Unmasking and Quantifying Power Structures: How Network Analysis Enhances Peace and State-Building Efforts

Issa Luna Pla (Columbia University)

Data & Policy Blog
Data & Policy Blog
9 min readMay 31, 2024


Source: Peace News

In 2007, under the auspices of a United Nations — Guatemala agreement, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) launched its operations against a backdrop of pervasive illicit powerful groups controlling politics and the economy, at a critical time when organized crime and cartels had significant control over nine of Guatemala’s twenty-two states. The commission identified clandestine security apparatuses as the main culprits behind the entrenched impunity.

Equipped with the authority to investigate, prosecute, and recommend legal reforms, CICIG aggressively pursued not just criminal organizations but also the complex webs connecting public officials, politicians, and business leaders. During its operation, CICIG successfully uncovered more than 70 criminal networks and contributed to 1540 indictments in over 120 cases. These efforts revealed corruption that permeated the highest levels of government, implicating presidents, ministers, and military officials, and unveiled extensive collusion across various government branches, from the judiciary to the legislature.

Despite these achievements, the CICIG’s mandate was abruptly ended in 2019 by the Guatemalan government when the escalation of criminal and corruption cases began implicating the ruling political elite. This decision marked a significant shift in justice, as business, political, and military figures tied to long-standing illicit networks seized control of the government and the Attorney General’s office. These groups targeted journalists, civil society leaders, judges, and public servants who had been instrumental in securing convictions within these networks during the CICIG tenure.

Although CICIG’s mandate was meticulously crafted to counter the infiltration of government institutions by clandestine organizations and rogue security forces, CICIG and other prosecutorial bodies struggled to demonstrate the effectiveness of their efforts to dismantle these networks. This shortcoming has fueled a significant debate about the United Nations’ role in addressing corruption and impunity. Key questions have arisen: How can sustainable peace environments be established in the face of resurging violent conflicts? What should the approach of international operations look like? What tools and operational strategies should be designed to address the influence of power structures and enhance peace and state stability?

Critiques of peace and state-building efforts have pointed out the inadequate grasp of the origins of conflict, political unrest, and the intricate dynamics of criminal and illicit networks (Holt and Bouch, 2009; Cockayne and Lupel, 2011). This limited understanding has failed to sufficiently weaken their economic and political influence or effectively curb their activities and objectives. A recent study highlights that although punitive approaches may have temporarily diminished the power of these networks, the absence of robust analytical tools has made it difficult to assess the enduring impact of these strategies.

1. Application of Network Analytics in State-Building

The importance of analytics in international peace and state-building operations is becoming increasingly recognized (O’Brien, 2010; Gnanguenon, 2021; Rød et al., 2023). Analytics, particularly network analysis, plays a crucial role in dissecting and dismantling complex power structures that often undermine peace initiatives and governance reforms. This analytical approach is crucial for revealing and disrupting the entrenched networks that sustain ongoing conflicts or obstruct peace processes. From the experiences in Guatemala, three significant lessons have been learned regarding the need for analytics for regional and thematic priorities in such operations (Waxenecker, 2019). These insights are vital for understanding how to tailor analytical strategies to address specific challenges in conflict-affected areas.

  1. The effectiveness of the International Commission CICIG in dismantling criminal networks was constrained by its lack of advanced analytical tools. This limitation prevented a deeper exploration of the conflicts’ roots and hindered the assessment of the long-term impacts of its strategies. While the CICIG had a systematic approach to understanding criminal networks from a contextual and legal perspective, its action plans lacked comprehensive statistic analytics methodologies, leading to missed opportunities in targeting key strategic players within these networks. High-level arrests were based on available evidence and charges that prosecutors could substantiate, rather than a strategic analysis of actors’ roles and influences within the networks’ dynamics.
  2. Furthermore, the extent of network dismantlement and the lasting effects of imprisonment and financial control of the illicit groups’ assets remain unclear, highlighting the need for predictive analytics to anticipate conflicts and sustainability. Such tools could enable operations to forecast potential disruptions or stability, allowing for data-driven proactive measures to prevent violence or bolster peace.
  3. Lastly, insights derived from network analysis suggest that efforts should focus on enhancing diplomatic negotiations, promoting economic development and social capital, and balancing punitive measures with strategic interventions. By understanding the dynamics and modeling group behavior in conflict zones, negotiations can be better informed by a deep and holistic comprehension of the underlying power structures and motivations. This approach could also help in forecasting recidivism, assessing risks of network reorganization, and evaluating the potential for increased armament, workforce, or empowerment, thereby facilitating more effective and sustainable peacebuilding initiatives.

2. Advancing Legal and Institutional Reforms

Utilizing data sciences in conflicted environments offers unique insights into the behavior of illicit networks and their interactions within the public and private sectors (Morselli et al., 2007; Leuprecht and Hall, 2014; Campedelli et al., 2019). This systematic approach, grounded in the analysis of years of illicit activities in Guatemala, highlights the necessity of rethinking traditional legal and institutional frameworks.

Developing Group Punitive Frameworks: The challenge for entities like CICIG involves innovating legal frameworks and prosecution strategies to comprehensively address the complexities of criminal networks before they become highly resilient. Effective strategies should target key network players and address the connections between legal and illegal activities, as well as public and private actors. Adapting legal strategies to the dynamic nature of crime, and it’s symbiotic relationship with corruption, is crucial to disrupt these networks effectively.

Reforming Institutions: Analytics can pinpoint institutional weaknesses and corruption hotspots, guiding targeted reforms to enhance governance and mitigate corruption linked to criminal activities. Guatemala’s legislative approach, not tailored for dismantling networks but rather targeting individual misconduct, coupled with CICIG’s lack of adequate institutional capacity and intelligence, illustrates a need for a broader strategy. This includes avoiding tactics that inadvertently allow networks to reorganize or strengthen, such as the “revolving door” phenomenon in prisons.

Supporting Rule of Law: By examining crime patterns and institutional responses, analytics can foster strategies that bolster the rule of law and reduce impunity (da Cunha and Gonçalves, 2018; Contreras Velasco, 2023). The reliance on the law against organized crime to charge individuals under broad categories like illicit association fails to capture the nuanced understanding required for effective intervention, as revealed by network analysis. This highlights the limitations of current prosecutorial approaches and the need for more nuanced strategies.

Economic Planning and Development: Finally, analytics serves as a tool to identify crucial areas for economic development, facilitating interventions that promote sustainable growth. This approach not only tackles poverty but also addresses environments where criminal opportunities might rival or exceed legitimate employment options, thus reducing the allure of criminal paths.

3. Data Analysis Challenges

Analyzing data from conflict zones presents unique challenges that significantly impact the accuracy and reliability of research outcomes. These challenges primarily stem from issues related to data reliability and completeness, which can skew the understanding of critical issues like crime rates, patterns, and economic conditions affecting the proliferation of illicit networks.

Data Availability and Reliability. In conflict zones, obtaining reliable and comprehensive data is a major challenge. The absence of robust governance and the prevalence of ongoing conflicts mean that data collection systems are often fragmented or non-existent. Researchers face obstacles in gathering accurate information, and the data obtained is frequently incomplete or biased, which can lead to incorrect conclusions. Additionally, the accessibility of these areas can change rapidly due to fluctuating security conditions, further complicating consistent data collection efforts (Letouzé et al., 2013).

Complexity of Conflict Dynamics. The complex socio-political dynamics in conflict zones further complicate data reliability (Morselli et al., 2007). With multiple conflicting parties and shifting alliances, information is often manipulated to serve the interests of particular groups, making it difficult to distinguish objective data from propaganda or misinformation. This manipulation challenges the analysis and interpretation processes, requiring researchers to critically evaluate the authenticity and objectivity of the data they collect.

Logistical and Technological Limitations. Logistical challenges due to inadequate infrastructure severely restrict data collection in many conflict-affected areas. Technological limitations, such as limited internet access or lack of advanced data-gathering tools, hinder the ability to conduct thorough and timely research. Moreover, the risks associated with conducting fieldwork in these areas often restrict physical access, forcing researchers to rely on remote data collection methods. These methods may not provide data with the necessary detail or specificity, further impacting the research’s effectiveness (Strang, 2014).

Temporal Changes and Longitudinal Studies. The dynamic nature of conflict zones makes longitudinal studies particularly challenging (Sparrow, 1991, Framis, 2014). The socio-political landscape can change drastically in a short period, which might make the conditions under which initial data was collected no longer relevant. This requires continuous monitoring and adaptation of research methodologies to ensure data remains accurate and reflective of the current state of affairs, thus enabling more reliable and actionable insights for policy-making and strategic planning.

4. Ethical and Privacy Concerns

Research in regions marked by conflict and instability raises critical ethical and privacy issues, with potential consequences such as revictimizing individuals or misusing sensitive data. These considerations are essential for conducting responsible research that respects the rights and safety of all participants and the integrity of the information gathered (Scott, 2917).

Informed Consent and Anonymity: Obtaining genuine informed consent in conflict zones can be complex due to potential coercion or a lack of understanding about the research’s implications. Protecting participants’ identities is also crucial to prevent any potential retaliation, requiring measures to ensure anonymity and safety.

Data Security and Confidentiality: The confidentiality of data collected in these sensitive environments is paramount. Researchers must adopt strict security protocols, such as encrypted data storage and transmission, to safeguard the information from unauthorized access and misuse (Perry et al., 2913).

Potential for Harm and Misuse of Information: There is a significant responsibility on researchers to ensure their findings do not worsen conflicts or lead to unfair targeting of specific groups. This involves maintaining a balance between the need for transparency in research and the potential risks associated with disclosing sensitive information (Cai and Zhu, 2015).

Balancing Research Benefits Against Risks: Ethical research mandates a thorough assessment of the benefits of the research against the potential risks to participants and communities. This includes evaluating both the direct impacts of the research and the broader implications of releasing information about conflict dynamics.

5. Escalating Analytical Approaches in International Peacebuilding Operations

The increasingly complex nature of global conflicts, entangled in broader geopolitical and regional dynamics, has complicated efforts at conflict resolution. Civil wars no longer occur in isolation; they are connected to a web of global interactions involving non-state armed groups, terrorists, and criminal organizations, all intertwined with both criminal and political agendas. This complexity necessitates a paradigm shift towards proactive prevention and sustained peace, as advocated in the United Nations New Peace Agenda policy brief. This shift addresses the evolving character of armed conflicts, the dangers of increasing weaponization, restricted civic spaces, trust deficits, escalating national inequalities, and the climate crisis.

In such intricate scenarios, the application of analytics faces numerous challenges, including the scarcity and reliability of data and the ethical use of such data. Concerns have been raised about the potential misuse of analytics for surveillance and control, rather than for promoting peace and development, highlighting the need for stringent ethical guidelines and transparent methodologies.

Analytics’ primary value lies in its potential to provide profound, actionable insights that significantly bolster the efficacy of peace and state-building operations. By identifying and disrupting networks of corruption or assisting in developing policies that enhance state resilience, analytics prove indispensable in shaping effective international interventions. This strategic use of data not only helps in understanding complex conflict dynamics but also supports the design of interventions that are informed, targeted, and sustainable.

Publisher’s Note: this blog is related to a recently published article in Data & Policy on networks analysis in peace and state-building. Sign-up for eTOCs from Data & Policy for further articles on Data for Peace Technology

About the author

Issa Luna Pla, a quantitative criminologist and human rights expert at Columbia University, has significantly impacted the fields of corruption and crime through interdisciplinary collaboration and education initiatives. She has developed analytical models and delivered specialized training to legal and financial professionals, enhancing strategies to combat crime and corruption, and facilitated the creation of effective policies and educational programs, involving civil society to foster public awareness and drive substantive legal changes.


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