In April of this year, InSight Crime, with financing from the non-governmental organization Internews, met with journalists from four online news media organizations. The four represented the cream of the crop in terms of their online presence and focus, the presentation of their materials, and, of course, the quality of their investigations. And the meeting represented what we hope will be the beginning of a regional partnership with them covering the most pressing issue in the Americas: organized crime.

At the center of the April gathering was a discussion of stories on human rights and organized crime gangs. We began with a brain-storming session that, for us, confirmed our decision to work with these partners because none of them brought up drug trafficking. Instead, they discussed the military’s involvement in the fight against organized crime, the displacement of civilian populations, the trafficking of women, and the use of child soldiers, among other subjects.

*This article is part of a series about the the role of organized crime in driving displacement and slavery in the region. Read the other chapters of the investigation here and download the full PDF.

It’s not that drug trafficking is not important. We all cover it regularly. And of course, we understand that it is the motor that many of these groups use to undermine governments, destroy social networks, and corrupt security forces. But when we talk about human rights, we are talking about impact of a different type.

Human rights violations are normally associated with repressive governments. And, legally speaking, that emphasis is correct. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasizes state responsibility.  

But the world is changing as are its conflicts. There are few civil wars and those left are largely asymmetrical. Still, the Americas, as a whole, has never been more violent. At the heart of this violence are an increasingly large number of criminal operations. They have varying degrees of ideologies. Some want to replace the state, but most just want to see the state remain weak and do their bidding.

However, if there is one constant, it’s that the the civilian populations are trapped in the warped logic of outside forces, and the governments are failing, either wittingly or unwittingly, to protect them from these forces.

Thus surged the need to recount these stories, and refocus our efforts at understanding at how non-state actors can violate human rights and how the governments are failing in their most basic mission: protecting their citizens.

The human drama the partners uncovered in the months that followed are detailed in this special. They are the result of field research in some of the most dangerous places in the hemisphere in an effort to get an up close and personal look at what this phenomenon looks like and better understand how it is destroying these communities.

*Steven Dudley is co-director of InSight Crime.

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...