The year was one of political tumult, fed considerably by organized crime and its favored weapon: corruption. The region took a step backwards as past criminal structures and dynamics re-emerged and government responses stagnated.
The year 2020 promises yet more opportunities for the criminal world. Here are 10.
1. In 2020, organized crime will continue to promote, and profit from, political chaos. Organized crime sees nothing but opportunities in the civil unrest and political chaos that gripped Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela in 2019. It distracts and divides governments from the fight against criminal groups, opening up plenty of room for maneuver, and chaos minimizes regional cooperation.
Organized crime is behind many of the complaints protestors across the region have had. It is very often an integral part of corruption schemes and the systematic undermining of justice, it generates homicides and insecurity, and it is behind many of the worst human rights abuses. One of the reasons behind the perception that democracy cannot solve the region’s ills is because organized crime and their elite allies have corroded many of the democratic institutions and ensured they cannot carry out their jobs effectively.
2. Regional and international cooperation in the fight against organized crime will diminish yet further. The United States, which for good or ill, always looked at transnational organized crime (TOC) threats on a regional level, is no longer engaging in the same way in Latin America and the Caribbean. Apart from migration and Venezuela, there has been a cutting back of US aid and attention in many parts of the region. In short, the issue of a regional response to the drug trade has tumbled down the list of Washington’s priorities.
Regional Latin bodies like the Organization of America States (OAS) have been unable to build consensus to respond to regional threats, of which the most serious by far is organized crime. Only the situation in Venezuela has been able to unite much of the region, with the creation of the Lima Group in 2017, aimed at securing a peaceful exit to that perennial, widespread crisis. That has not, however, translated into looking at the criminal threats the Venezuelan situation presents.
3. Organized crime will become more transnational, global and cooperative during 2020. While governments seem unable to collaborate, organized crime is forging new alliances and agreements across the world. These new levels of cooperation by international criminal syndicates are fundamental in what has become an increasingly fragmented criminal landscape, with smaller networks taking up the load after the demise of vertically integrated criminal structures. Criminal networks moving cocaine, people and gold across the globe are more compartmentalized but also extremely agile. The role of brokers, able to connect different criminal syndicates and nationalities, are key to understanding this growing criminal cooperation.
4. The year 2020 will see yet more diversification of markets for Latin American organized crime syndicates beginning with drug markets in Latin America and the Caribbean. This is primarily driven by cocaine, but marijuana, heroin and synthetic drugs are also seeing increased production (and consumption) in the region. The US market remains the biggest in the world, followed by Brazil, which is also the principal transit nation for cocaine headed towards Europe.
The European market is expanding, especially since criminal organizations from Serbia, Albania and Russia have entered the arena and are, in some cases, challenging traditional mafias from Italia (particularly the ‘Ndrangheta) as the main suppliers of cocaine to Europe. New markets are being aggressively developed, especially in parts of Asia and Oceania. Underworld sources tell InSight Crime that China is becoming an important market for the Colombians, but there is little information coming out of China on this and even less willingness by the government to discuss it publicly. As the market for cocaine increases, so does the reach of Latin American organized crime, along with its sophistication. Colombian groups still appear to be the pioneers in this regard.
5. Cocaine production will remain steady at current production levels during 2020, generating record profits for Latin American organized crime. While there will be a fall in production in Colombia, as President Iván Duque, under US pressure, has increased drug crop eradication, political chaos in the other two production nations, Peru and Bolivia, will likely compensate. Cocaine remains the single most important criminal economy in Latin America, although illegal gold mining is closing the gap. Still, the cocaine trade has historically propelled criminal syndicates into the top league and helped them stage some of the most direct assaults on governance, while feeding corruption and violence. And the growing sophistication of Latin American organized crime continues to be fed by the recent cocaine bonanza.
6. Venezuela will continue to grow in importance as a regional crime hub. The biggest humanitarian crisis in the region is fast becoming a criminal crisis as the vacuum left by a weakened and broken central government is being filled by a series of criminal fiefdoms run by politicized elements and non-state armed actors such as the “colectivos.”
Due to state participation in the cocaine trade, the flow of illegal gold and human trafficking, this troubled Andean nation has not only become an important transit nation for cocaine, but is now exporting criminality, feeding off the back of the increasingly desperate diaspora fleeing economic collapse. Almost five million Venezuelans have left the country, providing Venezuelan organized crime groups with contacts and a growing labor force across the region. And led by “megabandas” (gangs with over 100 members) like the “Tren de Aragua,” Venezuelan organized crime is now becoming transnational.
Organized crime has also helped prop up President Nicolás Maduro, whose position strengthened during 2019, even as sanctions bit and the economy further contracted. While part of this was undoubtedly due to help from Russia in selling oil and circumventing US sanctions, dollarizing part of the economy, which helped bring down inflation, the government also sold tons of gold on international markets and benefited from hundreds of tons of cocaine passing through the country. The latter two provided the government and elements of the regime with much needed hard currency and kept political and military elites loyal. Thus it seems likely that the current regime will remain in place for the time being and the role of Venezuela as a criminal hub will continue.
7. The Caribbean will continue to resurge as a transit zone for TOC. Organized crime follows the path of least resistance. Principal cocaine flows to the United States have moved through Central America over the last two decades, or bounced up the Pacific Coast into Mexico and then across the border. The Caribbean, which under Pablo Escobar had been the main drug platform into the United States, became more of a criminal backwater. That is changing, and fast. There are several factors behind this.
Venezuela is the first. There is almost no resistance to cocaine trafficking via Venezuela and anything up to 20 go-fast boats, loaded with between 400 kilograms and 1.2 tons of drugs leave the Venezuela coastline every week. Much of that is now headed towards Europe, using the many Caribbean islands that are part of the United Kingdom, France or the Netherlands, or getting loaded into containers in the principal Caribbean ports of the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. Other shipments use the safety of Venezuelan waters to move along the coast to Guyana or Suriname, heading across the Atlantic to West or North Africa, before going to Europe. Even drug submarines now seem to be making the transatlantic trip, carrying multi-ton cargos. Also contributing to the resurgence of the Caribbean route is the growing role of Dominican organized crime in supplying the US drug market.
8. Gold will continue to be a principal criminal earner, second only to drugs. It has been an important stream of income for armed groups in Colombia for some time, as guerrillas and paramilitaries charge taxes on illegal and informal mining in their areas of influence. But in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil, specialized criminal mining syndicates have evolved. They identify gold deposits, usually alluvial, then move in heavy machinery and dredges, quickly stripping away all the easily available metal, leaving a lunar landscape and mercury poisoning in their wake as they move on to another area.
Gold has also become one of the economic lifelines of the Venezuela government. This looks set to continue and perhaps even increase during 2020 as the Venezuelan military — working with domestic criminal syndicates and Colombian groups like the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN) and ex-FARC Mafia (dissident elements of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC) — become more deeply involved.
9. Organized crime will be a motor for environmental destruction and climate change during 2020. We have already mentioned the criminal mining syndicates spreading mercury and polluting swathes of Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Added to this is the deforestation occurring across the Amazon Basin and other tropical rainforests. Some is the result of illegal loggers looking for the fine woods so prized in making instruments or furniture; others clearing the way for cattle ranching, soya crops; and in Colombia particularly, coca farmers are clearing jungle to sow drug crops. As Colombia is likely to restart its aerial spraying of coca fields during 2020, expect yet more ecological devastation. Central America has not escaped this dynamic either.
Also relevant is the trafficking in wildlife, which is systematically decimating species. Shark fins, the claws and teeth of large felines, parrots and other exotic birds are just some of the more vulnerable species being ripped from their natural habitat.
10. Last and certainly not least, the alliance between elites and organized crime, at the root of much of the region’s ills, will continue apace in 2020, perhaps unfettered by the pressure exercised historically by the United States. For the last 50 years, organized crime has funded political campaigns, reaching a point in many nations where it is impossible to divide the clean money from the dirty. The scandal involving the family of the Honduran president showed this in a stark light as drug trafficking penetrated the highest echelons of power. Yet since President Juan Orlando Hernández signed an agreement to curb migration to the United States, few awkward questions have been asked by Washington.
We get accused of being pessimistic at InSight Crime, and indeed having studied organized crime in the Americas for the last decade, and seeing it grow in earnings and sophistication over that time, we find little room for optimism. In 2020, the playing field is yet again tilted in the criminals’ favor.
Main Image: AP photo of the bullet-riddled car in which the LeBarón family was traveling when they were attacked in Chihuahua, Mexico, in November 2019
Image 1: AP photo of a woman crying at the scene of a shooting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in April 2019
Image 2: AP photo of a protester in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil