A series of high-impact hurricanes in the Caribbean and earthquakes in Mexico have caused serious devastation, serving as a stark reminder of the impacts that climate change and sudden natural disasters can have on organized crime and security.
InSight Crime dove deeper into the relationship between climate and crime in an interview with Oliver Leighton Barrett, a retired Navy lieutenant who has worked with the Pentagon on efforts to assess the security implications of climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean.*
Oliver Leighton Barrett: In post-disaster situations there is often a breakdown in governance and institutions, even if only temporarily. This means the bad guys are going to have room to play. There will be a vacuum that they can exploit. When security forces are concentrated on disaster response and rescue efforts, they don't have time to focus on the criminal element, whether that be opportunists or organized crime groups.
A very recent example of this came in the wake of Hurricane Irma. Saint Martin, a small island state that's divided into two with a Dutch and a French side, was decimated by the storm. When the winds subsided, looters started robbing stores and homes, and there was impunity. The security forces had been ordered not to focus on the looters, but on saving lives.
That caused a lot of upset among the population because their property was being stolen. But officials had to prioritize how to use their limited security resources. And when you have a one-two punch like some countries have experienced with successive hurricanes, it is just going to take that much longer for the government to get back on its feet.
(Video courtesy of Al Jazeera English)
IC: What kind of capacity do countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have to maintain security in the wake of a disaster or climate change-linked environmental degradation?
OLB: When it comes to weak or failed states, they have zero or very little resilience and are unable to bounce back from stressors. These vulnerable societies are definitely not ready for fast-moving phenomena like hurricanes and earthquakes, and they lag behind when it comes to addressing the degradation caused by climate change effects like drought and food shortages and its impacts on their societies.
When you have weak or corrupt institutions and security forces, any kind of stressor or shock to the system can cause the safety net to fail. In these situations, the organized crime element is already there and they're going to take advantage of it. If the criminal element is stronger than the security forces, if the criminal element has more money and can buy off politicians, you have a recipe for disaster.
IC: How do organized crime groups take advantage of climate-related insecurity?
OLB: What's lost on a lot of people is that the effects of extreme weather events and climate-related food and water shortages present an opportunity for organized crime groups to step in where the government is unable to provide an adequate level of support.
Whereas bureaucracy makes states slow to respond, organized crime groups are often decentralized, which allows them to more quickly take advantage of a situation like a post-hurricane scenario or even a slow-moving drought scenario.
IC: In a previous interview, we discussed a case in Honduras following a devastating 2010 hurricane. In the wake of the disaster, the Cachiros crime group monopolized on the relief effort to launder an estimated $6.4 million of illegal earnings. Are there other examples of organized crime groups profiting by exploiting humanitarian and relief efforts?
OLB: One example outside of Latin America is Somalia where militias commandeered food supplies, distributed them to their in-group and earned a profit, while large swathes of the population were starved to death. These crime groups had the guns, so they ran things. It wasn't until international forces came in that the situation was stabilized and people were able to get humanitarian aid.
IC: In addition to the risks related to fast-moving weather events like hurricanes, slow-moving climate change impacts are also exacerbating insecurity and fueling organized crime in countries like Venezuela and Brazil. And in Central America, prolonged droughts associated with climate change have displaced populations from rural areas to cities where crime is already concentrated. What are some of the impacts of this type of climate change-related migration on organized crime?
OLB: One danger of climate change impacts in Central America is that internal migration within countries often leads to the recruitment of young men into criminal organizations.
Farmers are leaving land that is no longer productive to go somewhere else. But what happens to young men who no longer have a productive path forward, whether it is on the farm or in the city? They are going to be ripe to be recruited into criminal organizations, whether cartels or human smuggling networks, that can pay them something and give them a sense of status and pride that they don't have starving on a farm.
IC: How can the international community help Latin America and the Caribbean to build their resilience to climate change and natural disasters?
OLB: The best way that the US government and the international community can help weak states to mitigate these problems and become more resilient is by advising and assisting governments to strengthen their institutions and address corruption. The United States is already working on these issues, but the resources provided to these initiatives could perhaps be more robust.
IC: What can countries in Latin America and the Caribbean do to mitigate the impacts of climate change and sudden disasters given resource constraints and existing security struggles?
OLB: The first thing governments need to do is take climate change seriously. There are changes, whatever causes you attribute them to, and states need to build more resiliency to both fast-moving events and the slow-moving impacts of climate change.
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Just from an economic standpoint, countries should be trying to get ahead of climate change impacts, particularly sea level rise. A lot of states in Latin America and the Caribbean rely heavily on tourism, particularly tied to beaches and cruise lines. When you don't have any more beaches due to beach erosion, the coral reefs are gone due to rising water temperatures and no one wants to swim there anymore, it really impacts your bottom line.
Countries should also be having conversations about how to reinforce infrastructure and enforce building codes that could prevent, for example, deaths caused by mudslides or the recent total power outage in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Irma.
Many Caribbean countries are beginning to discuss how to prepare for these events, but the resources are missing.
* This interview has been edited for clarity and length.