InSight Crime presents “Game Changers 2012,” an overview of the developments in organized crime in Americas during the year. So much has happened as organized crime mutates and spreads around the region that it is hard to pick the most significant trends. But we have tried.

El Salvador, wracked by gang violence, and with one of the highest murder rates in the world, saw a ray of hope come from an unexpected quarter: the gangs themselves. Many of the killings in El Salvador, and some in neighboring Honduras and Guatemala, are the result of a bitter feud between two transnational street gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) and the Barrio 18. With the Catholic Church as a mediator, the two gangs negotiated a truce in El Salvador in exchange for the government granting better prison conditions for the leaders of both gangs. The result was an extraordinary drop in homicides, which has lasted through the year.

Colombia’s criminal landscape also underwent radical changes, after Javier Calle Serna, alias “Comba,” the head of the most powerful drug trafficking syndicate, the Rastrojos, surrendered to US authorities. The information he delivered to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) led to a wave of arrests and the implosion of the group. A second major group, the Urabeños, is taking advantage of the resulting chaos and seeking to fill the criminal vacuum left by elements of the Rastrojos. While the names of the top criminal franchises may change, the flow of cocaine continues uninterrupted, although the Mexicans now dominate the international market, and the Colombians have become their principal changers 2012

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InSight Crime also looked this year at one of the more horrific crimes affecting Latin America, which is endemic around the world: trafficking in human beings. By studying Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, among other countries, with several partner organizations we have sought to give a snapshot of this brutal transnational criminal industry, and the ways in which human beings are traded like merchandise and exploited for maximum profit.

While drug trafficking remains the principal transnational criminal activity in the region, groups across Latin America have been diversifying their criminal portfolios. Taking the examples of the Zetas in Mexico and the BACRIM (from the Spanish “bandas criminales” or criminal bands) in Colombia, we look at how criminal groups take advantage of every illegal opportunity available, earning money from activities as diverse as gold mining, fuel theft, extortion and kidnapping.

Honduras is now the most dangerous nation on earth. It is teetering on the abyss of becoming a failed state. With the overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, this Central American nation became the top landing strip for cocaine from South America almost overnight. The arrival of tons of drugs resulted in yet greater corruption in a nation already notorious for it. The police force, rather than a bastion against the rise of organized crime, appears to have become its accomplice.
Added to the criminal chaos are the street gangs, which have given rise to explosive growth in extortion, as well as feeding the murder rate.

With the capture of major drug traffickers, and the beheading of several powerful organized crime syndicates, the fragmentation of organized crime in the region continues apace. Using the example of Mexico’s brutal Zetas, we chart how rumors of a split, the killing of a leader, and the constant pressure from the security forces is taking its toll on what was the country’s fastest-growing criminal group. Fragmentation, in the short term, is often associated with increasing levels of violence. Mexico has been no exception.

Our list of Game Changers is by no means exhaustive. Arms trafficking, eco-trafficking (the trafficking of animals, timber, plants and other “ecological” goods), antiquities trafficking and many other lucrative criminal activities are also occurring, often overlooked and overshadowed by the more visible threat of drug trafficking. Every nation through which the drug trade passes suffers collateral damage. Venezuela is a prime example. Now a principal bridge for Colombian cocaine heading not just to the United States, but also Europe, the country has seen an extraordinary jump in its homicide rate, making it the most dangerous nation in South America.

While we mention Honduras, there is no Central American nation that remains untouched by the drug trade; the entire region is used as transshipment point. The effects of this are seen in increasing homicides, the development of local organized crime groups subcontracted by the transnational drug trafficking syndicates, and growing domestic consumption of drugs. Not even Costa Rica, the so-called “Switzerland of Latin America,” has been exempt. Latin America is one of the most dangerous regions in the world, and the spread of organized crime continues apace.

Thanks for reading us, and stay with us for 2013.

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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...

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...