A number of Latin America’s leading academics, investigative journalists and security experts gathered virtually on December 3 to discuss the most pressing developments in transnational organized crime across the region in 2020, as part of InSight Crime and Rosario University's annual international conference.
The event kicked off with an in-depth discussion of the ways in which Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro has come to rely on criminal groups in his country and Colombia in order to maintain control.
"A criminal fiefdom is where criminal actors act with the blessing of the state, often working together with state forces. So far we have identified 16 criminal fiefdoms across Venezuela," said InSight Crime Co-director Jeremy McDermott.
These criminal enclaves stretch from the South American nation’s capital city of Caracas, on through the interior and out to the key border regions with Brazil and Colombia. In some cases, attempted state crackdowns on armed groups to take back these zones have instead exacerbated the territorial and social control such groups exert.
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"Security operations [in Caracas] caused a broader alliance among criminal groups in order to respond to the war declared by the state in 2015," said Verónica Zubillaga, professor at Simón Bolívar University, in reference to the controversial Liberation and Protection of the People (Operación de Liberación y Protección del Pueblo -- OLP) operations.
As criminal groups have dug in their heels, their ability to dominate a number of illicit economies has grown stronger, according to journalist Nelson Bocaranda from RunRun.es. In the past year alone, Bocaranda highlighted a surge in drug and arms trafficking, extortion, migrant smuggling, as well as the trafficking of a range of minerals like coltan, copper and gold.
"The increase in extortion is key. This is one of the illicit economies that has grown the most since 2018," Bocaranda said, adding that almost all of these criminal economies operate successfully thanks to state complicity or negligence.
Nowhere is this depth of criminal control more prominent than in the Colombia-Venezuela border region, according to Wilfredo Cañizares of Fundación Progresar.
What this has created is "criminal anarchy," Cañizares said, where the presence of criminal groups has multiplied and local gangs have evolved in unprecedented ways.
To combat this evolution, Bocaranda and Zubillaga argued that a process of reinstitutionalization is needed in Venezuela. This would not eliminate criminal actors and their illicit economies entirely but could make them less public and push them underground.
"Nowhere in Latin America have we seen such a profound growth in organized crime than we have in Venezuela over the last 20 years. If they continue this way, in the next five years, we are going to have Venezuelan groups at the table of criminal power, alongside Colombian and Mexican groups," McDermott said to round out the first panel.
With the second panel, the conference pivoted towards one of Latin America’s most lucrative and under-reported illicit economies, that of environmental crimes and eco-trafficking.
Moderator Inge Valencia of Colombia's Icesi University began by explaining how an uptick in illicit coca cultivation and illegal mining in Colombia in recent years is “exacerbating the panorama of environmental crimes."
What makes these crimes unique and difficult to combat is that they straddle a fine line between legality and illegality, attracting a wide range of actors due in large part to their low risk and lucrative nature.
"These activities did not start in criminality, but informality," said senior InSight Crime investigator James Bargent. "Informal activities and major international economies provided the perfect space for organized crime to be the bridge between these two worlds."
Rosario University professor Javier Revelo Rebolledo went on to stress just how complex a phenomenon deforestation and other environmental crimes really are. "Criminality is a motor for deforestation, it’s impossible to deny this. However, we can’t assume that deforestation in the Amazon is the result of criminal activity alone," he said.
Indeed, the presence of coca crops isn’t necessarily a "direct motor" for deforestation, according to University of the Andes professor María Alejandra Vélez. Rather, Vélez explained that everything from economic development to the state's drug policy can impact the scope and scale of environmental crimes.
As a result, the responses to solving these problems must address a number of factors. "We need to differentiate from security policies directed at criminal actors and rural development policies to protect vulnerable communities fighting against deforestation, which are also threatened by criminal actors,” she said.
However, the situation is not just about security and rural development, but also deepening knowledge of socio-economic and political conditions, as well as working to increase the legitimacy and presence of the state in those areas impacted by environmental crimes, such as Colombia’s Amazon and Pacific regions, according to Mauricio Cabrera of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Colombia.
The third and final panel of the day shifted focus to the one thing that criminal actors showcased more than anything throughout this tumultuous year: their adaptability. This proved to be a crucial skill amid border closures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and disruptions to international supply chains.
While those obstacles stopped some criminal groups from transporting drugs and contraband, the pandemic also opened up new opportunities to diversify criminal portfolios and to seek out new transit routes, allowing the most innovative groups to expand.
A popular theme during the panel was criminal governance. Gangs in Brazil and "colectivos" in Venezuela, among others, have been able to reinforce their presence by handing out food baskets and establishing their own quarantine regulations. "Criminal groups have extended their political and social influence," said InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley, "especially in spaces where there is no state presence, or the state is lacking a presence."
But everyone on the panel agreed that at this point in the pandemic, it is too early to know all of the ways COVID-19 has impacted Latin America's criminal landscape. Conducting field work has proven difficult this year due to quarantine protocols, and available statistics on drug seizures and homicide rates don't always offer clear answers.
"The [pandemic's] impact is not so clear or as pronounced as we might want," Angélica Durán, of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, said of the 2020 crime data.
Some criminal economies that weren’t previously on the radar -- such as black market medicine and hospital equipment -- may be a short-term way of profiting from a global health emergency, the panelists said. However, it’s unclear whether other criminal trends like cybercrime, which groups can carry out from home, will become a mainstay long after the pandemic is over.
Panelist Carolina Sampó, of the National University of La Plata, expressed concern that socioeconomic struggles in the region, exacerbated by the pandemic, will shape criminal activity for years to come -- whether it be in the form of criminal governance or spikes in recruitment of residents desperate to make ends meet.
"What we’re seeing is how organized crime groups have found ways to continue functioning as close to normal as possible," Sampó said.