It is hard to be optimistic for 2019. The current trends all point to a strengthening of organized crime throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, as the criminals adapt far more quickly than authorities to changing conditions and take advantage of new opportunities.
Here are the five reasons why we fear that organized crime will grow in strength and sophistication during 2019 in Latin America:
1. No Integrated or Transnational Response to Organized Crime
Transnational organized crime can only be successfully tackled transnationally. Yet in Latin America, there is less and less bilateral, regional or international cooperation against fast-evolving criminal dynamics. This year offers even fewer prospects of a unified response.
The United States, for good or ill, has historically been the regional leader against organized crime, using its power and influence to devise and promote regional responses. In the past, Washington had tried to corral governments into tackling the criminal dynamics that impact the United States directly: drug trafficking and illegal migration.
However, US President Donald Trump has upended the notion of “soft power,” gentle persuasion, and the democratic and human rights compass that shaped recent US foreign policy. Trump has also managed to offend the two traditional regional allies in the fight against organized crime: Mexico (the infamous “rapists” comment is just one example) and Colombia (which he threatened to decertify in the war on drugs).
While Trump has banged the immigration drum very hard, amid mutterings of walls and zero tolerance, he has not instituted any new strategies to address the issue at source in Latin America, although a newly announced aid package for Central America is seeking to address this. Indeed, his policies may well be feeding more migration to the United States. Indeed, his isolationist policies may well send more migrants to the United States, especially because the region is so low on his list of priorities.
When he engaged, Trump has divided Latin governments rather than nudge them towards common policies and unity in the face of growing criminal threats. Central America, for example, has seen mixed messages from Washington. The region has been told to tackle migration northwards; yet the US is abandoning the fight against organized crime, which through intimidation, corruption, and extortion forces people to seek a better life elsewhere.
A prime example of this is the lack of a clear US commitment to the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG). This reversal of US policy came in part because of lobbying by the besieged Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, himself a target of a CICIG-led investigation.
Morales’ strategy was simple: please Trump. He did this by supporting Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy in Israel and by ingratiating himself with Trump’s inner circle. This has sent a clear message to Latin American leaders: Keep on President Donald Trump’s good side and you may well be able to get away with murder, or at least illegal campaign financing, which are the charges that Morales is facing.
Regional bodies are not faring any better. The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) seems to be moribund. And the Organization of American States and the Lima Group, which represents 17 countries in the region, have been distracted by Venezuela, which is declining into dictatorship and whose refugees are entering almost every nation in the region.
There are limited examples, however, of bilateral cooperation among nations. Peru and Bolivia have been working together tackle the cocaine air bridge between the two countries, while Colombia has regular exchanges of intelligence with both Brazil and Ecuador. But sources in both Bogota and Caracas tell us that there is no dialogue between Colombia and Venezuela.
2. Repetitive and Tired Responses by National Governments to Organized Crime Threats
In the criminal axis of the region -- Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil -- we see little in the way of new approaches to old organized crime problems. Innovation in the violence-wracked countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle -- El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras -- is also lacking. Instead we see variations of the same old repressive and militarized responses, which have had little long-term impact on containing, let alone reducing criminal activity over the last decade. Instead, these policies have helped turn Latin America into the most violent region in the world.
Colombia’s president Iván Duque, elected on the back of a "get tough" security policy, has introduced no novel plans to contain the country’s booming cocaine production or a growing cadre of rebel dissidents involved in it. To be sure, Duque’s leadership was so weak that after just a few months in office, Colombia sunk into despondency.
Mexico’s president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, better known as “AMLO,” spoke on the campaign trail of some new approaches to fighting crime, including some form of amnesty for low-level criminals and more efforts to rehabilitate prisoners. He also spoke of reducing the role of the military in the struggle against organized crime.
Yet AMLO has already started to walk back many of these promises. There is now talk of the creation of a National Guard composed of police and military that would operate under the Ministry of Defense and take on organized crime. His predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, set up a similar body to remarkably little effect. AMLO’s proposal will formalize a permanent role for the military in Mexico’s domestic security. It will also be costly and slow to implement, requiring changes to the constitution.
In Brazil, new President Jair Bolsonaro, a former army officer who has stacked his cabinet with generals, has promised a return to the old days, a vague, bone-chilling statement in a country with a long history of military dictatorships.
In terms of actual proposals, he is looking to make gun ownership much easier, ostensibly to arm the “good guys.” Who will sort the good from the bad guys and prevent weapons from spilling freely onto the black market is not clear. Indeed, the policy may help break the record homicide rate during 2018 in Brazil, which saw an astounding 175 murders a day.
Venezuela is home to the most criminalized regime in the region. Not only has the country slid into dictatorship, but senior members of the government of President Nicolás Maduro, including his wife, appear inextricably linked to criminal activity.
The exodus provoked by the collapsing economy and repression makes fleeing Venezuelans extremely vulnerable to exploitation and recruitment by organized crime. Venezuelans are seen as expendable labor, prepared to take on far bigger risks for far less reward than others. From harvesting coca leaves to processing cocaine, to piloting the go-fast boats that streak across the Caribbean, to carrying out contract killings, Venezuelans are appearing in the rank and file of all types of criminal enterprises.
3. Top-level corruption
The number of current or former Latin American presidents under investigation, or condemned, on charges of corruption is staggering (see illustration). In Peru, five former presidents are under investigation, along with several vice presidents and former ministers.
While Peru’s case is extreme, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, and Panama also have former or current presidents under investigation for corruption.
Few nations appear exempt from this trend. Tellingly, Venezuela is one of them. The government now presides over rampant criminality and economic collapse. President Nicolás Maduro defeated popular protests intended to topple him in 2017, and in 2018 over a million Venezuelans opted to flee the country.
Public anger at corruption has not only resulted in the ousting of presidents, most notably Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in Peru, but brought new ones to power, including AMLO in Mexico and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
Bolsonaro made corruption the central issue of his campaign. “The evils and harms of corruption affect the population in every way,” Bolsonaro tweeted on the campaign trail. “This is what we want to stop.”
However, President Bolsonaro appears to have stacked his cabinet with politicians linked to corruption scandals, leaving questions as to whether any real change will come.
4. Booming Criminal Economies
To give an idea of the criminal earnings from drugs, United Nations figures put annual cocaine production at over 1,400 tons for Colombia and over 600 tons for Bolivia and Peru. With average cocaine prices in the source Andean nations at between $2,000 and $3,000, that generates for criminal groups involved in production around $5 billion.
At US wholesale prices that amount of cocaine could net more than $50 billion. At European prices that amount of cocaine could net more than $42 billion, more than Bolivia’s entire gross domestic product.
Cocaine far outpaces other drugs in terms of earnings, but taken together, earnings from marijuana, heroin and synthetic drugs, could rival cocaine.
The drugs are not all leaving Latin America. Domestic consumption of drugs is on the rise, creating new security challenges and giving birth to a new generation of criminal structures.
In 2012, Brazil became the second biggest market for cocaine and its derivatives in the world, after the United States. Cocaine use is increasing throughout the region, currently at 0.95 percent of the population, still trailing the United States (1.9 percent) and Western Europe (1.2 percent) but closing the gap.
Marijuana use in Latin America has been increasing in recent years, and synthetic drugs, which were relatively unknown a decade ago and imported, are now being produced in nations like Colombia and Mexico.
Other criminal economies are also growing: illegal mining, extortion, human smuggling, and human trafficking, among others. Mining, especially of gold, is a huge earner for organized crime. Smaller criminal economies persist around copper, coltan, tin, and tungsten.
The gold business generates significant criminal income in South America, mainly in Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela Ecuador, Bolivia, and Guyana. To give an idea of the scale of the trade, in Colombia alone gold mining generates more than $2 billion a year.
Just one example of the increasing criminalization of this trade during 2018 could be seen in Venezuela, where amid economic meltdown, the lure of gold created a criminal free for all with high levels of violence. Venezuela’s mines have even drawn criminal actors from Colombia looking to cash in.
Extortion is hard to measure, as it is extremely under-reported. However, in 2018, we conducted field work studying extortion in Central America (focused on El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama). That field work revealed the epidemic levels of extortion in the Northern Triangle, which underpin the criminal economy of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the Barrio 18 street gangs. Systematic extortion is also common in many parts of Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Brazil, and is growing in Peru.
Human trafficking and smuggling are also on the increase. Most media in 2018 paid more attention to the far smaller migrant “caravans” travelling from Central America to the United States, but Venezuela is the greatest driver of this trend. Some three million Venezuelan citizens have fled their homeland since 2015.
5. Agile and Increasingly Clandestine Transnational Organized Crime
While government responses to organized crime are stagnant and repetitive, transnational organized crime appears more agile than ever. Riding a wave of increased earnings from drugs, minerals, eco-trafficking and human smuggling, these are boom days for the criminals, with perhaps more space to operate regionally than any time in the last 15 years.
We have profiled three criminal structures that have engaged in aggressive expansion in 2018, led by the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), followed by Colombia’s National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) and Mexico’s Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG).
Many of Latin America’s criminal structures are largely prison gangs, including the PCC, the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), MS13, and Barrio 18. And repressive policies promise to increase populations in the already overcrowded prison systems in most of Latin America, opening the door for more recruitment.
The booming drug trade, particularly cocaine, has attracted international actors to the region. In a lengthy investigation that we will publish in 2019, we have tracked the presence of international mafias, particularly Europeans, that have increased their presence in Latin America, looking to buy drugs at the source, secure reduced prices, and maximize profits. The establishment of legacy mafias from the Old Continent will not only heighten the learning curve for local criminal organizations, it will also increase cooperation and earnings, creating yet greater threats to governments around the region.
The criminal ramifications of Venezuela’s collapse will also only expand over time. The migration promises a new wave of Venezuelan organized crime structures, who are already taking advantage of the millions of their desperate compatriots spreading across Latin America and further afield. It is, quite simply, a ready-made criminal network, forged by desperation and necessity.
Those structures may be some of the most visible, but 2019 also promises some more of the Invisibles -- the sophisticated criminal structures, led mostly by the Colombians who have come to the conclusion that the best protection for their business is not a private army, but anonymity, discrete interactions, and high-level political contacts. These groups minimize violence, maximize corruption and avoid regular channels of communication. These are what we have called the “Invisibles.”
How do you fight an enemy you cannot identify, let alone find? Maybe this year, we’ll find out.