President Joe Biden’s policy documents on Latin America tread familiar ground. Fighting corruption in the Northern Triangle. Working with Mexico and Central America on migration. Keeping up the pressure on Venezuela. Ending the “War on Drugs.”
But the region contains a range of other security and criminal threats that are of direct concern to the United States.
President Jair Bolsonaro was named “2020 Person of the Year in Organized Crime and Corruption” by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). Following in the footsteps of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Bolsonaro was declared to have “surrounded himself with corrupt figures, undermined the judiciary…and waged a destructive war against the Amazon.”
While corrupt politics and a weak judiciary are historic challenges for Brazil, the country has fallen a long way. In 2016, then-Vice President Joe Biden met with then-President Michel Temer to discuss Brazil’s “regional and global leadership.” That leadership has dimmed as Bolsonaro’s family has been mired in multiple allegations of corruption, fraternization with militia groups and turning a blind eye to links between business and organized crime.
During Bolsonaro’s term, the country’s largest gang, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), has only strengthened its control over much of the cocaine and marijuana flow coming through Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru into Brazil.
While President Donald Trump’s administration repeatedly went after Mexico’s Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), El Salvador’s MS13 and Colombia’s National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación – ELN), the PCC did not seem to be a target. This was likely because much of the PCC’s cocaine goes to the lucrative European markets instead of going north to the United States. However, if the Brazil-US alliance is to be restored, one of the region’s prime security threats may rise up the White House’s list of priorities.
Last September, President Trump recognized the Dominican Republic as one of the hubs for drug trafficking in Latin America, alongside more traditional offenders such as Mexico and Colombia. This came after a vast drug trafficking ring -- run by one of the country’s top drug traffickers, César Emilio Peralta, alias “César el Abusador,” -- was found to have helped transport drugs from Mexico’s Gulf Cartel to the mainland United States and Puerto Rico.
Dominican gangs are highly active in microtrafficking in major US cities, especially along the East Coast, and they are known to coordinate with drug traffickers in the Caribbean.
And criminal gangs in the Dominican Republic have succeeded in turning the country into a logistical and operational hub for all manner of criminal economies besides drug trafficking. Haitian migrants, seeking to reach the United States, frequently leave from the Dominican Republic. Money laundering, as also evidenced during the Peralta investigation, continues to be a real challenge, and the US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has sounded the alarm about drug money being laundered there.
Puerto Rico’s proximity to the Dominican Republic has also seen the island used as a gap in the US border defenses, with drugs and migrants routinely brought in.
Joe Biden may have an ally in the Dominican Republic’s President Luis Abinader who, since taking office in August 2020, has taken steps to clean up the police and bolster the fight against corruption, though the new leader has also faced accusations of links to known money launderers.
Chinese Criminal Connections
The gradual spread of China’s geopolitical influence into Latin America and the Caribbean has been a long source of concern in Washington. But the impact of China’s economic power and of its criminal organizations is becoming a rising problem across the region.
Some links are well-established. Chinese criminal groups have been responsible for supplying Mexican cartels with much of the chemical precursors used to make fentanyl and other synthetic drugs that are then trafficked to the United States.
Others are less known. In 2020 alone, InSight Crime reported on counterfeit luxury goods from China being used by La Unión Tepito in Mexico City to supply shops and markets. A group of La Unión Tepito, known as “Los Marco Polos,” have even been traveling to China to buy tons of illegal merchandise.
In Chile, a rapid increase in the theft of copper has been linked to demand from China after an illicit shipment of copper cables worth of $250 million was caught before being sent to Asia. In Suriname, jaguar poaching has largely been driven by demand for the animal’s ‘paste’ for traditional Chinese medicine. Cures for COVID-19, falsely touted by traditional Chinese medicine advocates, have even been smuggled into the region. Chinese fishing fleets triggered a furious joint regional response.
And in March, a Chinese businessman, Gan Xianbing, was convicted in Chicago of laundering over $350,000 in drug money for Mexican cartels in a shockingly easy scheme.
These connections may seem disparate and largely unconnected, but they do paint a complex picture of how the United States' and Mexico’s criminal landscapes are influenced by China.