When the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, several narco-traffickers took his place. New traffickers learned from Escobar’s mistakes, but the police did not. At the height of Colombia’s drug trade, its homicide rates were similar to those of countries at war. But this wasn’t war — just traffickers effectively adapting to legal systems.
Colombia is also home to the rebel group FARC, which kidnaps thousands of people a year. In response, a national paramilitary group tortured and murdered people that they believed to have collaborated with FARC. Because of this decade-long confrontation, the UN says that Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons in the world. But FARC continues to operate and engage in narco-traffic to support itself.
These cycles of violence are the product of a system in which criminals are making more reasoned and effective decisions than the governments trying to stop them. Lessons from neuroscience, biology, and sociology could be extremely helpful in better understanding how and why those criminal decisions get made. However, Latin American governments have largely ignored such scientific approaches, and without them, effective solutions to the problems of crime and corruption will never see consistent implementation.
Transforming a society sometimes means making it wealthier, more just, or more democratic. These are relevant goals, but there is a simpler and more fundamental one: preserving life. In most Latin American countries, the most direct route is by promoting a culture of legality.
When multiple forms of illegality interact, causality loops appear. For example, narco-traffickers corrupt the legal system in their search for impunity, and a nonfunctional legal system is a stimulus for more criminal activity. This causality loop reinforces itself and composes a message understood at all levels of society: Illegality and crime are efficient means for achieving personal goals. Illegality can thus impregnate culture. At this point, policymakers must deal with long-term, well-prepared, and successful criminals who have adopted crime as a way of life.
Some forms of illegality, like corruption, are like viruses that destroy the immune system of societies. When a legal system is infected by corruption, the society’s lines of defense become nonfunctional; police, armies, and judges stop doing their jobs. They cannot be relied upon to make rational decisions, meaning that the culture of illegality will spread faster than that of legality.
Public policies in Latin America are usually based on good intentions, fundamentalism, or populism, but not on empirical knowledge.
For decades Mexico has seen this culture spread alongside the drugs transported across its borders into the United States. It would have been easy to predict that Mexican cartels would adopt some of the illegal tactics and methods of their Colombian contacts, but when this happened, Mexican authorities were not prepared. Colombian and Mexican authorities simply did not share their information.
Laws and public policies in Latin America are usually sustained on good intentions, ideological fundamentalism, populism, or even corruption, but not on empirical knowledge. The influence of science and scientific approaches is completely lacking. As a result, officials do not systematically evaluate or learn from anticrime efforts, and thus cannot effectively improve them.
For the short term, it’s a priority to figure out how to stop narco-traffic, homicides, corruption, and kidnapping in the desperate situations that Mexico, Colombia, and their neighboring countries face. But real solutions require policymakers and legislators to adopt systematic approaches. Fighting illegality isn’t only about chasing down and judging criminals; it’s about understanding their minds and the decisions they make, as well as the contexts in which they make them.
We can study how criminal enterprises evolve and why some people turn to crime in the first place. How does a young person’s emotional state, economic situation, or desire for social status influence his or her decision to join a drug cartel or a gang? How do people weigh self-interest against moral codes about cheating? If we are normally sympathetic to the pain of others, what is happening in the brains of those who intentionally hurt people? Most importantly, how can we use this information to make better laws and policies?
In the long term, the values of rationality and legality must spread faster than those of illegality. The cornerstones of scientific practice — transparency, honesty, and long-term thinking — stand in opposition to those of criminal enterprise and corruption. Governments should give logistic and financial support to small think tanks and centers that propagate the culture of science. In this way researchers can come down from the ivory tower and begin affecting the everyday lives of regular people.
It is tempting to attack those everyday problems of poverty, hunger, and crime head on and prioritize them over scientific concerns. However, if rationality, empiricism, and legality do not take hold in Latin American governments and societies, the efficiency of such efforts will be left to improvisation, good luck, or God’s favor. — Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán is a manager at Método, a transdisciplinary research group focused on social sciences in Colombia.
Originally published February 2, 2009