Mexico (and elsewhere): What the good guys can learn from the bad ones

Yesterday I listened to NPR’s coverage of the elections in Mexico, and as always, I listened with network ears. Following the discussion I thought: “Well even if (IF) the new president really wants to clean up shop and reign in corruption, what chance does he have against the established illicit networks?” And, thinking about it more broadly, what chances does any of the good guys (and ladies) have in trying to change a system in which the networks of evil undermine all parts of the society?

I believe that in any situation where you are up against an overwhelmingly successful enemy, it makes sense to study their strategy and see if there is anything you can learn from it. No, I don’t think you can stop corruption by decapitating your opponents or hanging them off bridges. But… is there something about the networking strategy of the bad guys that the good ones can adopt and adapt for their goals?

One thing that is typical for these illicit networks is that they are networks of individuals rather than institutions. As the NPR guests yesterday pointed out, a lot of the employees of police and crucial government offices are so close to cartell members that they end up being godfathers to their children. And cartell members will most likely choose officials with two characteristics:

1. They are in crucial gatekeeper positions in their organization, and

2. They have a personality that is open to collaborating with criminals and benefiting from doing things in a less than legal way.

This means: There is one structural aspect (where do they sit in the network) and one personality aspect (what kind of people they are). If you work for an anti-corruption campaign or are someone in any position in this system who wants to fight against corruption, it makes sense to copy this behavior for your own strategy: Figure out who the people in crucial positions are and get to know their personality. Identify those who are as fed up with the corrupt status quo and develop personal, trusting relationships with them. Also, you might consider keeping these connections private and not exposing your fledgeling network of good people to your opponents.

Another thing you will hear when listening to news about corrupt systems is that “The XYZ (bad guys) have infiltrated all areas of society.” In network terms that means: They have developed a very heterogeneous network. Instead of just sticking to¬† their own people (e.g. just networking with outright mafia members), they will develop friendships and family ties with people in government, legit businesses, religious organizations, courts etc. etc.. You want to infiltrate your system in the same way. Don’t just hang out with the other people of the anti-corruption campaigns. But rather look for friends and likeminded people in all areas and levels of your society, develop a trusted network of good people in the ministries, police, courts, NGOs, churches, business etc. This might seem daunting at first, and – depending on how messed up your system is – it might look like some parts of it don’t have a single good apple. Don’t let yourself believe this: In any of these organizations, there will be people who are intimidated, disenfranchised, frustrated and dreaming of a better country, who are just waiting for you to invite them into your network. The bad apples are more obvious and very often just one or two of them can spoil the whole batch. But if you are committed and have the time and patience to be in it for the long run, your network of good people will grow. And you can use its diversity in a very similar way as the other side would use theirs: By knowing things in advance, having support in crucial positions, protecting you from retribution, warning you etc. Which still won’t make your task simple. But at least give you a fleeting chance…