Editor's Letter: Reflecting on Organized Crime

By June Carolyn Erlick

The couple had fled their Salvadoran homeland to North Carolina during the brutal war of the 1980s. They learned English, worked hard, started a successful business and became U.S. citizens. They sent money back home monthly, although not much of late because of the recession. Their Salvadoran relatives had also created a thriving grocery store in their medium-sized city. But now these relatives were desperate to come to the United States. For a long time, they had paid extortion money to racketeers. Now these men were demanding more, even though there was less. The storekeepers had relatives in the United States; they must be prosperous; pay or die, they were told. I had met the couple who told me this story by chance, in the Salvadoran airport on my way back to Boston. Their desperation stuck with me long after the details had blurred.

Nevertheless, when I began to work on this issue about organized crime, I focused on mega-issues. In what ways was organized crime a business just like any other? What is the influence of Hezbollah in Latin American crime rackets? Of the Russian mafia? Did law-and-order approaches lead only to a mercury-spill effect, splintering larger groups and displacing crime to other regions and even other countries? What is the role of civil society in combating organized crime?

With excellent advice from Professor Phil Heymann at Harvard Law School and his colleague Morris Panner, as well as from Visiting Harvard Robert F. Kennedy Professor Rafael Fernández de Castro from Mexico, I began to contact authors. One article in particular by Gema Santamaria reminded me that civil society solutions aren’t always positive: the lynchings she writes about are attempts by the community to control what law enforcement doesn’t seem able or willing to do. Like the Salvadoran couple, many Latin Americans are finding themselves in situations of powerlessness because of the onslaught of organized crime.

It permeates daily life in subtle and massive ways.

Mexico—with an organized-crime death toll of more than 47,000 in less than five years—continues to bear the brunt of organized crime. Other countries—Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica and Brazil among them—also feel the impact and yet others will do so in the future, as products and routes vary.

Yet with such wide-ranging subjects, I faced the challenge of how to make the issue resonate on two levels, encompassing the broad issues and the individual tragedies. The compelling, sensitive and evocative photos by Jon Lowenstein, our featured photographer, seemed to do just that. They provide the aesthetic glue to this issue. A professional photographer for more than ten years, Jon has followed the migrant trail from Central America, through Mexico and throughout the United States in an effort to document the real stories of the millions of people who live in constant fear and face stark choices at home. He specializes in long-term, in-depth projects that, in his words, “confront the realms of poverty, power and violence.”
His photos also imbue his subjects with dignity, which brings us again back to the issue of civil society. Throughout this issue, authors grope with possible solutions for the criminal plague: strengthening of state institutions, law and order and citizens’ organizations.

And as I write this editor’s letter and think of those who value the transformative power of civil society, I can’t help but mourn two of those voices, lost to early death in the last year: Fernando Coronil, the 2004 DRCLAS Cisneros Visiting Scholar, and Héctor Silva, the former San Salvador mayor who was a 2006-2007 DRCLAS Central America Visiting Fellow. I dedicate this issue to their memory.

June Carolyn Erlick is the Editor-in-Chief of ReVista.

See also: Editor's Letter