For the second consecutive year, some of Latin America’s leading academics and experts in the field of organized crime convened in the Colombian capital of Bogotá on December 3 to discuss major trends and developments throughout Latin America and the Caribbean in 2019.
“Transnational Organized Crime in the Americas: Trends and Perspectives 2019 - 2020,” an international seminar organized by InSight Crime and Universidad del Rosario, covered topics ranging from the status of Mexico’s organized crime landscape in the absence of the now-jailed former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” to developments in the ongoing criminality of the Venezuelan state and InSight Crime’s organized crime “GameChangers.”
The first half of the event kicked off with a keynote address and a group panel outlining the ever growing nexus between criminal networks and political powers in Venezuela.
Douglas Farah, the president of the security consulting firm IBI Consultants, got things going by detailing the growing importance of what he calls “the brokers,” specifically local and super brokers, which are crucial to the survival of organized criminal networks operating in Venezuela.
For the state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA), Farah outlined how political elites rely on a network of brokers and companies -- which are located across the world from El Salvador and Nicaragua to Hong Kong and allied with the regime of President Nicolás Maduro -- in order to launder money for the benefit of themselves and those at the top of the state.
Farah’s presentation was followed by an expert discussion involving InSight Crime co-director Jeremy McDermott, Verónica Zubillaga from the Universidad Simón Bolívar, journalist Roberto Deniz from Armando Info, and former Venezuelan chief prosecutor Zair Mundaray Rodríguez on the intimate relationship between criminal networks and the Venezuelan state.
“Venezuela’s [state] institutions have become platforms for planning and executing transnational crimes,” Mundaray Rodríguez said during the discussion.
Zubillaga also presented part of an in-depth investigation that chronicled the evolution of Venezuelan gangs in the capital Caracas into full-fledged organized crime groups, in part through pacts established with high-ranking officials within the Venezuelan government.
Megabandas are criminal gangs in Venezuela with over 100 members while colectivos are armed paramilitary groups working for the government.
State institutions have been left rudderless while cases of corruption involving government officials have reached “scandalous” proportions, according to Deniz from Armando Info. He added that criminality has undergone a professionalization that has further influenced the decision millions are taking to flee the country.
But while organized crime has shown a remarkable ability to penetrate state institutions and corrupt elected officials, it’s also had a tremendous impact on the environment.
In the second panel of the day, InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley was joined by Juan Carlos Garzón from Colombia’s Ideas for Peace Foundation (Fundación Ideas para la Paz – FIP) and Inge Valencia from the Universidad ICESI in Cali to look at organized crime’s depredation of the environment.
The question of how criminal organizations are diversifying their criminal portfolios was at the center of Dudley’s presentation of a forthcoming InSight Crime investigation on the illicit trafficking of plants and wildlife.
As Farah had mentioned, Dudley explained that so-called “brokers” are also extremely important for bringing together the illegal actors involved in the extraction, processing, transportation and commercialization of illegal wood. The growth of such trafficking has had devastating consequences across Latin America. “Since 2005, Honduras has lost at least 30 percent of its natural forests,” Dudley explained.
Valencia from ICESI University and Garzón from the FIP followed Dudley by explaining how the diversification of illegal criminal economies has also had a negative impact on Colombia’s environment following the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia -- FARC) as part of a peace deal with the government in 2016.
"The FARC regulated what was happening in the protected areas of the country, they established rules and quotas of how much could be cut down," Garzón said. However, the new actors that have emerged, he went on to explain, don’t have any interest in protecting the environment. They have less members and a smaller capacity to do so than the FARC did.
Those dedicated to defending the environment from criminal interests have also come under fire. "Almost 400 social leaders have been killed after the signing of the peace agreement in Colombia, [and] most have been in areas key for illegal mining and illicit coca crops," Valencia said.
From the environmental impacts of organized crime, the conference pivoted once more to the evolution of Mexico’s organized crime landscape in the absence of El Chapo with a presentation from journalist and expert narco chronicler, Ioan Grillo.
Grillo touched on the very important political control that Mexico’s organized crime groups have today, as well as the diversification of their criminal activities outside of traditional economies like drug trafficking. While the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has in the past claimed that there is no longer a war on drugs in Mexico, Grillo said that simply saying this hasn’t meant that there isn’t a war.
"The conflict in Mexico is of such a magnitude that there are no words to define it. Organized crime groups and the security forces' war against them has left more than 150,000 people dead," Grillo explained.
The conference came to a close with a presentation of InSight Crime’s annual series on its organized crime “GameChangers” for 2019, which touched on topics ranging from the changing nature of Mexico’s criminal landscape to the proliferation of illegal mining in the region and the penetration of organized crime into the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The complete GameChangers series will be published by InSight Crime in early 2020.