Welcome to InSight Crime’s 2013 Game Changers, where we have sought to highlight some of the year’s most important and illustrative trends in the development of organized crime in the Americas.
This year has been a year of contradictions. Large criminal groups that seemed untouchable appear to be on the ropes. Others waded through complicated peace and truce processes with incredible patience. Some of the more notable of these processes were initiated by the criminal groups themselves. At the same time, some dynamics in the underworld remained true to form and some new, ugly criminal economies have surged because of these dynamics. Amidst it all, weak states continued to face challenges from below and above, sometimes from those who simply feel they have no choice but to fight criminal groups on their own.
These past 12 months could be termed the year of the negotiations. In Colombia, rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) continued their historic talks with the Colombian government of Juan Manuel Santos. By many accounts, these talks are moving along well, but there is concern that even if the FARC leadership signs a deal, parts of the organization will desert and enter the criminal economy.
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In El Salvador, the truce between the country’s two largest gangs showed severe signs of fraying, if not rupturing completely. Homicides surged at the end of the year, as the presidential campaign shifted into full gear. While the mediators claimed the candidates had sought gang support for their campaigns, the country’s security minister sought to undermine the truce via public and private channels.
Meanwhile, a few more lasting criminal “pacts” emerged, brokered, it appeared, by the criminals themselves. In Medellin, Colombia, remnants of the old guard, known as the Oficina de Envigado, brokered a cease fire with the now surging Urabeños criminal organization, bringing homicides to their lowest levels in 30 years. In Juarez and Tijuana, Mexico, the Sinaloa Cartel’s apparent dominance over those trafficking corridors led to equally dramatic drops in homicide rates and other criminal acts, such as car-jackings.
The emergence of the Urabeños as the singular, monolithic criminal organization to survive the government’s assault on the so-called Criminal Bands or “Bandas Criminales” (BACRIM) may be the biggest development in Latin America’s underworld. The Urabeños have developed a sophisticated criminal model, which includes a huge variety of revenue streams. They appear to have overcome the loss of numerous top leaders and have an understanding of when to fight and when to make friends, as noted above.
However, the Urabeños, and other groups like them, have also ushered in a new era of drug consumption in the region. The consumers are no longer just in Europe, the United States and Asia. They are in small cities and even rural areas throughout the region. They are poor; they are middle class; and they are the elite. And they are getting their drugs from the local criminal groups who are servicing the larger ones, like the Urabeños, throughout the distribution chain. From Brazil and Argentina, to Costa Rica and Mexico, this new, local criminal economy appears to be at the heart of much of the region’s violence.
It is this violence that pushed civilians to take up arms in places like Guerrero and Michoacan, two embattled Mexican states where so-called “self-defense” groups have surged to try to replace an inept, corrupted and co-opted state. These groups appear to have a wide range of backgrounds: from the poor peasant farmers to the sophisticated rival criminal groups. Yet, the government seems powerless to deal with them, to the point where many authorities have willingly allowed them to break the law in order to ensure others do not.
A similar tension between maintaining the law and ensuring justice is also on the minds of the Bolivians as they try to keep some portions of their coca crop in the legal sphere and eliminate those deemed illegal. The challenge is monumental and, as we have seen this year, virtually impossible. Meanwhile, Bolivia’s neighbor Peru, is coming to grips with the fact that it is the largest coca producing country in the world. That reality, which is a return to the 1990s status quo, has meant an influx of foreign criminal groups.
Finally, for the second straight year, we need to note what is happening in Honduras. The country continues to open its doors to foreign criminal organizations, even while its homegrown groups continue to gain power. This includes one known as the Cachiros, which the US Treasury Department said had accumulated up to $800 million in assets, or roughly five percent of the country’s GDP. A newly elected government, which takes power in January, seems to have little idea of how to combat these organizations, much less the resources.
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