Welcome to InSight Crime’s Game Changers for 2014, where we highlight the year’s most important trends in organized crime in the Americas.
This year was one of dashed hopes. In the same year that Mexico celebrated the capture of the world’s most wanted drug trafficker, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, it also had to accept the horror that came with a smaller, splinter criminal group executing 43 protesting students and burning their bodies to destroy the evidence. The group, known as the Guerreros Unidos, was believed to be acting in concert with the local police, a local mayor and his politically ambitious wife, in what is a blatant example of the regular collusion that exists between local authorities and criminal organizations throughout the region.
The death of the students in Mexico shattered the façade created by the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto that by capturing the country’s most wanted figures — which, in addition to El Chapo, included the heads of the Juarez Cartel and the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) — and largely ignoring institutional reform, it could quell Mexico’s criminal problem. Instead, the resulting atomization of large criminal organizations into smaller, more volatile groups that depend on local revenue streams, has led to bloody battles over the territory they need to keep the money flowing. The Guerreros Unidos, for instance, were once a part of the BLO.
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This fragmentation is a regional phenomenon. From Colombia to Brazil to Guatemala, large, hierarchical structures are now small, amorphous cells, working in networks, which are responsible for much of the violence that has made Latin America and the Caribbean the most homicidal region in the world. They are thriving, in part, because of the increase in the domestic consumption of illegal narcotics. The US market, while still the biggest consumer of drugs, is being challenged by growing drug use in countries like Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico, to name but a few, and these new markets are giving birth to new criminal syndicates that are feeding this violence.
Lastly, the Mexico case highlighted a stark reality about security forces: that they are at the heart of much of the violence. This has been a central feature of the Colombian civil conflict and the same is true in Brazil. Brazil continues to implement its once vaunted citizen security project, the UPP, although belief that the program is a panacea is now waning, especially amidst continuing concern over the police’s repressive tactics. Not even cameras attached to the police’s shirt pockets and fixed to the inside of official vehicles, it appears, can impede the police from doing what they have been doing for years: executing suspects.
Brazil also fell under the spotlight this year as it hosted the World Cup. Lost in the pageantry and spectacular performances of the players was the fact that soccer remains central to organized crime. From owners of local teams in the smallest villages to the largest club teams and their most celebrated players, criminal groups use soccer, and the social and political capital it generates, to make huge profits and continue their illicit operations in relative impunity.
Efforts to defuse conflicts with large political-criminal organizations also faltered this year. The peace process in Colombia between the government and the country’s insurgencies stumbled, after guerrillas from the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), kidnapped an army general. The FARC, the region’s oldest and arguably most criminalized insurgency, now seems to be splitting into pieces, some of which may adhere to their Secretariat’s move towards peace and demilitarization, and some of which may break away and form their own criminal organizations.
El Salvador’s government-brokered truce with the two most powerful street gangs, the MS13 and the Barrio 18, also unraveled as a new administration took power and sidelined the efforts. For many who saw the truce as a farce and believe the gangs could develop into transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), the death of the truce was a relief. But for those seeking a reprieve from the resurging violence in that country — including an increasing number of attacks on security forces and a surge in unaccompanied minors to the United States — there are few answers.
The one silver lining can be found in the slow move towards a new drug policy paradigm, one that so far decriminalizes drug use while continuing to criminalize those who create illegal, dangerous and destabilizing criminal structures. The region is not exactly poised to overturn a century of international legal precedent, but it is taking steps to measure just what levers it can pull and push in order to slow the criminal dynamics that have helped make the Americas the most violent place on the planet.
Thank you for reading us, following us and supporting us. We are looking forward to another productive year in 2015, monitoring, analyzing and investigating organized crime and government efforts to combat it.