Land trafficking, responsible for the unprecedented rate of urbanization in many Latin American cities, is often conceptualized through corruption as ‘abuses of public office for private gain’. While those involved in the practice rely at times on violence and illegality, their repertoire is sophisticated, allowing them to move in and out of legality as part of their cost–benefit calculations. In this article I argue that land trafficking is based on legalized corruption. I use an ethnographic approach to observe the strategic conduits that are technically embedded in, and opportunistically related to, different municipal processes to legalize illegality. I demonstrate how land traffickers use morphing possibilities between land tenure types (communal, private and government) and mimic development typologies that have gained legitimacy over time. I also show how conflicting, competing and humanitarian rationalities that characterize the state play a crucial role in promoting land trafficking, by grafting illegality and violations onto ‘formal’ practices.