Welcome to InSight Crime’s Criminal GameChangers 2021, where we highlight the most important trends in organized crime in the Americas over the course of the year.
This year saw criminal upheaval in the Andes, troubling connections between organized crime and ecological destruction, especially in the Amazon basin, and an explosion of synthetic drugs coming from Mexico. All amid a backdrop of corruption, the undermining of democracy and the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
While Mexican cartels made headlines throughout the year, it was Colombia that saw tumultuous and dynamic shifts in its underworld operators, which has had knock-on effects in Venezuela and beyond. In December, two top former leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), Darío Velásquez, alias “El Paisa,” and Henry Castellanos Garzón, alias “Romaña,” were killed in two separate shootouts in Venezuela with other criminal organizations, likely other ex-FARC factions.
Their deaths were eerily similar to that of Seuxis Pausias Hernández Solarte, alias “Jesús Santrich,” another former FARC commander who was killed in Venezuela just a few months earlier. All three leaders were part of a FARC dissident insurgency, which calls itself the Second Marquetalia (Segunda Marquetalia). The killings were mysterious and significant, undermining attempts by the ex-FARC Mafia to build a drug trafficking empire in Venezuela and relaunch an insurgent movement after the 2016 peace agreement and official demobilization of the rebel army.
All this took place in Venezuela, which once welcomed the Colombian rebels but may now be finding them increasingly troublesome guests. Another ex-FARC faction, the 10th Front, perhaps behind the killings of El Paisa and Romaña in December, has also ambushed Venezuelan armed forces. This fighting between the military and non-state armed groups (NSAGs), has been common in Colombia, more than five decades into civil conflict, but it is new to Venezuela and what happened in the state of Apure, might be a sign of what is to come.
Venezuela’s other Colombian guests, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), have been the biggest winner in 2021. While the ex-FARC Mafia factions fight each other – and sometimes the Venezuelan military – the ELN has continued to spread its tentacles largely unopposed, forging its own, more subtle alliance with the Maduro regime and expanding in Colombia. While the ELN deepens its involvement in drug trafficking, it also has established a strong presence in lucrative mining areas in Venezuela.
However, the ELN did not have it all its own way in 2021. In June, its longtime commander, Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino,” retired. The new leader, Eliécer Erlinto Chamorro, alias “Antonio García,” is experienced but may have a hard time maintaining order among the rank and file operating increasingly lucrative criminal businesses across the region.
Another major Colombian criminal organization and cocaine exporter, the Urabeños, suffered through its own upheaval in October when Colombian special forces captured its longtime leader, Dairo Antonio Úsaga, alias “Otoniel.” It was the culmination of a five-year manhunt, which had already led to the death or capture of numerous Urabenos’ commanders and financial operators, including some of Úsuga’s close relatives. Still, the group appears impervious to these disruptions, given its horizontal structure of blocs and independent franchises are not reliant on any one criminal economy nor any one contact.
As more and more of the high-level Colombian criminals are identified and eliminated, the cocaine trade moves further and further underground. The country is exporting more cocaine than ever before, but increasingly the brokers of this industry are invisible and unknown, using loose-knit networks and criminal subcontracting to manage their business. Such loosely managed networks are increasingly the norm in the region. They are difficult to corral from a law enforcement perspective.
This year also brought record deforestation in the Amazon and environmental damage elsewhere. While politics is behind much of this, organized crime was also a motor. For example, the mines in the northwestern Andean and Pacific regions, where the Urabeños thrive, account for nearly 60 percent of Colombia’s illegal gold and were responsible for a large portion of the deforestation in those regions.
Other countries face similar stress tests as criminal enterprises ransack natural resources and their illicit business ventures inflict collateral damage on the environment. In Venezuela, dozens of NSAGs, some aligned with the Maduro regime, are mining the country at a record pace without any regard for the environment. In Peru, the expansion of coca crops into the Amazon basin is threatening wildlife and tropical jungles. And in Brazil, there appears to be a growing connection between trafficking wood and trafficking cocaine, as the rainforest is attacked on all sides.
Battling these trends currently seems beyond the capacity, or will, of any government. Brazil is a case in point. Despite its promises, the government of Jair Bolsonaro has not dedicated the resources to fight massive wildfires, slow agri-business or combat crime. And in at least one case, it appeared that members of his own administration may be benefitting from timber trafficking from the Amazon.
Of course, corruption was not limited to Brazil. And if the corrupt governments had anything in common in 2021, it was their increasing emphasis on protecting themselves and their allies from accusations stemming from foreign investigations, while securing yet firmer grips on the levers of power. This was most clear in Central America, where several traditional allies of the United States sought to undermine newly elected US President Joe Biden’s efforts to stem corruption.
In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele put the final nail in the coffin for international judicial watchdogs in June, when he dissolved the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad de El Salvador – CICIES). The CICIES was modeled after two other watchdogs, which operated in Honduras and Guatemala until they too were dissolved by presidents wary of their power and reach. For its part, the CICIES was starting to investigate some members of Bukele’s administration for mismanagement of emergency funds during the coronavirus crisis.
The move was part of Bukele’s larger overhaul of the justice system. Just a month prior to destroying the CICIES, Bukele had also ousted the attorney general and five high court justices. In the weeks that followed, the country’s high court made a series of controversial decisions, including delaying the extradition of a top member of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) street gang to the United States who had been charged with terrorism, and releasing a convicted money launderer. The moves have increased tensions between El Salvador and the United States.
Tensions also rose between the US and Honduras, where embattled President Juan Orlando Hernández finished his tumultuous term under a cloud of US accusations of drug trafficking, punctuated by Hernández’s own brother’s life sentence in a US courtroom in March. Hernández’s replacement, Xiomara Castro – who won with a surprising margin in November’s elections – will take office in 2022 where she will have the unenviable job of dismantling the corruption and criminal networks Hernández’s National Party helped set up over the last decade.
Nicaragua and Guatemala also, in their own ways, sought to shield themselves from international scrutiny. As elections approached in Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega cracked down on opposition politicians and media organizations alike. In perhaps his most brazen assault on democracy in 2021, Ortega’s administration put opposition candidate Cristiana Chamorro under house arrest for alleged money laundering in June; she was one of several candidates, opposition leaders and critics detained during the campaign. In November, Ortega won his fourth term in what some observers called a “sham” election.
Guatemala’s government, meanwhile, defied the international community by continuing to undermine or reverse recent judicial cases against the country’s economic and political elites, as well as target the investigators who had led those cases. The culmination of this campaign came in July, when the country’s attorney general fired Juan Francisco Sandoval, the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (Fiscalía Especial contra la Impunidad – FECI). Sandoval fled the country and denounced the attorney general, while the Guatemalan government issued an arrest warrant for him.
The Biden administration sought to build bridges with these countries. It sent a special envoy to El Salvador where Bukele snubbed him. It sent Vice President Kamala Harris to Guatemala where its president openly defied her during an awkward public encounter.
Tensions also reached a boiling point between the US and Mexico. In January, the government absolved former General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda of drug trafficking charges. Cienfuegos, who led the Mexican armed forces between 2012 and 2018, had been arrested in the United States in October 2020 and charged with assisting a faction of the Beltrán Leyva Organization. In a press conference the day after the Mexican Attorney General’s Office absolved the former general, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador claimed the US had “fabricated” evidence.
The rift came at a terrible time. Both the US and Mexico are struggling to contain the rising use of synthetic drugs. In 2020, the US saw a more than 30 percent increase in overdose deaths, most of these due to a rise in the use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. And the US has more than double the number of methamphetamine users as cocaine users. For its part, Mexico is struggling with the rising use of methamphetamine.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) also sounded the alarm about synthetic drugs. In a report published in October, the UNODC highlighted the massive production, purity and reach of Mexican-made methamphetamine. It noted how the Mexican criminal groups were spreading their knowledge with other criminal groups in Europe and beyond.
Back in the Americas, there were also ominous signs. In September, Brazilian authorities made a colossal seizure of ecstasy in the southern state of Santa Catarina at two facilities, showing that the production of synthetic drugs is ramping up in the country. And in Canada, a biker gang intersected with Mexican criminal groups to sell fentanyl farther north. In a region once dominated by the cocaine and heroin industries, the diversification into synthetic drugs, pioneered by Mexicans, has changed the criminal landscape.