As world leaders met in New York City for the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 77), Latin American presidents expressed various concerns about organized crime, the so-called war on drugs, and the region’s increasingly powerful criminal groups.
Some, such as the presidents of Colombia and Ecuador, called on the international community to take meaningful action against organized crime and deforestation, while others, such as the leaders of Paraguay and El Salvador, touted their successes at cracking down on gangs and corruption.
Here, InSight Crime has rounded up the main points made by Latin American leaders on issues of security, organized crime, and human rights.
The most explicit call to action came from Ecuadorian president Guillermo Lasso, who demanded more international collaboration in the fight against organized crime.
“Today, Ecuador is in the midst of a frontal war against drug trafficking,” Lasso asserted during his speech. He cited the most recent World Drug Report, published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which ranked Ecuador third in the amount of cocaine seized, to demonstrate how authorities are maximizing drug seizures and dismantling trafficking organizations.
Nevertheless, he admitted that “this monster [organized crime] does not have only one face, but various faces such as trafficking of persons, laundering of assets, illegal trafficking of weapons, and even illegal mining.”
He used the assassination of an Ecuadorian prosecutor in Guayaquil just two days before his speech as an example of the destruction and violence organized crime is causing Ecuador. The prosecutor is one of several Ecuadorian judicial officials murdered this year.
“His murder leaves us with a lesson: that transnational crime requires a transnational solution. We have two options: suffer separately from an enemy that acts in a coordinated fashion in various countries or unite our efforts to defeat that enemy.”
Recently elected President Gustavo Petro sharply criticized US involvement and perceived failures in Colombia’s fight against drug trafficking. This stance marked a sharp divergence from decades of cooperation and amicable rhetoric between the two countries.
He highlighted the use of glyphosate herbicide to destroy coca crops in Colombia, linking the practice to environmental damage to the Amazon, InSight Crime previously reported.
“The war on drugs has failed. The fight against the climate crisis has failed. The jungle that we are trying to save is … being destroyed,” said Petro, adding that a new regional effort was needed to save the Amazon.
Bolivian President Luis Arce echoed Petro’s sentiments by proclaiming “the failure of the war on drugs” during his speech. Instead, he advocated for a shift from “nationalization to regionalization in the fight against drug trafficking.”
He criticized the focus on supply instead of demand, which has “affected the farmers in the southern countries and has left impunity for criminal groups in countries where drugs are consumed.”
He added that Bolivia has been working closely with Colombia and Peru to combat drug trafficking based on “a comprehensive approach which is less militarized and more focused on economic and social aspects.”
Both Petro and Arce emphasized that the US and European countries are major drug consumers, fueling the demand for drug trafficking in Latin America. The two leaders met before their appearances at UNGA 77 and discussed the possibility of marijuana legalization, according to Bolivian newspaper El Deber.
The Dominican Republic’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Roberto Álvarez expressed great concern about the deteriorating political situation in Haiti, compounded by the rising power of criminal gangs and the inability of Haitian security forces to prevent violence.
“I would like to reiterate that the criminal gangs have increased their power to suffocate the people of Port-au-Prince, and everything indicates that the Haitian National Police (HNP) does not have the capacity to curb these gangs,” said Álvarez.
“It is the responsibility of the Haitian authorities to control and put an end to the actions of the gangs that are perpetrating crimes so atrocious that they could be classified as crimes against humanity,” Álvarez added. He asked the international community to “remove [their] blindfold and admit that the HNP alone will not develop the capacity to guarantee order and subdue the gangs.”
This comes as the Dominican Republic has taken steps to try and ward off the influence of Haitian organized crime, including banning gang leaders and a former Haitian prime minister from entering the country as well as building a border wall.
President Mario Abdo Benítez celebrated his administration’s reported success in tackling organized crime. Paraguay’s security forces were “tasked with the greatest operation in history to target organized crime,” Benítez said, likely referring to Operation A Ultranza PY, which happened in collaboration with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Europol and Uruguay’s Interior Ministry.
He also highlighted the role of effective collaboration between Paraguayan authorities and anti-drug trafficking agencies in friendly countries.
Paraguay, regularly labeled as one of the most corrupt countries in Latin America, is currently facing a reckoning as US authorities have sanctioned several top officials in recent months, including former President Horacio Cartes and then-Vice President Hugo Velazquez, who announced his resignation as a consequence but has since walked back his departure.
Honduras’ first female president, Xiomara Castro, delivered an impassioned speech, criticizing the “dictatorship” her country experienced under her predecessor, Juan Orlando Hernández, who was extradited to the US earlier this year on drug trafficking and weapons charges.
Hernández, accused of accepting bribes from drug traffickers, and even providing presidential protection to drug labs and cocaine shipments, pulled Honduras into “a world of poverty, failed projects, corruption, looting, and drug trafficking,” said Castro, while “organized crime brought [Honduras] to the brink of the abyss.”
Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei focused his concerns on irregular migration to and from Guatemala, saying “illegal migrant trafficking has become a transnational security issue.” He referenced massive migrant caravans, beginning in, transiting through, and ending in Guatemala.
Giammattei also said that Guatemala continued to face the consequences of drug trafficking. He criticized how “consumer countries continue to fuel this trade while they do not break down the structures that protect it.”
In his speech, President Nayib Bukele celebrated the success of his mano dura (iron fist) policy, a crackdown on anyone suspected of gang affiliations that has left nearly 50,000 people imprisoned. Bukele assured the audience that his country has transformed from one of the most dangerous in the world to one of the safest in the Americas.
The president said that El Salvador has gone from being known for “gangs, death, violence, and war to being known for its beaches, surfing, volcanoes, financial freedom, good governance, and the fact that we have brought organized crime to an end.”
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