Meet the Man Tackling Corruption with His Revolutionary New Technology

Colombian Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán has helped to uncover links between government officials and narco-paramilitary commanders. We asked him about his career and how he would tackle corruption in the UK.

by Nick Chester
02 October 2015, 5:00am

Eduardo giving a talk about corruption at John Jay College in New York (Photo by David Sastre)

While our government is often accused of perpetrating all sorts of grim evils, they've generally managed to steer clear of corruption allegations. Because government corruption, as we're all taught from birth, only happens in places like Moldova and Mexico, where gangsters bribe politicians and buy themselves complete immunity. Of course, politicians aren't the only people susceptible to nefarious influences.

Last month, London's Met Police were accused of accepting bribes. A few months before that, the Independent Police Complaints Commission launched an investigation into 29 accusations of police corruption when handling child abuse claims. So corruption is clearly an issue in the UK, but what do we do about it? How do we tackle those in positions of authority with the resources to cover their tracks?

A new method pioneered by Colombian corruption investigator Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán could hold the answer.

Eduardo was paid by the Colombian government to uncover organised crime. This was no easy task in a country with a long history of ingrained corruption, sparked in part by Pablo Escobar in the mid to late 1980s. Eduardo was faced with witnesses being murdered before he could speak to them and the daunting task of unravelling the web of corruption that allowed individual paramilitary commanders to orchestrate literally thousands of assassinations.

To help unravel that web, he created computer software that uses complex AI to map connections between legitimate authorities and organised crime groups. His technique has achieved some impressive results, and he's been labelled a rising star of crime fighting. I got in touch with him to find out how his methods could be used in Britain, and how he coped with the risks involved in investigating corruption in Colombia

VICE: What made you decide to pursue a career in fighting corruption? I'd imagine there are safer occupations in Colombia.
Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán
: People usually think that corruption doesn't generate victims like assault does, but, in reality, it has terrible effects in terms of human lives. When the mayor of a town in Colombia established agreements with narco-paramilitary commanders, mass murders were executed, thousands of women were sexually enslaved and millions were forcefully displaced. As a result of corruption, millions of humans are trafficked, displaced, murdered and sunken into poverty. Entire animal species go extinct and natural resources are destroyed. That's why I'm convinced that, as a society, we have the moral obligation to identify and protect the victims, and to understand the domestic and transnational criminal networks that are involved.

How ingrained is corruption in Colombian society?
Unfortunately, it's highly ingrained. Since Pablo Escobar, various criminal networks have tried to infiltrate and manipulate formal institutions. The crime lords of the Cali Cartel, the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers, provided money for the campaign of President Ernesto Samper, who always denied knowing about that money, even though his campaign manager knew about it. The exact amount of money that the Cali Cartel provided is still unknown, but it was an amount between one and 10 million dollars.

Since the end of the 90s, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia [a Colombian drug trafficking and paramilitary group] supported local campaigns and even created local political parties. In 2002 they supported around 35 to 40 percent of the elected legislators at the National Congress of Colombia, as well as several mayors, governors and municipal legislators. The legislators who were supported by them actually legislated between 2002 and 2006. You can imagine the perverse effects when laws are proposed and approved by people who were supported by a criminal group.

One of the complex graphs produced by Eduardo showing the interactions between politicians and establishment figures in Colombia

How has your system helped to bring serious corruption like this to light?
Some types of crime are really complex, especially cases involving hundreds or thousands of people interacting. Understanding those situations requires computational tools, because it's impossible for the human brain to make sense of thousands of names, dates, places and facts. That's why, at Vortex Foundation, the anti-corruption organisation I founded, we created protocols, tools and processes to analyse high volumes of information and understand the structure of complex criminal networks.

What types of people did you help to investigate?
Important commanders of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia were working with the head of the national intelligence agency. The Supreme Court and the Attorney General's office already had that information, as paramilitary commander Jorge 40's laptop was confiscated, but it was too difficult to understand the interactions between the public servants inside the national intelligence agency and the paramilitary commanders, so we used our system to to visualise the structure and nature of those criminal agreements.

Another example is when the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with the Self-Defence Forces of Colombia. In 2005, a special jurisdiction of transitional justice was approved to compensate the victims and find out about the criminal processes that were involved. As a result, paramilitary commanders told of thousands of crimes that they ordered or executed. It was almost impossible for attorneys and judges to make sense of facts about thousands of criminals and victims, but when applying the right protocols, methodologies and algorithms, you can understand how they interacted and identify the economical and political structures of a complex criminal network.

In the structure commanded by Salvatore Mancuso, currently imprisoned in the United States for drug trafficking, around 2,200 victims were identified. The numbers of victims for other narco-paramilitary commanders like H.H. or Jorge 40 are similar. They are not only murders, but also populations that have been forcefully displaced and sexual slavery, among other mass crimes.

READ ON MOTHERBOARD: Why Evidence of Government Corruption Was Suppressed in the Silk Road Trial

I would imagine that in a country with corruption at such a high level and single individuals responsible for thousands of murders, being an anticorruption investigator can be grim at times.
Yes, while I was working as advisor at the Presidential Anticorruption Program in Colombia we carried out several meetings with local anticorruption leaders. At that time, narco-paramilitary groups were gaining power in various regions of the country. Two local anticorruption leaders who were going to meet with us were murdered while they were heading to our meeting. During those years, narco-paramilitary structures were controlling local governments.

There have been two serious corruption scandals here in the UK recently involving the police. One involves police allegedly accepting bribes from security firms working for strip clubs and bars in London, and the other involves an investigation into whether the police covered up child abuse by MPs. Are these cases that you would likely to see in Colombia, and do you think your system would be useful for shedding light on them?
The cases that you mention are the most difficult types of corruption to understand and confront, because they involve lawful agents. For obvious reasons, investigators, prosecutors and judges don't like to tackle the participation of lawful agents like police officers, public servants and the private sector, and that's exactly why innovative concepts, methodologies and computational tools are urgently required. Only if those innovative approaches are applied can the most relevant nodes of those criminal networks be identified and neutralised.

Do you think that affluent Western countries like the UK genuinely have less corruption, or do you think it's just covered up better?
It's more sophisticated. It's less violent than the corruption in countries in Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe, but companies from the UK, Australia and Canada sometimes engage in violent corruption in countries with weak institutions.

So you think the tendency for Western organisations to do their dirt overseas is underestimated?
Yes, the participation of big Western companies in corruption and transnational criminal networks is underestimated. A clear case is the role of the financial system in creating favourable conditions for massive money laundering associated with drug trafficking. For instance, HSBC directly participated in the laundering of Mexican drug trafficking money.

Eduardo and other members of the Vortex Foundation (Photo by David Sastre)

What advice would you give to British law enforcement agencies when it comes to dealing with corruption?
I'd tell them to pay attention to the players operating inside lawful institutions, and to always make sure that they understand the underlying structures, no matter how complex those structures are. This is the only path to understanding the real impacts and dimensions of crime and corruption. People operating inside lawful organisations can use those organisations and institutions for achieving criminal objectives, like the cases that were recently observed in the UK. We, as a society, need a real practical commitment to dismantling criminal networks, and that commitment involves understanding and addressing the participation of agents who operate inside lawful organisations but favour criminal objectives. We hope that our tools and methodologies help to dismantle criminal networks and bring about a culture of legality.

Thank you, Eduardo.

Eduardo is currently attempting to gain funding via Kickstarter to map corruption and organised crime in more locations. You can visit his page here.

More on VICE:

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How London's Most Divisive Elected Politician Got Kicked Out for Corruption

WATCH: Colombia's Hidden Killers

Nick Chester
Vice Blog
government corruption
Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán
Vortex Foundation