InSight Crime presented two side events on the role of transnational organized crime in the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and in migration in Latin America at the 11th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) in Vienna, Austria on October 20 and 21.
In the first presentation, InSight Crime Co-director Jeremy McDermott proposed a radical rethink regarding environmental crime, which he said should be treated as seriously as drug trafficking and other criminal activities.
“International governments are now increasingly naming, shaming, and putting sanctions on corrupt officials involved in drug trafficking, human rights abuses, or money laundering. It’s time to add environmental crime to that list,” McDermott said.
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The principal drivers of deforestation and destruction in South America’s Amazon region are land grabbing, illegal logging, illegal mining, drug trafficking, and wildlife trafficking. Though these acts are committed locally, they are tied to and driven by an international chain of demand that includes licit economies, McDermott said.
Consumer products sold internationally, including valuable mahogany and balsa woods used for furniture or wind farms, gold purchased in jewelry stores, and even food on consumers’ plates, are frequently first procured through criminal labor.
“The vast majority of gold mined illegally in the Amazon Basin is exported abroad. Here, responsibility must be assumed by the international community,” McDermott said.
Amid a worsening global warming scenario, the destruction of vital natural resources must be considered an extremely serious threat.
“This is too often looked upon as a minor crime, even though the consequences are potentially more catastrophic for the world and its people than the abuse of narcotics,” McDermott concluded.
In his second presentation, McDermott discussed how organized crime is both driving and profiting from booming regional migration. The Darien Gap provides a stark example of this trend, with gangs and other illicit groups preying on record levels of migrants fleeing criminal violence in countries like Venezuela.
“The once impenetrable Darien Gap, which forms the border between Colombia and Panama, and therefore between South America and Central America, is seeing an explosive growth in the movement of migrants,” McDermott said. “In the previous decade, less than 100,000 people were recorded crossing the Darien. In the last month, nearly 50,000 people were recorded making the trip.”
In the Northern Triangle, rampant gang activity drives mass migration north toward the United States. At the same time, Haitian migrants take their chances in ill-equipped vessels to escape gang violence and economic desolation. Of the 50 most violent cities in the world, 38 are in Latin America and the Caribbean, McDermott pointed out.
Criminal groups run many smuggling routes and networks migrants must deal with to cross borders. These groups rob migrants, force them to carry drugs, and sometimes recruit and exploit them.
McDermott also highlighted the role migration plays in helping the expansion of criminal groups. The MS13 now has some 100,000 members across at least five nations. Venezuela’s Tren de Aragua has also followed the mass migration of millions of Venezuelans to set up operations in a range of South American countries.
According to McDermott, migration and organized crime cannot be separated in certain nations like Haiti.
“Such is the power of organized crime in these nations that they threaten its very system of governance and distort the economy of the country, as well as undermine it, through their predatory behavior,” he said.
The UNTOC is a biennial event where governments and non-governmental organizations meet to discuss ways to tackle the growing threat of TOC. In opening remarks, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Executive Director Ghada Waly told attendees that uncertainty generated by recent events like the COVID-19 pandemic had complicated efforts to address the activities targeted by the UNTOC’s three protocols -- trafficking in persons, human smuggling, and firearms trafficking.
“Uncertainty undermines security and the rule of law, strains resources, and deepens fragility. It can leave institutions paralyzed and people vulnerable while organized crime thrives,” Waly noted.
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Latin American nations put forward draft resolutions to find solutions in the struggle against organized crime. Mexico called for the strengthening of international cooperation to counter firearms trafficking. At the same time, Colombia urged all member states to agree to the protocol to suppress trafficking in persons, which disproportionately affects women and children.
Another proposal called for more international cooperation to tackle environmental crime, including enhanced information sharing, support for capacity building in source countries, and the increased use of technology to combat crimes affecting the environment.
The involvement of civil society groups, including non-governmental organizations like InSight Crime, in the Conference of the Parties to the UNTOC, is vital in the struggle against organized crime. Civil society groups provide an essential on-the-ground understanding of the complex criminal dynamics at work locally and regionally and help to bring together a comprehensive picture of global crime networks. InSight Crime was delighted to participate in the cooperation between government members and other civil society groups and looks forward to contributing again in the future.