Welcome to InSight Crime’s Criminal GameChangers 2019, where we highlight the most important trends in organized crime in the Americas over the course of the year. Twenty-nineteen was like one long flashback. The year saw a resurgence of criminal groups from seemingly bygone eras, the arrival of new presidents who tried to face these old problems with familiar but failed policies, the end of a decade-long judicial experiment in Central America, and two high-profile drug trials in the United States.
Few incidents illustrated this dizzying feeling of déjà vu more than an October operation in Culiacán, Sinaloa, the historic heart of Mexico’s drug trafficking world. Some ten months into his presidency, Andrés Manuel López Obrador finally seemed ready to send a message to the country’s criminal organizations. But after soldiers arrested Ovidio Guzmán López — the son of the legendary drug trafficker, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán — his brothers mobilized, overwhelmed security forces and forced his release.
In the process, El Chapo’s sons, known as “Los Chapitos,” made their strongest claim yet to his father’s vacated throne following El Chapo’s conviction in a US courtroom earlier in the year. The stunning display of power neutered López Obrador’s counter-crime initiative and seemed to put an exclamation point on what emerged as the central narrative of El Chapo’s trial: victories in the drug war are ephemeral, but drug trafficking is everlasting.
Following an outcry over what many saw as capitulation, AMLO, as he is popularly known, had to rethink his campaign promise to use “hugs, not bullets.” Meanwhile, homicides reached the highest levels in Mexico’s history. The victims included nine members of a Mormon family — six of them children — who were intercepted near the US border by suspected members of La Línea, another vestige of cartels past and, possibly, future. Unless AMLO gets his footing, more déjà vu is sure to come.
Meanwhile, in Colombia, several leaders of the now-demobilized guerrilla organization — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), which signed a peace deal with the government in 2016 — announced in August they were regrouping, rearming and reinitiating their 50-year war with the government. The announcement came after three years of accusations and counteraccusations regarding the government’s mishandling of the post-conflict demobilization programs and some former guerrilla leaders’ alleged connections to international drug trafficking.
The new criminal federation has no official name, and the FARC acronym is being used by other former guerrilla leaders who are still committed to the peace process and have employed the name for their fledgling political party (Alternative Revolutionary Force for the People – Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común). To add to the confusion, and possible conflation between the groups, there are dozens of other dissident criminal enterprises fighting, extorting and displacing people around the country. They are joined by the remnants of other wars long past to make for an ever-complicated criminal mosaic.
In an effort to keep it relatively simple, InSight Crime has taken to calling the dissident guerrilla groups ex-FARC Mafia, a designation that fits with the government of Iván Duque’s lack of nuance. Duque’s administration seems anxious, albeit ill-prepared, to begin this new war, embracing old, failed strategies, such as widespread aerial spraying campaigns to lower coca production.
Still, conflict appears increasingly likely with the concurrent surge of the other major guerrilla faction still fighting, the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional – ELN). The once-moribund rebel faction has in the last several years spread into central and eastern Colombia, as well as parts of Venezuela. There, in Colombia’s neighboring nation, the ELN and the ex-FARC Mafia have found fertile ground.
While Venezuela remains in a state of economic crisis, the Nicolás Maduro administration has managed to stave off efforts to unseat his regime, including a failed military putsch in April led by opposition lawmaker Juan Guaidó and backed by the United States government. The US has struggled to find the right formula to remove Maduro from power, and the ghosts of invasions past loom.
The failed putsch emboldened Maduro and his criminal allies, both inside and outside of the government, who now appear to be institutionalizing their partnership to keep him politically solvent. Indeed, Venezuela’s ruling coalition looks increasingly like a who’s who of criminal enterprises, among them drug trafficking organizations, militia groups, megabandas and prison-based crime syndicates.
If there is a way forward in Venezuela, it may be elections. Elections this year in other parts of the region led to some unexpected results. Bolivia’s long-time President Evo Morales — the architect of his own, Venezuela-type democracy — was ousted after claiming victory following the first round of his bid for a fourth term in October. The opposition screamed fraud, and the Organization of American States (OAS) observers later confirmed its suspicions of widespread vote tampering. Protests followed, and, facing an ultimatum from the military, Morales fled into exile. The new, self-proclaimed interim president, Jeanine Áñez, is the polar opposite of Morales, but she may find her path complicated by surging production of coca and a fractured nation.
In Argentina, Alberto Fernández, a former chief of staff of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner when she was president, reunited with his former boss, and upended Mauricio Macri’s bid for a second term in the October elections. Macri’s security team had professionalized data collection and transparency, helped cleanse the police and lowered homicides, but it also increased the incarceration of low-level drug offenders. The government also suffered from high-level corruption of some of the country’s most important crime-fighting institutions beyond the police. Fernández, who took office in December, seems poised to shift the government towards a softer approach, but he will have to first figure out a power-sharing arrangement with Vice President Fernández de Kirchner.
There has been little soft about El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele’s approach since he assumed power in June, after winning the presidential election in convincing fashion in February. Bukele — a smooth-talking former mayor of San Salvador who once negotiated with gangs to revitalize the city center — has largely continued his predecessor’s hardline security strategy to great effect. Homicides reached their lowest point in twenty years, even after factoring in some changes to how the government tallies murder statistics. Bukele presents himself as an alternative, hipper president than those the country’s two traditional parties in office for the last thirty years. He prefers governing via Twitter, but in the end, he may be closer to the status quo than he would like to admit.
El Salvador’s neighbor, Guatemala, also appears to be returning to its status quo. In the early 2000s, traditional elites backed the candidacy of Oscar Berger, who as president ushered in a period of social cleansing by security forces and ministries alike. This time around, their candidate was Alejandro Giammattei who was himself connected to extrajudicial executions while serving as the head of the penitentiary system under Berger.
Giammattei will take office in January from Jimmy Morales, the beleaguered and belligerent president that ended a judicial experiment that had begun under Berger. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) — a United Nations-backed and largely US-funded judicial body made up of foreign prosecutors — barely got congressional approval in 2007, then proceeded to upend the political and economic elites by prosecuting some of the same people that had once backed its formation.
The CICIG’s fight with Morales was particularly ugly. The commission, working with the Attorney General’s Office, formally accused the president of illegally financing his presidential campaign in 2015, as well as charged his brother and the president’s son with corruption. Morales fought back, successfully lobbying his allies in the administration of Donald Trump to cut funding and political support from the CICIG and ignoring Guatemala’s constitution. In September, the commission packed up and left the country.
A similar anti-prosecutor wave seems ready to befall Honduras as well. After initially supporting the creation of the Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH) — the OAS-backed version of the CICIG in Honduras — President Juan Orlando Hernández has been set on his heels by investigations inside and outside of the country’s borders. In Honduras, the MACCIH, working with the Attorney General’s Office, helped convict the former first lady, Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo, on corruption charges. Her husband, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, who was Hernández’s political patron in their National Party, also faced down accusations he stole at least $1 million of government funds during his tenure (2010-2013).
In the United States, things got even worse for Hernández, where his brother, Antonio “Tony” Hernández, went through a headline-grabbing drug trafficking trial that ended in Tony’s conviction. Throughout the trial, several witnesses testified that first as candidate and later as president, Juan Orlando Hernández helped them or promised to help them in return for financial and political support. The president denied all these accusations, but the noose may be tightening, potentially prompting him to not renew MACCIH’s mandate in the coming weeks.
Among all these countries, it is perhaps Brazil that most reflects a return to the past. The former army official-turned President Jair Bolsonaro emboldened security forces in a way not seen since the military ran Brazil 30 years ago. From the start, there have been record numbers of police killings of suspected criminals and accusations of torture in the prisons. Even so, the country’s most potent criminal threat, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), continues to spill into Paraguay where it is strengthening its hold over that country’s prison system.
In the process, Bolsonaro ignores the lessons of the past — most notably that the military government’s efforts to fill the country’s prisons with criminal groups and political dissidents was what led to the formation of groups like the PCC in the first place — proposing more liberal gun laws and intersecting with right-wing militias. Bolsonaro, like so many of his fellow presidents, is unfazed and ready to move backwards toward the future where organized crime is set to benefit. Again.
Top Image: Associated Press photo of the capture of Ovidio Guzmán López