Colombia’s last rebel army is now the most powerful criminal syndicate in Latin America, as it expands across Colombia and far into Venezuela, deepening its involvement in the drug trade.
The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) has resisted the best efforts of the Colombian government, and its US ally, for more than five decades. Friends in high places in Caracas are helping the ELN become a Colombo-Venezuelan revolutionary army, with profound consequences for both nations and the regional criminal panorama.
Yet Latin America remains home to a diverse range of criminal groups, many of which expanded their territory or criminal economies, or consolidated their power base in 2019.
This list only includes the non-state illegal actors, not those governments where organized crime has penetrated the highest echelons and put state assets at the service of criminal activity, like in Venezuela and arguably, Honduras.
For the last two years InSight Crime has been working on methodology to measure and compare criminal groups around the region using the following indicators:
Here is where the ELN excels with its politico-military structure, which has survived the offensives of US-backed Colombian governments, right-wing paramilitaries and other Colombian criminal groups for over five decades. Despite having been almost wiped out several times, the ELN has always bounced back, rebuilding and further compartmentalizing its structure and increasing its resilience to all forms of attack. The fighting divisions, or War Fronts (Frentes de Guerra), provide the structural framework and then the individual fronts (frentes) act like military battalions, divided into companies and units.
There are no other criminal structures, except the ex-FARC Mafia, that can compete with this kind of quasi-military cohesion. The nature of the prison gangs like the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), Red Command (Comando Vermelho - CV), MS13 and Barrio 18 is resilient, but fragmented, based around different prisons and different cliques, meaning they operate more as a franchise than as a centrally driven organization. The Sinaloa Cartel, after the capture of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” may have seen more power concentrated in the hands of Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo,” but it is a federation of different and often disconnected elements, each with great autonomy and independence of action.
2. Core leadership
Some of the core leadership of the ELN, the members of the Central Command (Comando Central - COCE) have been with the group since its foundation, or joined soon after, meaning that the group has senior leadership with decades of experience. There are no criminal structures in Latin America that have such long-standing and experienced leadership. Yet with the arrival in 2015 of Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo Quinchía, alias “Pablito,” to the COCE, ELN leadership got a significant boost. Belligerent, innovative and radical, Pablito represents a younger generation of rebel commanders, ideologically committed, while not allowing revolutionary beliefs to limit revenue raising or strategy.
Among the other top ten groups are other hugely experiences leaders like El Mayo of the Sinaloa Cartel, who started his career in the 1980s with the Juarez Cartel and who has evaded all attempts to capture him. Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” started life in the 1980s as a Marxist guerrilla, before transforming into a right-wing paramilitary, and today heads Colombia’s Urabeños or Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC).
Criminal structures all seek some identity, code or ideology to facilitate recruitment, build reputation and brand, as well as ensuring loyalty. The most successful criminal structures in history, like the Sicilian Mafia or the Yakuza, have managed to create a mythology that has translated into a strict code of conduct with initiation rites. The ELN has Marxism-Leninism at its heart, with figures like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara acting as the icons of its ideology. While there are debates as to how this ideology sits with criminal activity, the ELN has a strong ideological component, and most of its members believe they are fighting for a just cause. This provides powerful motivation and loyalty.
The prison gangs in El Salvador, like MS13 and Barrio 18 have grown quickly due to the adoption of initiation rituals and the use of tattoos that form a uniform and clearly mark belonging and loyalty. While they have a rule book, their cause is the protection of their own, much the same as Brazil’s PCC and Red Command. Like the Italian mafias, many of the Mexican cartels have a strong geographic component, with the Sinaloa Cartel relying heavily on recruits from the state of the same name and the strong regional culture.
4. Economic Strength
This corresponds not only to the earning power of a criminal structure but the diversity of its criminal portfolio and ability to absorb losses such as drug seizures. Money laundering capacity and penetration of the legal economy are also measured under this category. The ELN has seen its economic resilience increase in the last four years. Once dependent almost wholly on kidnapping and extortion, Colombia’s last rebel group is now deeply involved in illegal mining, smuggling, and drug trafficking. It has taken advantage of the chaos in Venezuela and affinity with the regime to assume control of key routes into this troubled nation and invested in real estate along the border.
The PCC’s explosive growth over the last few years is due to its deepening involvement in the cocaine trade. While its initial earnings lay in the micro-trafficking of drugs in prisons and then in its home base of São Paulo, today the PCC sources cocaine in Bolivia, Colombia and Paraguay and is involved in the movement of drug shipments abroad, particularly to Europe, via ports like Santos. The Sinaloa Cartel is the exception that proves the rule. It has resisted the temptation of other Mexican cartels to get involved in extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking, concentrating on its strength: drug trafficking.
5. State Penetration
Organized crime has two main tools: violence and corruption. The ideal condition for a criminal group is to have the state not just leave operations unmolested, but actually protect them. Unlike Africa, where much of the criminal structures are state embedded, in Latin America the majority are non-state actors, and therefore vulnerable to state actions.
This is the case for the ELN in Colombia, where the group is public enemy #1. However in Venezuela, it is a very different story and President Nicolás Maduro sees the Colombian guerrillas as support for his regime and a shield along the border with Colombia. This has allowed the ELN to thrive in Venezuela, put down even deeper roots and increase control over criminal economies.
The Sinaloa Cartel, unlike the CJNG and former rivals like the Zetas, has preferred to use “plata” (silver) rather than “plomo” (lead) where possible. This is a more efficient business model and explains why the Zetas have been consigned to history while Sinaloa keeps going strong. The prison gangs are naturally antagonistic to the state, although the truces negotiated with the government by MS13 and Barrio 18 in El Salvador from 2012 showed that even the most brutal street gangs are open to dialogue and politics.
6. Threat or Use of Violence
Violence and organized crime in Latin America are indivisible. In a market where there is no legal recourse to the breaking of agreements, the reputation for violence is a key element to doing business. With just eight percent of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for 33 percent of all murders. Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela account for a quarter of all the murders on Earth. Yet the most violent criminal organizations are not necessarily the most successful, although three of the groups on our list, MS13, Barrio 18 and the CJNG have a reputation for indiscriminate and terrorizing levels of violence. While this brings them immense credibility on the criminal stage, it also ensures they are priority targets for security forces.
The ELN is no stranger to violence, but many such acts are of an insurgent, rather than a purely criminal nature. This makes the rebels a priority target for the Colombian government, but since they control and regulate violence within Venezuela, they are seen as a quasi-legitimate force there.
7. Military Capacity and Numbers
One thing is engaging in indiscriminate murder. Another is the ability to carry out sophisticated and precise military-style operations to facilitate and protect criminal enterprises and having the trained personnel needed for such activities. The Central American street gangs can terrorize people into paying extortion and have even been able to ambush the odd police unit. They can call on tens of thousands of members across the Northern Triangle nations (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras). However, the ELN has been able to paralyze entire provinces in Colombia, carry out military offensives to take territory from the state, and plant bombs in police installations in Bogotá. This rebel army can currently call on up to 4,000 personnel with military training and thousands more collaborators. The ELN have been able to manufacture homemade mortars and have an arsenal that rivals many militaries in the region.
As part of this measurement we look not only at the operational capacity of the criminal groups, but their armament, military training and the strategic application of violence. One of the reasons Brazil’s PCC has moved towards the top of the criminal league has been its ability to carry out sophisticated operations. In 2017, up to 50 members of the gang, using dynamite and assault rifles, were able to rob $8 million from a Paraguayan vault, launching a diversionary attack on a police station, before fleeing in speed boats.
8. Criminal Alliances
In an increasingly fragmented criminal world that extends its global reach on a daily basis, the importance of alliances cannot be understated. The days of the Medellín Cartel, which controlled the cocaine industry from production to distribution in the United States, are long gone. Now, most criminal structures are networks, relying on multiple nodes to complete complex supply chains across the world and handle the millions of dollars that move in the opposite direction. The only way to prosper is to work with other criminal organizations and corrupt state officials.
The ELN, for a supposedly ideological guerrilla army, has been surprisingly pragmatic about allying itself with other criminal actors where necessary or providing services to other illegal networks. At the moment the ELN can count on parts of the ex-FARC Mafia as allies, elements of the Venezuelan state, as well as Venezuelan “colectivos.” Through its political work, it can count on a constellation of radical left-wing groups around the region. At the local level, the ELN work with dozens of criminal actors, collecting “taxes” to allow drug trafficking organizations to pass through their territory, or providing protection services to drug laboratories, marijuana greenhouses, illegal airstrips and submarine shipyards. There is almost no link in the drug chain in Colombia where the ELN do not have a role in their areas of influence.
The same goes for illegal mining. ELN units on the Pacific Coast are working with Mexican cartels to ensure the regular flow of cocaine to Central America. The Sinaloa Cartel operates in anything up to 54 nations across the world, depending on a complex series of alliances. However, gangs like MS13 and Barrio 18 are not so good at working with other actors, hence the fact that many of their criminal activities are purely national (extortion and kidnapping), rather than transnational (drug trafficking, human trafficking) where greater cooperation is essential.
9. Territorial Reach and Criminal Governance
Most criminal economies require the control of territory. It might be the coveted crossing points on the Mexican-US border, or coca crops in Colombia, or the alluvial gold deposits in parts of South America. It is no coincidence that some of the most violent cities in Latin America are home to ports, the departure points for multi-ton drug shipments. Whichever criminal actors can control these areas are guaranteed control of the illegal rents they contain. Equally relevant under this heading is how the criminal groups maintain control of these territories.
The most sophisticated groups have produced parallel states, or criminal enclaves, where they exercise functions normally reserved for governments, like raising taxes or dispensing justice. Control of such areas not only provide criminal rents, but a steady flow of recruits.
The ELN do exactly this in many of its areas of operation, penetrating municipal authorities, charging “protection” fees and adjudicating in local disputes. In parts of Colombia and Venezuela, the rebels are seen as a legitimate force, able to provide far more effective and reliable governance than the state. For the prison gangs, control of the jails, which are often centers of organized crime, is a regular feature of their “criminal governance” and a source of recruits as well as income.
The acid test for a criminal group is its longevity. If a powerful criminal syndicate is able to survive for years, or in the case of many of those on our list, decades, this is a testament to their resilience, earning power and operational capacity. Again, the ELN leads the way, having been in existence since 1964, and being more powerful today than ever before. Most of the powerful prison gangs on our list are relatively young compared to the ELN. The oldest is the Red Command, born in a Rio de Janeiro prison in the 1970s as a self-protection group for prisoners. The PCC was born in 1993, while the MS13 and Barrio 18 evolved in the Northern Triangle after the mass deportation of criminals from the United States in the early 2000s.
The newest group on the list, the ex-FARC Mafia, born after the signing of a peace agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government in 2016, is taking advantage of the experience of former rebel fighters and has sought to adopt FARC mythology and political discourse to create its identity and brand. While the Urabeños were only formed in 2006, they have adopted much of the symbols and identity of their predecessors, the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), giving them more power and criminal maturity than their youth would suggest.
Top Image: AP photo of a masked gunman in Caracas, Venezuela