Welcome to InSight Crime’s GameChangers 2017, where we highlight the most important trends in organized crime in the Americas over the course of the year. If 2015 and 2016 were the years of political upheaval due to corruption and criminal trials, 2017 was the year when some of the more corrupt regimes struck back, undermining investigations against them and even democracy itself, solidifying their grip on power. Throughout the region, the criminal landscape fragmented further. Even the largest criminal groups now work more as federations than vertically integrated structures. Amidst it all, the US government moved from bold backer of anti-corruption and anti-crime efforts to a disinterested, disengaged party, often enabling reactionary and corrupt forces.
In Guatemala, when his party was faced with charges of illicit campaign financing from drug trafficking interests among others, President Jimmy Morales attempted to expel Iván Velásquez, the head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG). Velásquez and the CICIG, the United Nations-backed appendage of the country’s Attorney General’s Office, had already leveled corruption charges against Morales’ brother and his son. The political classes went to the extreme of trying codify impunity to thwart CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office efforts. While that proposal was beaten back by diplomatic and street protests, the president retained his own immunity, and the investigation against him stalled. The situation remains in a stalemate.
In neighboring Honduras, the government of Juan Orlando Hernández has had a decidedly more mixed record. He has pushed for police reform on the one hand and has strengthened the military police on the other. Homicides are down substantially, but questions about his own family’s relationship to crime continue. Hernández survived 2017, mostly because, as the Organization of American States pointed out, his party likely rigged the presidential elections in November. In security terms, Hernández’s disputed election will, as we wrote, most likely result in a more “iron fist” policy.
In Brazil, the polemic President Michel Temer also soldiered through another tumultuous year. Temer took control of the government after he and his allies ousted Dilma Rousseff in August 2016. The president and his allies are now facing down numerous investigations of embezzlement and receiving kickbacks over a period of years, schemes that make parts of the government look suspiciously like a mafia. Even though Temer himself is often depicted by investigators as the center of these criminal schemes, the president has beaten back these efforts, hiding behind immunity with the help of congressmen who are also under investigation, while retrenching and strategizing for the future.
Meanwhile, the Brazilian government this year officially abandoned its once-vaunted community policing efforts, replacing them with a militarized approach to deal with the conflict between the country’s largest criminal factions, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando Capital – PCC) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho). The PCC and Red Command, once allies, split in late 2016, as a series of bloody battles in prisons across the country early this year illustrated. The PCC appeared to have the upper hand in 2017, and is spreading to neighboring countries with alarming speed, if not agility, as evidenced by the group’s recent bloody heist in Paraguay. The PCC’s most prominent foreign depot is Paraguay. There, President Horacio Cartes is a willing participant in the cigarette contraband trade.
To be sure, presidents and ex-presidents throughout the region are facing down accusations of corruption and organized crime, but prosecutors are having decidedly mixed results in prosecuting them. El Salvador’s ex-President Mauricio Funes was convicted of corruption, but he remained in exile in Nicaragua and his case illustrated just how rotten the government had become under his watch.
Many other mostly former executives, especially in Peru, were tied to Odebrecht, the massive Brazilian construction company that set up an office to establish kickback schemes worth billions of dollars throughout the region. Those cases also ran into obstacles; 2017 will be the acid test for many national judicial systems as they judge cases against ex-presidents.
In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro and his administration have swept aside any pretense of democracy and rule of law. Instead, of deploying crime-fighting units against illegal actors, they have crushed political dissent, while allowing the criminalized bureaucrats, military officials and politically connected businessmen to further assert control over the thriving underworlds, including the fuel, medicine and food trades. Politics and crime are now harder than ever to separate in this Andean nation.
The government of El Salvador has also sanctioned repressive policies, albeit in a much more complicated battle against street gangs, which has included strong allegations of extrajudicial killings and death squads. The gangs have responded by targeting off-duty police and military personnel as well as their relatives.
The tit-for-tat in El Salvador has come as the MS13 street gang became US President Donald Trump’s bogeyman, the symbol of how crime and migration go hand in hand. The conflation was largely a political ploy to vilify entire Latino communities who Trump has blamed for many US problems, and one of many things the Trump administration got wrong about the gang in 2017.
Trump also vilified Mexico, which was another easy target. Mexico’s attorney general resigned after less than a year in office when it came to light that he was driving a Ferrari to work. Another five ex-governors from the ruling party faced corruption and criminal charges in Mexico and the United States, one of whom was captured driving his BMW motorcycle.
Mexico also had a difficult year dealing with continued atomization of its underworld. Murder and kidnapping rates reached record levels, and killings of journalists, such as the award-winning chronicler of organized crime Javier Valdéz, put an exclamation point on the problem. Some blamed the soaring violence on the January extradition of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, which led to the partial disintegration of one of the world’s largest criminal organizations, the Sinaloa Cartel. Other groups, most notably the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), took advantage, spreading into longtime Sinaloa Cartel strongholds. Meanwhile, traditional criminal organizations such as the Beltrán Leyva Organization, the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas continued to splinter, leading to the general degradation of security.
Colombia faced a similar dilemma. As members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) demobilized, dissident rebel blocs emerged, and factions of a resurgent National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación – ELN) and the country’s so-called BACRIM, or “bandas criminales,” moved to fill the vacuum, especially in areas where production of the coca leaf is reaching record levels. For its part, the ELN was sending mixed signals -- talking peace while waging war. The country’s largest BACRIM, the Urabeños, also suffered a series of body blows with the death of two of its military commanders and some record cocaine seizures, and sought to negotiate a settlement with the government.
To compound the problem, the Colombian government has been slow to implement post-conflict economic and social programs in former FARC strongholds. The government’s missteps and the underworld’s machinations have opened the door to right-wing political criticism of the peace process. And a threat by Trump administration to decertify the country in the fight against drug trafficking marked the lowest point in US-Colombia relations in two decades.
The same might be said for the rest of the region’s relations with the United States. The Trump administration has gutted the State Department and has given little direction to those who are left. It also illustrated a disregard for the judicial institutions and the rule of law at home, which seems to be having a spillover effect on leaders such as Jimmy Morales in Guatemala.
The timing is critical. The region once seemed swept up in an effort to break the relations between elites and organized crime and may still have the enthusiasm to accept the challenge. But with a disinterested US president who disdains any law that does not favor him and a US administration that is ejecting its most important foreign policy voices, dark days have returned.
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This year’s GameChangers addresses these challenges and others. We cover the sometimes head-scratching declarations and politics of Trump and their impact on the region, as well as efforts to reckon with corrupt regimes. We chronicle the rise of cocaine production and criminal fragmentation in Colombia following the peace deal, and the rearming of some cells from that country’s once powerful guerrilla group, the FARC.
We look at how drug consumption, especially opioids, continues to fuel violence in places like Mexico. We write about Brazil’s powerful prison gangs’ spread from jail cells to regional menace, and how Venezuela’s criminal political regime has become a threat to the entire hemisphere. And we recap our investigations into understudied phenomena such as prison gangs and mafia mayors.
This year began with the prospect of change, a potential upending of the status quo from north to south. It ended with corruption and crime more exposed but just as entrenched as ever.
Top photo by Associated Press/Dolores Ochoa