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Organised Crime: Latin America’s Parasite

By Luciana Aguilar

Edited by Gigi Kordula and Federico Durante

Latin America faces a new crime wave. The level of violence in the region competes with the one induced by military juntas in the 1970s, yet this time it is led by a criminal enterprise. In desperate need to alleviate popular fear, governments are moving towards increasingly severe steps, as far as deploying military forces in domestic policing. Whether major drug producers or trafficking hotspots, Latin America’s nation-states face the choice of negotiating with criminals or striking a difficult balance between security and democracy.

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Organised crime since the birth of Latin American democracies

In the 1980s, the majority of Latin American states transitioned from military dictatorship to civilian rule. Ever since, it has been a flawed process that still struggles to appropriately tackle extreme inequality and widespread corruption in its politics. These two, in turn, make for fertile ground for gang violence culmination. 

Organised crime embraces operational structures and objectives that mimic the functioning of Transnational Companies (TNCs). Indeed, similar structures and wealth objectives, yet, obviously different goods and services, for they are illicit and create devastating societal damage from which they profit.

The similarities of both businesses range from their dependence on global operations to their high levels of adaptability towards evolving circumstances and environments. Factors such as the increasingly fluid, decentralised, and today technologically acute trading networks empower the businesses’ functioning and influence. 

Over time, gangs have managed to adapt and evolve in the globalised world, which has fueled them with more power and control than ever before. However, they need political cover and strong support from local communities to continue expanding. 

For these reasons, criminal groups have specialised in using coercive methods to influence politics. Gangs effectively succeed when powerful, state-led associations turn a blind eye or even collaborate with the criminal group’s activities. That is often achieved by buying off electoral campaigns or using violent intimidation against public authorities.

The Neo State Crackdowns Trend

The spread of criminal influence in politics is determined on institutional scales, recording the steepest democratic decline of any other global region over the last twenty-one years. Will this trend continue following over seven Latin American elections in 2024?

Authoritarian regimes are spreading, too, beyond the long-lasting Cuban, Venezuelan, and Nicaraguan autocracies. However, the corruption and violence following the mafia and the state joining forces distinguish these government collapses from the previous transitions. Criminal groups have progressively contaminated and dominated local authorities of Latin American democracies with drug trafficking and violence. 

Major concerns arise when looking at cases like El Salvador, with the self-proclaimed “world’s coolest dictator”, Nayib Bukele’s, most recent re-election. The popularity of Bukele’s security model has inspired politicians elsewhere, strongly influencing Guatemala’s 2023 candidates for presidential elections or Xiomara Castro, Honduras’s president.  

Ecuador is a good example of embracing the regional trend of following in Bukele’s steps. Facing its latest breakdown within the combat against gangs, Daniel Noboa carries out “Plan Felix” to address the internal armed conflict. Essentially, following a similar path to Bukele’s “Territorial Control Plan”, building mega-jails and implementing a militarised approach.  

Past Efforts, Counterproductive Results

The problem of criminal influence cannot be targeted solely at the national level. It is a plague that feeds off of transregional gang networks, which are craving for new fertile ground. The consequences of not addressing this as a transnational problem have devastating results, shifting and reinforcing the activities from one area to another.

This can be seen in the overall failure of the US War Against Drugs over the last 36 years, focusing on beefing with security measures in South America and the Caribbean. In the medium to long term, this motivated a noticeable expansion of criminal networks in the adjacent areas with poorer law enforcement, such as Central America.

Costa Rica’s Particular Scene

Even Costa Rica, which held the pride of the safest and most resilient democracy in the region, is fearing significant deteriorations to freedom of expression, press, and association. In 2023, it suffered its deadliest year ever, hitting a record annual homicide rate of 844. 

During the last decade, the number of arrivals of Colombian cocaine shipments increased. The country’s geographical positioning is an essential pipeline to Europe's high demand for this drug. Costa Rican criminal networks have taken advantage of this trading fuel for drugs by collaborating with Colombian traffickers.

Unlike many other Latin American countries, Costa Rica has had no army since 1948, despite being in a problem-prone region. Additionally, it has not experienced any form of dictatorship since the beginning of the twentieth century —  a privilege that very few countries in Latin America enjoy.

The country’s previous Minister of Security, Gustavo Mata stated in January 2024, that if the new violence wave persists in Costa Rica, the country will be “one year behind the situation that is happening in Ecuador”.  However, the question remains: what would countries such as Costa Rica and Panamá do without military forces in a state of emergency, fighting against cartels?

‘Mano Dura’ Or An Attempt to Dialogue: Will Any Bring Change?

The coercive approach used in El Salvador has shown positive results regarding citizens’ safety, prompting Latin America to use its ‘model’. However, regardless of how good the impact may seem in the short term, it will only add to the spiral of violence in the long term. 

Others have followed radically different approaches from Bukele’s ‘model’, attempting to improve the citizens’ safety. Take Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro's “total peace” policies, seeking talks and conditions for a ceasefire. Nonetheless, this negotiation-based method is extremely complicated considering that the purpose of the talk must be to seek the demobilisation and prosecution of the multiple members through the regular justice system. 

On the other hand, legalisation or decriminalisation seems like an appealing call for reducing illicit profits that drive drug-related crime and corruption. However, is Latin America ready to tackle the increase in addiction rates? What is more, the cartels’ interconnectedness with other businesses such as human and weapon trafficking, armed robbery, and money laundering could potentially enforce these and more illicit businesses.

Next Generation’s Threats 

Latin America’s vulnerable communities tend towards criminal activity as a way out of poverty. Not only because of a lack of opportunities but also because of a mix of environmental and structural conditions, which increase the chance of dependency on crime webs. The threat of this is exacerbated when criminal groups take over these local communities and specifically target youth populations, increasing their chance of involvement.

Beyond drug trafficking, which is responsible for the largest share of violence and murders in Latin America’s skyrocketing homicide rates, gang associations are expanding their involvement in illicit activities. Human and arms trafficking, cyber and environmental crimes, money laundering, and ransom rackets are just a few popular “jobs” (on the black market) that depict the complexity of the regional challenge and possible interventions.  

Anti-crime campaigns come to the fore of electoral debates. It is then up to Latin Americans, too, to act upon their legitimacy to vote and put politicians’ discourses and programmes for intervention under more scrutiny.

Interestingly, their region contains two polar opposites that characterise its political panorama: the most democratic country in the developing world and the world’s most violent one. Today, it is a determining moment that will establish whether it is willing to trade one for the sake of disposing of the other.

Sources: BBC News, El País, InSight Crime, International Crisis Group, La Nación, The Economist, The Guardian

Written by Luciana Aguilar

March 2024

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