At this moment, the fiercest, most powerful criminal organizations in the world are located in Mexico. Recent events should leave no one with any doubts.
On Sept. 26, 43 trainee teachers in the southwestern city of Iguala were abducted by the police and, according to the government, were most likely murdered by drug traffickers. Their deaths, which are the latest in a long list of bloody gang-related murders, sparked widespread riots in Mexico City. According to Amnesty International, 136,100 people were killed by Mexican cartels between December 2006 and May 2014 alone.
So how is Mexico to deal with this formidable problem? Perhaps it could look to Italy for lessons on how a deeply entrenched mafia.
Italy is the country with the oldest mafia in the world—indeed, the very word mafia has Italian origins. But ever since the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Italian mafia was planting bombs on highways to kill state magistrates, mafia-related homicides have nose-dived. Between 1992 and 2012, murders related to organized crime dropped around 80 percent, according to the United Nations.
According to one mafia expert, the “radical and painful” changes seen in the decline of mafia groups in southern Italy “are the best proof of the effectiveness of anti-mafia law enforcement.”
Some might counter that Mexico does not have a mafia problem. After all, the Mexican cartels are often simply referred to as “drug traffickers.”
However, the most recent report of the U.S. State Department has estimated that the amount of money laundered annually in Mexico is between $19 and $29 billion. Such data suggests that continuing to merely call them drug traffickers is neither accurate nor, indeed, responsible.
To launder that amount of money, one has to be a mafia organization. These groups do more than merely produce and sell drugs — they reinvest profits in real estate, businesses and stocks. In addition, the groups also have a pyramid structure and employ financial consultants and accountants, which is typical of mafia organizations.
To date, Mexico has primarily used military crackdowns to fight its mafia. This has not resolved the situation, and, in some cases, has even worsened it by leading to a significant increase in ferocity and defections.
Here are three lessons Italy can teach Mexico from its own battles:
1- Design better mafia laws
At the moment, Mexico is attempting to overhaul its judiciary and police. President Enrique Pena Nieto announced a 10-point plan last week, which includes empowering the central government to dissolve local governments believed to be infiltrated by the mafia. Similar laws were passed in Italy, and have been used to dissolve local governments of southern cities like Reggio Calabria.
Nieto's plans do not go far enough in their restructuring of the legal system. Mexico still relies on its Federal Law Against Organized Crime, passed in 1996, to investigate, prosecute, try, sentence and enforce penalties for organized crime. The law is not very effective, mainly because it only provides for sentencing individuals who “ aim ” to commit specific crimes, and are effectively aware of the criminal projects that they are a part of.
The problem is that, in many cases, people linked to the mafia do not know what purpose their “work” serves. This is because the very survival of criminal organizations rests right on their pyramid structure, where sensitive information is restricted to those at the top.
Mexico's current law needs to be bolstered by a provision on ‘criminal association,' as was developed by Italy's famous Rognoni-La Torre law of 1992, which introduced the crime of “mafia conspiracy,” which made it a crime to be part of a mafia organization, regardless of whether or not one takes part in other criminal activity.
2. Set up a national body to help prosecutors
Before being killed by a mafia-orchestrated bomb attack in 1992, Giovanni Falcone, the magistrate and brain behind Italy's anti-mafia laws, developed a series of essential tools to investigate, prosecute and judge the mafia.
An anti-drug department alone cannot investigate all the crimes that are committed in the universe of mafia organizations. Various regional, investigative bodies must coordinate domestically to unravel organized crime and combat it.
In 1992, Italy set up the National Anti-Mafia Office, a body of Italian magistrates dealing exclusively with cases related to organized crime. They facilitate communication and coordination between the various prosecutors working on mafia crimes.
Another essential organ is the Anti-Mafia Investigation Department, which does valuable intelligence work on the ground.
These bodies are the foundation of Italy's anti-mafia investigative system. When cases get lost in the vast sea of criminal offenses, it allows organizations to thrive in the shadows. These anti-mafia organizations help to prevent that from happening.
3. Confiscate property
Another lesson from Italy is the value of seizing and confiscating property of people belonging to a mafia conspiracy, including relatives, partners, cohabitants who may have played the role of “front man” or covered-up for the mafia.
The government passes on confiscated assets to civil society groups who use them for schools and other socially beneficial purposes.
Of course, all of the above legal instruments and tools take time to erect and properly use. They are not guaranteed to work all of the time, or eradicate the problem entirely.
Although violent crimes related to the mafia have decreased dramatically in Italy, that is not to say that the mafia organizations themselves have been dismantled. Indeed, they are still very much part of the Italian society and economy, as is evidenced by ongoing scandals .
Still, if Mexico can achieve the progress Italy has in the past decade, that would be a success worth celebrating.
For now, it is time to acknowledge that the current military response in Mexico simply isn't working.
With criminal organizations that are highly sophisticated and complex, guns and heavy artillery are not always the best way to harm them.
Sometimes, the law is the most powerful weapon of all.
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