If we don't deal with cartels now, we'll pay dearly

Wednesday March 31 2021

Cartels have grown powerful and bold and continue to operate with impunity. PHOTO | FILE | NMG


This column has warned before about the danger of growing impunity of cartel and criminal networks.

The torture and murder of a woman who was a witness in a corruption case demonstrates yet again that the warning was not idle speculation. Over the years, these networks have grown powerful and bold and, despite government assurances, continue to operate with impunity. 

The reason why this problem has been let to fester over the years is because officials in charge of our affairs have a quid pro quo relationship with these networks. The danger for everyone, including the officials, is that when these networks become powerful enough, they will transmute into a power unto themselves. From that point onwards, they will increasingly gain control of many aspects of our lives. They will determine who gets elected, who gets appointed to what position, and will not hesitate to eliminate any official or group they perceive as a threat to them.  

The narco-states of Honduras, Guatemala and, to a large extent, Mexico did not start out this way. It was a gradual process in which government officials were paid to not see crimes like drug trafficking and corruption. Before they knew it, the gangs, especially the drug cartels, became so powerful and wealthy, they had police officers, mayors, politicians and even army generals on their payroll.  

Many drug lords like Pablo Escobar of the Medellin drug cartel in Colombia or El Chapo of the Mexican Sinaloa cartel had private armies and controlled sections of the big cities. In rural towns, these criminal gangs, for all intents and purposes, ran parallel governments. So we had countries going through the motions of a normal nation-state, but which, in effect, were ruled by the underworld.  

A narco-state cannot grow its economy because of the disruption of normal economic activity by intimidation and violence and the distortion of economic fundamentals by huge inflows of untaxed money. So even though people – the criminals and government officials – become fabulously wealthy, the majority of the people remain dirt poor. For many jobless young people, the only way out of poverty is to work for the gangs. But their lives are more likely than not to be “nasty, brutish and short.” 


For the millions of others, their only hope is to emigrate to the US, Canada or Europe. We see on TV the exodus of tens of thousands from Honduras and Guatemala, hopeless multitudes marching towards the US border, their eyes vacant, resigned to whatever fate will befall them.

Is this the future we want for Kenya? We have an opportunity to arrest the situation. But this will need iron-clad political will from leaders who see beyond acquiring yet another mansion and another 1,000-acre farm or executing another multibillion shilling heist. Either that or we are destined to march across the Sahara and take rickety boats to Europe as many African brothers and sisters are doing.   

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator

This article was first published in The EastAfrican newspaper on March 20, 2021.