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Decades of Deforestation, Illegal Mining and Impunity in Nicaragua

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Deforestation in the Indio Maíz Reserve in Nicaragua

Nicaragua’s Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, on the southern border with Costa Rica, is under assault. Illegal mining operations appear to be growing. Mercury and cyanide are polluting rivers. Thousands of hectares of forest cover are disappearing, and Indigenous community members are in constant danger of being killed.

The Fundación del Río (River Foundation), a conservation organization focused on Southeast Nicaragua, has been systematically reporting on the gradual environmental destruction of the Indio Maíz, a protected forest that is home to more than 1,000 species of birds, mammals, insects and amphibians.

The foundation, however, has run afoul of the Nicaraguan government, which stripped it of its legal status and seized the foundation’s properties. The organization’s president, Amaru Ruiz, has left for Costa Rica, alleging threats and attacks by the government.

Amaru Ruiz

InSight Crime sat down with Ruiz to discuss Nicaragua’s poor track record of fighting environmental crime, efforts to halt illegal mining and deforestation and the ongoing work of Fundación del Río.

InSight Crime (IC): Over the past 30 years, Nicaragua’s forests have suffered from land being cleared by settlers and from illegal logging operations. What are the main illegal economies currently affecting the country’s protected nature reserves?

Amaru Ruiz (AR): The forests face different environmental stress factors. An important one is extensive livestock farming. Extensive livestock farming is one of the main factors that lead to deforestation and the invasion of protected communities and territories in Nicaragua. Mining is another extractive activity that is having an impact on protected areas as well as Indigenous territories. The growth of African palm is also generating changes in land use, deforestation processes and pollution, both in southeastern and northern Nicaragua.

IC: How have these activities evolved in recent years?

AR: There has been institutional support within the regime of President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo to promote capital investment in mining and livestock. There are also large corporations involved in palm oil processing. While this foreign investment is supported, there is no process to allow environmental defenders to carry out their work. There is little political will to protect Nicaragua’s forests.

SEE ALSO: Human Smuggling Thrives Between Costa Rica and Nicaragua

IC: How easy is it for a group of miners to set up illegal operations within protected territories? What preventive measures or obstacles do these groups face?

AR: We need to differentiate between industrial-scale mining and small artisanal mining. Many miners in smaller operations come from areas where such mining is a longstanding practice.

These miners move to other areas, such as the Indio Maíz Reserve, to look for gold with their families. They use cyanide and mercury to separate the gold from the rocks. They build artisan mills and start extracting minerals by hand, generating other environmental impacts as well. There has been total disinterest to address the growth of artisanal mining. Many of the materials extracted this way, including gold, are then purchased by mining companies.

IC: How are these artisanal mining activities illegal?

AR: All activities carried out by small artisanal mining operations today are illegal in protected territories because they have no authorization and no permission. They also occur within protected areas, where one needs a permit to exploit the subsoil. Permission needs to be given for the use of mercury or cyanide.

IC: How has Fundación del Río worked to track illegal mining, logging and other activities taking place in protected areas?

AR: As an organization, we have carried out a number of activities, including collecting information and studies about illegal extractive operations in protected areas, especially in southeastern Nicaragua.

For example, we have monitored how African palm cultivation has grown, we have inventoried illegal mining operations. We have publicly denounced these activities and have filed complaints with environmental authorities on the national level. We have also collaborated with the communal governments of Indigenous Rama communities, which own more than 70 percent of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. We have accompanied them, as they try to increase their security capabilities, in order to protect the Reserve.

IC: In November 2020, the Fundación del Río reported that around 2,000 miners were discovered at an illegal gold mining site in the El Castillo municipality, which makes up part of the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. Who is behind these operations and who supports them, both directly and indirectly?

AR: Most are families that work in artisanal mining who come from the country’s historic mining districts in La Libertad and the northern Caribbean area. They mobilize in these areas first, to explore. After they find some material indicating that there is gold, they obviously start with these illegal gold exploitation activities in these areas, resulting in contamination. So, they are artisanal miners, conducting illegal mining activities, that move into these territories.

IC: Colombia has seen a tragic amount of attacks on Indigenous leaders, as well as Peru and BrazilTo what extent do leaders in Nicaragua face such threats? 

AR: The same violence seen in other countries against Indigenous communities and environmental defenders is also occurring in Nicaragua. At the beginning of 2020, we saw the deaths of Indigenous leaders defending their land rights. They were killed by settlers invading those areas.

Some environmental defenders have had to leave the country. They took away our organization’s legal status. I am exiled in Costa Rica. They have stripped other organizations of their legal status because they opposed this extractive model. The persecution and murder of environmental defenders is a reality in Nicaragua.

IC: In February 2020, it was reported that armed men attacked the Alal Indigenous community in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, with four Indigenous community members being killed and homes set on fire. What happened in this case? 

AR: The invaders buy weapons to violently remove Indigenous communities and usurp their lands. A settler wanting to occupy this territory can only do so through violence. They form organizations with other settlers that have the same interest. This is how these murders occur. Some Indigenous communities have decided to defend themselves, which leads to these conflicts. The Miskito community in the north has also resisted. But the police and army have almost never tried to stop these armed groups.

IC: Do you believe that Nicaraguan authorities are turning a blind eye to transnational crime in Costa Rica?

AR: Environmental issues are not of interest to the Nicaraguan state. They are not interested in what is emerging along the border area with Costa Rica.

IC: As for this site, your organization recently pointed out that there was no viable way to legally challenge these types of operations in Nicaragua, and that such procedures would be lengthy and costly. What’s this all about?

AR: In Nicaragua, we live in a system where the powers of the state are concentrated within a single person, who in this case is the president. Really, as they are environmental crimes, the person who should formally denounce the crimes committed by these families is the Attorney General’s Office, because these protected areas belong to the nation.

The Indigenous communities already looked into filing a complaint. They filed a complaint against a large livestock farmer operating within their territory, within the biological reserve. However, the case was overruled within the judicial system. It’s no use trying to establish this whole process and to spend on those legal processes if in the end, the judicial system is going to fail us.

SEE ALSO: Nicaragua News and Profiles

IC: Apart from illegal mining, what other environmental crimes have we seen recently in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve?

AR: All the growth in livestock farming, the issue of land use by settlers, the invasion of protected lands by settlers, fires, fish trafficking activities, in other words, people engaged in wild fish trafficking.

IC: How does fish trafficking work on the reserve?

AR: They enter the reserve, extract the resources and take them to market to sell. There are always middlemen, and there is always someone that traffics these fish on an international level. They are fish that have a high commercial value in the market.

IC: At the end of September, 18 black and Indigenous leaders, as well as lawyers and forest rangers from the Rama-Kriol indigenous community, were temporarily detained by the armed forces after documentation of environmental degradation and the usurpation of lands in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve. The president of the territory, Teodoro Jaime McCrea Williams, was intercepted by the army and then released. How common are these types of situations? Why do the authorities do this?

AR: First, it is important to mention that these are human rights violations against Indigenous communities and the leaders within these territories. Secondly, there was the arbitrary detention of the leader Teodoro. They brought him to the police station, and he spent the night in police custody. The Nicaraguan Army is complicit in this, because on the one hand they stop the communal governments that do the monitoring work, and on the other hand they do not stop the real invaders who go into these territories looking to loot and destroy. So, there’s a duality in terms of the army’s performance.

IC: But this type of situation is quite typical for protected reserves in Nicaragua?

AR: This had never occurred before within the biological reserve, because what the communal governments do is inform the authorities when they go into these territories to protect the land. They already knew that they were going into these territories. For this reason, it is inexplicable how this situation occurred.

IC: It is evident that, in this case, the Rama-Kriol community has been proactive in preventing criminal groups from establishing operations on their territory, conducting patrols and monitoring on a regular basis. How have these communities been fighting illegal loggers and miners?

AR: They conduct monitoring patrol activities. They visit the families that have settled there, and they say that this is their territory and that they should leave. They file complaints and try to provide evidence of cases of invasion within the reserve. They have obviously presented formal accusations before national and international human rights agencies. They have presented cases before the judicial system. The Nicaraguan state should guarantee their protection and that of their territories, but that is not what is happening.

Cachiros Money Laundering Cells Still Operate in Honduras

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Police in Honduras seized just under 50 assets, including luxury properties, to target a powerful money laundering organization

Authorities in Honduras have revealed in recent months million-dollar money laundering operations connected to the Cachiros, indicating that vestiges of the drug clan continue to operate in the country despite the group’s demise. 

On January 19, the nation’s judiciary announced it had sentenced Celi Asmery Paso Galo,  an associate of the Cachiros drug trafficking clan, to ten years in prison for his involvement in money laundering.

Between 2010 and 2015, Paso Galo conducted a series of financial transactions, including property transfers, on behalf of the clan’s leaders, Javier Eriberto Rivera Maradiaga, alias “Javier Cachiro,” and his brother Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga. According to judicial officials, Paso Galo was unable to justify the origin of 10 million lempiras (around $415,000).

SEE ALSO: Cachiros News and Profile

Three other associates of the Cachiros were convicted alongside Paso Galo. Nixón Yadir Manzanares Murillo was sentenced to eight years in prison for money laundering. Dina Herenia Fúnez Lisser and Marla Ramona Nájera Rubí received five-year sentences for acting as frontmen.

The sentences came a month after the Attorney General’s Office reported authorities had carried out a series of raids across four departments — Copán, Lempira, Cortés and Yoro — targeting a money-laundering network linked to the Cachiros.

Between 2008 and 2018, the pair allegedly laundered money through front companies known as “Zapaton,” as well as through the purchase of luxury properties and other goods, according to an Attorney General’s Office news release.

The head of Honduras’ Anti-Narcotics Directorate (Dirección Nacional Policial Antidrogas — DNPA), Mario Molina Moncada, linked “Zapaton” to Los Cachiros and deceased drug trafficker Gustavo Chinchilla, La Prensa reported.

During the operation, authorities seized some 50 assets, including luxury homes and vehicles. For two years, investigators followed a suspicious trail of 200 million lempiras (just over $8.2 million).

InSight Crime Analysis

Though the brothers who headed the Cachiros drug clan are jailed in the United States, actors tied to the group are still present in money laundering and drug operations, albeit on a much smaller scale. 

The cells effectively are the last vestiges of the Cachiros name after the group’s demise.

Starting as a family of small-time cattle rustlers, the Cachiros became one of Honduras’ largest transport groups, with a net worth close to $1 billion. They supplied cocaine and other drugs to Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel and had ties to the Colombian criminal organization the Rastrojos.

SEE ALSO: Wild West of Honduras: Home to Narcos and Their Politicians

Buying cocaine from Colombian organizations, the Cachiros controlled lucrative trafficking routes, using powerful connections in the military, police and politics to their advantage — particularly in their former stronghold of Colón.

From around 2013, US authorities began to pursue the group. As InSight Crime previously reported, members of the organization turned themselves in between 2013 and 2015, leading to the cartel’s decline.

Despite this, arrests of Cachiros associates involved in money laundering, which is more difficult to detect and target than the transnational cocaine trafficking the Cachiros previously oversaw, continue to occur.

In April of last year, five associates were found guilty of having laundered more than 700 million lempiras (just short of $29 million) for the group. They had been creating shell companies, which received money for no economic or legal justification.

In 2017, InSight Crime reported how authorities in Honduras had seized millions of dollars worth of property linked to the debilitated criminal structure, identifying several individuals tied to suspicious business and real estate transactions with Marlene Isabel Cruz Quintanilla, the wife of Javier Rivera Maradiaga.

At their peak, the Cachiros commanded territory stretching east to Gracias a Dios, south to Olancho and west to the region’s criminal hub, the city of San Pedro Sula.

Last month’s intervention saw authorities carry out operations in the western departments of Copán, Cortés and Lempira. As InSight Crime reported in 2019, western Honduras is a region that has traditionally been associated with clandestine routes for all types of contraband, including drugs.

Black Market Peso Exchange Evolving in United States

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Money laundered through the Black Market Peso Exchange has been found invested into legitimate real estate deals

US federal prosecutors say a real-estate investment firm accepted millions in drug money, revealing how high-end real-estate ventures are being used to launder dirty cash at scale.

The case was settled on January 12, when Sefira Capital LLC — a Florida-based investment firm — agreed to forfeit around $30 million to resolve a charge that Sefira and 31 of its subsidiaries accepted millions in drug profits laundered through a scheme known to law enforcement officials as the Black Market Peso Exchange, according to a Department of Justice (DOJ) news release. It was one of three investment companies to forfeit around $50 million in similar cases.

According to the federal complaint against Sefira, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) used undercover accounts and directed informants to transfer drug proceeds through money-laundering brokers. The transfers resulted in millions of dollars being moved to Sefira accounts, prosecutors said. Sefira accepted this money from DEA’s unnamed accounts without any attempt to inquire into the source of their ownership — a direct violation of financial risk regulations.

SEE ALSO: International Money Laundering Schemes Latest to Fall Victim to Coronavirus

The seized assets were spread out over 31 bank accounts belonging to Sefira subsidiaries, in amounts of up to $8.7 million per account, according to the complaint.

As part of the settlement, Sefira committed to “conduct reasonable due diligence on future investors, and not accept investment funds” from anyone except actual investors.

In announcing the settlement, New York US Attorney Audrey Strauss explained in a statement that the “Black Market Peso Exchange facilitates the laundering of vast sums of drug trafficking proceeds.” The forfeiture signals not only the surrender of millions in laundered proceeds, “but also the agreement of corporate defendants to exercise due diligence to ensure they are not assisting in or facilitating money laundering,” she said.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Black Market Peso Exchange is nothing new, but the recent settlement underscores that the system has evolved to include the investment of dirty dollars within the United States into legal, high-end, profit-earning real estate.

The Black Market Peso Exchange (BMPE) refers to a trade-based money laundering system to convert drug dollars into local Latin American currencies.

BMPE became a mainstay of money laundering in the 1980s, as organized crime adapted to increasingly strict financial regulations requiring traditional banks to know their customers and ensure that their income source was legitimate.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Money Laundering

BMPE is different from other money-laundering mechanisms because its aim is not to get dirty money into the banking system undetected but to circumvent traditional financial institutions altogether. Money laundering brokers are at the center of the scheme, buying dirty dollars from trafficking groups at a discount, taking out a commission, and then selling the dollars on to Latin American traders.

To pay for their US-based dollars, these Latin American importers usually deposit pesos into an informal exchange house, where trafficking groups pick them up. In a 2017 Miami-based case, however, Colombian importers would pay the cartel directly, once they received their American retail goods, according to a USA Today investigation.

BMPE is pervasive in the fashion district of Los Angeles, for instance, where despite government crackdowns, thousands of businesses continue to accept bulk cash in exchange for exporting goods, ranging from clothes to flowers, to Mexico. The advantage of BMPE is that no money actually crosses the border.

In the early 2000s, the US government started to combat BMPE actively. American exporters were put on notice: from now on, it would be their responsibility to make sure that exports were not financed by “black peso” dollars. Yet, by 2015, little had changed — with a federal official telling PBS that the BMPE continued to be “perhaps the largest, most insidious money-laundering system in the Western Hemisphere.”

Now, instead of relying on exports to transfer the value of the dirty dollars to Latin America, money laundering brokers are cleaning them in the United States by investing in real estate. COVID-19 has likely quickened this shift. In the first half of 2020, non-essential businesses’ shuttering caused a huge backup in the Mexican BMPE. As a result, drug cartels lost millions to seizures in the Los Angeles fashion district alone.

Purchasing high-end real-estate from undiscerning brokers provided an elegant solution — goods were no longer needed to cross closed borders and the dirty dollars would instead be invested in one of the few US markets that experienced a record-breaking boom.

What’s more, according to the complaint against Sefira, the real estate holdings were packaged as equity interests in special purpose vehicles (SPVs) — structures rife for abuse.

InSight Crime Events – Border Crime: The Northern Triangle and Tri-Border Area

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Organized crime thrives along borders. In Latin America, sophisticated criminal networks have long taken advantage of lax controls and corruptible checkpoints to expand their transnational crime rings, hopping between countries to take care of business or seek refuge from law enforcement.

Through several rounds of extensive field investigations, our researchers have analyzed and mapped out the main illicit economies and criminal groups present in 39 border departments spread across the six countries of study – the Northern Triangle trio of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, plus Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil of the Southern Cone.

*This series of events is part of a two-year investigation by InSight Crime meticulously chronicling criminal activity in Central America’s Northern Triangle and the Southern Cone’s Tri-Border area – two regions pivotal to transborder crime. Visit the investigation’s page, explore an interactive map and find case studies and in-depth departmental border profiles here.

Armed with this research, we have developed an ‘interactive dashboard,’ – an online interface where users can view the severity of organized crime in these border areasThe dashboard also contains detailed profiles for each of the border departments and criminal actors analyzed as part of this project.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of the Northern Triangle and the Tri-Border Area

This, along with six deep-dive investigations into corruption and transnational crime, will be progressively rolled out during the online series, with our investigative reports published one country at a time.  

Register for our full series of online events here. 

*By completing this form, you agree to receive information from InSight Crime, including our weekly bulletin and promotional materials for our other events. View our Privacy Policy here

Guatemala – February 2

– Drug trafficking and other transborder crime is rife along Guatemala’s borders, helped out by widespread corruption and a limited state presence. In border towns across the country, traffickers wage bloody turf wars to dispute even minor smuggling routes, often forging alliances with mayors to facilitate their business.

Full details and registration for the Guatemala event here.

Honduras – February 16

 In Honduras, drug trafficking reaches the highest levels of government, compromising the country’s borders and spurring on all manner of transnational crime. The incumbent National Party has played a leading role in Honduras’ steady decline into the murky world of narcostates.

Full details and registration for the Honduras event here.

Paraguay – February 25

– Endemic corruption at different levels of government has helped Paraguay become a major exporter of marijuana and a hub for contraband. Here, drug traffickers and dirty politicians often find common ground, and political fights spill into the underworld.

Full details and registration for the Paraguay event here.

Brazil – March 4

– Home to some of Latin America’s most sophisticated gangs, Brazil’s criminal actors are omnipresent smugglers along the Southern Cone’s borders. Neighboring Paraguay serves as a refuge for both the gangs and white-collar criminals, including savvy operators whitewashing millions of dollars.

Full details and registration for the Brazil event here.

Argentina – March 16

– Argentina’s affluent cities are major consumers of cocaine and marijuana, smuggled from Paraguay and Bolivia and distributed by domestic drug rings. These networks sometimes include corrupt mayors, dirty cops, and paid-off judges, who help to move tons of drugs across land and riverine highways.

Full details and registration for the Argentina event here.

El Salvador – March 23

– El Salvador is home to sophisticated freight networks that specialize in moving illicit narcotics through Central America, in addition to notorious street gangs the MS13 and Barrio 18. Though mostly tied up in extortion, InSight Crime tracked how one faction of the MS13 branched out into the international cocaine trade.

Full details and registration for the El Salvador event here.

New Houses, Same Violence: Argentina’s Public Housing Challenge

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Newly inaugurated public housing consumed by violence in Moreno, Argentina

A shootout between gangs at a brand new public housing development in Buenos Aires has highlighted a deficiency in Argentina’s social plans. Without complimentary security policies, public housing projects can rapidly be taken over by gangs expanding illicit operations and perpetuate insecurity.

On December 4, 2020, the governor of Buenos Aires, Axel Kicillof, inaugurated 364 homes in the town of Moreno on the outskirts of Argentina’s capital. The public housing development was constructed as part of Argentina’s Federal Plan of Households (Plan Federal de Viviendas), a project with the goal of utilizing vacant urban land to build public housing to promote urban consolidation in low-density neighborhoods.

Hardly a month later, on January 11, a gunfight broke out between gangs vying for control of drug sales in the new development. While nobody was injured, the event initiated new residents in a trend all too familiar to Moreno, insecurity and violence.

SEE ALSO: How Has Coronavirus Shifted Argentina’s Drug Dynamics?

In Moreno, violence is daily and severe, with criminal groups seeding fear among residents through robberies, assaults, and homicides, according to residents consulted by La Nación. In the face of such threats, local police are unreliable, as constant violence has driven them out of the area and, in the bordering town of Quijote, police are known to collaborate with drug dealers.

Economic precarity in Moreno has led to a proliferation of criminal activity. Drug sales and consumption are prevalent in the area, as are violent robberies and the recruitment of local youths into such activities. In October 2020, a series of targeted operations by Buenos Aires’ special operations force, the Halcón Group, succeeded in disarticulating a local criminal group dedicated to drug dealing in Moreno. However, as violence in the newly inaugurated neighborhood illustrates, local gangs continue to dominate the town.

Violence appears to have soared in Moreno since 2017 when social and religious leaders denounced increasing violent attacks against community members, as local gangs pushed to expand their zone of influence. That year, Moreno registered the fourth-highest number of violent deaths in Argentina.

InSight Crime Analysis

Public housing projects across Latin America have long suffered from an absence of complementary security policy – an oversight which, in effect, undermines the ambitious social mission of providing safe dwelling to precarious citizens.

In 2009, under President Lula da Silva, Brazil launched an ambitious public housing project, My House, My Life (Minha Casa, Minha Vida), which sought to construct affordable and secure public housing across the country. However, by 2015 an investigation revealed that residents in 64 complexes – 18,834 families in all – were targets for criminal activity, as criminals used apartments for drug sales, evicted families at will, and subjected residents to beatings, or worse.

SEE ALSO: Narcops: How Police and Drug Dealers Collude in Argentina

Similar dynamics plagued Venezuela’s public housing project, the Grand Mission Household Venezuela (Gran Misión Vivienda Venezuela), which was implemented by Hugo Chávez in 2011. While housing complexes provided homes to families living in precarity, residents were soon overrun by local criminal activity; robberies and assaults served as a constant threat, with one resident in the Teatro district of Caracas emphasizing, “security is the most important […] security can’t be bought, it depends on the government taking charge,” according to an article from Crónica Uno.

Argentina’s Federal Plan of Households is the latest example of the complex challenges facing public housing projects across Latin America. While security strategies may fail to entirely combat criminal activity, especially in urban areas long plagued by violence, a lack of robust security planning is sure to furnish criminal groups with new territory to expand illicit operations and reinforce patterns of insecurity for precarious populations.

Despite the incident in Moreno, Argentina’s Federal Plan of Households is set to begin construction on its newest project in 2021 – a development of 600 houses in Trujui, a city bordering Moreno with a similar history of conflict.

Chiquimula, Guatemala

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Chiquimula is a transit point and hub for drug trafficking. It also has marijuana production and a vibrant contraband and illegal mining market.  

This criminal economy is facilitated by corruption within local political institutions and departmental security forces, whose members play a leading role in the narcotics trade. State actors also work with low-profile drug trafficking clans to move cocaine through the department.  

In addition, criminal groups take advantage of lax customs controls and the numerous unsupervised crossings along Chiquimula’s border with Honduras and El Salvador to smuggle migrants, contraband and arms.  

 

Criminal Actors 

Cartel de IpalaThe drug cartel operates in the departments of Chiquimula and Zacapa. The Guatemala Attorney General’s Office has investigated current mayor of Ipala, Esduin Javier Javier — also known as Tres Kiebres — for being a leader of the group, but he has not been charged with a crime. 

Criminal Economies 

Arms Trafficking: During police operations in the department, authorities have seized various types of firearms, including pistols, shotguns and rifles. There are active drug clans in Chiquimula with purported access to illegal firearms. In addition, owners of livestock companies purportedly acquire AK-47 rifles to protect their land. Illicit firearms are allegedly smuggled through the department in cattle trucks, as part of an overland arms trafficking route from Nicaragua to Mexico. This suggests the existence of at least a moderate illicit arms trade in Chiquimula.  

Cocaine: Chiquimula is considered the most important entry point for cocaine smuggled into Guatemala from neighboring Honduras and El Salvador, making it one of the more lucrative illicit activities in the department. For several decades, drug trafficking groups have operated with relative impunity, working with corrupt municipal and national politicians to transport cocaine to Guatemala’s border with Mexico. Those authorities are now the protagonists of the cocaine trade, along with other low-profile groups that maintain close ties to the department’s mayors and congressional representatives. In recent years, maritime entry points in Pacific Coast departments like San Marcos, Retalhuleu and Escuintla have been targeted by authorities, possibly pushing drug traffickers into using the traditional overland smuggling routes that begin on Chiquimula’s eastern border with Honduras. 

Cannabis: The value of cannabis crops eradicated by Guatemalan authorities in Chiquimula in 2019 is an estimated $1.6 millionbased on price and seizure data provided by the country’s antinarcotics police. The total amount of cannabis cultivation is likely much higher, as crop seizures typically only represent a small portion of total cannabis cultivation. In fact, in 2017, Chiquimula was among the six Guatemalan departments with the highest rates of cannabis eradication. In addition, multiple crop seizures have been made in the Camotán and Jocotán municipalities. There is also a local consumption market for marijuana; small-time local gangs are the main players in this trade. In all, marijuana appears to be a mid-size market for Chiquimula. 

Environmental Crime: There are indications that illegal pine extraction occurs in the Jocotán and Camotán municipalities, allegedly perpetrated by a private company that does not possess the correct permits. Indigenous groups have complained about illegal logging in areas where they claim ancestral land ownership but where private companies and other actors have sought to use that land for licit and illicit purposes, such as mining, logging and drug trafficking. Drug traffickers appear to be involved in timber trafficking schemes in Chiquimula. Timber is purportedly transported to the El Progreso department, where other groups take over the distribution chain, but overall, the trade appears small in comparison to other criminal economies.  

Heroin (opiates): There are no indications of a significant opiate trade in Chiquimula. The last heroin seizure was made in 2016, when a woman was arrested while transporting an unknown quantity of heroin through the department, bound for the US.  

Human Trafficking: Criminal groups engage in sex and labor trafficking in Chiquimula, though cases are rarely reported. The areas bordering Honduras and El Salvador are hotspots for human traffickingWe estimate that the recruitment of sex trafficking victims in Chiquimula is significant, reaching into the millions of dollars. There are also large number of undocumented migrants passing through the department, who are vulnerable to trafficking networks. 

Human Smuggling: In 2019, nearly 2,000 Guatemalan migrants were returned to Chiquimula from the USa percentage of those who made the trip. Given the price of hiring a smuggler from the area (roughly $10,000), this appears to be a very lucrative criminal economy, reaching into the tens of millions of dollars. The Esquipulas municipality appears to be the main entry point for migrants smuggled into Guatemala. In total, there are three border checkpoints used to traffic migrants into the department from Honduras and El Salvador, along with long stretches of unmonitored border, which can be used to sneak migrants into the country 

Mineral Resources: There are indications that illegal mineral extraction takes place within legal mining operations in the Camotán municipality. Some companies appear to be operating mines without some of the necessary permits and possibly extracting minerals illegally, including jade. However, there is little indication that these alleged operations generate significant criminal revenues in the department. 

Extortion: The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 street gangs do not have a meaningful presence in ChiquimulaHowever, small-scale extortion rackets are operated by individuals, some of whom pretend to be gang members. These extortionists demand a small fee from corner shops in the Chiquimula and Esquipulas municipalities. Bus drivers have been killed for refusing to pay extortion fees. Extortion rackets are also controlled by prisoners who work with contacts on the inside of prison and family members on the outside to extract fees from individuals. Colombian nationals have also allegedly set up loan sharking businesses, known as “gota a gota (drop-by-drop).  

Money Laundering: Petrol stations and shops on certain highways, as well as construction companies, have reportedly been used to launder drug money. Buying land and cattle is another common tactic employed by drug traffickers to launder money.  

Sources: This profile is based in two field trips to Chiquimula and research in Guatemala City where InSight Crime interviewed congressmen, representatives of the Attorney General’s Office, national authorities in charge of prosecuting human trafficking and exploitation, police, non-governmental organizations supporting migrants, the human rights ombudsman, representatives of indigenous communitiesand local journalists, most of whom requested anonymityInSight Crime also drew from information provided by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)the Guatemalan anti-narcotics police (Subdirección General de Análisis de Información Antinarcótica – SGAIA), the Guatemala National Security Council, the National Statistics Institute of Guatemala, the Ministry of Economy, Diálogos, and local press. 

Izabal, Guatemala

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Izabal is one of the most important transit hubs for cocaine being smuggled from Honduras into Guatemala by land, as well as for cocaine arriving by plane or sea from Colombia and Venezuela.  

The department’s coastal location — and proximity to Honduras, Belize and Mexico — make the department an ideal center for human trafficking groups, particularly those involved in sex trafficking. Izabal also lies on an important route for migrants heading north through Central America. 

Security deficiencies at Izabal’s main commercial port – Santo Tomás de Castilla – aids smuggling operations in the department. 

 

Criminal Actors 

Lorenzanas: The Lorenzanas are one of Guatemala’s traditional drug trafficking clans. They began in the neighboring department of Zacapa, but in the last two decades have expanded their criminal activities, above all drug trafficking, to various villages in Izabal. The patriarch of the group, Waldemar Lorenzana, was arrested in 2008 and again in 2011. He and two of his sons were later extradited to the United States in 2014 and 2015Despite the leadership’s downfall, Waldemar’s other children and relatives took control of the business and the clan has remained one of the principal protagonists in the drug trade along the Guatemala-Honduras border, with a continuing presence in Izabal. However, the scope of the clan’s power has diminished due to the above-mentioned arrests and the emergence of other drug trafficking groups.   

Mendozas: Based in the Morales municipality, the Mendozas have weathered a series of arrests to keep operating drug trafficking routes entering Izabal through the porous border with Honduras. The group’s influence extends to the department of Petén, in the north of Guatemala, home to various overland smuggling routes bound for Mexico. In Morales, the Mendozas can still influence municipal politics and the police. They also have a stake in the town’s formal commerce. 

Corrupt politicians: The fragmentation of drug trafficking groups in Izabal has led to the formation of smaller groups, accompanied by the rise of local political actors seeking to take advantage of power vacuums and exert control over various criminal economies.  

Criminal Economies 

Arms Trafficking: Firearms are trafficked into Izabal from neighboring Honduras, with demand for illicit weapons partially driven by the presence of street gangs. There is also a strong presence of drug trafficking groups in the department, which are typically well-armed. This suggests the existence of at least a moderate black market for firearms in Izabal. 

Cocaine: Izabal is one of the most important cocaine transit points in Guatemala. In 2019, authorities seized 6.9 metric tons of cocaine in the departmentworth just over $92 million, as per price and seizure data provided by Guatemala’s antinarcotics policeConsidering the strong presence of drug trafficking groups in Izabal and the likelihood that far more drugs pass through the department than declared seizures, cocaine trafficking appears to be a very lucrative criminal economy, reaching into the hundreds of millions of dollars. 

Cannabis: Guatemalan police have detected small marijuana plantations, above all in mountainous areas in the department, such as Los Angeles and Livingston. For the most part, this production is destined for local consumption. In 2019, seizures of processed cannabis and crops had a combined value of $144,188.

Environmental Crime: There appears to be minimal timber trafficking in Izabal, given a lack of reported seizures.  

Human Trafficking: In Puerto Barrios, human trafficking is a moderate criminal economy. 

As both a port city and a hub for organized crime, the department’s capital houses multiple brothels, where some victims of trafficking are forced into prostitution. This includes women and girls from GuatemalaEl Salvador, Honduras and Venezuela, among other countriesIn other instances, indigenous minors are forced into unpaid labor in restaurants and corner shops selling tortillas. 

Human Smuggling: In 2019, just over 1,000 Guatemalan migrants were returned to Izabal from the US, a percentage of those that made the trip. Given the price of hiring a smuggler from the area (roughly $10,000), this appears to be a lucrative criminal economy, reaching into the millions of dollars. Izabal bridges western Honduras and Guatemala’s northernmost department of Petén.

This is a common smuggling route for migrants passing through Central Americafurther driving this illicit tradeDepartmental authorities have detected undocumented migrants from the Caribbean and Asia (China and Vietnam), many of whom arrive in South America and cross Izabal on the way to the US.

Mineral Resources: Illicit jade extraction and sale has gained traction in Izabal in recent years. Groups that traditionally engaged in drug trafficking have also entered the trade. The main market for jade is in Asia. In 2019, authorities seized 10 metric tons of jade in Izabal, worth an estimated $10 million, suggesting a very lucrative criminal economy, reaching into the tens of millionsIn December 2019, InSight Crime published audio recordings that appeared to show Izabal’s former governor, Erick Bosbelí Martínez, talking about jade mining activity, though Bosbelí has denied any involvement in illicit mining activities. 

Extortion: Izabal has a relatively high rate of reported extortion cases. Bus drivers are routinely targeted with extortion fees and death threats. In recent years, extortion rackets have expanded in the department to the increased sophistication of prison gangs and migrant flows that have bolstered the presence of Honduran and Salvadoran gangs in Puerto Barrios. Police blame these gangs for an increase in extortion in the city center and the deaths of nine public transport workers in late 2018 and early 2019, which led to roadblocks throughout the department to protest the violence. 

Sources: This profile is based on two field trips to Izabal and research in Guatemala City where InSight Crime interviewed high-ranking officials in the Governor’s Office, military and police chiefs, diplomatic and intelligence sources specializing in drug trafficking, a former official of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), former national prosecutors with experience working drug cases, customs and former port officials, religious leaders, and local journalists, most of whom requested anonymity.

InSight Crime also drew on an Attorney General’s Office investigation into jade mining, in addition to information provided by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Guatemalan anti-narcotics police (Subdirección General de Análisis de Información Antinarcótica – SGAIA), the Guatemala National Security Council, the National Statistics Institute of Guatemala, Diágolos, and local press.

Zacapa, Guatemala

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In the department of Zacapa, long a transit point for cocaine and marijuana bound for Mexico and the US, drug traffickers exert much influence. 

Drug smugglers exploit widespread poverty and unemployment to recruit local dealers, assassins and marijuana growers, often winning the support of local communities. Drug proceeds are used to co-opt municipal governments by influencing local election campaigns and political appointments. 

Historically powerful drug clans, such as the Lorenzana family, among others, are still major players in drug transit, and violent disputes between these groups are the main driver of homicides. In some areas, groups have supposedly branched out into marijuana production. 

The department also houses a well-established illegal jade mining industry thought to involve national political officials, Taiwanese businesspeople and possibly drug traffickers.

Criminal Actors 

Lorenzanas: The Lorenzanas are one of Guatemala’s most infamous drug trafficking clans. Based in the Huité and Cabañas municipalities of Zacapa, the group has been coordinating transnational cocaine shipments through Guatemala for over two decades.

The patriarch of the group, Waldemar Lorenzana, was arrested in 2008 and again in 2011. He and two of his sons were later extradited to the US, in 2014 and 2015. Despite the leader arrests, Waldemar’s other children and relatives took control of the business in Zacapa and the clan has remained one of the principal protagonists in the drug trade along the Guatemala-Honduras border, though its power has diminished with the emergence of rival drug clansOne of Waldemar’s sons, Haroldo Jeremías Lorenzana, was detained in Zacapa on November 15, 2019, over ten years after a warrant had been put for his arrest. 

Criminal Economies

Arms Trafficking: Residents of Zacapa have easy access to small firearms from legal arms dealerships, and can be seen openly carrying? weapons. Nonetheless, the presence of major drug trafficking groups and the department’s position on an important smuggling route appears to have brought with it a moderate illicit weapons economyPolice in Zacapa have seized diverse firearms, including an arsenal of rifles, grenadesand pistolsheading for Guatemala City in 2019.  

Cocaine: Zacapa has been a cocaine hub for several decades, dominated by powerful drug trafficking families that enjoy near total territorial and political control in the department. By co-opting local government and winning the support of communities, these groups traffic vast quantities of cocaine through the department with minimal state interference, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. 

Cannabis: There is clear evidence of cannabis production and consumption in Zacapa. Transnational drug trafficking groups allegedly control marijuana cultivation in rural areas, generating work opportunities for farmers and the rural poor. However, the criminal economy is not extensive when compared to other drugs, most notably cocaine. The attempts of drug trafficking groups to enter the marijuana trade can also be seen as a means of asserting their territorial dominance in the department.  

Environmental crime: The main threat in terms of environmental crime in Zacapa appears to be illegal logging in the Granadillas mountain range, where local communities have submitted several complaints against purported illicit loggers.

Local police have allegedly helped protect trucks transporting timber and cracked down on the opponents of illegal logging. However, this criminal economy does not appear to be among Zacapa’s most lucrative. 

Heroin (opiates): There are no signs of heroin production or consumption in Zacapa. Police seized just 3 kilograms of heroin in 2018, suggesting small quantities of the drug are trafficked through the department. In past years, major drug trafficking groups have used Zacapa as a transit point for heroin shipments.

Although some of these groups are still active in the narcotics trade, there is no indication that heroin trafficking currently generates significant revenues for any criminal actor in Zacapa.  

Human Trafficking: While there are few reported cases of human trafficking in the departmentthere are signs that criminal groups generate modest revenues through sexual and labor exploitation. In 2019, four possible human trafficking victims were identified by Guatemalan authorities in Zacapa. Within the department, bars have been inspected in order to verify reports of human trafficking.  

Human Smuggling: Around 650 Guatemalan migrants were returned to Zacapa from the US in 2019, a percentage of those who made the trip. This is a fairly low figure in comparison to other departments, but it does suggest Zacapa is a recruitment area for smuggling networks.  The arrests of foreign undocumented migrants in Zacapa suggests the department is also transit point on route to the USHowever, the lack of an official border crossing in Zacapa may mean that less migrants pass through in comparison to other Guatemalan border departments. 

Mineral Resources: Zacapa has housed illicit jade mining operations for several decades. Today, criminal actors in the department appear to use heavy machinery to extract the mineral, suggesting these illegal mining operations generate healthy profits for those involved. Lucrative jade trafficking operations have in the past included high-ranking national politicians.

The main extraction area for mineral resources is the Sierra de las Minas biosphere reserve, from where jade can be transported to the Río Hondo municipality – strategically located on a highway that connects Zacapa with the country’s Caribbean ports and Guatemala City.  

Extortion: Zacapa sees minimal extortion, reportedly due to the large degree of territorial control exerted by local drug trafficking groups. MS13 and Barrio 18  ordinarily protagonists of extortion in Guatemala – do not appear to maintain a presence in the department.  

Sources: This profile is based on a field investigation in Zacapa and research in Guatemala City where InSight Crime interviewed high-ranking officials in the Governor’s Office, diplomatic and intelligence sources working on drug trafficking in Guatemala, police, the human rights ombudsman, and local religious leaders, most of whom requested anonymity. InSight Crime also drew from information provided by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Guatemalan anti-narcotics police (Subdirección General de Análisis de Información Antinarcótica – SGAIA), the Guatemala National Security Council, the National Statistics Institute of Guatemala, Diálogos, and local press. 

Jutiapa, Guatemala

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Jutiapa is a transit point for narcotics shipments and a hotspot for illegal firearm possession. Criminal groups smuggle illicit weapons into the department via its porous eastern border with El Salvador. Jutiapa consistently ranks among the Guatemalan departments with the highest rates of illicit weapon seizures and homicides committed with firearms. 

There are also indications of marijuana and cocaine trafficking in the department – both drug transit and local sale – involving some municipal officials, including mayorsDrug seizures rarely occur, but this likely does not reflect actual drug trafficking activity. 

Hardline security policies in El Salvador have caused waves of gang migration into Guatemala, with many gang members taking refuge in Jutiapa and continuing to engage in illicit economies such as extortion, in turn increasing criminal activity within the department.     

Criminal Actors

MS13: The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) street gang is present in the department.

Salvadoran gang members take advantage of Jutiapa’s proximity to El Salvador to seek temporary refuge when authorities in the neighboring country are cracking down on the gang.  

Corrupt politicians: Throughout Jutiapa, drug traffickers have succeeded in co-opting municipal politics and influencing elections. Many mayors have suspected links to narcotics smuggling, and may use their powers to protect drug shipments and guarantee impunity for larger drug clans. Other mayors appear to have set up their own operations, protected by the immunity afforded to them while in office. 

Criminal Economies 

Arms Trafficking: Most illicit firearms in Jutiapa are used by small groups of thieves, drug traffickers and members of street gangs, including the MS13, who have access to rifles, shotguns and small armssuch as 9mm pistols. The presence of gangs and drug trafficking groups in the department appears to be driving a mid-sized firearm trafficking economy. 

Cocaine: Large cocaine seizures are rare in Jutiapa, but this is not necessarily a reflection of the amount of cocaine passing through the department. Jutiapa is in fact a principal entry point for maritime cocaine shipments landing on Guatemala’s Pacific coast, meaning cocaine trafficking is one of the most lucrative criminal activities in the departmentJutiapa also shares a porous land border with El Salvador, connecting it to a region where freight transport networks have long specialized in moving drugs into Guatemala. 

Cannabis: Criminal groups move marijuana from neighboring El Salvador into Jutiapadestined for local sale. The principal consumers of cannabis appear to be gang members, adolescents and children. Some children are purportedly forced into consuming marijuana and then selling the drug in schools. Despite the clear evidence of marijuana peddling, seizures of processed cannabis and marijuana crops are low and the size of thdepartment’s cannabis consumption market appears modest. 

Human Trafficking: Jutiapa is an important transit hub for migrants, who are vulnerable to human trafficking. This flow of migrants provides ample opportunity for human trafficking groups to exploit and recruit victims in the departmentWe estimate that the recruitment of sex trafficking victims generates moderate revenues compared to other criminal economiespotentially reaching into hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

Human Smuggling: In 2019, just over 2,000 Guatemalan migrants were returned to Jutiapa from the US. Given the cost of hiring a smuggler in the area (roughly $10,000), this appears to be a lucrative criminal economy, reaching into the tens of millions of dollars. Aside from Guatemalans, Jutiapa is also a transit department for US-bound migrants smuggled into Guatemala from neighboring El Salvador. 

Extortion: In 2016, Jutiapa had the highest per capita extortion rate in Guatemala. Extortion rackets are primarily operated by street gangs the MS13 and Barrio 18, along with other groups posing as gang members to intimidate victims. The arrival of gang members from El Salvador has seemingly fueled further extortion and aggression between gangs and communities in and around the municipality of Jutiapa. 

Sources: This profile is based on a field investigation in Jutiapa and research in Guatemala City where InSight Crime interviewed high-ranking officials in the Governor’s Office, local and national police officials, a former national prosecutor with experience working drug cases, NGOs supporting underprivileged communities, and local journalists, most of whom requested anonymity. InSight Crime also drew from information provided by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Guatemalan anti-narcotics police (Subdirección General de Análisis de Información Antinarcótica – SGAIA), the Guatemala National Security Council, the National Statistics Institute of Guatemala, Diálogos and local press. 

Bolivia Rivers Become Increasingly Popular Drug Trafficking Routes

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The river system connects Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Uruguay.

Drug trafficking routes are starting to appear along rivers and canals in Bolivia, threatening to complicate efforts to stop the flow of cocaine to international markets.

The United Nations reports that drug traffickers have begun using the Paraguay-Paraná watershed on the eastern border of the country, which connects it to river systems across the region and facilitates access to buyers in Europe and Africa.

“Drug traffickers have readjusted,” Thierry Rostan, a representative for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said in December. “They have organized cocaine collection areas and shipped to different countries in the region.”

Bolivia’s eastern border is equipped with several canals that connect to the Paraguay River in Brazil. It’s one of the longest rivers in South America, running south into Paraguay before joining the Paraná River in Argentina and emptying into the Atlantic. This means that traffickers have a new way of moving cocaine internationally.

“It is a major concern,” Rostan said.

Officials in Bolivia reported that a majority of cocaine laboratories destroyed this year were in the coca-producing region of Cochabamba, in the center of the country. It’s an easy connection point to water routes on the border, like Port Busch and Port Quijarro, officials said.

SEE ALSO: Bolivia’s New President Faces Complex Drug Scenario

Bolivia, as a landlocked country, has been looking for new ways to expand maritime shipping. It started increasing its use of the Paraguay-Paraná watershed around 2018, after losing a five-year battle in The Hague that would have returned a slice of Chile’s Pacific coast, lost in 1884.

The country shipped over a million tons of products in 2018 and 2019 — mostly soybeans, beef and other agriculture staples of the Bolivian economy.  Former President Evo Morales named 2020 the “year of the Atlantic” and shifted around fifty percent of the country’s international cargo to eastern river routes.

InSight Crime Analysis

Fluvial drug trafficking routes will become increasingly popular with Bolivian criminal networks as the country invests more in maritime shipping, adding new trafficking dynamics in the world’s third-largest producer of cocaine.

Additionally, Bolivia acts as a transit point for illicit goods traveling from Peru — the world’s second-largest producer of cocaine. Should a sustainable means of drug transport continue to develop in eastern Bolivia, traffickers could divert drugs from other routes and choose to send more shipments toward the waterway.

SEE ALSO: Cocaine Seizures On the Rise At Bolivia-Brazil Border

The country’s landlocked status has historically left traffickers to work with land and air routes through Paraguay and Brazil. The drugs are then moved on to major international port cities like Rio de Janeiro. Planes tend to take advantage of scarcely populated regions, such as the department of Beni to the north, or Paraguay’s arid Chaco region to the southeast. Drugs can also be driven across the border in vehicles.

With the development of river transport, Bolivia will have to make sure it is up to date on strategies that coastal nations use to detect drugs concealed in the overwhelming number of shipping containers leaving port. This could include improving gamma-ray radiography systems that scan containers, training canine units and implementing efforts to root out corruption among port authorities.

More specifically, UNODC officials suggested that Bolivia implement the Global Container Control Programme, which provides training on how to detect tampered shipping containers and facilitates inter-agency communication. UN officials also suggested that Bolivia work with the multi-agency AIRCOP program, which assists in the detection and interception of cocaine sourced in Latin America.

3 Unexplored Criminal Challenges Awaiting President Joe Biden

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OCCRP named Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro the 2020 Person of the Year in Organized Crime and Corruption

President Joe Biden’s policy documents on Latin America tread familiar ground. Fighting corruption in the Northern Triangle. Working with Mexico and Central America on migration. Keeping up the pressure on Venezuela. Ending the “War on Drugs.”

But the region contains a range of other security and criminal threats that are of direct concern to the United States.

Brazil

President Jair Bolsonaro was named “2020 Person of the Year in Organized Crime and Corruption” by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). Following in the footsteps of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Bolsonaro was declared to have “surrounded himself with corrupt figures, undermined the judiciary…and waged a destructive war against the Amazon.”

While corrupt politics and a weak judiciary are historic challenges for Brazil, the country has fallen a long way. In 2016, then-Vice President Joe Biden met with then-President Michel Temer to discuss Brazil’s “regional and global leadership.” That leadership has dimmed as Bolsonaro’s family has been mired in multiple allegations of corruption, fraternization with militia groups and turning a blind eye to links between business and organized crime.

SEE ALSO: No Time to Wait: Biden’s Security Challenges in Central America

During Bolsonaro’s term, the country’s largest gang, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), has only strengthened its control over much of the cocaine and marijuana flow coming through Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru into Brazil.

While President Donald Trump’s administration repeatedly went after Mexico’s Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), El Salvador’s MS13 and Colombia’s National Liberation Army (Ejército Nacional de Liberación – ELN), the PCC did not seem to be a target. This was likely because much of the PCC’s cocaine goes to the lucrative European markets instead of going north to the United States. However, if the Brazil-US alliance is to be restored, one of the region’s prime security threats may rise up the White House’s list of priorities.

Dominican Republic

Last September, President Trump recognized the Dominican Republic as one of the hubs for drug trafficking in Latin America, alongside more traditional offenders such as Mexico and Colombia. This came after a vast drug trafficking ring — run by one of the country’s top drug traffickers, César Emilio Peralta, alias “César el Abusador,” — was found to have helped transport drugs from Mexico’s Gulf Cartel to the mainland United States and Puerto Rico.

Dominican gangs are highly active in microtrafficking in major US cities, especially along the East Coast, and they are known to coordinate with drug traffickers in the Caribbean.

And criminal gangs in the Dominican Republic have succeeded in turning the country into a logistical and operational hub for all manner of criminal economies besides drug trafficking. Haitian migrants, seeking to reach the United States, frequently leave from the Dominican Republic. Money laundering, as also evidenced during the Peralta investigation, continues to be a real challenge, and the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has sounded the alarm about drug money being laundered there.

Puerto Rico’s proximity to the Dominican Republic has also seen the island used as a gap in the US border defenses, with drugs and migrants routinely brought in.

Joe Biden may have an ally in the Dominican Republic’s President Luis Abinader who, since taking office in August 2020, has taken steps to clean up the police and bolster the fight against corruption, though the new leader has also faced accusations of links to known money launderers.

Chinese Criminal Connections

The gradual spread of China’s geopolitical influence into Latin America and the Caribbean has been a long source of concern in Washington. But the impact of China’s economic power and of its criminal organizations is becoming a rising problem across the region.

Some links are well-established. Chinese criminal groups have been responsible for supplying Mexican cartels with much of the chemical precursors used to make fentanyl and other synthetic drugs that are then trafficked to the United States.

SEE ALSO: Chinese Fishing Fleet Leaves Ecuador, Chile, Peru Scrambling to Respond

Others are less known. In 2020 alone, InSight Crime reported on counterfeit luxury goods from China being used by La Unión Tepito in Mexico City to supply shops and markets. A group of La Unión Tepito, known as “Los Marco Polos,” have even been traveling to China to buy tons of illegal merchandise.

In Chile, a rapid increase in the theft of copper has been linked to demand from China after an illicit shipment of copper cables worth of $250 million was caught before being sent to Asia. In Suriname, jaguar poaching has largely been driven by demand for the animal’s ‘paste’ for traditional Chinese medicine. Cures for COVID-19, falsely touted by traditional Chinese medicine advocates, have even been smuggled into the region. Chinese fishing fleets triggered a furious joint regional response.

And in March, a Chinese businessman, Gan Xianbing, was convicted in Chicago of laundering over $350,000 in drug money for Mexican cartels in a shockingly easy scheme.

These connections may seem disparate and largely unconnected, but they do paint a complex picture of how the United States’ and Mexico’s criminal landscapes are influenced by China.

Trump Leaves Biden Corruption Problem at Mexico Border Wall

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Trump's wall initiative appears to have encouraged organized crime on the border.

Former President Donald Trump’s border wall project has developed a spotty record of attracting organized crime to its many construction sites, leaving the incoming Biden administration with a financial, legal and bureaucratic mess that could take years to clean up.

The wall former President Trump promised to build on the US-Mexico border has, in some instances, led to illicit activity by border security personnel and by the construction companies hurrying to get it done.

In one of the most shocking examples, contractors last year blocked out cameras and built an illegal road to facilitate the passage of armed Mexican security teams, which were tasked with protecting the construction site. No one on the security team had been vetted before starting the job, creating national security risks.

SEE ALSO: No Time to Wait: Biden’s Security Challenges in Central America

The contractors also overcharged for the project, the legal complaint claims.

Earlier in the year, a Border Patrol agent working at a station in Tucson, Arizona was arrested after he was discovered moving 21 kilograms of cocaine, as well as small quantities of heroin and fentanyl.

This kind of criminal activity around the border is not entirely new. Former internal affairs chief for US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) James Tomsheck, who served between 2006 and 2014, had expressed concern about the number of border officials trafficking drugs, often in coordination with Mexican cartels.

“Border Patrol brings to the position a strong paramilitary self-identity, believing they are not restrained by the same constitutional restraints placed upon all of law enforcement,” Tomsheck told The Intercept last year.

US Border Patrol officials are arrested at around five times the rate of any other law enforcement agency in the country, according to internal reports. In 2019, the figure reached a five-year high of 286 officials.

InSight Crime Analysis

Former President Trump’s wall initiative appears to have encouraged organized crime on the border. Rushed construction work and revisions to the hiring process for officials and contractors attracted noticeable cases of illicit activity that are going to take some time for President Biden to eliminate.

In one of his first executive orders, Biden halted the building of the wall. The stop of all construction could save the US government $2.6 billion, according to the Washington Post. Biden can try and redirect those funds elsewhere and enter into arbitration with the contracted companies. But it is going to take some time, and it’s still unknown the costs for stopping work and whether he has the authority to cancel completion of wall segments already funded by Congress. Until those issues are cleared up, corruption and organized crime could continue to benefit from the border wall’s uncertain status.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of US-Mexico border

Biden has also indicated that his administration will shift US policy away from polarizing strategies like the expansion and militarization of the border patrol, instead focusing on reuniting families and creating paths to legal status.

This slow, measured approach looks like the right decision. Experts claim that a surge in hiring on the border, which the Trump administration only managed to push through via a 2017 executive order, had some negative effects, such as expediting vetting procedures that are important for rooting out incompetence and individuals susceptible to corruption.

If Biden cuts border patrol numbers and reinforces strong vetting procedures, on top of stopping construction of the border wall, the number of cases of organized crime and corruption on the border should start to decline.