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Which criminal structures have gained the most strength in Latin America in 2018? Three groups, all based in different nations, have engaged in aggressive expansion, both territorial and economic, and are set to dominate the region’s criminal landscape.

While the last decade in Latin America has seen a trend toward increasing fragmentation of criminal structures, these three are bucking it, remaining highly visible as they grow in numbers and influence, extending transnationally.

It is worth stating that these are just the visible criminal structures that InSight Crime has been tracking through 2018. In an age where many criminals have opted for a lower profile and increasingly clandestine business operations, there may be others expanding under the radar.

Is open aggression and visibility the secret of these three criminal groups’ success? Or will their actions bring the full wrath of national and international law enforcement, resulting in their fragmentation and ultimate demise?

3. The Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG)

While the infamous Sinaloa Cartel monopolized headlines in 2018 with the trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, it is the Jalisco Cartel that has expanded, slowly but surely, in Mexico. It now controls more territory than its Sinaloan rival, and has a leading role in the lucrative synthetic drug trade. It also moves tons of cocaine every month. Former DEA agent Mike Vigil told Insight Crime that he believes that the CJNG already matches the Sinaloa Cartel in its earnings.

With less than a decade on the criminal scene, CJNG is now the criminal group with the greatest territorial presence, with operations in at least 22 Mexican states, up from just 14 states in 2016. A Mexican intelligence source in Guadalajara told InSight Crime that CJNG grew through aggressive recruitment, especially of minors, as well as criminal cells left orphaned by other illegal structures whose leaders were killed.

“When the CJNG wrests a plaza from another group, those that remain have to fall into line,” said the source.

While another notorious Mexican cartel, the Zetas, has splintered, the Jalisco Cartel has managed to remain largely intact as a criminal federation with clear leadership and command. Its top commander, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho”, has the dubious honor of a $10 million bounty, one of the largest the US Treasury has offered for a drug capo.

The Jalisco Cartel has shown itself to be remarkably agile, taking advantage of changes in the criminal landscape in 2017, like the death of Juan Francisco Patrón Sánchez, alias “H2”, of the Beltran Leyva Organization in Nayarit, and the capture of Ignacio Rentería, alias “El Cenizo”, of the Knights Templar in Michoacán. CJNG used these events to snatch territory in both states.

The CJNG has also engaged in extreme violence and taken on the state. In 2018, Jalisco operatives kidnapped and killed two agents from the Attorney General’s Office (known by the acronym SEIDO). The group even posted a video of the agents — hands tied and kneeling before masked gunmen — prior to killing them.

With control of ports on both Mexican seaboards, the only cartel to boast such infrastructure, the CJNG can move drugs not just to the United States, where according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) it has strong distribution networks in Los Angeles, New York, and Atlanta, but also to Europe and Asia. Meanwhile, the CJNG imports precursor chemicals to feed synthetic drug laboratories, including those producing fentanyl.

CJNG has another business advantage, an alliance with Los Cuinis, which acts as the cartel’s money laundering arm.

But difficulties lay ahead for CJNG, including the formation of a splinter group, the Nueva Plaza, which is disputing the CJNG’s home base in Guadalajara. Authorities have also taken down high-level CJNG operatives, such as El Mencho’s wife, Rosalinda González Valencia, who was arrested on charges of organized crime and money laundering in May. And US prosecutors have targeted the cartel, indicting members of its leadership in October.

The CJNG, however, has largely grown unchecked during the former administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, who focused resources on other criminal organizations, much to the frustration of US authorities. Now the CJNG has the spotlight.

2. The National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN)

As the last rebel group still standing in Colombia, the ELN has taken full advantage of the 2017 demobilization of its powerful cousins, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). The ELN dominates in areas that once belonged to the FARC, absorbing the FARC’s criminal economies, and in some cases, its manpower. The guerrilla group is now the country’s single most powerful illegal organization in terms of military capacity and territorial influence.

The ELN has also deepened its involvement in all aspects of the drug trade, learning from the FARC’s modus operandi. This has allowed the group to expand its revenue base, which for many years had been declining.

“Had several [ELN] structures not turned to drug trafficking, they would have disappeared,” ELN expert Luis Eduardo Celis told InSight Crime.

The ELN now participates in a range of trafficking tasks, from exporting cocaine and heroin, to owning “narco” semi-submersible drug submarines (notably the first electric one ever seized in Colombia). All this despite a forceful disavowal of the trade from the senior ELN commander:

“We reiterate our … demand that the counter-revolutionary phenomenon of drug trafficking has absolutely no place within our structures,” – ELN Commander-in-chief Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino,” stated in an address posted on the internet to the group’s rank and file.

As the largest illegal actor, drug trafficking organizations are looking to the ELN to facilitate their business and provide the protection services needed to produce cocaine and get it to departure points for international markets. This is likely to continue to feed the ELN’s growth in 2019, both in and out of Colombia. Venezuela, in the midst of economic collapse and rampant criminality, has become fertile ground for the ELN. In the past, the group was largely concentrated in three border states: Apure, Táchira, and Zulia. InSight Crime research has tracked the guerrilla group’s spread across the country, finding evidence of its presence in 12 of Venezuela’s 24 states. ELN seems to be paying particular attention to the gold-rich state of Bolívar, imposing order and “taxes” on informal mining operations.

The ELN, however, suffers from internal division. A more moderate wing led by Israel Ramírez Pineda, alias “Pablo Beltrán,” has taken the lead in peace talks with the government, which are faltering. The militant wing is led by Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo Quinchía, alias “Pablito,” who has long operated out of the Venezuelan state of Apure and is likely leading the rebels’ aggressive expansion. Such growth makes negotiations between the Colombian government and the group all but impossible. Yet there are few signs of it slowing, even as the ELN increasingly bears the brunt of Colombia’s military power.  

Indeed, if the ELN allies itself with the growing numbers of FARC dissidents, which already seems to be happening, the rebels will truly be a regional threat in 2019.

1. The First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC)

Brazil’s most powerful prison gang had a busy 2018. The organization exploited the weak, paralyzed and apparently corrupt government of President Michel Temer, which spent its limited political capital clinging to power. Meanwhile, the presidential elections that propelled security hardliner, Jair Bolsonaro, into office on January 1, 2019, took up the remainder of the country’s focus.

The PCC has expanded for several years, but 2018 revealed a far greater presence and cohesion, operating in neighboring Paraguay and Bolivia, with tentacles stretching into Colombia, Argentina, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

One of the triggers for the PCC’s expansion has been its war with Brazil’s oldest prison gang, the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), which began in 2016 and saw the PCC challenge the Red Command across the country.

The gang’s increasing role in the international cocaine trade also has provided it with greater earnings, allowing for the group’s expansion beyond South America.

Files that authorities seized in 2018 shed light on the PCC’s income streams, money laundering tactics and membership growth. The documents suggested that the group’s annual income could reach $200 million. According to the documents, PCC members pay a membership fee of up to 950 Brazilian reais ($250) per month. The money primarily supports the gangs’ imprisoned members.

PCC expansion abroad is clearest in Paraguay. The group made its presence and power known with Hollywood flair in April 2017, brazenly attacking the main offices of Prosegur, an armored car company in Ciudad del Este. With military precision, 60 armed men blew the doors of a vault and calmly lifted out $11.7 million. They then took off for the border in a caravan of bulletproof vehicles and were last seen on the Paraná River in speedboats, headed toward Brazil.

Since then, the PCC’s roots in Paraguay have deepened and spread. Paraguay is the main marijuana-producing nation in South America and a smuggler’s paradise, and the PCC is now believed to dominate the city of Pedro Juan Caballero, on the Paraguay-Brazil border. The PCC exercises a stranglehold on the marijuana and cocaine flowing through the city.

All of Brazil’s criminal structures want access to Colombia’s booming cocaine production, not just to feed the growing domestic market but to get a slice of the more lucrative transnational business. PCC presence in the tri-border area between Brazil, Colombia, and Peru, another cocaine-producing nation, has strengthened over recent years, often accompanied by massacres and extreme violence. Bolivia has not been exempt from similar dynamics, although in 2018 it was Red Command’s presence that was most obvious, rather than the PCC.

Venezuela, suffering rampant corruption and an economic meltdown, has become a source of arms for criminal groups, and the PCC has been looking to secure high-powered weaponry there.

While some of the top PCC leaders have been murdered, the group has managed to keep its command and control, although it acts more like a franchise with a board of directors, than a vertically integrated structure. The board of directors is known as the ‘Sintonia Geral Final’ and has between eight and ten members. It makes the most important decisions about strategy and directs the activities of the PCC rank and file.

Ironically the election of anti-crime hardliner President Bolsonaro may provide the PCC with a shot in the arm, as more confrontations and arrests of gang members – something Bolsonaro promised on the campaign trail — could inflame neighborhoods and boost recruits.

“The motor of the growth of the PCC is the prisons,” said PCC expert Camila Dias of the Federal University of ABC in Brasil. “The prisons are the places where the PCC anchors its base and builds its strength and social roots. The more support for the policy of incarceration as a response to violence, the more the PCC strengthens and expands. Paradoxically, the state ends up acting to provide more members to the PCC.”

Brazil has the third highest prison population in the world, which with over 700,000 inmates trails only the United States and China. And that number looks likely to grow during 2019.

InSight Crime predicts that the PCC will soon become one of the most important criminal structures in the Americas, on par with those of Colombia and Mexico. Future transnational expansion will depend on the PCC’s deepening involvement in the cocaine trade, taking advantage of Brazil’s position as one of the main cocaine bridges to Europe and beyond.

Márcio Christino, a prosecutor in São Paulo who has written two books on the PCC, agreed.

“The PCC is in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and entering Uruguay, and Argentina. They are going in that direction. There is a vacuum and they are going to expand and expand. And dominate.”

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