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Organized crime thrives amid political corruption and uncertainty. There will be plenty of this in Latin America in 2018, helping organized crime deepen its roots across the region over the course of the year.

This is the moment when we draw on our extensive research and experience to make our predictions for the coming year. And the panorama for 2018 is one of the bleakest that InSight Crime has faced in our nine years of studying criminal phenomena in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Tackling organized crime requires stable governments with purpose, strategy, strong security forces, healthy democracy and transparency, along with international cooperation. These currently seem in short supply around the region.

Political chaos, infighting and upheaval ensure that attention is occupied on survival and manipulation of democracy, not with tackling organized crime. State legitimacy has come into question in certain nations in the region, as political leaders are investigated for corruption or manipulation of power. Embattled political leaders will often cut backroom deals with criminal elements to ensure their survival. Moreover, several countries will see important elections in the coming year, contributing to political instability.

Political Hangovers From 2017

As we wrote in our introduction to this GameChangers, 2017 saw corruption take hold at high levels in governments across the region. So we enter 2018 with several political hangovers, where we believe corruption will assume a still stronger grip:

  • Venezuela, where the last fig leaf of democracy has fallen and a corrupt regime is entrenching itself in power. As oil revenue dries up, the government may further criminalize to survive. The disintegration of the Venezuelan state and its total corruption has far-reaching regional implications for criminal dynamics. These are most immediately impacting on neighbors like Colombia, Brazil and Caribbean nations (Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba and the Dominican Republic foremost among them), but the effects are spreading further afield.
  • Honduras, where the re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernández has been disputed amid claims of fraud and corruption. This has further undermined his already battered legitimacy. This Northern Triangle nation is of extraordinary importance for drugs moving from South America to the United States.
  • Peru, which saw President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski narrowly avoid being removed from power amid accusations of corruption. He survived only by pardoning former President Alberto Fujimori, who was jailed for human rights abuses. The Fujimori family control one of the most powerful factions in Congress. Kuczynski has been fatally weakened and discredited. We expect to see major underworld activities such as cocaine, timber and gold trafficking strengthened as a result.
  • Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, has manipulated the constitution and looks set to perpetuate himself in office by standing for a fourth term. Most checks on his power now seem to have been stripped away, even as the country plays a central role in South America’s drug trade.
  • Ecuador has seen its vice president removed after a conviction for corruption, while President Lenin Moreno find himself locked in a political war with former President Rafael Correa. Organized crime is far down the president’s list of priorities, despite that the fact that we believe the port of Guayaquil to be one of the major departure points for cocaine shipments across the globe.

Presidential Elections in 2018

To further feed the political uncertainty, there are elections in six important nations, which mean that political attention will be utterly focused on these and not on the fight against organized crime.

  • Brazil has a president with around five percent approval rating universally seen as corrupt. The favorite to win this election, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, was convicted in July of accepting bribes from an engineering firm in exchange for public works contracts.
  • Colombia, the world’s foremost producer of cocaine, is struggling to implement a peace agreement with Marxist rebels and prevent a recycling of criminal actors. The enemies of peace seem stronger than its friends as the candidates line up.
  • Costa Rica, sat astride the Central America route for cocaine heading towards the United States, has seen transnational organized crime take root and feed national criminal structures.
  • Mexico has seen violence reach new heights and its current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has provided few new strategies to tackle homicides or the organized crime that feeds them. New leadership is desperately needed, but no matter who wins the July elections no real changes in strategy are expected until the end of the year, when a new president will take office.
  • Paraguay, South America’s most prolific producer of marijuana already has a president associated with criminal activity in the form of cigarette smuggling. With Brazilian criminal groups projecting themselves into this landlocked nation, clear leadership is needed to contain rampant criminal activity.
  • Venezuela is due to have presidential elections, but with President Nicolás Maduro now operating a dictatorship, there are no guarantees these will be held, much less that any real change will occur. Economic collapse is more likely to produce change than political challenge.

Even in Cuba, dominated by the Castro brothers since 1959, change is coming as Raúl Castro has promised to step down in 2018. And Nicaragua’s president Daniel Ortega, in power since 2007, is tightening his grip on the levers of power and undermining democracy.

Not since the days of the Cold War have democracy and good governance been under such threat in Latin America. These conditions have in part been created by organized crime and the corruption it feeds. And organized crime will continue to profit from the chaos.

Cooperation is also key to fighting transnational organized crime and for good or ill, the United States has often provided coherency and leadership in the war on drugs and organized crime. That leadership is gone along with much US credibility in the region. All this simply gives yet more room for criminals to maneuver.

More ‘Plata’ Than ‘Plomo’

There is another aspect of organized crime worth mentioning when we look to 2018. While corruption has always been one of the primary tools for organized crime, its flip side has been intimidation and violence. Pablo Escobar used to famously offer his victims two choices: “plata” (“silver,” a bribe) or “plomo” (“lead,” a bullet).

What is becoming clear to the most sophisticated criminals is that bribery now gets you a lot further, a lot quicker, than violence. The expanding corruption scandals are evidence of this.

While Mexico, Venezuela and much of the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras register epidemic levels of homicides, Colombia is bucking the trend. Even as cocaine exports reach record levels, along with internal drug consumption, with other booming illegal economies such as gold mining and extortion, murders are falling. While this is in part due to the de-escalation of the civil conflict with the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the other major factor is the development of a Pax Mafiosa. The first “mafia peace” was forged in Medellin, the capital of the cocaine trade, and expanded from there across the country. This means that our mission of exposing organized crime is getting harder here in our home base of Colombia.

The criminal history of Latin America has been driven by criminal entrepreneurs, principally in the forms of the drug cartels. This is not the case in Africa, where criminal activity is often managed by elements within government. As Latin organized crime continues to fragment, and corruption becomes the preferred method of doing illicit business, Latin America may begin to look more like Africa. Criminality may not only be protected at the highest levels of government but perhaps run by these elements. This is a phenomena we have studied closely in our “Elites and Organized Crime” investigations. We will dedicate yet more resources to these kinds of investigations as we believe they point the way forward in terms of criminal evolution.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

Transnational organized crime is the most agile business on the planet and adapts to changing conditions much faster than governments. When those governments become weakened, undermined and corrupted by transnational crime groups, the already uneven playing field become yet further skewed. This year is likely to be a year of further criminal entrenchment in the region, of further corruption of high levels of government or even state capture. Be ready, because we need to pay very close attention, if we are to see the hand of organized crime amid the political chaos.

Top photo by Associated Press/Carlos Jasso

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