The fact that criminal groups are powerful players in Latin American politics and society is an undisputed fact. Though the level of criminal activity is not uniform in all countries, reports of drug trafficking and cartel activity dominate the narrative of the region to such an extent that it often seems somehow woven into the fabric of the culture itself.
Due to constant headlines of criminal activity and the popularity of movies and television shows that glorify narcocultura, countries such as Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil are notorious for their incredibly powerful cartels whose authority sometimes seems to trump that of the state itself. In the media drug lords are often portrayed as god-like figures with virtually unlimited power, women, and money. While these media portrayals are often dramatized, they undeniably carry a lot of truth; Organized crime is incredibly prevalent in Latin America, with criminal groups often amassing enormous amounts of wealth and power and exerting this power over their territories through acts of violence and intimidation.
Conventional perceptions of Latin America’s organized criminal groups tend to emphasize the greed and violence produced by these groups when, in reality, their existence is much more nuanced than this. Although most associate the presence of criminal groups with heightened levels of violence or drug use, these groups usually do much more, often providing certain services and resources to local communities. In many cases, a strong criminal group presence is indicative of a weak government presence--and criminal groups become active in governance and the provision of resources, largely filling the role of the state. In communities that overwhelmingly view their government as ineffective and corrupt, drug lords are revered for their acts of goodwill, leading people to view them as ‘Robin Hood’ figures who use illegal means to provide more for the community than their own elected officials.
This concept, known by some as the ‘Robin Hood phenomenon’ (Lambrechts), is quite common and can be seen in countries across the globe. The name, of course, comes from the English folk tale of Robin Hood, a bandit known for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Inspired by this concept, many people in poor countries associate the legend with the criminal actors present in their own communities who evade the law to provide for those in need.
Pablo Escobar is one of the most famous examples of such a ‘Robin Hood’ figure. Not only was he infamous for being one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world, but he was also known for using this wealth to support the local community. Although the period during Escobar’s reign over the Medellin cartel in the 1990s was undeniably marked by extreme violence and questionable morality, the leader also earned a reputation for providing for his community by donating to charities, building schools, and constructing housing developments (Crime and Investigation). Because of these acts of generosity, despite the violence committed at his hands, many remember Escobar not as a villain but as a sort of modern-day, drug-fueled Robin Hood.
A criminal leader with a similar image is Mexico’s fallen drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman. Despite his official designation by the United States government as a terrorist, El Chapo is idolized by many Mexicans for his numerous escapes from prison and his reputation for giving to the poor. The drug lord, currently incarcerated and awaiting charges in the U.S., is a folk legend for many who claim that during his criminal career, he would give money to the sick and pave roads for poor communities (New York Times). Although there is no proof that he ever actually provided these services, the story has nonetheless reverberated throughout Mexico and transformed El Chapo’s image from that of a ruthless criminal to one of a hero.
This concept is so powerful in Mexico that there is actually a patron saint of narcos who shares a similar Robin Hood-type of image. This saintly figure, Jesús Malverde, was reportedly a legendary bandit in the late 19th century, known for stealing from the rich to provide to poor communities (Huffington Post). For decades, the legend of Malverde has been used by drug cartels who provide for the community to justify their own criminal activities. Although he has not officially been designated a saint by the Catholic church—and probably never will be due to his association with the narco trade—the existence of this figure shows the stronghold that these types of criminal figures have in Mexican society.
A more recent example can be seen in the favelas surrounding Brazil’s largest cities, many of which are rampant with organized crime. In February of this year, a powerful drug trafficker in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, informally known as '2N', was praised as a modern-day Robin Hood after he arranged for the kidnapping of healthcare officials and medical supplies so that members of a poor favela could receive much-needed vaccines. The drug leader had the gang supervise as the kidnapped nurses administered vaccines to poor residents of Salgueiro for several hours, only to safely return the officials to their workplace once they were done (Newsweek). 2N, who has been known in the past for throwing bundles of cash to the poor of Rio’s favelas, was praised for this act by the local media and even local politicians.
These are just a few examples of criminal leaders who have earned a sort of ‘Robin Hood’ reputation from repeated acts of generosity and goodwill in their respective countries. However, even these cases fail to show the whole story behind this phenomenon. While these stories are the ones that grab major headlines and glorify individual leaders, they focus only on isolated incidents of charity and fail to acknowledge the breadth of the services that systems of organized crime can provide for some communities. In many cases, organized criminal groups are able to fulfill certain needs and assume a de facto position of authority comparable to that of the actual government.
Why does this happen?
When developing countries face systemic issues such as unemployment, poverty, or a weak state structure, this provides the perfect environment for criminal actors to emerge as the predominant source of power. These systemic factors, which often cause communities to have a particularly negative view of their government, create the ideal conditions for an existing organized criminal group to impose its own authority and provide in ways that the government has failed to.
Although they are involved with illicit activities, the presence of criminal groups can bring certain benefits to a community, such as security from other gangs, employment in the cartel, or help with the resolution of local disputes. By doing this, criminal groups are able to undermine official power structures and establish their own legitimacy over the people, garnering the public support necessary for their survival (Colak and Meza).
A prominent example of the Robin Hood phenomenon at a more systemic level is with the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), a paramilitary group that has been active in the armed conflict in Colombia since the mid-19th century. Although the FARC was recently incorporated into Colombian politics as an official political party, for most of its existence it has been considered little more than a dangerous terrorist group with ties to the international drug trade. During its rise as a prominent political force, the FARC undoubtedly engaged in its fair share of criminal activity, with a reputation for acts of violence and with the majority of its income flowing from cocaine, extortion, and kidnapping (COHA). However, the group also provided certain things for the regions that it served that they likely never would have gotten from their government during this time.
Over the years, the FARC developed a rather advanced internal structure, employing thousands of fighters and effectively incorporating itself into both the formal and informal economy. In territories that the organization governed, it provided opportunity and security when it was scarce and acted as an authority where the official government was not active. In many remote regions that considered themselves forgotten by the government, the FARC practiced de facto territorial control and helped to address issues such as unemployment, peace talks between local groups, and even alternative crop development (COHA).
For many, working under the FARC was preferable to obtaining a job in the formal sector, since the criminal organization offered certain benefits such as social security, a pension system for fighters and their families, and medical treatment to help fighters wounded in combat. This was particularly true for women who chose to work under FARC—whose force was around 40% female—when there were few other opportunities for women to make a living or to earn a position of status (COHA). Although the FARC engaged in criminal activities in order to sustain itself, it also offered enough opportunity and benefits for local communities to support its presence over that of the government or another criminal group.
The FARC is a particularly interesting example of the ‘Robin Hood phenomenon’ that shows just how structured and developed these organizations can be. Similar cases with other organized criminal groups have emerged throughout Latin America, with some groups even providing small-scale banking services such as the provision of credit loans (Colak and Meza). Yet this phenomenon is in no way exclusive to Latin America; similar practices have been observed in developing countries around the world. Wherever the state presence is weak enough to allow for a power vacuum that fosters the development of these kinds of informal authorities, it can arise--and once it does, many find that the criminal organizations are actually more efficient and effective governing structures than the state. For instance, in Cape Town, South Africa, criminal organizations are known for providing security and employment to poor communities, leading to an image of these gangs as providers of goodwill rather than malicious forces (Lambrechts).
What are some implications of the ‘Robin Hood phenomenon’?
One clear problem that arises with the ‘Robin Hood phenomenon’ is that as these criminal groups amass more legitimacy as a result of the services that they provide, they naturally take away from the authority of the state. When communities begin to view criminal groups as providers, they develop a sense of loyalty to those groups and are extremely unlikely to cooperate with legitimate security forces (Lambrechts). This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for official government forces to establish their authority over a community—especially if this involves incarcerating members of the trusted criminal group or defusing the power structure of the group itself.
The ‘Robin Hood phenomenon’ can also make already-complicated processes of conflict resolution even more so. It is relatively simple to prosecute a criminal group if it has exclusively engaged in acts of evil; but if it has also actively worked to provide for communities in need, it is much trickier to punish or eliminate the group. This is largely because these organizations have garnered so much support and loyalty among those that they have helped, making it impossible for the government to shut the group down altogether without massive public outcry. Such was the case with the FARC, which had too much public support to simply be eradicated from the country’s political structure. The group was ultimately subject to a three-step process of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR); under this plan, the FARC was to stop its criminal activities, disarm, and would then become integrated into the official political sphere. However, this process was only partially implemented and has proven to be extremely flawed for the resolution of Colombia’s civil war.
It is also more difficult to eradicate criminal groups that are associated with this ‘Robin Hood’ concept because, as mentioned before, these organizations often hold more legitimate authority than the state itself. So if the state were to simply prosecute the criminal group without addressing the underlying problems that allowed for its formation, then the state would have to deal with (1) dissatisfaction from the communities that were benefited by the presence of these groups and (2) the inevitable rise of another group in its place.
It is critical to understand that although these organized criminal groups engage in illegal activities, they often do so with the consent of official state authorities. This has been the case for many countries in Latin America where the police, military, or more prominent state officials are directly involved with the exact criminal groups that they claim to be trying to stop. Local politicians in Rio de Janeiro, for example, have been known to cooperate with cartel leaders to provide resources to favela residents and to undermine opposing parties (Arias).
Therefore, although these ‘Robin Hood’ groups tend to arise as a result of inadequate state authority, many times the problem is further complicated by the cooperation of law enforcement with these criminal actors, all of whom have incentives to maintain the relationship. This results in a paradox through which criminal groups are both cooperating with and simultaneously working to undermine the state, while state officials are undermining their own efforts to enforce the law.
Overall, it is clear that organized criminal networks are incredibly complex and much more nuanced than conventional understanding suggests. These groups do engage in illegal activities including drug trafficking, kidnapping, and extreme violence, and they should not be praised for these acts; however, it is evident that the matter of organized crime is much too complicated to simply assume that all criminal groups are inherently evil and that the state working to prosecute them is good.
In reality, many of these groups and their leaders engage in acts of goodwill towards the community, offering opportunities and resources that the state fails to provide and often earning them a ‘Robin Hood’ reputation among the public. Though there is no way to know if these acts are done out of sincere altruism or simply as a pragmatic way to gain public support, it is necessary to acknowledge that these groups usually do a lot more than rob and steal. It is unwise to approach studies of international politics or conflict resolution without taking into account the massive role that organized criminal groups play in these networks, and the huge ways that they can contribute to the communities over which they preside.