At InSight Crime’s 10th anniversary conference, presenter Robert Muggah described the primary reaction he has received when collaborating with the organization across Brazil, Colombia, Peru and El Salvador.
The comment touched on one of the main takeaways from this brief exploration of ten years of covering organized crime: criminals — whether wealthy businessmen, street gangs, drug trafficking kingpins, police or high-level politicians — do not like being exposed.
Co-director Steven Dudley spoke about one of InSight Crime’s first forays into this type of investigation, a three-year project on elites and organized crime that continues to be one of the most-read investigations on the site. The project put a spotlight on how “political and economic blocks were created and were fusing with organized crime interests in ways that were giving them huge amounts of power,” Dudley said.
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But the difficulty with taking on these types of investigations, said Co-director Jeremy McDermott, is that they are “more difficult to get, more complex to tell and unfortunately more risky to do.”
The event kicked off with Juanita León, the founder and director of Colombia’s La Silla Vacía, who asked InSight Crime’s co-directors about the organization’s beginnings. In 2009, both McDermott and Dudley were correspondents in Latin America when they noticed news outlets cutting budgets for investigations in the region. With seed money from Open Society Foundations and support from American University in Washington, DC, the organization was born a year later.
But it grew in ways the pair never imagined. InSight Crime now includes a staff of more than 50 investigators across the Americas. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the InSight Crime team could be found on-the-ground in various corners of the region, often in “hairy places,” McDermott said.
Viewers were curious about what it takes to uncover the underworld. Dudley described how InSight Crime uses a range of sources, including community leaders, crime victims, law enforcement officials, court documents and when possible, the criminals themselves.
“It’s about small increments and working sources over a long period of time,” he said.
During the conference’s second half, Muggah, Dudley and McDermott delved into region-specific questions on the evolution of organized crime.
They started with Colombia’s role in the organized crime landscape, a proper place to begin given that the organization was born and is still based in Medellín.
“Colombians have been the pioneers in the criminal world. That is as true today as when (Medellín Cartel kingpin) Pablo Escobar industrialized the smuggling of cocaine using aircraft,” he said.
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The group later discussed the hyper-violence of criminal groups in Mexico that has led the country to be one of the most deadly in the world, starting with the example of the murderous Zetas. Dudley took viewers through the group’s origins as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. Gradually unleashed, the Zetas transformed into a criminal army that entered a range of activities, including extortion, kidnapping, contraband, prostitution and contract killings. The Zetas model “persists because the barrier of entry is much lower,” Dudley said.
Similar heavily armed groups are now in conflict across Mexico, and many maintain dynamic alliances and rivalries with larger international drug trafficking organizations.
“You can imagine the chaotic environment that creates and that is what Mexico is living right now,” he said.
Violence was also a topic of discussion on the MS13 street gang, in which Dudley described how participating in brutal acts leads to cohesion of gang members. Dudley, who recently wrote a book on the MS13 that used research he had done at InSight Crime, also debunked one of the great myths surrounding the group.
“There is this notion that they are this grand criminal group, with incredibly far reach and sophistication that can do things such as drug trafficking. And they cannot,” he said.
Muggah then turned to the biggest organized crime story in the region: Venezuela. McDermott said organized crime networks first infiltrated the state at the behest of late President Hugo Chávez and then came to prop up the regime of President Nicolás Maduro amid the country’s collapse.
“Now you have the situation you have today where Venezuela is exporting organized crime,” he said.
The conversation capped off with a look to the future of InSight Crime. Dudley described how he wanted to push the boundaries to little-explored questions, such as how the fear of sexual violence in prisons can foment powerful gangs.
McDermott said he wanted to continue to expose the top criminals, who are “sitting in congress, sitting in presidential palaces, or certainly are the top economic elites.”
“They are not being challenged and are enjoying utter impunity,” he said. “I want to rattle the cages.”