“Prisoners operating drug distribution networks from their cells”; “Weapons crossing borders”; “Protected witnesses assassinated in broad daylight”; “Planes landing on clandestine airstrips”. It seems as though I was reading the back cover of the DVD of the legendary 80s movie “Scarface". But I am not. Those are examples of activities of criminal organizations which can be read as news headlines throughout Central America.

Criminal organizations operate businesses. They can be just as professional as their legal counterparts, but their trade is in illicit goods. They recruit human resources, partner with providers, maintain vehicle fleets and even manage public relations. Besides the type of products they deal with, the main difference to legal businesses is that they operate outside the rule of law. The relationship between organized crime and corruption is simple: criminal networks use corruption to carry out illegal activity as well as to avoid investigation and prosecution. Corruption keeps their business going.

Let’s take drug trafficking as an example. Drug dealers need to bribe a policeman or a member of the port authority to allow for the safe passage of their merchandise. Criminals could promote a politician’s career by financing a campaign, making money in politics a vehicle to influence policy decisions. And, if captured, a prosecutor responsible for pressing charges against a drug lord can be bribed, thus, opening the door to impunity.

If we look at El Salvador, a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, there are reports of mayors, congressmen, judges, and other officials being in the pockets of drug dealers. Meanwhile, Guatemala has a United Nations special investigations commission due to the limited capacity of its own justice system to take on high profile organized crime and corruption cases. But these two countries are not alone. Other countries in the Central American region struggle to tackle organized crime because the very institutions tasked with fighting it are being weakened by corruption.

However, when policy makers and law enforcers talk about combating organized crime, they tend too often to focus on such areas as strengthening border controls, better radar technology and professionalizing security forces. All of this is important, but this strategy will ultimately fail if it is not complemented with strong institutions armored against bribery and corruption.

Action plans and approaches will be discussed next week in San José, Costa Rica. The Second Central America and Dominican Republic Forum for Transparency will be taking place with security, organized crime and corruption at the top of the agenda.

Adding transparency and anti-corruption into existing efforts to curb organized crime is essential. Central America understands this and is moving forward. Hopefully, in the not so distant future worldwide strategies to eradicate organized crime will give fighting corruption and strengthening democratic institutions the importance they deserve.

Alejandro Salas is the Regional Director for the Americas at Transparency International, the global civil society organization leading the fight against corruption, active in more than 100 countries around the world. Twitter  @ASalasTI The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Transparency International.

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Alejandro Salas is the Regional Director for the Americas at Transparency International, the global civil society organization leading the fight against corruption, active in more than 100 countries around the world. Twitter @ASalasTI. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Transparency International. 

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