Welcome to InSight Crime’s Criminal GameChangers 2022, where we highlight the most important trends in organized crime in the Americas.
The year saw criminal organizations resume expansion of synthetic drug and cocaine markets as the effects of the coronavirus on the supply chains dissipated, and tourism returned to form. Battles once defined by monolithic criminal organizations are now more characterized by strategic, often cross-border, alliances. And political elites appeared increasingly nonplussed by international efforts to rein in corruption and criminality.
The evolution of the illicit drug market in the Americas over the year is perhaps best encapsulated in the rise of “tusi,” a synthetic powder, which has taken hold of parts of the nightlife scene in Venezuela, Peru, Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Panama, among others.
First sold in Colombia in the late 2000s, the drug is as much a marketing ploy — it can be fashioned in many colors — as it is a psychoactive substance, peddled as “pink cocaine” and sold to elites. The next stop, it appears, is Europe. The connection is organic: European organized crime — from the ‘Ndrangheta in Uruguay to the Albanians in Ecuador — is already in the Americas.
Tusi’s meteoric rise parallels the soaring popularity of other synthetic drugs in the region, such as ketamine in Chile as well as methamphetamine and fentanyl in Mexico. The shift is arguably most evident in Mexico, where production areas such as the state of Sinaloa are now littered with chemical waste from the makeshift, semi-rural methamphetamine laboratories. Violence is also up in cities where methamphetamine use is on the rise, illustrating that the fight for control of the local market may be bloodier than the fight for the international market.
Still, plant-based drugs are also flourishing. Colombia’s cocaine production broke records again, as did Peru’s, as criminal organizations continue to expand exports to new markets such as those in Asia. Production areas also continue to expand beyond the Andes. Policymakers seem to be running out of ideas. Peru and Colombia are flirting with different versions of legalization, and Colombia is pulling way back on the fumigation of coca.
The battles to control these markets have diversified at the same pace. Once-monolithic groups are now much less vertically integrated. The Sinaloa Cartel, for example, is broken into at least three factions, which frequently war with one another. Of these three factions, the most newsworthy is the Chapitos — a reference to four sons of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” the now-jailed former leader of the cartel, from two different relationships — who appear to control much of the synthetic drug production from their stronghold, Culiacán, the state capital.
The Chapitos are not just fighting other parts of the Sinaloa Cartel but other groups, most notably the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel del Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG). The two are locked in conflict across the country and beyond. The CJNG is also in a series of seemingly never-ending battles with itself and other groups. From Michoacán to Tamaulipas to the border with Guatemala, the group has shown why it has become the poster boy of evil for US authorities.
But the fights are not limited to Mexico. Ecuador continued to spiral downward as criminal groups, many of whom originated in the country’s overcrowded prison system, fought for control of several key trafficking corridors, storage areas, and launch pads for cocaine distribution. In 2022, the country’s violence at times mirrored Mexico’s — with bodies strewn up along bridges — and Colombia’s — with car bombs. That is not an accident, as groups from both Mexico and Colombia may be participating in the fighting leading again to homicide records being broken in parts of the country.
A similar upheaval is occurring throughout the northern Andes as the kaleidoscope of Colombian criminal groups, and the last remaining Colombian insurgency — the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) — struggle to establish the dominance of other corridors, coca-production areas, and illegal mining straights from southern Colombia to the northern coasts of Venezuela. In one of the latest flashpoints along the Colombia-Ecuador border, a dissident group from the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), which demobilized in 2016, massacred alleged members of another ex-FARC dissident group.
The fighting along the Colombia-Venezuela border may be worse. In May, a mysterious explosion in the Venezuelan state of Zulia killed Miguel Botache Santanilla, alias “Gentil Duarte,” who was the commander of the largest and most powerful network of FARC dissidents. Other attacks followed, including one that supposedly claimed the life of the leader of a rival ex-FARC faction, Luciano Marín Arango, alias “Iván Márquez.” Márquez, it turns out, was only wounded, but the battles continued throughout 2022, as the ELN entered the fray.
Cross-border issues are also roiling relations on the island of Hispaniola, where the Dominican Republic and Haiti contend with their own set of problems, which often spill into the other. In 2022, Haiti’s gangs moved to control more of the country’s critical infrastructure and food supply in a bid to gain even more leverage over its frayed political elites. The most recent target was a flour mill.
At the forefront of these Haitian battles are the two foremost alliances, the G-9 and the G-PEP, but behind these alliances are a wide array of gangs, now broken away from their political paymasters, many of which are increasingly rural, ramping up tensions on the island. This year, the Dominican Republic started building a 164-kilometer wall to separate the countries. The Dominican Republic has also banned alleged criminals, including a former prime minister, from entering its part of the island. The irony is thick, considering the Dominican Republic’s own struggles with criminal activity, albeit of a different variety.
The battles along Colombia’s borders also have widespread political implications. Colombian President Gustavo Petro announced shortly after his election in June that he would seek “Total Peace” with the constellation of criminal organizations operating throughout the northern Andes. At the top of his list is the ELN, a binational insurgency with a long history of resistance to peace overtures. For this effort, Petro must enlist Venezuela, a country with its own criminal and political challenges that are increasingly spilling into neighboring nations, the most recent example of which came in Chile, where the powerful Venezuelan criminal organization, Tren de Aragua, reared its head.
Petro, a former guerrilla himself, was part of a mini-wave of leftist governments coming to power in the region in 2022. Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva of the Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT) won a contentious election in Brazil in October and will govern a fractured nation beset by the continued struggle to contain crime in the Amazon basin and the continued spread of its most formidable criminal group, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC). The PCC has extended its reach deep into Paraguay, where it was connected to the murders of a prison director and a mayor. It may also have participated in the assassination of a Paraguayan prosecutor in Colombia in May.
The election of Petro and Lula came just months after the November 2021 election of leftist candidate Xiomara Castro in Honduras. In her first year in office, Castro took the extraordinary step of arresting and extraditing the former president, Juan Orlando Hernández, who is facing drug trafficking charges in the United States. But her family’s ghosts may yet come back to haunt her: Her brother-in-law was once fingered in US diplomatic cables as a drug trafficker himself. What’s more, in November, she suspended some constitutional rights in an effort to rein in extortion, in a sign that she may copy some of her neighbors’ more controversial approaches to combat organized crime.
Indeed, Castro’s decree was a measure one would expect from the more populist Rodrigo Chaves, who won Costa Rica’s presidential elections in April. Chaves, who is shaped in the mold of El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, will face his own set of challenges in far-flung areas, most notably Limón, where gang violence surged this year.
For his part, Bukele took extreme measures to deal with organized crime in 2022: Following the bloody unraveling of a secret accord the government had brokered with the country’s top gang, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), Bukele and his congressional allies launched an unprecedented sweep of alleged gang members and collaborators, jailing tens of thousands.
As the crackdown proceeded, Bukele brushed aside concerns about human rights abuses, shielded his cronies from corruption investigations, and thumbed his nose at US sanctions targeting his administration.
Bukele’s attitude was part of a region-wide trend. From Guatemala to Venezuela to Paraguay, the United States and its European allies appear to have less leverage over corrupt actors. In Guatemala, the country’s top prosecutor and political operators continued to turn back the clock on a decade-long effort to reform Guatemala’s judicial system by prosecuting those who took part in that reform effort. The attorney general was rewarded, securing a second term at the post. The US tried to counter by squeezing political elites with sanctions and threats of cutting off assistance, but the prosecution of reformist judicial actors has continued apace.
In Paraguay, the US has also targeted elites, most notably in July, when the State Department “designated” Horacio Cartes, the country’s former president, for “significant corruption” and doing business with “foreign terrorist organizations.” The announcement came just a few months after Paraguay’s interior minister announced its own allegations of money laundering and cigarette smuggling against Cartes. Then in October, Paraguay’s Congress issued a report that said Cartes was connected to money laundering, drug trafficking, weapons trafficking, tax evasion, and bribery. Cartes, like his counterparts in El Salvador and Guatemala, largely thumbed his nose at the accusations, and it remains to be seen whether he will face justice.
Cartes has certainly watched other leaders in the region outwit — or out-wait — the United States. Among them is Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuela. The US had tried for years to squeeze the Maduro regime with economic sanctions because of ties to criminals and corruption. But in 2022, with Maduro still firmly in power, the Biden administration tried a different approach: appeasement. In October, the US government released Efraín Antonio Campo Flores and Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas — the nephews of first lady Cilia Flores who were convicted in the US for drug trafficking — in exchange for seven US citizens who were being held in Venezuela on various corruption charges.
The Venezuela case may be a useful lesson. In the face of mafia states, there appears to be even less recourse than there is in the case of large, non-state criminal organizations. Witness, for instance, efforts by some governments to curb illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the region. Chinese-flagged vessels dominate IUU fishing, but the Chinese government largely washes its hands of the trade. And while coast guards and naval vessels give chase, most perpetrators escape major consequences, sailing off into the deep, blue sea.
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