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For Informant, a Treacherous Road to Justice in El Salvador

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Even under the best of circumstances, there are few incentives to become a cooperating witness in an extortion case in El Salvador. And, as one witness has found out, participation is no guarantee that anything will change.

He was tired. It had been going on for over a decade, and he decided that it was time to stop complaining just to his family and close friends about the systematic extortion of his bus route by the street gangs. It was time to make a formal complaint to the police and the Attorney General’s Office.

His initial contact was good, he told InSight Crime after agreeing to talk, provided we did not reveal his identity, his codename in the case, or the case in which he participated. Any part of this information could compromise him and his family. (To corroborate his story, InSight Crime had access to the case file, colleagues in other bus cooperatives, and others who participated in the investigation.)

In those first few meetings, he gave the detectives and prosecutors good information, the type they could build a case on, and they did. The case was against a bus operator and his gang accomplice for extortion and money laundering. The indictment says that the operator was the middle-man for the gang leader who systematically extorted the other bus owners along the same route.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

At some point, the gang leader began to use the interlocutor to obtain buses for himself and his family. The bus operator put some of these buses in his name, the indictment says. It was a fairly typical scheme, the type that showed how the gangs had gone from street hoodlums to a petty mafia. Numerous similar cases have been prosecuted.

With the help of the witness, the prosecutors listened to phone calls, obtained financial records, and tracked properties of the bus operator, his family, and the gang leader. They established that some of the purchase orders were falsified in order to launder some of the extortion proceeds. They found that the bus operator bought several cars and homes, one of which was bought with cash and converted into a motel.

The informant felt okay about the places where he met with officials, in particular one building where they could talk in relative privacy. The office is located in a place where gangs do not have a strong presence. To intimidate informants and find out who they are, gangs are known to post people on the edges of official buildings, places where witnesses speak to detectives and prosecutors. Gangs have also infiltrated police and prosecutors’ offices, so speaking in an open setting to an investigator can be uncomfortable and dangerous.

He worried, of course. The case was against a powerful clique, one that had dominated that bus route for years. The leader of the clique had already been charged with participating in the murders of 58 others, many of those because the leader and others in the gang suspected they were informants against the gang. He had also been charged with “terrorism” and drug trafficking-related crimes.

For the trial, the informant was going to be gone for a few days and needed a cover story for his fellow bus operators. The prosecutors told him they could help with a tourist visa to the US, but when that was slow in coming, he asked them if they could get him to the border with Guatemala, or get some kind of stamp on his passport. It never happened, and that worried him.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extortion

Instead, around the time of the trial, they took him to a hotel. The day before he was to testify, he says they picked him up and drove him to a prosecutor’s office. The car did not have tinted windows and that worried him. At the office, they did a role play to prepare him for trial. The prosecutor yelled, tried to rattle him. It reminded him of a television show.

The next day, he gave testimony. His face was covered on the way in, but the judge and his secretary saw his face. That worried him too. 

The case proceeded, and his worries grew. Other bus operators and owners were asking questions about his absence. He had nothing on his passport, but he told them he’d gone out of the country for a workshop. One of them asked to see his passport, but he managed to change the subject and the colleague seemed to forget about it.

Meanwhile, other cases popped up. He decided, perhaps against his better judgment at that point, to help on two extortion cases. A third case is a homicide; he is not helping with that one, he says, because he doesn’t have any privileged information. And that one really worries him.

In all, it has taken nearly three years for the original extortion case to snake through the system. At the beginning, he was hopeful, optimistic even. In addition to his testimony, they have testimonies from police and an accountant. They have documents to show the money laundering. They have intercepted phone calls to show the relationship between the bus operator and the gang leader.

But the case has taken a turn for the worse. Though a judgment in their case is expected in the coming weeks, they were given ankle bracelets and let out of jail. That has worried him the most. 

Illustration: Juan José Restrepo

‘El Chapo’ Defense Puts Spotlight on Alleged Mexico Corruption

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Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” appears in a US court. (Sketch: Christine Cornell)

Defense lawyers for former Sinaloa Cartel kingpin “El Chapo” have alleged that two of Mexico’s presidents accepted millions of dollars in bribes — unverified accusations that are hotly denied, but which put Mexico’s government in an uncomfortable position and are likely to become a recurring theme during the trial.

Jeffrey Lichtman, a lawyer for Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” alleged in his opening statement that former Mexican President Felipe Calderón and current President Enrique Peña Nieto took “hundreds of millions in bribes” from Sinaloa Cartel leader Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo,” Vice News reported.

Lichtman is claiming that El Chapo is a scapegoat, and that El Mayo is the true leader of the powerful drug trafficking organization, adding that El Mayo “bribes the entire government of Mexico, up to the top.” El Mayo is currently at large and considered one of US authorities’ most wanted criminals. 

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profile

The defense attorney went so far as to allege a plot to frame his client, which included not only El Mayo and corrupt officials in Mexico, but also US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, The New York Times reported.

After the jury had been dismissed for the day, Judge Brian Cogan warned Lichtman not to make claims that “might not be supported by evidence,” according to The New York Times. US prosecutors have since asked the judge to strike Lichtman’s opening statement. 

Former President Calderón said in a tweet that Lichtman’s claims were “absolutely false and reckless,” adding that “neither he, nor the Sinaloa cartel nor anyone else made payments to me.” President Enrique Peña Nieto also denied the allegations through a spokesman, who called them “completely false and defamatory.”

InSight Crime Analysis

Drug kingpins like El Chapo rarely ever face trial in Mexico, and the allegations made during his first day in US court offer a glimpse of how the Mexican government will be exposed to continued public scrutiny as the trial goes on.

Large drug trafficking cases are long and sprawling, which means they can have unexpected implications for political and business elites.

For example, the US drug trafficking case against Fabio Lobo, the son of former Honduras President Porfirio Lobo, revealed links between drug traffickers and the Honduran government. In that case, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga — a former leader of the Cachiros criminal group — testified in a sentencing hearing that he repeatedly bribed the former president and delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars directly to him.

He also testified that Honduran Congressman Antonio “Tony” Hernández, the brother of current President Juan Orlando Hernández, colluded with the Cachiros in their criminal enterprise. All of these damning allegations came from a single witness during a little noticed sentencing hearing.

El Chapo’s trial has received far more attention, turning the sensational accusations against the former Mexican presidents into headline news. 

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

Lichtman’s antics are likely an attempt by El Chapo’s defense team to “muddy the waters,” trying to make the Mexican government seem “more culpable than he [El Chapo] is,” according to Mike Vigil, the former Chief of International Operations at the DEA.

El Chapo’s trial is expected to last four months, and his lawyer has made it clear on its first day that he will present a wide-ranging conspiracy aimed at implicating Mexico’s ruling class.

The Honduran drug trial showed, however, that even one witness can open a Pandora’s Box. What remains to be seen is whether El Chapo’s lawyer has the evidence and witnesses to back up his bluster.

Defining Organized Crime: A Primer (and a Friendly Kerfuffle)

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Latin america seminar organized crime

Leading academics, researchers, and journalists dedicated to the study of organized crime around the world convened November 15 in Bogotá, Colombia, to share the latest findings and major trends, and squabble about how best to define organized crime.

“The Evolution of Transnational Organized Crime in the Americas,” a joint InSight Crime and Universidad del Rosario production, covered topics ranging from the expansion of the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), Brazil’s premier criminal organization, to high-level corruption that threatens to derail efforts to combat organized crime. 

SEE ALSO: The Evolution of Transnational Organized Crime in the Americas

But it took University of Oxford professor Federico Varese to center the conference when he set out to present a framework for how organized crime can be defined.

For years, Varese has argued that there has been an “unusual amount of confusion” in trying to create a workable definition of organized crime. He noted that the 2003 United Nations definition was simply insufficient for describing today’s criminal groups. 

Instead, Varese proposed focusing on what he identified as the “PTG Framework,” or production, trade, and governance framework. Organized crime groups in Colombia and Peru, he said, cultivate coca to produce cocaine, traffic this product to international markets and effectively govern the territories that are essential for their criminal activities.

SEE ALSO: Colombian Organized Crime Observatory

To Varese, this idea of governance is critical. Organized crime groups in Latin America and throughout the world have a state-like function, Varese argued, and are in the “same intellectual space as the state.” In other words, like a government, they need to control this space in order to financially benefit from it. (See Varese’s work here)

According to Varese, this is the apex of organized crime. The production and transit of drugs depend directly on, and thrives, where there is criminal governance, he said. Other panelists agreed, most notably Bruce Bagley from the University of Miami, who said that criminals thrive when organized crime and the state have a symbiotic relationship. (See some of Bagley’s work here)

But others felt Varese fell short in some respects. Phil Williams of the University of Pittsburgh noted that organized crime is involved in more than just production and transport of goods. He cited the illicit trade of antiquities, human trafficking and theft of natural resources such as oil. (See a list of some of Williams’ publications here)

Unbowed by the friendly challenge, Varese plowed ahead, emphasizing the need to insert “governance” more thoroughly into our definition of organized crime.

Can a New Database Help Tackle Argentina Police Corruption?

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Argentina is trying to tackle corruption within the police

The launch of a new registry detailing thousands of corrupt officers removed from Argentina’s largest police force could signal a fresh effort to clean up the institution, but questions remain as to whether it will be effective, or even sufficient.

The registry, which contains the names of 8,500 officers discharged since 1966, was announced this past month by María Eugenia Vidal, governor of the Province of Buenos Aires.

The database contains information about the officers and the reason for their removal, which includes charges of corruption and violence, among others. About 15 percent of them were accused of colluding with drug trafficking organizations.

Authorities said the aim of the database, which will be updated repeatedly, is to prevent private security firms from knowingly hiring former police officers with criminal records.

SEE MORE: Argentina Profile and News

When presenting the database at a public event, the governor said this was only the first step to tackle corruption within the police.

“The message to police officers is: It is not possible to have an effective security policy with criminals within the force,” Vidal told Clarín.

Since Vidal, a member of Argentina’s governing party, took office in 2015, some 1,400 officers have been removed from the provincial police force, and 27,000 more are currently under investigation, according to figures reported by Clarín.

InSight Crime Analysis

News of corruption within Argentina’s largest police force and attempts to reform it are hardly new. Past administrations have tried to clean up the “bonaerense” (as it is known locally) before, with little success.

The governor, however, came to power representing President Mauricio Macri’s Cambiemos coalition, which focused on eliminating corruption including within the police and tackling drug trafficking in the notoriously problematic province of Buenos Aires — the most populated in Argentina.

These are difficult tasks, given past links between the Bonaerense and drug trafficking organizations. Two cases have even come to light during Vidal’s tenure.

In May 2017, Police Chief Pablo Bressi resigned amid accusations that he knew about payments made to police officers by drug trafficking organizations.

In a separate case, in August 2018, authorities found 160 doses of cocaine hidden in a bulletproof vest inside an anti-drug unit. That unit was part of the police force in La Matanza, one of the most violent counties within the province of Buenos Aires, reported Perfil.

Experts consulted by InSight Crime on the state of organized crime in the South American nation agreed that ridding the police of corruption is paramount. Criminal organizations — which in Argentina are usually smaller in size but have a very tight grip on power in the territories they control — could not function without the active support of the security forces, they said.

With a challenge this great, a database might sound like an insufficient step. Police in Argentina are under-resourced, making it no wonder that many are tempted by the extra income that comes from working with criminal organizations.

Governor Vidal, however, has also announced measures to ensure officers file tax returns, as a way to tackle money laundering, and has given them a salary raise as a way to improve working conditions.

To be sure, transparency measures and better salaries can dissuade officers, particularly younger recruits, from colluding with drug traffickers. But if Argentina is serious about tackling organized crime, further measures need to be taken on a wider level, including investigations into corruption within certain political circles and the prison system.

ELN Now Present in Half of Venezuela

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Image credit: AP, Juan Bautista Díaz

Recent ELN attacks against the Venezuela military in the state of Amazonas and civilian miners in the state of Bolívar reflect the Colombian guerrilla group’s growing power and add to a series of events during 2018 that demonstrate its presence in at least half of the country.

On November 4, Colombia’s National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) attacked the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB) in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas, leaving three officers dead and 10 wounded. The attack was in response to the arrest of four ELN members, including one of the group’s top leaders, Luis Felipe Ortega Bernal, alias “Garganta,” who has an Interpol blue notice issued against him.

When they arrested Garganta, authorities found several identification documents in his possession. One of them was a form of identification used by Venezuelan citizens to obtain government-subsidized services, in this case under the false name of Gabriel Alfonso Ariza Suárez.

The attack — one of the most significant confrontations between the ELN and Venezuelan forces in recent years — elicited a statement from Colombia’s foreign ministry, while Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino only managed a delayed and noncommittal tweet on social media. He denounced the presence of any armed group in the country, never mentioning the ELN as the criminal organization that perpetrated the violent act.

(Click image to enlarge) 

Padrino also took the opportunity to criticize the “inability of the Colombian government to control its [criminal] groups, violence and drug trafficking.” However, InSight Crime identified the presence of the ELN in 12 states in Venezuela — roughly half the country — by examining media reports detailing the guerrilla group’s activities in Venezuelan territory in 2018, as well as through non-governmental agency reports and information provided from official sources along the border.

SEE ALSO: ELN Profile

Based on the information InSight Crime gathered, the ELN could have a presence in the states of Táchira, Zulia, Apure, Trujillo, Anzoátegui, Lara Falcón, Amazonas, Barinas, Portuguesa, Guárico and Bolívar. Activities the group allegedly engages in include cattle smuggling, gasoline smuggling, extortion, food distribution, radio stations, recruitment of minors, attacks on security officials, drug trafficking and illegal mining.

Before the November 4 attack, the ELN allegedly perpetrated another deadly attack on October 14, in which seven people were killed in the town of Domingo Sifontes. The town is situated in Venezuela’s most extensive mining region, where the government is implementing the Orinoco Mining Arc project.

InSight Crime Analysis

ELN units have managed to advance nearly 1,500 kilometers from the Colombian border with Venezuela’s Táchira state, where the group has historically entered the country, to states that border Guyana and Brazil, such as Bolívar and Amazonas, and to coastal states like Anzoátegui and Falcón. That the ELN is present in half of Venezuela is a testament both to its continued military prowess and to just how far it has come in its expansion into President Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela without any major obstacles to speak of.

Towns like Atures in Amazonas state, José Gregorio Monagas in Anzoátegui and Domingo Sifontes in Bolívar have seen guerrilla presence and control over area mines to the point where some indigenous communities have left total control of public order in the hands of the ELN.

Residents of the town of Catatumbo in Venezuela’s Zulia state as well as journalists have confirmed that the ELN and another Colombian guerrilla group, the dissidence of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), have taken their ongoing conflict from Colombia into their territory on the Venezuelan side of the border. The expanding conflict has caused displacement and the deaths of civilians and military personnel.

The Venezuelan government, however, has so far kept silent about these events.

According to Venezuelan NGO Fundación Redes, the ELN could be receiving support from Venezuela’s armed forces in the form of weapons and entry into Venezuela. It has also been alleged that the military helped the ELN to integrate with communities in Táchira, for example, by allowing the group to distribute the Venezuelan government’s subsidized food via its Local Storage and Production Committees (Comités Locales de Abastecimiento y Producción – CLAP).

Meanwhile, radio stations, pamphlet distribution in schools, control points on rural roads and extortion (demanding 10 percent of production) in the mines have aided the ELN in gaining territory and power in Venezuela and, perhaps more importantly, the resources it uses to continue financing its criminal activities.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela: A Mafia State?

The ELN’s expansion in Venezuela has been marked by the Maduro administration’s inaction and even encouragement towards the group. One illustration of this is the government’s decision to send Garganta, who was arrested in Amazonas state, to a military prison in Caracas intended for political and military prisoners.

At the same time, however, the guerrilla group’s presence in Venezuela has led Colombian President Iván Duque to intensify his pressure on the ELN by refusing to participate in peace negotiations if it continues its illegal activities.

Venezuela is the perfect place for an ELN retreat as it seeks protection from political hostilities in Colombia, expands its operations and fills out its ranks with victims of the country’s economic crisis. Given such favorable circumstances, Venezuela’s mafia state status is icing on the cake for Colombia’s most powerful guerrilla group.

Migrant Caravan in Mexico Changes Course, but Dangers Still Lurk

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Migrants rest at theJesus Martinez 'Palillo' Stadium in Mexico City.

A caravan of Central American migrants traveling to the United States has changed its intended route to avoid the Texas-Mexico border — a move that shows even such a large group remains vulnerable to powerful criminal organizations operating in Mexico.

The caravan now aims to reach the United States by way of Tijuana, instead of through the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which borders Texas, the Los Angeles Times reported. The migrants, which left Honduras in October, have rerouted onto the much longer but safer path toward California, to avoid one of the most dangerous Mexican states for migrants.

This decision comes amid a report that prosecutors in the state of Puebla are investigating the alleged kidnapping of 100 migrants, including 65 children, HuffPost Mexico reported. There are, however, conflicting reports about what happened to the migrants.

Oaxaca Ombudsman Arturo Peimbert first spoke of the alleged mass kidnapping on November 5. He said it happened while the migrants were moving through the state of Veracruz, another high-risk region.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

Three people who claim they managed to escape the kidnappers have now given statements to authorities. One woman, who was not identified, said eight hooded men had stopped the fruit truck they were traveling in. She also said one attacker boarded the truck and told the group they had been “sold.”

InSight Crime Analysis

The report of an alleged mass kidnapping and the decision of caravan leaders to change course shows that this journey is still one of the most dangerous in the world as criminal organizations continue to take advantage of the steady flow of vulnerable people traveling through Mexico.

Migrants and asylum seekers are exposed to the entire spectrum of criminals in this region: from small independent groups working along the border to large organizations and gangs known to kidnap, extort, prostitute, and even murder migrants.

SEE ALSO: Violence against migrants

For migrants, the shortest route to the United States is to the southern tip of Texas, requiring them to trek through the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, a stronghold for criminal organizations.

For years, the Zetas controlled this area. In 2010, the group orchestrated the massacre of 72 migrants in the municipality of San Fernando.

The later splintering of the Zetas and other cartels in the region led to a rise in violence, particularly against migrants, who continued to be victims of kidnappings and extortion. Corrupt Mexican police and immigration officials only exacerbated this situation, colluding with criminal organizations or even extorting migrants directly.

With the added risks, the journey for migrants has become costlier. Central Americans now pay nearly $10,000 to cross the US border illegally, up from less than $3,000 a decade ago, according to the New York Times.

Reducing costs and gaining safety in numbers were key reasons why such a large group of migrants joined this caravan. Its large size, media attention, and dedicated leadership — all unusual features for caravans — have allowed it to largely remain together, Carolina Jiménez, Americas deputy director of research at Amnesty International, told InSight Crime.

Caravans in the past, however, have tended to fracture as they approach the US border. And that is the point where they become even more vulnerable to criminal organizations, as may have occurred with the reported kidnappings in Veracruz.

When groups are smaller, it’s “difficult to confirm attacks against caravan members,” Jiménez said.

More caravans are following the first one. Another group of some 2,000 migrants, mostly Salvadorans, is “getting much less attention,” she said.

“We are afraid not everyone will stay with the larger group,” Jiménez said. “And this could be a situation where they become victims of criminal gangs and organized crime.”

Majority of Businesses Hurt by Crime in Mexico: Report

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Mexico's security crisis is taking a toll on the local economy

A new report from Mexico’s statistics institute provides fresh evidence that the country’s ongoing security crisis has taken a toll on the local economy, particularly on large businesses.

Of more than 35,000 businesses surveyed in 2017, a third reported being victims of crimes, including robbery, shoplifting and extortion, according to the latest National Survey of Business Victimization (Encuesta Nacional de Victimización de Empresas – ENVE), by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía – INEGI).

This is the fourth time the INEGI has released its report, which has now found that large businesses are particularly targeted by criminal groups, both big and small.

Yet nearly 32 percent of Mexico’s micro-businesses, which are defined as those that employ ten or fewer people and represent around 97 percent of the number of Mexican firms, reported suffering a crime in 2017.

In contrast, small, medium, and large firms reported higher rates of victimization: 59.3 percent, 61.5 percent, and 51.4 percent, respectively.

InSight Crime Analysis

The findings of the fourth ENVE survey paint a devastating picture of how Mexico’s security crisis is affecting the nation’s economy.

Nearly one-fifth of the businesses surveyed reported that they had reduced their hours of operation as a result of criminal threats. More than six percent said they had simply pulled out altogether, and 13 percent reported having reduced investments.

Whether directly or indirectly, all of these responses represent a reduction of Mexico’s economic activity.

While the ENVE doesn’t look at how the high level of crimes against businesses affects Mexico’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), there’s evidence that the nation‘s growth has lagged behind that of its Latin American and North American neighbors for most of the past two decades.

As the ENVE survey shows, the relentless difficulties legitimate business face from criminal groups is one major reason. A separate INEGI study recently estimated that insecurity costs the nation nearly 1.65 percent in annual GDP growth.

SEE MORE: Mexico News and Profiles

ENVE does not distinguish between petty criminals and organized crime groups. Certain common crimes like shoplifting and fraud have few natural ties to such groups. However, organized crime groups either engage in or enable several of the most frequent illegal acts that plague businesses: extortion, but also armed robbery and the corruption of government officials.

Similarly, the business community’s withdrawal from the economy was most pronounced in the three states where extortion and other aspects of organized crime have worsened: Veracruz, Guerrero, and Zacatecas.

The ENVE survey also inadvertently explains why the government has been unable to tackle this crisis. Businesses reported crimes against them only 16 percent of the time, which led to police investigations in 85 percent of those cases. When explaining their reluctance to report crimes, business owners cited a lack of faith in the government’s ability to prosecute criminals, a fear of the criminals themselves, and a distrust of the police.

Even in the small minority of cases that sparked investigations, it’s unlikely the perpetrators will be caught and punished. According to one recent study, just 12 percent of the nation’s criminal investigations resulted in a conviction or an acquittal.

Such a small chance that criminals will be brought to justice sends the message that illegal activities are effectively allowed. Against this backdrop, many businesses end up paying off criminal groups or choose to close down, and the result is Mexico’s economy continues to suffer.

Marijuana Seizures Plummet in US and Mexico. Will Illegal Profits Follow?

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Nogales Area Port Director Guadalupe Ramirez talks about a record marijuana seizure in 2013.

Authorities on both sides of the US-Mexico border have seized far less marijuana in recent years — a sign that the legalization of the drug within the United States has diminished the demand for the smuggled variety.

The Mexican army seized just over 825,000 pounds of marijuana in 2017, a 67 percent drop from nearly 2.5 million pounds in 2015. This year, so far, the amount has plunged to about 308,000 pounds, a nearly 90 percent decrease from three years ago, according to a Milenio report.

The trend mirrors diminished seizures of the drug at the US-Mexico border.

Since 2015, marijuana seized crossing into the United States from Mexico has decreased by 44 percent — from about 1.53 million pounds to about 858,000 pounds in 2017, according to reports from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) stations along the southwest border.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

Though detailed seizure numbers at the US-Mexico border are not available to date, the CBP is reporting that through August, agents in all of its sectors — which include the Canada border and US coastlines — have picked up just 723,000 pounds of marijuana.

That stands in stark contrast to six years ago when CBP took in nearly 2.8 million pounds.

InSight Crime Analysis

The spread of legal marijuana in the US neatly dovetails with the drop in marijuana seizures. But other contributing factors cannot be ruled out, such as law enforcement shifting its attention away from smuggled marijuana.

Certainly, the demand for marijuana from Mexico has decreased as more Americans gain access to the homegrown version. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize the recreational use of cannabis. Since then, ten states have legalized its recreational use and 23 others have signed off on its medical use.

Meanwhile, domestic cannabis cultivation has flourished. In 2016, the year before recreational laws passed in California, farmers there cultivated 13.5 million pounds of marijuana, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Beau Kilmer, co-director of the Rand Drug Policy Research Center, told InSight Crime that a study of his about a decade ago showed 40 to 67 percent of cannabis consumed in the US came from Mexico, but that this has since dropped. “The share of cannabis consumed in the US is increasingly coming from domestic sources,” Kilmer said. “But we don’t know how much.”

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Contraband

Also unclear is legalization’s effect on drug trafficking organizations’ bottom line.

That 2010 RAND study examining marijuana legalization in California estimated that the drug earned Mexico’s criminal groups about $1.5 billion a year, equivalent to less than a quarter of their revenue. One way legal marijuana in California could hurt cartel income is if cannabis grown in the state were to seep out to where it remains illegal, undercutting black market sales, the report said.

Criminal organizations, however, have begun to smuggle other drugs. The DEA recently reported that heroin and fentanyl seizures have skyrocketed the past few years amid the opioid crisis, and methamphetamines have also turned into big business for the cartels.

But the trend of relaxing marijuana regulations will only continue. Canada just legalized cannabis nationally, and Mexico’s new government appears to want to do the same.

Only more data and time will show how much broad access to legal marijuana has cut into criminal organizations’ illicit profits.

Evolution of Transnational Organized Crime in the Americas

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Latin america seminar organized crime

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Evolution of Transnational Organized Crime in the Americas – Live broadcast

Remember to use the hashtag #OrganizedCrimeAmericas to interact with conference participants and ask questions.

Agenda


After a year full of challenges for organized crime and dramatic shifts in Colombia and Latin America’s criminal dynamics, InSight Crime, Universidad del Rosario and the The Colombian Organized Crime Observatory present the international seminar “Evolution of Transnational Organized Crime in the Americas” taking place on Thursday, November 15, 2018. Leading experts in the field of organized crime will gather in Bogotá, Colombia, to discuss the region’s evolving criminal landscape, and what to expect in 2019.

SEE ALSO:  GameChangers 2017: What to Watch for in 2018

The directors of InSight Crime, Jeremy McDermott and Steven Dudley, will lead the event’s discussions, which will be broadcast live on InSight Crime’s social media networks in both English and Spanish.

Other experts who are participating in the discussions include Federico Varese, criminologist and professor at Oxford University; Angélica Durán, professor at the University of Massachusetts; Bruce Bagley, writer and professor at the University of Miami; Benjamin Lessing, professor at the University of Chicago; Phil Williams, Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies; and Arlene B. Tickner, dean and professor at Universidad del Rosario, among others.

Speakers will discuss topics such as the criminal landscape amid Colombia’s peace process, violence in Central America, widespread corruption in governments in the region and the need to confront new actors and forms of organized crime.

Venezuela Institutional Weaknesses Facilitate Cocaine Trafficking: Report

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Are weak institutions in Venezuela facilitating cocaine trafficking?

A new study from Transparency Venezuela says that the country’s weak criminal justice system is facilitating the activities of organized crime groups, particularly cocaine trafficking.

This report is the first from the Crimjust Project, a joint initiative from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Interpol and Transparency International. The report looked at nine countries located along strategic cocaine trafficking routes in Latin America, the Caribbean, and West Africa. Venezuela — where laws punishing criminalize corruption and organized crime are rarely used — received the worst results.

“Total state control, promoted by the upper echelons of power by the assimilation of security and justice institutions [the Attorney General’s Office and Supreme Court], has been efficient for political control but not for confronting criminal organizations,” Transparency Venezuela said during the presentation of the report on November 6.

SEE ALSO: Dominican Republic and Venezuela: Cocaine Across the Caribbean

The study, which analyzed the integrity and accountability of the anti-drug unit within Venezuela’s judicial police (Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – CICPC), the Attorney General’s Office and the criminal division of the Supreme Court, highlights how corruption has increased over the last 20 years under the administrations of former President Hugo Chávez and current President Nicolás Maduro.

InSight Crime Analysis

The lack of independence within the criminal justice system in Venezuela has been extensively documented by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW). Criminal groups have taken full advantage of this situation in order to continue operating with complete impunity.

Drug trafficking has found “fertile territory” in a mafia state, where the active participation of public officials in this illegal and cross-border business prevents international cooperation and effective investigations that lead to criminal convictions.

SEE ALSO: Honduras and Venezuela: Coup and Cocaine Air Bridge

In Venezuela, police officers, prosecutors and judges are often appointed and removed from their posts based on their connections. And there is no stability in these positions, leaving them highly vulnerable to political and economic pressures. In addition, the lack of ethical training and protection for these officials makes them easy prey for transnational drug trafficking groups that generally have the resources to buy their complacency or complicity, including directly involving them in criminal activities.

Although the results regarding the other eight countries included in the study (Ghana, Nigeria, Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Peru) were not revealed, Zoe Rëiter, the head of the Crimjust Project, and Transparency International Director Mercedes de Freitas confirmed that Venezuela has the worst institutional capacity to combat cocaine trafficking.

In general, the United Nations, Transparency International, and Interpol recommended “attacking the problem at the root.” That is, to recover the independence and autonomy of the justice system. However, this amounts to a return to democratic institutions, which would only be possible with a change in the country’s political leadership.

Breakdown of how judicial officials in Venezuela operate.

 

Guatemala Elite’s Criminal Links Highlight Country’s Political Vulnerability

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Alleged members of the Huistas criminal group sit in a Guatemala jail (Photo: Edwin Bercián)

A representative of Central America’s parliamentary institution from Guatemala has been linked to a criminal organization with longstanding ties to politicians and other elite figures, underscoring the vulnerability of the regional body and the country’s political system.

Over the course of a five-year investigation, Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office has determined that Freddy Arnoldo Salazar Flores, a representative of the Central American Parliament (Parlacen), has family ties that link him to the Huistas criminal organization, which operates in a key region in northwest Guatemala near the border with Mexico, ElPeriódico reported

Salazar Flores is reportedly married to a woman by the name of Danury Lisseth Samayoa Montejo. She is the daughter of an alleged Huistas member, Aler Baldomero Samayoa Recinos, alias “Chicharra.”

But this is not the only connection that Salazar Flores reportedly has to the criminal organization. Salazar Flores’ sister, Eliza Judith Salazar Mejía, is married to another alleged Huistas member by the name of Juan Bautista Rozotto López, alias “Juancho,” according to ElPeriódico.

(Graphic courtesy of ElPeriódico)

In September 2013, Guatemala’s National Police arrested Rozotto López while he was transporting 600,000 quetzales in cash (around $78,000), hidden in a compartment in his car. A local court, however, later released Rozotto López from jail.

A series of wiretaps has since revealed that other Huistas members allegedly conspired to provide falsified evidence that made it look like the cash that Rozotto López was transporting had come from the legal sale of machinery and vehicles to a company identified as Jarepsa, SA. This allegedly fabricated evidence led a judge to close the case, Prensa Libre reported.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The Huistas

In a joint operation, Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office and the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) recaptured Rozotto López in October 2018, along with several other alleged Huistas members. Prosecutors say they have more than 100 telephone intercepts that will help prove how Rozotto López’s fellow Huistas members fabricated evidence to get him released from jail.

InSight Crime Analysis

Salazar Flores’ alleged links to the Huistas criminal organization is a stark reminder of the vulnerability of Guatemala’s political system, despite positive strides made in recent years to combat corruption. It also adds yet another scandal to the long list of shady incidents involving the Parlacen.

The Central American Parliament — an institution formed in the late 1980s to discuss regional issues — has been a sort of “white elephant” in Latin American politics. Despite the vast amounts of money that have been invested into the institution, it has been surrounded by corruption and criminal scandals.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

Most notably, in February 2007, the bodies of three politicians from El Salvador and their driver were found badly burned in Guatemala, where they had arrived to participate in a plenary session. Among the dead was the son of Roberto D’Abuisson, the co-founder of El Salvador’s Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA) political party.

Just days later, four jailed police officers in Guatemala were murdered in an attempt to stop investigators from finding out who ordered the killings.

What has since been dubbed the “Parlacen case” was one of the main reasons for Guatemala to establish the CICIG. But Salazar Flores’ alleged ties to the Huistas is a worrying reminder that, even with an independent anti-graft body that has made significant strides in rooting out corruption, organized crime groups are still finding ways to infiltrate the country’s political system.

Bolivia-Brazil Border Remains Crime Hotspot

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A reinforced policing unit comprised of 200 officers are now active in San Matías

A security operation looking to regain control of the Bolivian border town of San Matías has revealed the extent to which an absence of state institutions has led to lawlessness in the area.

Police arrested 14 people in raids in San Matías, a Bolivian town situated 7 kilometers from the Brazilian border.

The raids were part of “Operación Retorno” (Operation Return), which began on October 15 to mark the return of security forces to the area following a four-month absence.

“In San Matías, drug trafficking and money laundering have found their way into the structures of local authorities,” said Bolivian Interior Minister Carlos Romero, El Deber reported. The minister also pointed to violent clashes between a local group and another drug trafficking gang from Cáceres in Brazil, with both sides seeing losses.

SEE ALSO: Bolivia News and Profile

Security forces fled the area due to public fury after police shot and killed a young man during traffic checks on June 18. The man appeared to have no link to any criminal activities and local people rioted in response, setting fire to a police station and vehicles.

However, a reinforced police force of 200 officers is now active in San Matías, in a bid to regain control of the town.

Insight Crime Analysis

Being a no man’s land of sorts, relative isolation from the rest of the country and its proximity to the Brazilian border have made San Matías a strategic crossing point for drugs, illicit goods, and people. The town is part of a major drug trafficking corridor for Bolivian cocaine entering Brazil.

The current operation in San Matías may serve to re-establish nothing more than a superficial police presence in the town. The first wave of arrests reveals how desperate authorities are to show any sort of progress, as drunk drivers made up almost half of the arrests portended to target criminal organizations.

Any real difference is unlikely without accompanying institutional changes that can guarantee a strong and reliable state presence in the region.

“This is a region that has been stateless for a long time,” political sociologist and Bolivia expert Miguel Centellas told Insight Crime. “For many people in border areas, the only state presence is the local mayor which leads to a disconnect with the national government.”

This abandonment by state institutions and the poor handling of criminal acts when intervention does occur has left communities vulnerable to infiltration by criminal groups.

      SEE ALSO: Coverage of Police Reform

Last year, amid concerns surrounding the expansion of Brazilian drug trafficking groups into Bolivia, officials from both countries discussed a reinforced plan to target border security. However, such plans are unlikely to have much success.

San Matías has a long history of failed state intervention. In 2010, former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva dedicated efforts to create an anti-drugs plan for the area. More recently, the Bolivian government created a specialist border police with the hope of regaining control over the troubled border region.

These programs have not quelled the longstanding security issues in the area. Murder rates in San Matías have spiked this year as police forces continued to struggle.

And local residents view the police with hostility and suspicion. Incidents such as the killing of a supposedly innocent young man will only worsen this. The burning of the police station shows that public patience with the authorities may be at an end.