Colombian soldiers are permitted to combat GAO

Arguing about artificial labels that help make sense of organized crime in Latin America may seem trivial. After all, the reality lurking beneath these labels -- bodies riddled with bullets, bank accounts stuffed with cash, and enough cocaine to sink a submarine -- is so tangible, so immediate for the people wrapped up in its unceasing vortex. But the terms and phrases used about by governments and news outlets carry their own type of power. They help shape public opinion, domestic security policies, and the legal limitations of international actors. As organized crime in the region adapts to new realities on the ground, it's imperative that our lexicon for it does so as well.

Mexico: 'Cartel Land,' It Ain't

At one time, the word "cartel" evoked only fear and terror in Mexico. The list of the country's powerful and menacing drug trafficking groups went on and on: the Sinaloa Cartel, the Gulf Cartel, the Juarez Cartel, the Beltran Leyva Organization. That's not to mention the Zetas, a group founded by defectors from Mexico's Special Forces whose reputation for brutality surpassed that of any of their rivals.

While it's true that "cartel" still retains much of its old potency, the term now causes a different kind of emotion as well: confusion.

In May 2015, Mexico's Attorney General's Office (Procuraduría General de la República - PGR) listed nine cartels that were operating in different parts of the country. But the following month, a high-level PGR official declared the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (CJNG) were the only cartels left "operating and functioning" in Mexico. Two months after that, the PGR identified seven completely new cartels, with names ranging from the strange ("New Southern People Cartel) to the banal ("Office Cartel").

It's not just the government that is mixed up; the media is, too. "Cartel Land" -- the Academy Award-nominated documentary that received a glowing review at this outlet -- is not, technically speaking, about cartels.

The confusion and overuse of the term "cartel" speaks to tectonic shifts in Mexico's criminal landscape, and the government's failure to adapt its security strategy to respond to these changes. Most of Mexico's cartels are shadows of their former selves, with several generations of leaders either dead or in prison. The country's organized crime map is now dotted with splinter factions or wholly independent groups that are much smaller in scope and less dependent on drug trafficking for revenue.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

The government, however, has not deviated from its "kingpin" strategy of prioritizing high-level drug suspects. It continues to make pronouncements when it has captured one of the 122 people on the country's "most wanted" list, and continues to identify new cartels such as the recently christened "Cancun Cartel."

The government's insistence on trotting out new kingpins and new cartels obscures the fact that these leaders and groups have little in common with their predecessors. The newest generation of criminal groups present different security challenges, as seen by the spread of violence to areas previously unaffected by the drug war. It's not impossible for authorities to come up with an effective strategy to combat these emerging threats, but it will require a new approach. Changing how we think about these groups -- and how we label them -- would be a good start.

Colombia's Alphabet Soup of Armed Actors

The link between the terms used to describe criminal groups and the government policies to combat them, while implicit in Mexico, is much more explicit in Colombia.

Any drug trafficking group that arose following the demobilization of Colombia's paramilitary groups in the mid-2000s was classified as a "BACRIM," which comes from the Spanish term "bandas criminales," meaning "criminal bands." This name change may have been motivated as much by political convenience as by the facts on the ground, as all but one BACRIM were founded by former leaders of the country's largest paramilitary bloc, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC).

The distinction was nonetheless important because it meant the BACRIM were not a part of the country's armed conflict, and the responsibility for attacking these groups fell to the police, rather than the military. It has also complicated efforts by the country's most powerful BACRIM, the Urabeños, to enter into peace negotiations with the government.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of BACRIM

But in May 2016, the government divided the BACRIM into two categories: "Organized Criminal Groups" (Grupos Delictivos Organizados - GDO) and "Organized Armed Groups" (Grupos Armados Organizados – GAO). Although the directive did not confer political status on any of the groups, it did open the door to military operations against groups labeled as GAOs.

Once again, this designation may have had as much to do with political considerations as with any changes to the nature of the groups in question. At the time, the government was in the final stages of a lengthy peace negotiation process with rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). The FARC's impending demobilization -- which is now being realized; the two sides came to a final agreement last November -- meant the military's role in internal defense would be rolled back. The GAO designation provided the military with new targets, and thus more resources. 

In the directive, Colombian authorities also noted that the GAO classification established a precedent for the military to attack any potential FARC dissidents. Sure enough, it was the army that carried out the first major bombing of breakaway FARC elements in the department of Guaviare in early March 2017. 

In contrast to Mexico, it is possible that the name changes have actually outpaced the rate at which these groups have evolved. Perhaps it's instructive that many Colombians still just call them "paras," an abbreviation of "paramilitaries."

Gang Violence in Central America: A Conventional Conflict?

A growing number of experts consider the humanitarian crisis inflicted by gang violence in Central America to be on par with those in conventional armed conflicts. The so-called "Northern Triangle" countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala routinely rank among the most violent in Latin America, and the rampant insecurity has forced individuals and even whole families to flee their homes.

"Although the causes of these violent situations may vary in character from those of armed conflicts, the humanitarian consequences ... are often the same, in form as in complexity and intensity," Juan Pedro Schaerer, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for Mexico, Central America and Cuba, told InSight Crime in 2014.

Nonetheless, the Northern Triangle presents legal and practical challenges to humanitarian organizations more accustomed to working in traditional conflict zones. Robert Muggah, Director of Research at the Igarapé Institute, told news outlet IRIN last September that gang violence falls outside of the International Humanitarian Law's definition of armed conflict, which "creates a conundrum for the humanitarian community."

In order for humanitarian organizations to reach certain populations in gang-dominated areas, they may be forced to negotiate with the local gang leaders, putting them in a precarious position. IRIN, which focuses on humanitarian issues, said it's not certain the gangs would respect their status as international aid workers, and working with the gangs may expose aid organizations to potential criminal prosecution.

"There are still considerable apprehensions in the humanitarian world about how best to engage," Muggah said. 

The dearth of information relating to gangs and how responsible they are for the high levels of violence and displacement only makes it harder for these international actors to operate effectively. A clearer understanding of the gangs' role within the broader security situation would enable agencies like the ICRC to make more informed decisions about the best way to intervene in the region's ongoing humanitarian crisis. 

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