Understanding Informational Features of Transnational Criminal Networks: Cases from Mexico and Guatemala

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Abstract

Recent empirical research on drug trafficking networks in Central and South America, confirms that illicit networks are not only composed by unlawful social agents: an important intervention of gray agents is found. Those gray agents are defined as the social agents in which the organizational role and the functional role do not coincide: a public servant, a political actor or a security agent promoting criminal interests. In the interaction among gray agents, social relationships different to those of confrontation between lawful (bright) and unlawful (dark) social agents are reproduced. Therefore, different fluxes of information are established among public servants, political actors, officials and criminals. Identifying the most important categories of information that sustain the networks, which can be understood as part of the informational structure of the network, is useful to address short and long-term strategies to confront and disarticulate those illicit networks. In this paper, social interactions and fluxes of information are identified and analyzed for two cases: The “Michoacana Family” in Mexico, and a money-laundering network in Guatemala.

 

Introduction

In different municipal, provincial and national States across the Western Hemisphere, it is possible to find processes in which criminality and corruption are mutually related. For instance, in Mexico it is possible to find municipal mayors accused of working with drug-trafficking networks, while in Guatemala a former President has been requested for extradition by the United States, in order to be prosecuted for orchestrating massive money laundering for drug-traffickers. These processes that can be understood as types of high-scale and systematic corruption are carried out throughout the establishment of long-term agreements, mainly of political nature. In these cases, for instance, high-rank officials and public servants establish agreements with criminals with the purpose of promoting mutual benefits of different nature, not only economic ones. This situation contrasts with low-scale corruption that is carried out mainly throughout sporadic and short-term agreements, in which low-rank officials and public servants receive payments in order to provide specific benefits, not only to criminals but also to regular citizens trying to avoid punishments or trying to obtain a license, for instance.

As it will be explained below, most of those types of high-scale corruption can be defined as processes of Advanced State Capture (AStC) and Co-opted State Reconfiguration (CStR), in which lawful and unlawful agents coordinate their interests in order to promote mutual benefits throughout the infiltration, manipulation and reconfiguration of formal and informal institutions. After explaining the concepts of State Capture and Co-opted State Reconfiguration in the first and second parts, and introducing the methodological principles in the third part, two cases of criminal networks are analyzed in the subsequent parts: La Familia Michoacana [“The Michoacana Family”] in Mexico, and a Guatemalan network involving a former President. It is examined and analyzed the structure of social relationships and fluxes flows of information sustaining each network. Implications for policy making and enforcement processes are concluded in the last section.

1. State Capture and Influence on Public Administration

Corruption has been traditionally defined as the abuse of public functions in order to obtain private and exclusive benefits (World Bank, 1997). Additionally, analysis on corruption has focused on how bribery practices allow interaction between public and private actors; usually, bribery has been interpreted as the main procedure applied to establish communication and agreements between public and private actors who can obtain benefits by breaking specific laws. However, in some States at every administrative level across the Western Hemisphere, it is observed that unlawful actors, or social agents, infiltrate and manipulate instances of public administration throughout coercion and long-term agreements complementing and even substituting bribery.

A specific form of high-scale corruption usually referred as State Capture (StC), has been observed in countries characterized by severe institutional failures or weakness. State Capture (StC), which can be understood as an ulterior and more complex form of regular corruption, is defined as the intervention of individuals, groups, or lawful firms and organizations in the drafting of laws, decrees, regulations, and public policies, in order to obtain long-lasting economic benefits (Hellman, Jones, & Kaufmann, 2000; Hellman & Kaufmann, 2001; Hellman & Kaufmann, 2000; Kaufmann, Kraay, & Mastruzzi, 2010). A typical StC situation happens when firms influence legal and regulatory systems at a local, provincial or national State. The following features of traditional StC are usually identified: (i) it is the action of lawful groups, (ii) with economic motivation and economic consequences, (iii) acting mainly through bribery at domestic and transnational level and (iv) executed especially over the legislative branches at the national level (Garay, Salcedo-Albarán, & De León-Beltrán, 2009). However, as it will be explained, a more complex type of high-scale corruption can be found.

2. Co-opted State Reconfiguration and Fluxes of Information

After analyzing traditional StC situations in States where the Rule of Law is still in process of consolidation, it has been found: (i) the intervention of lawful and unlawful groups –and not only lawful social agents such as firms-; (ii) that the benefits sought are not only economic but also judicial, political, and even of social legitimacy; (iii) that the use of coercion and political agreements complements and even substitute bribery and (iv) that the sphere of influence happens in different branches and levels of the public administration (Garay-Salamanca & Salcedo-Albarán, 2011).

It has been found that, in conventional StC processes social relationships among social agents are established in one direction, from lawful agents outside the State, towards lawful agents inside the State. Furthermore, an advanced stage of StC can be configured when the social relationships are established from unlawful agents outside the State towards lawful agents inside the State. Both cases are coherent with the literal sense of “State Capture” as a process carried out by external social agents (Garay, Salcedo-Albarán and De León-Beltrán 2010). However, it has been proposed a concept defining the most advanced and complex form of StC, in which different agents communicate and establish agreements throughout mechanisms complementing and even substituting traditional bribery. This concept, referenced as Co-opted State Reconfiguration (CStR), has deeper impacts on democratic institutions than the ones observed by StC, and has been defined as: “The action of lawful and unlawful organizations, which through unlawful practices seek to systematically modify from inside the political regime and to influence the drafting, modification, interpretation, and application of the rules of the game and public policies. [These practices are undertaken with the purpose of] obtaining sustained benefits and ensuring that their interests are validated politically and legally, as well as gaining social legitimacy in the long run, although these interests do not follow the founding principle of social welfare”  (Garay-Salamanca & Salcedo-Albarán, 2011).

It is therefore possible to find scenarios in which lawful agents, such as candidates or officials, co-opt unlawful agents such as those committing drug trafficking, and vice versa. In general, it is possible to find a type of situations in which not only a capture is observed, but basically a coordination or co-optation of mutual interests. In those cases, as it will be discussed, it is almost impossible to keep categorizing the participating agents as entirely lawful or entirely unlawful. Therefore, a third category that allows referencing social agents is proposed:

  1. Each social agent has a “functional/organizational (…) defined as any action performed in function of his/ her belongingness to an organization —for instance, a civil, criminal, judicial, or any other organization, either governmental or private.” (Garay & Salcedo-Albaran, 2011, p. 48).

  2. Each social agent has a “functional/institutional role of an agent is defined with reference to any action aiming to the promotion or obstruction of some formal or informal institutions, either lawful or unlawful. Those formal and informal institutions can be socially beneficial or socially perverse; therefore, the functional/institutional role can be morally and socially evaluated according to the social benefits generated.” (Garay & Salcedo-Albaran, 2011, p. 49)

Therefore,

  1. “The analysis of the functional/organizational and functional/institutional roles allows a classification as follows: lawful agent (bright), unlawful agent (dark) or undefined (grey), as follows:

    • The lawful agent (bright) is that agent who belongs to a lawful organization and plays a lawful functional/institutional role.

    • The unlawful agent (dark) is that agent who belongs to an unlawful organization and plays an unlawful functional/institutional role. This agent not only obstructs compliance with the lawful functional/institutional role or openly promotes its non-compliance, but also contributes to compliance with the unlawful functional/institutional role.

    • The undefined agent (grey) is the agent whose exercised functions do not fall under either previous situation. An example of undefined agent (grey) is the “traffic officer” who, while belonging to a lawful organization, obstructs compliance with traffic laws.” (Garay & Salcedo-Albaran, 2011, p. 50)

3. Understanding Social Relationships and Flows of Communication Sustaining Criminal Networks

Advanced State Capture and Co-opted State Reconfiguration require the permanent participation of different agents, sustained on durable social relationships. Those different agents and their social relationships are arranged as a social network that can be modeled and analyzed in terms of flows and levels of information (Degenne & Forsé, 1999; Wasserman & Faust, 1994). This purpose of understanding the structure of the network, is carried out through the Social Network Analysis, which allows identifying (i) the social agent operating as the hub of the network,[3] (ii) the social agent operating as the structural bridge of the network,[4] (iii) the social agents operating as stabilizers of the network, (iv) the types of social agents participating in the network,[5] (v) the types of social relationships established to articulate the network[6], (vi) the intensity of the social relationships, and (vii) specific social structure of the network.[7] In the present document, we focus our attention on the elements related to the flows of information and the social relationships established.

Additional to those procedures of the Social Network Analysis (SNA), it is possible to categorize and weight the concentrations of social agents and social relationships established in a network; those procedures are referenced as Social Network Analysis for Institutional Diagnosis (SNAID) (Garay-Salamanca & Salcedo-Albarán, 2012). The social relationships sustaining a social network consists of fluxes of information, since “[i] a social situation is defined in terms of social relationships, [ii] a social relationship is defined in terms of actions, [and iii] actions defining social relationships […] are oriented towards the communication of psychosocial information.” (Garay, Salcedo-Albarán, & De León-Beltrán, 2010). Therefore, SNAID is applied in this analysis to identify the main social relationships and, therefore, the most important flows of information sustaining each criminal network.

In specific terms, SNAID allows specifying what the predominant and determinant interactions of a given social situation are, and determining whether or not a given social situation is conceptually closer to either traditional corruption, StC or CStR. For instance, a process in which communication is boosted only through bribery or intimidation and not through political or electoral agreements may be interpreted as a situation closer to the StC than to a CStR. In contrast, a social situation in which communication is boosted mainly through political agreements between lawful and unlawful agents is theoretically closer to CStR than StC, and furthermore, than a situation of traditional corruption. Therefore, this type of analysis provides insights for understanding the main procedures applied by a particular social network when infiltrating and reconfiguring formal institutions of any State. However, it is important to point out that these are no parametric results that can be classified by a discrete scale but by an ordinal, relative, comparative continuum among analyzed networks. Results only allow locating each network as closer to the StC or the CStR benchmark (Garay-Salamanca & Salcedo-Albarán, 2012).

When determining whether a social situation is Corruption, StC or CStR throughout the analysis of concentration of social relationships, the following theoretical criteria are applied: (i) in a small-scale corruption process, there are not long-lasting effects over formal institutions;[8] (ii) in a traditional StC process there are long-lasting effects over formal institutions but this type of capture is defined as a procedure carried out by lawful social agents such a firms utilizing mechanisms as bribery from outside institutions, (iii) in an AStC process there are long-lasting effects over formal institutions as a result of procedures as bribery or violence carried out by lawful and unlawful agents from outside institutions, and (iv) in a CStR process, there are long-lasting effects over formal institutional resulting from different forms of institutional infiltration as political agreements committed by lawful and unlawful social agents not only from outside institutions but also and even most relevant, from inside the same institutions (Garay-Salamanca & Salcedo-Albarán, 2012; Garay, Salcedo-Albarán, & De León-Beltrán, 2010). Therefore, it is possible to point out that:

Where:

  • IE=Institutional Effects=f (ml, md, mr),

    • ml=modified laws.

    • md=modified decrees.

    • mr=modified regulations.

  • IIC=Instrumental Institutional Capture=f (ICPP, ICCS, ICM)

    • ICPP=Instrumental Capture of Political Parties.

    • ICCS=Instrumental Capture of Civil Society.

    • ICM=Instrumental Capture of Media.

In this sense, when analyzing a social network throughout SNAID, it is possible to identify those information flows oriented to reconfigure and carry out long-term changes in the administrative structure of a particular State, and those flows oriented to obtain specific benefits. Bearing in mind the definitions above, in the following sections two specific cases are analyzed.

4. The Structure of Information Flows and Social Relationships in a Mexican Criminal Network: La Familia Michoacana

Mexico is currently an important scenario of violence and institutional infiltration and cooption by legal (bright), illegal (dark) and grey agents, result of the activity of criminal networks involved in different types of illicit activities, being drug-trafficking up to now the most important of those activities. One of these criminal networks, involved in several cases of institutional infiltration, is La Familia Michaocana [“The Michoacana Family”], which in the last five years has extended its activity from the east coastal State of Michoacán to the neighboring States of Guerrero, Jalisco, Querétaro and México. In 2006 the first hints of its existence appeared in a local newspaper in which the group promoted itself as a self-defense group that would bring back order to the Michoacán State. Afterwards, La Familia Michoacana has used rhetoric of religion and family values for recruitment of young rehabilitated addicts (Tuckman, 2009; Logan & Sullivan, 2009). In May 2009 it was pointed out in Mexican and international media that La Familia Michoacana became the handler of several mayors and local public bureaucracies across the Michoacán State. At the same time, it was pointed out that at least 83 of the 113 municipalities in the Michoacán State were already compromised by criminal infiltration (Rocha, 2009).

Basic characteristics of the network of La Familia Michoacana are discussed. The network modeled is based on judicial files relating facts that occurred until 2009. Those judicial files were produced mainly by the provincial judicial system of the Michoacán State. A witness that participated in the activities of La Familia Michoacana, who later provided relevant information to authorities, tells a high percentage of the facts enabling the reconstruction of the present network. The resulting model, illustrated in graph 1, consists of 284 agents, with 880 social relationships established among them. Below, a full list of the basic types of social relationships identified in La Familia Michoacana network, and their concentrations, are listed:

 

Graph 1.

Uniform radial distribution with location in function of the betweenness indicator (capacity to arbitrate information) - The Michoacana Family Network

As it can be inferred after identifying the flows of information, La Familia Michoacana mainly operate by bribing. Specifically, based upon the judicial information that was analyzed in the present model, La Familia Michoacana operates by bribing officials of the municipalities in order to move illicit drugs within the Michoacán State and other Mexican States. However, it is increasingly observed the establishment of political agreements and social relationships with municipal presidents. In fact, the witnesses providing information to authorities pointed out that several municipal presidents facilitated actions committed by La Familia.

Anyway, the flows of information related to political collaboration are not as important as bribes or homicides, which are perhaps the most important operative social relationship of the network. This means that this social network is, according to the available information, largely articulated by bribery and coercion, which are typical mechanisms of illicit networks whose functionality still does not configure a CStR scenario but it is progressing in the stage of a AStC; the information flowing across lawful and unlawful areas of the network is being communicated largely by bribes, instead of political agreements. In this sense, the Social Network of La Familia Michoacana contrasts with the network analyzed in the next section, in which different mechanisms allowing the establishment of not just short-term commitments are observed, such as political and administrative agreements. However, as it will be discussed in the last section, since political agreements are observed, even in a low concentration, this situation cannot be defined as entirely traditional corruption.

5. The Structure of Information Flows and Social Relationships in a Guatemala Criminal Network: A Former President and a Massive Money Laundering Operation

The present illicit network consists of direct and indirect social relationships established between high-rank public servants of the Guatemalan State and drug traffickers. Two of the most important agents stabilizing the network are Jose Armando Llort, former director of a semi-state bank, and Alfonso Portillo, former President of Guatemala. The types of agents involved, and the long-term effects on the legitimacy of Guatemalan institutions, are relevant features of the present network.

Jose Armando Llort, an entrepreneur with Salvadoran and Guatemalan nationalities, had access to high decision-making levels at the executive branch of Guatemala. This access came from a close relationship established between Llort and Alfonso Portillo, president of Guatemala in office by then (2000-2004). This relationship came to be thanks to the Llort’s participation in the Alfonso Portillo campaign. Additionally, in the network it can be observed the presence of some agents acting as common friends of Llort and Portillo, enriching the flows of information.

When Portillo was elected president of Guatemala, he appointed Llort, who was 30 years old by then, as President of Banco de Credito Hipotecario Nacional (CHN)[9]. Following the appointment in CHN, Llort took advantage of both his discretional power and the access to privileged information in order to authorize financial operations addressed to money laundering. According to the judicial evidence sustaining the present analysis, this money came from drug trafficking activities. Llort’s privileges also included the opportunity to handle the safety keys and codes of the Bank vaults, so he was able to directly deposit and withdraw large amounts of money. This allowed them to move money from the drug trafficking into the CHN vaults in order to be laundered through complex financial movements that included foreign currency operations.

The network of social relationships established by the birght, dark and grey social agents mentioned above, was modeled with information provided by drug trafficker Byron Berganza, who involved Jose Armando Llort in the trials carried out by the United States. According to Berganza, Llort knew and facilitated the money movements coming from the drug trafficking activity. Berganza provided this information before a court in the United States after being captured and taken to the United States by DEA agents in El Salvador. By that time, Berganza was providing information and collaborating with DEA agents in Guatemala; however, he was captured in El Salvador when performing activities not reported to DEA agents in Guatemala.

Although the specific judicial information considered for this analysis is not enough for confirming a direct involvement of the former president of Guatemala, it is possible to establish flows of communication between Llort and Berganza, and between Llort and the former President Portillo. Additionally, the authorities of the United States requested Portillo for extradition, which was authorized by the President of Guatemala, Alvaro Colom, in 2011. Therefore, although president Portillo does not appear in the documents as a direct or immediate participant in the drug trafficking, his closeness to Llort has made him deserving of public accusations for facilitating and allowing money laundering. The flows of communication between Portillo, Llort and drug-traffickers are illustrated in graph 2. Additionally, the United States authorities currently prosecute the family of the former president Portillo, under charges of money laundering (La Nación, 2010; El País, 2010).

This network, therefore, consists of relationships between criminal agents —such as those directly and openly participating in drug trafficking activities— and public servants, political agents and agents participating in the domestic and international financial sector, that can be characterized as grey agents because of the lack of coincidence between their institutional and the organizational roles. The resulting model (illustrated in graph 2) consists of 46 nodes/agents and by 85 established social relations. Below, the types and concentration of social relationships:

 

Graph. 2.

Uniform radial distribution per betweenness indicator and size of nodes in function of same indicator. The agent/node president Portillo appears stressed in darkest color. In addition, it is highlighted the information flow between (i) drug trafficker Berganza (ICBB), (ii) Llort (nucleus) and (iii) Portillo (darkest)

It might be inferred that the main purpose of this network was to carry out a process of money laundering throughout the establishment of administrative or political agreements. Since almost half of the total of social relationships established were oriented to money laundering throughout agreements, it can be argued that this network is closer to a situation of CStR and not to one of SC or StC. The second concentration, related to intra-agency relationships, does not provide relevant information about this illicit social network because it describes those relationships established only between lawful officials pertaining to the Drug Enforcement Administration in Guatemala and Honduras. However, the other social relationships provide information about the modus operandi and purpose of the network. For instance, the high concentration of provision of information describes how important the direct exchange of information was between those lawful and unlawful agents involved. Additionally, in operative terms, it can be observed that interfering in the custody of money laundering and acquisition of firms were some of the procedures employed to achieve the criminal goals of the network. Also, it is found that familiar relationships were important in the exchange of direct information, providing, at the same time, a background of confidence between agents. In general, bribery and coercion are not registered as social relationships in the network, not even among the least relevant ones, which means that the infiltration and cooption of institutions at the higher levels was the main procedure applied to achieve the purpose of the network.

6. Final discussion

6.1. Comparative analysis

The Guatemalan Network is a good example of a CStR scenario in which social relationships established between unlawful agents with high-level public servants, allowed a massive and systematic process of money laundering. Paying bribes or exercising coercion were not types of social relationships used to allow the flow of information across the lawful and unlawful social agents of the network. The Guatemalan case, therefore, contrasts with the Mexican network, since in the Guatemalan case bribery was not a relevant type of relationship for committing high-scale crimes as those involving public, private, domestic, and international banks in Guatemala. On the other hand, La Familia Michaocana [“The Michoacana Family”] network contrasts with the Guatemalan Network, in which bribery or violence does not appear in place.

By observing those social relationships other than bribery and coercion, it is found that the Mexican case network cannot be interpreted only as a scenario of simple or traditional corruption, because there are also, but in a low percentage, political or administrative agreements oriented to provide information, guarantee the security of the members of the illicit network, rescue members of the illicit network, and to complete the drug trafficking process. Although the political and administrative agreements do not have the relevance observed in the Guatemalan case, a AStC and a beginning of a process towards a CStR is found in La Familia Michoacana. In short, the social situation observed in La Familia Michoacana network configures a scenario that would be conceptually closer to a progress towards CStR at a municipal and state levels, especially in the Michoacan State.

This means, that the structure of flows of information in both cases evidence processes that cannot be understood or classified as simple situations of corruption or criminality that do not affect formal institutions in each administrative context. Although the network of La Familia Michoacana registers forms of traditional corruption such as bribery, it is also observed the establishment of political agreements that, in the long-term, will affect the operation of the provincial State and even to some extent of the national Mexican State. The case of the Guatemalan network is a most dramatic situation of institutional co-opted reconfiguration at the Executive level of the Guatemala State, since the central office of the executive branch was involved in processes of money laundering.

6.2. Implications for institutional reform and enforcement processes

From a simple perspective, identifying the most relevant social relationships and fluxes of information sustaining the operation of a criminal network allows understating its modus operandi and, therefore, allows designing the most useful policy and enforcement measures to confront those forms of criminality and institutional chaos.

The cases presented in the present paper were selected because they had opposite features: the intensive use of bribery in the Mexican case and the implementation of political agreements in the Guatemalan case. In this sense, both cases illustrate opposite situations. For instance, the Mexican network of La Familia Michoacana illustrates a case of criminality requiring schemes of operative intelligence that allows confronting different forms of violence and the bribes committed among low-rank officials of security agencies of the Michoacan State. Strengthening offices of internal affairs and police intelligence and effectiveness is a good starting point when confronting this type of basic criminal networks, since the main communication flow is affected thorough this mechanism: bribe. On the other hand, this type of security schemes seem to be almost useless when confronting a criminal network like the one analyzed in the Guatemalan case, that is mainly sustained in long-term political agreements. Specifically, the Guatemalan network illustrates a case of criminality requiring institutional reforms since most of the States lack measures of accountability designed over the day-to-day discretional decisions and actions of high-rank public servants such as the President. Designing measures to confront criminal infiltration in the higher levels of public administration is, therefore, an immediate task for most of the weak democracies of Western Hemisphere.

However, both cases are oriented to infiltrate and reconfigure formal institutions; each criminal network represents different stages and levels of infiltration. The analyzed situations illustrate how important it is to understand the fluxes of information of each network, in order to design the most useful measures that each State could apply in order break those fluxes and disarticulate the networks. This task requires changing the enforcement approach mainly focused on neutralizing and isolating the most important social agents, and adopting an enforcement approach consisting in breaking the fluxes of information.

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[3] This is the agent concentrating the higher amount of social relationships.  Calculating a centrality indicator known as direct centrality degree allows identifying this specific node/agent.

[4] This is the agent concentrating the higher capacity for arbitrating social relationships and fluxes of information. Calculating a centrality indicator known as “betweeness indicator” allows identifying this specific node/agent.

[5] Bearing in mind that an agent may intervene in a social network playing a lawful functional/organizational role, and at the same time, playing an unlawful functional/ institutional role, the characterization cannot be restrained to the functional/organizational role of an agent because it is always possible to find, for instance, agents in which both roles do not coincide. Therefore, the analysis of the functional/organizational and functional/institutional roles allows a classification as follows: (i) The lawful agent (bright) is that agent who belongs to a lawful organization and plays a lawful functional/institutional role, (ii) the unlawful agent (dark) is that agent who belongs to an unlawful organization and plays an unlawful functional/institutional role and (iii) the undefined agent (grey) is the agent whose exercised functions do not coincide with his organizational role.

[6] This includes determining if a social network is mainly articulated throughout bribery, violence, family ties or political agreements, among other specific types of social relationships that have been identified in cases such as Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala.

[7] This allows modeling and observing the structure of a particular social relationship within the network. For instance, in some cases, it is important to examine the structure of bribes, or the structure of family ties.

[8] In a certain sense, any process of corruption, whether sporadic or at low-scale, has institutional effects. However, it is possible to differentiate between those short-term effects resulting from a sporadic and low-scale bribe, and those long-term effects followed by the manipulation of a legislative process. In the first case, usually a social or economic distortion arise; in the second case, the fundaments of a modern State can be affected when, for instance, a bill protecting criminal interests is approved and the law itself ends up protecting those illicit interests.

[9] Bank of National Mortgage.

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