GameChangers 2016: Red Flags for 2017

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At the end of every year, InSight Crime looks into the crystal ball and predicts what the big criminal risks are likely to be during 2017. These are what we see as the threats facing the Americas in the coming year.

The biggest threat is the exploding regional appetite for illegal drugs. In the 1980s and much of the 1990s, drug consumption was a “gringo” problem for the US and to a lesser extent Europe as the major consumers. Now Brazil only just trails the United States in consumption per capita and consumption is increasing across Latin America and the Caribbean. In Colombia, for instance, the internal drug market is estimated to be worth in excess of two billion dollars.

This is giving birth to a new mutation in organized crime. While the big cartels were born from the cocaine trade, the new generation of criminal syndicates increasingly have their roots in domestic drug consumption and distribution. Many start as street gangs and end up getting subcontracted by transnational organized crime. They quickly learn new skills sets, which they combine with their territorial control and disposition towards extreme violence. The most able ascend the criminal ladder and make the leap into transnational organized crime.

Examples of this can be found throughout the region. Brazil’s prison gangs like the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) lived for years on domestic consumption before branching into Bolivia and Paraguay. The Zetas in Mexico have also thrived on the local criminal markets and expanded in Guatemala. The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) in El Salvador is attempting to make this leap now in the United States, albeit with little success.

This trend is what drives most violence and criminality, and until the the local governments face up to their own consumption problem, the trend will continue and the violence along with it.

Venezuela

It is hard to see how the current government of President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela can survive 2017. The imposition of a still more authoritarian and militarized regime as well as total economic collapse are both likely scenarios for the coming year. Maduro closed the year amid rioting and looting after a failed attempt to remove the highest denomination bank bill — the 100-bolivar note (with a black market value of just 4 cents) — from circulation and replace it with higher value bills. The new bills simply did not appear, even as Venezuelans queued outside banks.

This was just the latest chapter in a tome of government incompetence that saw hyperinflation, food shortages and collapses in the health and education systems. Propped up by the military, which now manages food and medicine supplies, the Maduro administration will have to rely yet more on repression to cling to power. In 2017, it is likely that the patience of the Venezuelan people, even the die-hard Chavistas, will snap.

With no more money to steal from state coffers, the corrupt elements of the Chavista regime will turn more towards drug trafficking and other criminal activity to keep the wheels of corruption greased and their revenue streams flowing. The development of an increasingly criminalized state in South America will have regional consequences and provide a haven for transnational organized crime, all of which we will be covering in-depth in the months to come.

Mexico

Facing some of the most sophisticated and powerful organized crime syndicates in the region is a president with a weak track record in terms of security. President Enrique Peña Nieto has seen security and human rights failures undermine his administration, and he has yet to retake the initiative, even as homicide rates grow once again.

While in much of Latin America the major drug trafficking organizations have fragmented or opted for a very low profile, the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco – Nueva Generación – CJNG) is bucking the trend, with aggressive actions against security forces, high profile attacks and kidnappings, as well as widespread expansion.

The CJNG seems to have eclipsed its rival, the Sinaloa Cartel, and it now perhaps the single most visible criminal structure in the Americas, with an increasingly diverse criminal portfolio. Just as the Zetas cut a swathe through their criminal rivals using indiscriminate violence and pure terrorism, so the Jalisco Cartel is not afraid to eliminate and intimidate rivals.

However, the Zetas criminal model centered on low brow revenue streams, leaving it open to fragmentation and attacks from national and international security agencies. The CJNG is about transnational crime, making its model a more resilient and sturdy one that will likely last far beyond 2017.

Colombia

The breakup of Colombia’s biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) will continue, even as the peace agreement between the guerrilla army and the government is ratified. It remains to be seen how many rebel fighters will arrive in the concentration zones established to demobilize this insurgency and reintegrate its former soldiers. It is likely that a significant percentage of the FARC will remain in the field, and continue to benefit from the illegal economies of drug trafficking, gold and extortion that have funded the rebel movement.

What remains to be seen is whether these FARC dissidents retain their insurgent facade, or simply meld into Colombia’s criminal landscape. Whatever happens, a new chapter of Colombia’s criminal history will begin with the withdrawal of the FARC, and there may be significant changes in the cocaine trade as other criminal actors, as well as FARC mutations, try to fill the void left by the guerrilla group.

The Colombian government has an historic opportunity to bring the state to the more remote corners of the country where it has never been present. However, there is little evidence that the Juan Manuel Santos administration has a strategy to use the FARC demobilization to undermine the drug trade that has fed conflict and organized crime here for more than five decades.

Brazil

Brazil’s political and economic instability will continue into 2017, as the multiple corruption scandals will claim political operatives and their bosses alike. The evidence of systematic political corruption hints at a quasi-mafia state.  The question is whether this will change under judicial scrutiny or just see a change of leadership. 

IMAGE-DOWNLOAD-GAMECHANGERSMeanwhile, the Brazilian appetite for illegal drugs appears to be growing, with international intelligence agents telling us that consumption of cocaine and its derivatives was reaching almost a ton a day, numbers that approach the world’s biggest drug consumer, the United States.

The domestic consumption of drugs is just one of the impulses behind the expansion of the PCC, which has spread out of its base in São Paulo across the country and into neighbors like Bolivia and Paraguay. A war between the PCC and the other major national crime syndicate, the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), looks to be spreading, further complicating the criminal panorama in one of the main bridges for cocaine into Europe and Asia.

Bolivia

Bolivia’s President Evo Morales is looking to run for another, constitutionally illegal, fourth term in office. He has already got a stranglehold on all of the organs of the state and has muzzled the media and the opposition. Little news of organized crime comes from this mountainous nation, but sources in both Brazil and Peru increasingly talk of Bolivian organized crime being involved in the shipment of coca base and cocaine, principally to feed the insatiable Brazilian market.

With high levels of corruption, especially in the judiciary, no presence of US anti-drug agencies (the Drug Enforcement Administration was expelled in 2008), and ill-equipped national police, there is murmuring of organized crime penetrating many state institutions.  It is clear that Bolivia provides a path of least resistance to transnational organized crime, which has turned this poor nation into a regional hub for the cocaine trade.

Drug flights are not only coming from Peru with drugs and entering Brazil, but there are reports of daily flights into Argentina, an increasingly important domestic market for drugs. There does appear to be some awareness of the roots transnational organized crime has put down in Bolivia, but no evidence of any integral strategy to tackle the growing problem. The longer organized crime is left to gestate, the harder it will be to eventually take on. 

El Salvador

El Salvador is one of the world’s murder hotspots, but the nature of the violence appears to be shifting here a trend likely to continue in 2017: the number of gang on gang killings is going down, while the security force on gang killings are going up.

As has been already been explored, this development of what looks like a low intensity war between El Salvador’s gangs and the security forces is likely to continue. If the rival gangs of MS13 and Barrio 18 put aside their bloody territorial disputes and launch joint operations against the security forces, this will change the dynamic in this tiny Central American nation – for the worse. 

Simultaneously, the MS13 is making serious efforts to become more of a transnational criminal organization. While their efforts appear meek, and have largely failed, the gang’s steady mutation needs to be taken seriously. 

Finally, as it is in Honduras and Guatemala, 2017 will be a make or break year in terms of prosecuting high-level corruption. In addition to three former presidents, the country’s Attorney General’s Office has reopened a money laundering case against José Adán Salazar Umaña, alias “Chepe Diablo,” El Salvador’s most infamous, and slippery, drug traffickers. 

Honduras

The Honduran government’s battle with itself will continue to open up avenues for organized crime and street gangs to flourish in that country. Specifically, the fight to purge the country’s police from the top down will come to a head, either bearing the type of fruit that lasts a generation or wilting into piecemeal shifts that allow the military to permanently assume the mantle of chief crime fighter. 

That military-police rivalry will also play a role in the attempts by President Juan Orlando Hernández to seek reelection. Hernández will run on what, on the surface, appears like a strong record of fighting crime. His government has arrested and extradited numerous high-level drug traffickers, dismantled gang extortion networks and charged a dozen allegedly criminal and corrupt mayors. 

However, Hernández’s own National Party is still facing corruption charges — including accusations that his campaign took funding from government coffers — and members of his own family may be facing down more accusations regarding possible links to drug trafficking. 

Guatemala

Guatemala is a tale of two countries. One country is vying for change, radical change that leads to convictions of former government officials from the previous administration and opens the door to a new, relatively cleaner era. The other country wants to return to the days when strong military-bureaucracies ran the government’s most important agencies, and emptied their coffers on a regular schedule. 

In 2017, one of these two will cede ground. Regrettably, it appears as if those pushing for convictions may be losing. Their enemies will mostly likely begin the year by claiming a relatively easy target, such as the Interior Minister Francisco Rivas, who is operating in a den of wolves. They will also get a reprieve when US Ambassador Todd Robinson ends his stint at some point this year and returns to Washington DC.

Emboldened, they may steadily climb the mountain towards their ultimate goal: getting rid of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), the Attorney General’s Office appendage that has led to the political tumult. But that will have to wait until 2018, the year the CICIG’s mandate is up for renewal.

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