Welcome to InSight Crime’s GameChangers 2016, where we highlight the most important trends in organized crime in the Americas. This year we put a spotlight on crime and corruption among the region’s political elites, while reporting on government struggles to corral criminality fueled by street gangs, drug cartels and Marxist rebels alike.

Top government officials spent much of the year fending off accusations of corruption and organized crime with varying degrees of success. At the center of the storm was Brazil, where government deals led to bribes and kickbacks that over time reached into the billions of dollars. The top casualty of the scandal was Dilma Rousseff who, ironically, was ousted from the presidency for misuse of funds, not corruption.

In reality, it is her Worker’s Party that more resembles a criminal organization than she does. Like a mafia, the party collected and distributed money to keep the wheels of political power moving and laundered that money through elaborate schemes involving construction companies and offshore accounts. Rousseff’s mentor, the celebrated former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was charged with what appeared to be the type of routine payments all Brazilian politicians and ex-politicians get from the movement of state contracts. Indeed, those who ousted Rousseff are facing similar corruption allegations, illustrating just how institutionalized the problem appears to be.

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro is facing down a different type of crisis, one that includes an economic emergency, widespread corruption and rising crime rates at home, and an increasing number of current and ex-officials charged with drug trafficking abroad. The US government’s case against the first lady’s “Narco Nephews” got most of the headlines, but numerous other former military officials are revealing to US investigators just what the Venezuelan government looks like from the inside. It is a not a pretty picture, and Maduro’s domestic and international issues appear to be pushing him into tighter alliances with the criminal elements in his government.

Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office and its United Nations-backed appendage, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), continued to arrest and charge more suspects from the mafia state established under former President Otto Pérez Molina, his Vice President Roxana Baldetti and their Patriotic Party (Partido Patriota – PP). The most startling and revealing case was one they termed the “cooptación del estado,” or the “Cooptation of the State,” a scheme involving numerous campaign contributors whose return on investment was guaranteed once the PP took power in 2012.

Among those arrested for the Cooptation of the State case was former Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla. Once a staunch US counter-drug ally and hero from that country’s civil war, López Bonilla is also being investigated for his multiple shady deals with drug traffickers such as Marllory Chacón Rossell, to whom he provided a government protection service even after she was accused of money laundering by the US Treasury Department; and with Byron Lima, a former army captain who was killed in jail amidst a public squabble with the former interior minister.  

Potential corruption and organized crime cases continue to shake the foundations of Guatemala, including one that connects a now extradited drug trafficker to the current vice president and a corruption scandal connected to the current president’s son and his brother.

IMAGE-DOWNLOAD-GAMECHANGERS El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office arrested one ex-president, began a corruption probe of another ex-president, and charged a former attorney general with corruption, in part because of their relationship with a businessman whom both the Salvadoran and US governments are investigating for drug trafficking. And it reopened a case against José Adán Salazar Umaña, alias “Chepe Diablo,” the nominal head of the Texis Cartel, whose dealings with the government prosecutor’s office in a previous case raised eyebrows and could lead to further charges against the former attorney general.

The El Salvador Attorney General’s Office is also pushing forward cases against government officials and mediators who facilitated a truce between the country’s street gangs. The truce, which ended in 2014, led to a brief drop in homicides. The gangs used their ability to shift the rate of homicides as political leverage with the country’s top political parties in the lead up to national and municipal elections, videos and audio recordings showed. But the Attorney General’s Office has yet to announce an investigation into trading votes for benefits for the gang leaders, including payments for managing government social programs. (Similar negotiations between politicians and criminal groups appeared to be happening in the lead up to municipal elections in Brazil.)

Investigations in Honduras continue to swirl dangerously close to President Juan Orlando Hernández. The Attorney General’s Office there is still looking into ties between a corruption scandal in the Honduras Social Security Institute and campaign contributions to the president’s party, and accused drug traffickers tied the president’s brother to drug trafficking with one US official calling the brother “a person of interest” in an ongoing investigation.

The accusations come as Hernández positions himself to run for another presidential term while struggling to reform the police by backing a top-down purge headed by a special civilian-led commission. They also mirror the challenges that earlier administrations faced, as we detailed in our Honduras Elites and Organized Crime investigative series.

The problems in the Northern Triangle emanate from the bottom up as well. More than a dozen mayors in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are facing charges of corruption and organized crime. Mayors have not only allegedly worked directly with organized crime but formed their own organized crime groups, a trend we will explore in various investigations we are preparing for 2017.

Other countries such as Panama and Nicaragua are also facing challenges from corruption and organized crime. The Panamanian government requested the US extradite former President Ricardo Martinelli for alleged use of illegal wiretaps of as many as 150 political opponents and critics. And Nicaraguans are wondering what Daniel Ortega’s near absolute grip on all levers of power means after he was elected to a fourth term as president, something we will also explore in 2017, in our last installment of our Elites and Organized Crime series.

To deal with corruption and criminal penetration of the state, both Honduras and El Salvador appear to be looking towards the CICIG as a model. The Organization of American States-backed Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH) began the arduous task of assisting in high profile investigations and helping draft legislation to create a sounder legal foundation to fight crime and has already run into roadblocks. In El Salvador, the attorney general announced the formation of an independent special anti-impunity unit. These are not failsafe solutions, as our investigation into the CICIG and its relationship with elites showed.

There was, amidst it all, some good news. Honduras purged 40 percent of the top brass of its troubled police force, and Guatemala increased its rehabilitation rate of incarcerated youths. Ecuador increased its drug seizures, while Peru rejected the presidential bid of Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of disgraced and imprisond former president, Alberto Fujimori amid allegations of drug trafficking and money landering. Peru also registered record lows of coca production.

In contrast to the political elites in other countries, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos won a Nobel Peace Prize for his government’s successful efforts to forge a peace agreement with the hemisphere’s oldest and largest insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). The announcement, however, came just days after Colombians voted to reject that agreement via a plebiscite that saw but 37 percent of the population go to the polls following a nasty political and social campaign against the accord led by former president, turned senator, Álvaro Uribe.

The wobbly Colombia peace agreement has taken several twists since. The Santos government slightly modified the original agreement and presented it to congress instead of facing another plebiscite. Meanwhile, five FARC commanders publicly split from their organization setting the stage for a chaotic 2017, with regards to new criminal alliances and possible defections, much of these in the power vacuums that will be left by the FARC’s departure from the coca-producing areas. All of this may affect the world cocaine market, at least until the guerrilla’s monopoly over production in Colombia is filled by another illegal actor.

Criminal paradigms are also shifting in Brazil and Mexico. In Brazil, the country’s most formidable criminal group, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), and its one-time ally, the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), have begun a battle that has already enveloped part of Brazil’s penitentiary system and parts of Rio de Janeiro, the Red Command’s stronghold. And in Mexico, the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco – Nueva Generacion – CJNG) and the Sinaloa Cartel are fighting for control of plazas along traditional and non-traditional drug routes.

The fighting between the CJNG and the Sinaloa Cartel is part of the reason Mexico is seeing the highest homicide rates since 2012, a troubling trend that may accelerate further with the coming extradition to the United States of one-time kingpin, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who was re-captured in January 2016. 

There was, amidst it all, some good news. Honduras purged 40 percent of the top brass of its troubled police force, and Guatemala increased its rehabilitation rate of incarcerated youths. Ecuador increased its drug seizures, while rejected the presidential bid of Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of disgraced and imprisond former president, Alberto Fujimori amid allegations of drug trafficking and money landering. Peru also registered record lows of coca production.

Throughout the region, there were many other positives, too many to list here. As is often the case, the bad news stories overshadowed the steady incremental change and numerous positive outcomes, much of which are coming because of the extraordinary efforts to prosecute political elites at all levels.

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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...

Jeremy McDermott is co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime. McDermott has more than two decades of experience reporting from around Latin America. He is a former British Army officer, who saw active...

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