Corruption, Drug Trafficking and the Armed Forces

01 December 1997
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The media portrays the growing number of cases where Latin American government officials, particularly the armed forces and police, are involved with organizations that traffic or profit from illegal substances. Thus, it is crucial to inquire into the exact magnitude, methods and situations of the upper echelons of state power in these criminal organizations, as well as their powerful presence through corruption in distinct levels of government. As a result, it is necessary to analyze the benefits offered by both sectors, drug traffickers and state institutions, which facilitate acts of corruption when they interact.

The existing relationship between corruption and illegal drug trafficking does not occur exclusively in institutionally weak, drug-producing or trafficking countries. However, 99% of the cocaine supply comes from Andean countries which have forms of government conducive to corruption. (1) Narco-traffickers transport drugs out of isolated jungle valleys for their refinement outside of the country, often under supposed police control. In countries such as Colombia and Mexico, the link between corruption and drug trafficking is evidenced in the direct connection between cartels and government officials. Authorities grant certain concessions (relaxing controls, rejecting extradition, influencing electoral campaigns, etc.), allowing drug dealers greater influence, flexibility and control that facilitates drug sales in the North, their final destination, through customs and police officials. In the northern consumer countries corruption also plagues the banking sector, whose purpose is primarily to "launder" illegal money with the participation of officials from public or private entities.

These realities call for a thorough diagnosis of the occurrence of illicit relationships and the negative effects they produce in order to propose viable alternatives to prevent state institutions from being infiltrated by corruption in the future.

Corruption: A Sign of the Times

From the public service, public interest, and bureaucratic perspectives, corruption can be defined as:

  • "any conduct that strays from the normal duties inherent to the public welfare as a result of private interests, be they family, clan, or friendship, to obtain personal benefit in money or social status;" (2)
  • "any violation of the public interest to obtain special advantages;" (3) or
  • illicit conduct used by individuals or groups to gain influence over the bureaucracy's actions." (4)

Although corruption is not exclusive to illegal drug trafficking, given its great economic power and illegal nature, many cases are indeed related to the drug trade. In Andean countries corruption cases involving politics and illegal drug trafficking have quantitatively and qualitatively increased, especially from 1988 to the present. International pressures have involved national police and military forces without possibilities for outside control. Recent events in Argentina, Mexico, Panama, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Peru (some of which are discussed in the present volume) demonstrate to what extent this phenomenon occurs in Latin American countries. (5) Public corruption exists in all western societies to such an extent that it has become a serious socio-political problem in the past few years.

Corruption jeopardizes democratic stability and is a serious obstacle to guaranteeing a countries' governablility and the national security of societies involved. Along with the economic and social costs incurred, the political consequences are also serious in terms of public sector corruption, because they endanger the governments' credibility and legitimacy. This is especially true in the current climate of "structural adjustment" and "stabilization" programs, where governments impose austerity and sacrifice on the population.

On the other hand, concern about the phenomenon can be measured by the many anti-corruption campaigns carried out in recent years in different countries in the region such as Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Paraguay. In Peru, the issue was one of the main topics used to justify Fujimori's April 1992, closing of Congress and the Judiciary. Frequently anti-corruption platforms highlight many political campaigns (such as those of current candidates: Caldera, Fujimori, Nebot).

To say that these policies are ineffective or that the topic can be used as a simple justification is an understatement. The increase in corruption-related problems is so significant that governments must include it as a solid argument to justify their access to power or supervision within each administration. This is because civil society has expressed its rejection of acts of corruption within its state institutions in a variety of ways.

Concern goes beyond the internal level. The international community has undertaken diverse actions such as calling international conferences, signing hemispheric accords and making frequent declarations on this topic. The fight against corruption is so crucial that it has become a new part of the negotiations agenda between countries. The fight against corruption has been directly linked to the resolution of other problematic areas such as human rights and the war on drugs, as well as distinct democratization processes, investment promotion, and economic development. Heightened concern about corruption at the Latin American level led the Organization of American States to sponsor the signing of the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption in March of 1996. Government initiatives are not alway positive; for example, in 1997 some European countries began to permit tax deductible commissions as expenses; even though these commission are usually bribes.

Models to Explain Corruption

Different theories have been proposed to explain corruption. Bruno Speck a political scientist at the Institute of Economic, Political, and Social Studies in São Paulo, highlights five causes of corruption that can shed light on cases related to illegal drug trafficking: (6)

a. The Moral Legalist School: Sustains that impunity in corruption cases has caused the deterioration of public morality. This morality must be immediately restored through the reevaluation of the Rule of Law and the punishment of all corruption cases, without taking into account the social status of the transgressor (corrupter or corrupted). Legal changes are necessary to implement and streamline prevention and punishment policies. As a result, the fight against corruption is above all an issue of improving, expanding and enforcing laws.

b. The Liberal Economic School: Asserts that the abuse of public posts is due to excessive state intervention in the economy and society. Programs to privatize all public patrimony (some call it the cannibalization program), as well as economic deregulation in other sectors (the elimination of all subsidies, regional development programs, etc.), should be enacted to solve the problem.

c. State Instrumentalization Thesis: In contrast to the above, this theory, supported by leftist groups, sustains that the main cause of corruption is the use of the state by economically powerful interests. Privatization cannot remedy this situation; increased transparency and strengthening of forms of participation and control of the public sector can.

d. A fourth theory suggests that institutional changes in the organization of state apparata can help fight corruption. In this view, penal sanctions alone are unsuccessful. As a result, new areas of policy and administration must be established to diminish the possibility for corruption in the system. Fighting corruption within this model is directly related to strengthening of government.

e. The Historical Culturalist School: Affirms that corruption is a cultural and historical part of Latin American institutions. This school maintains that these nations have never been able to separate private norms such as friendship and solidarity from the public norms of legality and neutrality. As a consequence, during the past century, no corps of career officials emerged as an executive authority that could define neutrality and respect for laws. The lack of impartiality in government administration of public affairs has persisted to some extent. For example, through private friendship it is possible to open the way in the world of unreliable and unfriendly law enforcement. Correct behaviors and equity are considered, in this context, signs of stupidity and clumsiness.

The above theories should not be considered mutually exclusive. The events and manifestations of corruption related to illegal drug trafficking are so complex that all of them can help us understand the phenomena in each specific case and trace some common tendencies.

It is clear that few solid institutions have been built in the history of Latin America. The commercial monopoly imposed by Spain beginning in the fifteenth century provoked the widespread contraband phenomena. In the legalist view, this points to a "culture of impunity" at the Latin American level that goes beyond the framework of human rights violations and spills into other spheres of social coexistence.

The Role of Corruption in Illegal Drug Trafficking

The operations of organizations dedicated to illegal drug trafficking can be analyzed as a business phenomenon, that like any other, involves risk. The difference in this case is that the business is the production and sale of an agro-industrial product, cocaine paste and cocaine chlorohydrate, which are illegal. In spite of this, shortly before the dawn of the 21st century, the drug is still being produced in new Amazonic regions. The routes, means of transportation, and international markets keep growing and reproducing. This means a higher profit margin (produced by the "cost" implicit in illicit activity) for these organizations. It also guarantees the creation of greater obstacles, such as the risk of state action, which must be overcome in order to circulate their products. (7)

Like any commercial entity, trafficking organizations seek to maximize their profits by expediting the promotion of coca crops with improved technological packets, the product's refination in adequate settings, its transportion by legal or illegal means, and finally its retail sale. At all of these stages, drug rings seek to eliminate economic and political obstacles to permit their business' optimal economic output.

These managerial interests openly conflict with the state, in charge of the control and repression of all illicit activities, including drug trafficking. Numerous state institutions carry out this control: public administration-customs, banking entities, police forces (and military in some cases), the judicial, penal, and legislative systems, and others. Eventually all of these actors can be susceptible to the risk represented by traffickers' transactions.

Given their opposed interests, confrontation between the illegal drug trafficking organizations and the state is inevitable. With the profit-oriented activities of drug trafficking, state efforts present obstacles that must be avoided or neutralized in order to remain efficient and survive. To achieve this goal, traffickers implement strategies to respond to the "challenges" of confronting the state.

These strategies can be roughly classified in the following way:

a. The corruption of so many or such important officials in a state institution that the entire entity can be considered corrupt enough to facilitate or permit illegalactivities. For example, the Cali cartel's infiltration of the Colombian state reduced direct violence used by other groups, like that of Medellín. The same can be said about the period from 1992 to 1995 in Peru, during the direct military control of antinarcotic efforts and the response of the local "firms."

b. The use of violence against the state and insurgent groups when they come into conflict with drug traffickers' interests. (8) Again, in Colombia, we can cite the acts committed in the late 1980's by the Medellin cartel (massacres, mass assassinations, threats, crimes, etc.).

c. Efforts to subordinate certain societal sectors.

i. First, marginalized societal sectors, such as migrant workers and tenant farmers, in the Peruvian Selva Alta (tropical zone) who are tempted to cultivate coca; young unemployed in the cities as future consumers; displaced peoples, "burros," "mules," and "ants" (people who transport small quantities of drugs), etc. They can use these people as workers at different levels of the process.
ii.- Similarly, representative groups such as artists, athletes, or other public figures can help the drug traffickers and figureheads enter into the country's social life.

Recent events show that these strategies are not contradictory nor incompatible. They can be employed simultaneously or when the need arises. In some cases it is more convenient to corrupt the authorities than to fight them. If one strategy fails, traffickers resort to another, depending on the state's response.

Corruption should be understood, then, as yet another strategy used by traffickers to confront the state as a formula for approach and intimidation. As a result, traffickers do not corrupt public officials merely to have them under their control. Instead, corruption is a strategy that serves the organization's interests.

This role of corruption serves the organization in the following ways:

  1. It facilitates a better economic and commercial connection of the different stages of the process: agroindustrial production/ harvesting and storage systems, and long distance international transport/ illegal distribution.
  2. Makes the repressive role of the state more flexible, completely neutralizes it or even permits direct collaboration, as in the case of the use of military ships and planes in Peru.

Classification of Corruption Generated by Illegal Drug Trafficking

Trafficking organizations use corruption within the state and society in a variety of ways.

a. Direct Participation of State Officials in Trafficking Organizations: In this theory, compromised state officials not only collaborate with drug rings, but they also directly participate in them, with leadership roles at some level of the organization. In this case state officials maintain a coordinating relation with the organization and they have its approval.

State officials also directly participate in trafficking by entering the circuit and selling drugs confiscated by the authorities, such as the Peruvian Executive Office of Drug Control, OFECOD, according to the findings of a congressional investigative commission in 1991. The resale of these drugs is a form of disloyal competition, unacceptable to the trafficking groups, and is looked down upon within the criminal logic of drugs. It provokes vendettas and other types of retaliation.

These forms of state officials' direct participation constitute the most serious and dangerous corruption cases because the employees involved maintain a dual ability to control and direct their state institutions and the trafficking organization. The officials' ability to maintain and extend corruption to the rest of the state is much greater.

b. State Officials' Failure to Control: In this case, state officials participate indirectly. They fail to fulfill the control and supervisory duties of their posts. This type of corruption is visible at three different levels of the law enforcement system - police (in some cases carried out by military personnel), judiciary, and penal.

-In terms of police or military rank, "consent" for the organization to freely carry out its activities is granted. Traffickers pay officials not to guard forts, posts, and bases.

Some drug lords' testimonies refer to Peruvian decorated military officers in the jungle that permit light aircraft carrying drugs, such as the case of the recently captured "Vatican." They also mentioned that this support includes handing over routes or replacement parts in exchange for food and money.

Other notorious cases of Andean officials' participation include:

  • The retired Peruvian Air Force General, F. Tweedle, arrested in 1989 while attempting to take drugs out of the country in his suitcase;
  • The 1990 case of the boat, Mar Pacífico, detained in Argentina with 250 kilograms of cocaine chlorohydrate;
  • The case of Peruvian naval vessel, Etén, in 1992;
  • Cases of river rafts and motorboats transporting drugs along Amazonic rivers to the Colombian border;
  • Diplomatic pouches used by certain officials;
  • Numerous Colombian police officers, accused of and fired for collaborating with drug traffickers (by warning them of missions or actions against them), especially in 1995;
  • The Bolivian narco jet detained in Lima (the FELCN knew about the shipment and did nothing about it);
  • Some Bolivian special counternarcotics judges also accused of corruption for disallowing extradition, supposedly defending their laws;
  • Peruvian judges in the jungle have also been accused by the Dean of Ucayali-Pucallpa Bar Association, who states that the region's legal system has the worst record of accumulated investigative legal procedures, lost files, verdicts against state interests, and negligence on the part of legal officials without any expedience in the trials of the region's litigants;
  • In Colombia the trial against Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela has caused these types of denunciations; jail breaks of drug traffickers in Peru and Colombia have also demonstrated the complicity of police and prison agents.

Table: The Intrinsic Fragility of Peruvian Institutions


National Police

Armed Forces

Judicial Power

Public Administration


very low

slightly higher than police with some benefits

one of the highest in Peruvian public administration

low on average

Organizational Structure

vertical, hierarchical and subordinate

vertical, extremely hierarchical and subordinate

vertical, but with some autonomy and functional independence

vertical, with some degree of autonomy in sectors

Corps Moral Integrity


normal, but weakened in drugs cases

weakened by corruption, but with great decisive capacity

weakened by corruption

Role in Drug War

limited until July 1996

very strong, almost a monopoly until July 1996

present, although indirectly


Politics and Illegal Drug Trafficking

In certain cases, traffickers seek not only the participation of career officials, but also influence in policy making levels through public posts.

This is done through financing political campaigns: Colombia with President Samper; Mexico and the accusation against Zedillo; Puerto Rico with accusations against congress members; and Bolivia with MIR (the party of former president Jaime Paz Zamora, denied a visa to enter the United States because of alleged drug trafficking) are the most notorious, but not the only cases.

Campaign contributions are "paid for" by passing laws benefitting traffickers, such as repentance, the prohibition of extradition, and a wide range of other political favors.

As these cases show, corruption reaches high levels. Terms like "rule of corruption" (instead of rule of law) or "narco democracies" are examples of this.

The Responses of State Agencies

Unfortunately, state responses to drug trafficking and corruption have been inadequate. Drug production and consumption have increased. The corruption epidemic has expanded. States have involved a greater bureaucracy of agencies and officials to fight drug trafficking, which instead of solving the problem only increases the risk of corruption.

The second response has been to concentrate or monopolize state antinarcotics actions in the hands of certain so-called specialized officials - antidrug police (UMOPAR, FELCN, DINANDRO) and special prosecutors and judges. There are also prisons for drug offenders (Envigado and La Picota in Colombia). In short, neither of the two extremes guarantees the state's appropriate conduct in this area.

An evaluation of state responses causes concern, especially in the Peruvian case. In general, beginning in July 1990, the government has carried out an efficient fight against the Shining Path and MRTA (the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement) . It has also fought against hyper-inflation and has attempted to create conditions conducive to general economic and political stability. (9) This allowed ruling party victories in political and municipal elections. The public began to accept, with diminishing resignation, the huge social and economic costs of structural adjustments as well as the political costs of true institutional strengthening advocated by the Fujimori administration in recent years.

Nevertheless it is crucial to confirm that diverse hypotheses, denunciations, and cases exist, suggesting that throughout this period (April 1990 to the present) relations or spaces have been woven where the possibility for systematic cases of corruption linked to drug trafficking, such as re-routing chemicals and money laundering, have been quite extensive. These events have undergone different types of internal and external negotiations, including the indirect competition of foreign government agencies.


A middle ground is necessary where specialization (administrative, repressive or judicial) does not eliminate the supervision of and transparency in the activities of state agencies in charge of the war on drugs.

There must be complete recognition that measures adopted by policy makers in the war on drugs have created for the most part the risks of corruption at any level without solving the the drug trafficking, consumption, and production problems.

It is necessary to evaluate to what extent economic deregulation, coalition building, greater access to technology, and the stabilization processes facilitate illegal drug trafficking.

There is a need to dismantle this useless war, still fought in newspapers, reports, and meetings, and adopt more efficient policies. This by no means signifies abandoning the responsability to protect individual and collective well-being At the same time, though, institutional health within the rule of law of state organisms and agencies must be maintained.


1. Generally characterized by an exacerbated centralization of power and public affairs. In some cases, a close relation between certain elements of the military elite, as well the inablity to democratically share some essential affairs of good government.
2. Joseph S. Nye, "Corruption and Political Development: A Cost-Benefit Analysis", American Political Science Review 51. June 1967: .417-429. Citerd in Rico, 1993: 3
3. Arnold A Rogow and D.H. Lasswell, "The Definition of Corruption." Political Corruption: Readings in Comparative Analysis, ed. Arnold J. Heidenheimer,(New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1970) 54-55 Cited in Rico, 1993: 3.
4. N. Left, "Economic Development Through Bureaucratic Corruption," Political Corruption: Readings in Comparative Analysis, ed. Arnold J. Heidenheimer (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1970) 510-520 Cited by Rico, 1993: 3.
5. In Brazil and Venezuela ex-presidents (Fernando Collor de Mello and Carlos Andrés Pérez) were relieved of their posts and later sentenced for corruption, although not necesarilly linked to illegal drug trafficking. In Peru allegations against ex-president Alan García reminds us that these countries do not escape from corruption, even at the presidential level. In addition, diverse personalities and institutions have been denounced for corruption and illegal drug trafficking at different levels: ministers of governmet and legislators (Brazil and Venezuela); high ranking officers in the police and armed forces (Bolivia, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela); Supreme Court Justices (Bolivia and Venezuela), etc. In Peru in the last few months, various cases of corruption by members of the armed forces, the national police and members of the Judiciary have been discovered and tried.
6. Speck, Bruno W. "Guerra a la corrupción en Brasil," Perfiles Liberales 35. 45-48.
7. Since the end of the past decade, danger of corruption exists for the Andean countries. "The huge quantity of money involved in the trade has made it the chief source of corruption penetratine different levels of the state and society." García Sayán, 1990: 28.
8. Occasionally this conflict can provoke an alliance with subversive movements or other irregular or paramilitary groups that share an action against state efforts.
9. These measures have been questioned after the incidents in the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima, beginning December 17,1996.

Sources cited

Grondona, Mario. La corrupción pública y su control en América Latina, SAIC, Buenos Aires: Editorial Planeta Argentina, 1993

Rico, José María. La corrupción pública y su control en América Latina: El caso venezolano. San José: Unpublished.

Speck, Bruno W. "Guerra a la corrupción en Brasil." Perfiles Liberales. No. 35. pp. 44-49.