either case, these individuals and criminal groups end up assuming state-like functions in these socially ostracized communities. They quickly learn how to capitalize on opportunities such as local elections, social protests, and land seizures. They are a daily presence for people’s needs in poor barrios, and sometimes they accomplish these needs in a more consistent and efficient way than politicians do.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be violent actors who assume the basic functions of the state in poor neighborhoods, when the state proves unable to do so. In the Dominican Republic, for example, the state’s inability to provide basic social services and employment — despite repeatedly promising to do so during elections — drew non-violent actors such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), churches, and community-based organizations to assume those functions. More recently, however, these functions have been taken over by criminal groups.

Is there anything to learn from the way criminals do business, based on these experiences in the Caribbean?

There are a few conclusions we can draw. First, there is the well-developed capacity of criminal groups to adjust to new environments and to change the rules accordingly in these areas. This allows them to create new forms of social control and identify potential alliances in communities that are already socially isolated.

Second, it’s evident that in some ways, these criminal groups become the eyes and the ears of these communities. They know what people want and need, and will take advantage of this as a way to foment loyalty and confidence.

Third, by exercising hard and soft power, they become a type of regulatory power, preventing disorganized street crime from expanding within these communities. At the same time, organized criminal groups become enforcers of social control: mediating disputes, establishing collectively sanctioned forms of behavior among residents, and sometimes protecting them from outside offenders (including abusive police actions). So to speak, organized criminal groups grant protection, in exchange for being protected by the community.

Fourth, these statetropic criminals know to organize themselves as fluid structures, in contrast to the vertical and hierarchal structures adapted by, say, state forces such as police squads. When gangs grant protection to residents in exchange for being shielded by the community, they are breaking the monopoly of power and violence that police and enforcers try to establish in those communities.

Finally, by functioning as a more fluid, elastic organization, they are able to expand into different social groups and foment new partnerships. They are also able to grant recruits incentives to perform their jobs well, and thus maintain loyal ascription to their organization.

These are all functions that criminal organizations perform in impoverished communities, as seen in several Caribbean nations. The very complexity and variety of these functions is precisely what makes it so simplistic to reduce the public debate about organized crime as an issue of “bad gangs” versus “good government.” Even as criminal groups do plenty to destabilize the societies where they operate, it’s also worth bearing in mind that in some areas, they may step in and perform functions that the state has long neglected.

*Lilian Bobea has a Ph.D. from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and a M.A. from SUNY Binghamton, New York. She is a Caribbean Security specialist and a professor at Bentley University, Massachusetts and FLACSO, Dominican Republic.

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