A number of criminal groups across Latin America are ordering ceasefires and exerting control over local communities as fears of the coronavirus sweep across the region, raising questions about how these groups will use this crisis to further their legitimacy and power.
These actions come amid a variety of government responses to the global coronavirus pandemic, ranging from a national lockdown ordered by Colombia President Iván Duque to more reckless inaction on the part of Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro, who has called for local governors and mayors to actually suspend preventative measures.
In Brazil, drug traffickers from the Red Command (Comando Vermelho - CV) in the Ciudade de Deus favela of Rio de Janeiro have gone door to door and used loudspeakers to impose curfews, threatening residents with violence if they leave their homes outside of designated hours, UOL reported. Other favelas in the city have received similar orders from different criminal factions and militias operating there, which are also passing out soap and sanitizer -- and threatening those trying to jack up prices as demand soars -- and urging residents to wash their hands, in addition to prohibiting tourists from entering.
Meanwhile, Colombia’s National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional -- ELN) has ordered a month-long ceasefire, the guerrillas announced March 30. This came on the heels of calls from former rebel leader Francisco Galán "to declare an indefinite ceasefire in an act of humility and greatness … and free the country from fear of war, at least for these times of emergency," according to El Tiempo.
In addition, fighters from the dissident 29th Front of the ex-FARC Mafia in southwest Nariño department along the country’s Pacific coast are threatening those who defy the government’s national lockdown, according to local media reports of a pamphlet in circulation. Just to the north in Cauca, FARC dissident groups are also setting up illegal checkpoints, threatening violence and demanding residents abide by the government’s restrictions to stay home, according to W Radio.
In neighboring Venezuela, video has surfaced of groups of “colectivos,” or pro-government armed groups, asking residents in the 23 de Enero neighborhood of Caracas to comply with hygiene protocols and a social quarantine. InSight Crime has verified that colectivos are also imposing curfews in the Petare neighborhood near Caracas. In other cases, the Nicolás Maduro regime has called on armed civilians to impose quarantine restrictions alongside members of the military and Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES), according to local media reports.
Finally, gang members from the Barrio 18 in Guatemala have reportedly suspended all demands for extortion payments from local vendors amid the government’s implementation of a state of emergency to hopefully curtail the spread of coronavirus. Gangs like the Unión de Tepito in Mexico City, however, have maintained their extortion rackets despite the pandemic. In El Salvador, gang members from the MS13 and both factions of the Barrio 18, the Revolutionaries and Sureños, are threatening locals with violence or death if they defy the government's quarantine orders.
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The growing threat posed by coronavirus has taken broader underlying social inequalities or issues that were already present to begin with and brought them to the surface. This is also true for gaps in state presence and the role criminal groups play in filling that void.
“It’s not like two months ago traffickers weren’t the governing authority in favelas [in Rio de Janeiro], they were,” Benjamin Lessing, a professor at the University of Chicago who examines organized crime, told InSight Crime.
"A lot of criminal governance looks like business as usual, so it didn't seem salient: on a day-to-day basis, people could sort of ignore the problem," he added.
The fact that gangs in Brazil are able to pass out hand sanitizer, spread information about good hygiene practices and impose curfews and other restrictions in the communities in which they operate points to greater sophistication and close communal ties.
“A group that doesn't already have a high level of control and connection to the community doesn’t have the ability to enforce these kinds of rules,” said Angélica Durán-Martínez, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, who researches criminal violence and governance in Latin America.
What’s more, both Lessing and Durán-Martínez argued that the gangs’ reasons for exercising this type of governance go far beyond just securing their power and control in a bid to gain more social capital to further their criminal operations.
“At the same time that it might be a way to make sure there’s not a long-term disruption to their operations, in some ways they are also doing this as a way to protect the community,” Durán-Martínez said.
There are a variety of reasons that criminal groups decide to govern the ways they do. Through extensive fieldwork in Colombia and Brazil, Lessing said there’s almost always a sense that criminal actors feel some type of responsibility to take care of their communities when the state is not acting as an effective governing body.
“It reflects their interest in maintaining social support,” Durán-Martínez said. “These groups see the clear risks facing the community on the ground, that they don’t have access to clean water, soap or sanitizer, and that the state is not taking any real measures to protect them, so this responsibility ends up being in the hands of those that are holding the control.”
“This is the same reality these communities have been living for a long time, but the need for active governance has gone way up now” with the threat of coronavirus, Lessing added. It's the gangs that have the ability to organize and enforce key measures at the local level, like getting residents to stay inside or preventing price gouging, according to Lessing.
The FARC played governing roles in the past in the areas they controlled. But in the aftermath of their demobilization, dissident fighters have not shown as much coordination and sophistication in this regard. They’ve resorted to almost bullying-like tactics, such as spray painting taxis and trucks to mark their presence and voice demands, rather than deploying a broader coordinated effort to govern.
Smaller street gangs known as “combos” that operate in neighborhoods throughout Medellín, on the other hand, have played much more of a governing role in Colombia, settling communal disputes, regulating crime and extorting residents in the areas they control. In Venezuela, the colectivos have often acted more like government proxies used by authorities to exert social control in the areas they dominate.
Criminal groups across the region will vary in how they respond and adapt to situations like the current health crisis, and some groups will outperform others.
At the same time, civilian community groups in both Brazil and Colombia have also been mobilizing alongside these armed actors, asking governments to respond to the needs of the local population and even running their own information campaigns, which Durán-Martínez said shows the agency of civilians in the face of such armed control.
Criminal governance is complex, and part of a larger mosaic of authority, which isn’t always antagonistic or opposed to how the state wants to govern. Rather than usurping the state’s power, the current health crisis actually reflects a case where both state and criminal interests could be quite convergent.
But while the government has fallen short in protecting those most vulnerable to coronavirus, the gangs’ actions in Brazil reflect a “conscious decision on the part of the leadership of these organizations that radical measures have to be taken,” Lessing said.