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Human Smuggling Thrives Between Costa Rica and Nicaragua

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Costa Rican authorities arrest a suspected member of a network dedicated to the illicit smuggling of migrants between the nation and neighboring Nicaragua.

Recent interceptions linked to the smuggling of migrants at Nicaragua’s border with Costa Rica have illustrated the extent to which clandestine groups and individuals dedicated to the trade continue to operate between both nations, despite mobility restrictions associated with the coronavirus pandemic.

Below, InSight Crime explores how illegal migrant smuggling continues to pose a dilemma on both sides of the borderline.

Perpetual Flows During The Pandemic

On January 4, Costa Rica’s Ministry of Public Security announced authorities had made two arrests linked to separate cases of human smuggling through the nation’s porous northern border with Nicaragua.

Officials revealed a Nicaraguan national with permanent residency status in Costa Rica was caught as he was found transporting five compatriots who had illegally crossed into the country at a clandestine entry point. The suspect had reportedly charged each of the five migrants 10,000 colones (approximately $16) to take them from a farm in Santa Elena, Nicaragua, to the center of Santa Cecilia, a small district located in La Cruz, Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

According to the Ministry of Security, border police later arrested a second suspect in the same district, when he was found driving a Nicaraguan who had illegally entered the country. The migrant claimed he had previously been approached by a stranger in Nicaragua who had promised to take him to Costa Rica for 35,000 colones (just short of $57).

Both prior to and during the pandemic, coyotesa common term for human smugglers, have worked to move undocumented Nicaraguans into Costa Rica. Such individuals have also been known to help migrants in later making appointments to legitimize their residency in the country, according to a 2020 report published by the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress (Fundación Arias para la Paz y el Progreso Humano) titled “The Faces of Nicaraguan Exile: Expelled and Vulnerable.”

SEE ALSO: Political Kidnappings Persist Unchecked in Nicaragua

The report recognized that pirates — transport groups who illicitly transfer undocumented individuals already in Costa Rican territory, helping them to cross police checkpoints — also assist in the smuggling process.

Ana Yancy Espinoza, academic director at the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, told InSight Crime that many Nicaraguan migrants see paying coyotes the same way as they see any other service: a beneficial transaction if the price is “moderate,” or a service from which they do not do well out of if the price is disproportionately high or they are robbed in transit.

The Caribbean Connection

Illicit activity at Costa Rica’s northern border extends far beyond coyotes smuggling Nicaraguan migrants into the nation.

Instead, the porous frontier sees dual operations executed by smugglers, as criminal groups help undocumented migrants from the likes of Cuba and Haiti to illegally travel from Costa Rica into Nicaragua, ultimately toward the US.

Last month, Costa Rica’s migration police revealed authorities had dismantled an organized criminal network dedicated to the illicit smuggling of migrants both in and out of the nation via its northern frontier, arresting 10 suspects in the borderland city of Upala.

Media outlet La Nación reported the group’s coyotes had been helping Cubans to illegally enter Nicaragua. The network reportedly used safe houses to hide migrants in Costa Rica before they were led northward through clandestine border passages at Los Chiles and Upala, a process facilitated by the group’s counterintelligence capabilities. 

Back in July 2019, officials in Costa Rica announced that through a collaborative effort with Panamanian authorities, they had arrested 36 people who had formed a group dedicated to the smuggling of migrants from Cuba and Haiti, as well as Africa and Asia.

According to the head of Costa Rica’s migration police, Stephen Madden, the migrants would typically fly into Brazil, Peru, Ecuador or Colombia before members of the network smuggled them overland into Costa Rica via Panama.

Coyotes stationed at Costa Rica’s northern border would then guide them into Nicaragua, from where they would subsequently travel to Honduras or Guatemala. The network reportedly charged individuals between $7,000 to $20,000 for its services.

Yancy revealed how those living close to the border strongly associate northward smuggling of migrants from outside of Central America with organized crime. She added that locals had reported seeing such migrants wearing bracelets and badges in their transit, to demonstrate which criminal group was responsible for them.

Corruption and Border Crossings

Earlier this month, Costa Rica’s Ministry of Security revealed that in 2020 authorities had made 70 arrests linked to human smuggling. All but four of such interceptions were made around the nation’s northern border.

Those found guilty of illegally smuggling migrants across the border or within the nation typically serve between two to six years in prison, or up to eight years in more severe cases, according to officials.

However, Yancy toldInSight Crime that prosecution of such acts is practically impossible, especially when no formal complaint is made. This is most often the case.

SEE ALSO: Human Smuggling from Asia to Latin America On Rise

Across the border on January 5, Nicaragua’s military reported that between December 19 and January 3 it had detained 37 migrants who had attempted to enter the country illegally from Costa Rica via a well-established maritime route. According to La Prensa, the migrants — who were reportedly from a range of countries, including Haiti, Yemen and the Dominican Republic — had been guided by a Nicaraguan coyote.

Despite widely publicized efforts from both countries to impede such smuggling, coyotes have been known to directly pay authorities in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua to facilitate the transit of migrants, according to the Arias Foundation’s report.

The study warned members of Nicaragua’s military had also been known to guide crossings and forewarn coyotes of Costa Rican police presence beyond the border.

Worth the Risk?

In spite of the coronavirus pandemic, migrant smuggling between Costa Rica and Nicaragua has continued to thrive.

Many Nicaraguans are still attempting to escape their nation’s ongoing sociopolitical crisis and associated security threats by any way possible.

Meanwhile, the northward smuggling of migrants from the Caribbean, Africa and Asia through Costa Rica into Nicaragua reflects a wider trend apparent across Latin America.

Coyotes appear to still have a range of available routes open to them in their efforts to make clandestine crossings, regardless of which way migrants are heading. Last year, the Arias Foundation detailed how 51 clandestine border crossings could be found between the two nations.

Mexico’s Fentanyl Crisis Reached New Heights in 2020

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More and more groups are participating in Fentanyl production.

Trafficking of the deadly opioid fentanyl skyrocketed in 2020 throughout Mexico, solidifying the synthetic drug’s status as a top criminal economy and the country’s role as an international trafficking transit point.

Annual drug statistics for 2020 show fentanyl on the rise across Mexico, with numerous drug cartels fighting for control of the blossoming market.

The Ministry of Defense reports that 1,301 kilograms were seized throughout the year — an alarming figure, given that the drug is fifty to hundred times more potent than heroin and morphine.

SEE ALSO: US Chemicals Help Fuel Mexico Drug Production

Overall, 2020’s numbers represent an eye-popping 486 percent increase from 2019, when just 222 kilograms were seized, according to the Associated Press. Authorities also destroyed 175 clandestine laboratories, more than double that of the previous year.

Last October, one of the largest operations of the year involved simultaneous seizures across multiple states. In the state of Mexico, one laboratory had the potential to process an “unprecedented” 5,000 kilograms of precursor chemicals, authorities said. Another laboratory found during the operation, in the state of Sonora, was housing fifty drums of precursor chemicals.

“Demand is increasing,” Defense Minister Luis Crescencio Sandoval said in December. “These drugs are much more profitable for criminal organizations.”

Precursor chemicals arrived from China and India at Mexican ports like Manzanillo and Lázaro Cárdenas, where they were processed into fentanyl and often sent abroad. States known for drug trafficking activity — such as Zacatecas, Guerrero and Baja California — remained hotspots for the trade.

But other parts of the country — not on traditional drug trafficking routes — also saw increasing fentanyl activity in 2020. Mexico City’s international airport, for example, saw seizures of precursor chemicals that were much larger than in previous years. In the past, the airport had only caught small quantities of fentanyl pills.

Numerous criminal organizations clashed in an attempt to control this lucrative supply chain, contributing to what is poised to be one of the highest homicide rates in years. In Zacatecas, powerful crime groups — most notably the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) — contributed to endemic violence throughout the year, much of it presumably tied to the fentanyl trade.

Many seizures carried out in 2020 indicate that while the top-tier crime groups control a significant portion of the fentanyl market, there is an increasing number of smaller criminal groups attempting to carve out space, as well. The border city of Juárez, for example, registered several small-time arrests of local dealers and transporters traveling with fentanyl.

InSight Crime Analysis

The massive spike in fentanyl seizures is concerning for several reasons.

First, it indicates that drug cartels are continuing to shift their efforts to trafficking opioids, which from a business perspective is a smarter investment than heroin, cocaine or marijuana. Fentanyl and its variants are extremely addictive, guaranteeing a consistent if not constantly-growing demand from the United States, which sees thousands of overdose deaths each year. Officials announced a public health emergency for opioids in 2017. The situation was grimmer than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic, with fentanyl deaths hitting record levels.

And because fentanyl comes in a potent pill form, it is easier to ship undetected than other, bulkier drugs packaged in bricks or bags. Traffickers are also very good at mislabeling shipping containers traveling internationally with precursor chemicals, a 2019 InSight Crime investigation found.

SEE ALSO: Fentanyl Case Shows China’s Scary Ability to Adapt

Second, the seizures were carried out throughout the country, not just in states prominently controlled by drug cartels. This suggests that groups are developing new and more sophisticated trafficking routes, devoting more territory to establishing drug labs, and hiring more subcontractors who specialize in producing or distributing synthetics.

If there is a silver lining to the 2020 numbers, it is that Mexican law enforcement may be taking fentanyl more seriously than it has in years past. In interviews with InSight Crime in 2019, numerous officials intimated that fentanyl was less of a concern than other drugs being trafficked through the country.

Sandoval’s comments in December — and the number of seizures carried out in 2020 — suggest that that stance is changing. In fact, it is worth considering that last year’s numbers do not only reflect growth in fentanyl production but rather a more dedicated effort to combat a longstanding problem.

PCC Stalwart In Prison After Botched Rescue Attempt in Paraguay

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Giovanni Barbosa da Silva, alias "Bonitão," after his arrest

The reported leader of the PCC in Paraguay, known as “Bonitão,” has been extradited back to Brazil after a tumultuous few days that saw gang members stage a daring, yet unsuccessful, attempt to break him out of custody.

Giovanni Barbosa da Silva, alias “Bonitão,” was apprehended on January 9 by Paraguayan police in the border city of Pedro Juan Caballero. According to a statement by the Attorney General’s Office, he had been sought by authorities in Paraguay since June 2020 on charges of criminal organization, drug trafficking and weapons trafficking. Barbosa da Silva was believed to be the Paraguay commander for the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC), authorities said.

His importance to the organization became apparent a few hours after his arrest. Early on January 10, about 40 armed assailants reportedly attacked the police facility where Barbosa da Silva was being held. They initially took three police officers hostage but security forces were able to fight back, rescue their colleagues and capture two of the attackers, according to an EFE report citing police sources.

SEE ALSO: The Rise of the PCC: Expansion in Brazil and Beyond

Later that day, Barbosa da Silva was turned over to Brazilian authorities at the bridge separating the two countries at Foz do Iguaçu and then transferred to a federal penitentiary. The two other arrested PCC members were kept under custody in Paraguay.

On the night of January 11, Brazilian authorities tracked a number of the PCC members who had taken part in the attack to free Barbosa da Silva to a house in Ponta Porã, a town just across the border from Pedro Juan Caballero, according to media reports. A firefight broke out that eventually spilled out onto the streets and left eight gang members dead.

The violence has continued along the border with a police officer being shot and killed on January 12 in Pedro Juan Caballero. That same officer, Fredy César Diaz, had reportedly helped to fight off the rescue attempt a few days earlier.

According to Brazilian police reports, Barbosa da Silva is very close to Anderson Lacerda Pereira, alias “Gordão,” a suspected top PCC drug trafficker, money launderer and art aficionado who was once connected to the theft of works by Pablo Picasso.

Prior to setting up shop in Paraguay, Barbosa da Silva was based in São Paulo, where he allegedly directed PCC operations in the north of the city and where he was injured in a 2017 shoot-out, according to a report by UOL.

InSight Crime Analysis

The long-term investigation by Brazilian and Paraguayan authorities that led to Barbosa da Silva’s identification and arrest, as well as the attempt to rescue him, leaves little doubt he was a key operator for the PCC in Paraguay. But the PCC’s sheer depth in numbers, financial clout and organizational strength have seen it repeatedly shrug off seemingly significant blows.

A previous Paraguay boss for the PCC,  Sérgio de Arruda Quintiliano Neto, alias “Minotauro,” was arrested in February 2019 but was able to continue wielding significant influence over gang operations from inside prison.

SEE ALSO: São Paulo, Paraguay and Beyond: The PCC’s Growing Power

Similarly, while Paraguayan security forces have been able to arrest dozens of PCC gang members, often thanks to intelligence from their Brazilian counterparts, the PCC has a long history of extending its influence and recruiting new members inside prisons.

In January 2020, 75 PCC members were able to tunnel out of a prison in Pedro Juan Cabellero, with the country’s Justice Minister stating that the gang may have paid $80,000 to prison officials to allow the escape.

The continued inability of Paraguay to make any real ground in its fight against the PCC has allowed the gang to turn much of the country into a base of operations. With much of the gang’s supply of cocaine coming through Paraguay and with PCC members able to operate across the border with virtual impunity, the next Bonitão may not take long to emerge.

Fredy Nájera, Fixer of Narco-Politics in Honduras

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Former Honduran congressman Fredy Renán Nájera Montoya

It was in 2012 that former Honduran congressman Fredy Renán Nájera Montoya agreed to provide Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel with the connections to traffic cocaine through Puerto Cortés, a large port on the Caribbean coast. Six years later, still a representative in good standing, he was extradited to the United States to face drug trafficking and weapons charges.

Najera’s criminal exploits — described in detail in a sentencing memorandum filed December 23 — are of particular note. US prosecutors said he secured cocaine shipments in his home base of Olancho, connected Honduras’ main criminal groups and opened the Atlantic trafficking route, one of Central America’s most important.

Audrey Strauss, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, wrote to the judge presiding over the case that “drug trafficking organizations have gained unprecedented power in Honduras with the support and direct participation of high-ranking politicians” such as Nájera.

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

Nájera served in Honduras’ National Congress for the Liberal Party from 2006 until his  extradition in March 2018. He pleaded guilty that year to leading “large-scale and violent drug trafficking activities in the same part of Honduras that he represented in his government position,” prosecutors said. Najera was one of the highest-ranking politicians targeted by US authorities at the time, and is scheduled for sentencing in March 2021.

According to prosecutors, Nájera united the three most significant drug trafficking groups operating at that time in Honduras: Wilter Blanco and the Atlantic Cartel in eastern Gracias a Dios department, the Cachiros criminal gang in neighboring Colón, and the Valles clan in Copán, along the western border with Guatemala.

Nájera received “multi-hundred-kilogram shipments of cocaine sent from Venezuela to Honduras” at the Catacamas airstrip that he “constructed, maintained, and staffed” in Olancho, according to the court filing.

He then facilitated transport to the Cachiros in neighboring Colón and the Valles in Copán, on the border with Guatemala. A Honduran trafficker aligned with Blanco and the Cachiros, Sergio Neftalí Mejía Duarte, alias “El Compa,” moved the cocaine through Honduras into Guatemala and eventually on to Mexico and the Sinaloa Cartel, with whom he worked exclusively.

Over the course of nearly seven years, between 2008 and 2015, Nájera trafficked some 20 tons of cocaine worth hundreds of millions of dollars into the United States. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Nájera represents the highest levels of corrupt political power in Honduras, using his connections among influential politicians and crime groups to secure drug shipments and provide traffickers with protection.

To be sure, he was at the nexus of narco-politics in Honduras. In 2012, he introduced Sinaloa Cartel members to Fabio Lobo — the now-jailed son of former Honduran president Porfirio Lobo Sosa — and local politician Miguel Pastor Mejía at a meeting in the industrial hub of San Pedro Sula. Lobo and Pastor Mejía “agreed to provide the Sinaloa Cartel with unfettered access to Puerto Cortés for … drug trafficking in exchange for bribes,” according to the court filing.

The three men received almost half a million dollars in exchange, prosecutors said.

SEE ALSO: Allegations Against Honduras President Add to Narco-State Case

Nájera proved especially useful to the Sinaloa Cartel. He sidestepped joint efforts from local authorities and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to shoot down or intercept drug planes by switching to helicopters. Ranches he owned in Olancho served as landing pads for helicopters loaded with thousands of kilograms of cocaine. The Sinaloa Cartel paid him over $9 million for his services, according to the court filing.

As a congressman, he even secured $1 million from the Sinaloa Cartel for the 2013 presidential campaign of Yani Rosenthal, the powerful business tycoon representing the Liberal Party, according to the court filing. But Rosenthal did not gain the party’s nomination, and Hernández came to power after winning the general election. Having recently completed a three-year prison sentence in the United States for laundering drug money, Rosenthal is again running for president on behalf of the opposition in 2021.

Nájera also sought out allies on the other side of the aisle to shore up his criminal operation. In one 2014 meeting cited by prosecutors, he met with traffickers from the Cachiros and then-congressman Midence Oquelí Martínez Turcios — jailed in the United States on drug trafficking charges — to discuss seeking “favorable treatment and protection from the recently elected Honduran president,” Juan Orlando Hernández.

Nájera’s luck eventually ran out. But current conditions suggest he won’t be the last politician to leverage powerful connections to control key trafficking routes as cocaine continues to flood through Honduras.

Arresting drug traffickers is not enough if the politicians who protect them are not also targeted, US Attorney Strauss said in Nájera’s sentencing memorandum.

“Drug traffickers will be replaced and [Nájera’s] co-conspirators likely already have been,” she wrote. “What must be targeted is the political and structural support provided to drug traffickers in countries like Honduras that allows drug traffickers to flourish at monumental levels.”

El Salvador Protects Accounts of Suspected Money Launderers

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New regulation allows suspected money launderers to maintain bank accounts, even while under prosecution

The head of El Salvador’s financial regulatory agency has instructed banks not to close the accounts of suspected or formally accused money launderers, the latest in a long line of incidents that expose the country’s hollow fight against graft.

In December, Héctor Gustavo Villatoro, the head of El Salvador’s Financial System Superintendence (Superintendencia del Sistema Financiera – SSF) released a memo forbidding banks from severing commercial ties with alleged financial criminals. The memo state that banks “cannot terminate commercial relations founded in a decision of presumed culpability,” directly opposing the country’s chief anti-money laundering law.

By contradicting El Salvador’s Law Against Money Laundering and Other Assets, the new regulation permits suspected money launderers to control their assets, even after the start of criminal court cases. Accusations against several high-profile figures in recent years demonstrate who stands to benefit from such a policy – namely, government officials and economic elites implicated in bribery schemes and money laundering operations.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele Tainted by Money Laundering Allegations

In 2016, El Salvador’s ex-Attorney General, Luis Mártinez, and a prominent businessman, Enrique Rais, were arrested for conspiring to defraud the judicial system. The two men were found to have created an organized crime structure that bribed public officials to obtain court rulings favorable to Rais’ waste disposal company.

Mártinez, in turn, was accused of converting the Attorney General’s Office into a pay-to-play shop, where he accepted lucrative gifts in exchange for stopping or delaying corruption investigations. While Mártinez is in prison awaiting trial, Rais remains at large, living in a luxurious hideout in Switzerland – his bank account has yet to be closed.

The man behind El Salvador’s new regulation, Gustavo Villatoro, was appointed director of the SSF in July 2020. Prior, Villatoro served as director of customs under ex-president Elías Antonio Saca, who later faced corruption charges. In 2018, Saca pled guilty to charges of embezzlement and money laundering, receiving a 10-year prison sentence.

The successful prosecution of Antonio Saca was considered a significant win for El Salvador’s fight against financial crimes. In 2019, the country added 15 prosecutors to money laundering and asset forfeiture units and obtained its first money laundering convictions against MS-13 gang members. El Salvador was also reinstated in the Egmont group, an international association of Financial Intelligence Units dedicated to upholding international standards against money laundering and terrorist financing.

InSight Crime Analysis

Despite El Salvador’s participation in international anti-money laundering efforts, the SSF’s new regulation legitimizes legal loopholes that allow corrupt officials to maintain control over their assets, even while fleeing prosecution.

El Salvador was suspended from the Egmont group in 2016 after then-President Salvador Sánchez Cerén vetoed a proposed amendment that would have given autonomy to the Attorney General’s Office’s Financial Investigation Unit (Unidad de Investigación Financiera – UIF), shielding it from external powers.

SEE ALSO: Corruption Cries Mount Over Pandemic Spending in El Salvador

Under El Salvador’s current anti-money laundering law, banks are required to report suspicious activity to the UIF, which has the power to freeze and seize criminal assets, depriving criminals of ill-gotten gains and preventing their pre-trail escape. Despite Villatoro’s assertion that the new regulation prevents account closures to preserve evidence, the regulation undermines the autonomy of the UIF and insulates officials against corruption charges, ensuring that, even in the case of prosecution, their assets could facilitate a pre-trial escape.

A 2020 US Department of State report on money laundering and financial crimes in El Salvador praised the country for making great advances in seizing and forfeiting criminal asset.

But for the time being, money laundering, embezzlement, and bribery schemes remain condoned practices for many government officials and economic elites.

Migrants at Risk as Coronavirus Shutters Mexico Shelters

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The Casa del Migrante shelter in Saltillo, the capital of Mexico's northern Coahuila state

The coronavirus pandemic has forced migrant shelters in Mexico to close or limit capacity, exacerbating an already precarious situation for migrants vulnerable to the predations of criminal groups.

More than 40 shelters that provide refuge to migrants traveling through Mexico en route to the United States have recently shuttered or scaled back operations to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to a Reuters report.

In March 2020, for example, the Casa del Migrante shelter in Saltillo, the capital of northern Coahuila state, suspended accepting new migrants and asylum seekers. It reopened seven months later in October, but a COVID-19 outbreak forced the facility to close again in late December after its founder, Father Pedro Pantoja, died from the virus.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of US-Mexico Border

The migrants — mostly from Central America but also Asia, Africa and the Caribbean — have long used the shelters while traversing Mexico. Many undertake the perilous journey to the US border with little more than a backpack, walking much of the way. The shelters — which also provide migrants with food, clothing, medical attention and even legal aid — are largely funded by non-governmental and religious organizations.

In recent years crackdowns on migrants have forced them onto irregular and treacherous routes, exposing them to lurking criminal gangs.

“We know the gangs are watching us, and they know we’re watching them,” one 27-year-old Honduran migrant told Reuters.

InSight Crime Analysis

The shelters offer a lifeline for migrants journeying through Mexico, who are in constant danger from criminals of all stripes.

Migrants staying at shelters tend to be unprotected, traveling alone and unable to pay for smugglers’ services, said Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Guides will pay criminal groups a fee to move through their territory, which is safer than going at it alone,” Leutert told InSight Crime. 

With fewer shelters available to them, migrants are more vulnerable to robbery, extortion, assault and rape from local criminal actors. In addition, transnational criminal organizations run migrant kidnapping rings and demand ransom from family members in the United States. Mexican authorities and officials are also often complicit.

“They’re sitting ducks waiting to be victimized,” Leutert said of migrants now “left to wait and sleep on the streets outside shelters in areas where organized crime groups are present.”

SEE ALSO: Mexico Police Collude With Criminals to Kidnap, Extort Migrant

Even with resource constraints, shelter workers continue to do all they can to provide for migrants despite the risks, which now not only include targeted violence but also exposure to coronavirus, as happened to Father Pantoja.

Without the shelters, migrants become less visible to those who want to help them, and more cut off from information. 

“Shelters help share understanding on what’s happening to migrants when they travel and the risks they may face on the journey, but with facilities closing or limiting their services in the face of fewer resources and COVID, you lose that close interaction and a big source of information,” Maureen Meyer, the Vice President for Programs at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and an expert on Mexico, told InSight Crime.

Migrants, however, also communicate among themselves using informal channels that continue to exist outside of migrant shelters to share details on areas to avoid and preferred smuggling services, among other things, according to Jeremy Slack, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who has written extensively about migration and the US-Mexico border.

“It might be harder to get official information on the government’s shifting migration policies or the rights of migrants to seek asylum, but there are so many different ways information is shared, whether that be on social media, WhatsApp or people they meet and talk to on their journey,” said Slack.

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging in Mexico, shelter services for migrants will likely remain in limbo. But this doesn’t appear to be deterring those fleeing the devastation and economic damage wrought most recently by back-to-back hurricanes and the pandemic in Central America. The United States’ political transition has created fresh hopes for many to start a new life far from the violence, socio-economic hardship and other factors that had made life unbearable at home.

Indeed, on January 5, migration authorities in Guatemala announced plans to restrict a new caravan already planning to leave Honduras for the United States.

Allegations Against Honduras President Add to Narco-State Case

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Criminal allegations continue to swirl around Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández

With new accusations that Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández directly brokered deals to protect traffickers in exchange for drug money, the president himself has emerged as a lynchpin in Honduras’ descent into a narco-state.

US prosecutors said in a January 8 court filing that accused drug trafficker Geovanny Daniel Fuentes Ramírez met with Hernández and gave him tens of thousands of dollars in exchange for protection from law enforcement — along with military support for his trafficking activities.

President Hernández also allegedly asked Fuentes Ramírez for access to a drug laboratory to move “massive quantities of cocaine to the United States,” telling him that he “wanted to shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos,” according to the court document filed in the Southern District of New York.

The document is an in limine motion that provides a summary of evidence supporting the trial of Fuentes Ramírez, who was arrested in Miami in March 2020 on drug and weapons charges. He is alleged to have run a drug lab on Honduras’ Caribbean coast that produced hundreds of kilograms of cocaine per month.

SEE ALSO: US Alleges Honduras Drug Lab Operated with Presidential Protection

Prosecutors do not identify President Hernández by name in the document, referring to him only as CC-4, or co-conspirator number four. But he is clearly identifiable, described as the president and brother of convicted drug trafficker Tony Hernández. President Hernández denied the accusation that he accepted money from Fuentes Ramírez in a tweet from the presidential account, calling it “100 percent false” and based on the lies of confessed criminals.

The denial echoes previous ones, as US prosecutors have described President Hernández in a number of indictments and other court documents as a co-conspirator in his brother’s drug trafficking ring. Tony Hernández was convicted in October 2019 of running tons of cocaine to the United States while using his brother’s political connections.

In the latest court filing, prosecutors said President Hernández boasted to a Honduran businessman about the widespread corruption by him and his National Party in the lead up to the 2013 presidential elections, including the embezzlement of US aid money through fraudulent non-governmental organizations and stealing money from the country’s social security system.

InSight Crime Analysis

The evidence gathered by the Justice Department in this and other cases leaves fresh questions about the government’s highest-ranking officials, including the sitting president, who is an important US ally. Prosecutors have detailed how these officials receive millions of dollars from traffickers to finance campaigns and cement their power.

From the time of his ascent through the National Party’s ranks to head congress and eventually the presidency, Hernández allegedly engaged in a quid-pro-quo with drug traffickers that guaranteed their protection from security forces and the attorney general in exchange for bribes.

In the latest case, Fuentes Ramírez allegedly contributed large sums of money to Hernández’s 2013 presidential campaign. In exchange, prosecutors said, Hernández “promised to protect [Fuentes Ramírez] from arrest and extradition” and help him “transport cocaine with the assistance of Honduras’ armed forces.”

But the shadow of narco-politics was cast well before Hernández became head of state. Other drug traffickers prosecuted in the United States have pointed to President Hernández’s National Party as having for years facilitated links between formidable drug trafficking groups, such as the Cachiros and the Valles, and various levels of the Honduran security forces and political system.

President Hernandez’s predecessor, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa, who was in office from 2010 to 2014, has been accused of directing government funds for fraudulent business deals with a construction firm owned by the Cachiros. The criminal group relied on a close relationship with the former president’s son, Fabio Lobo, to import cocaine into the United States and launder the proceeds. Fabio Lobo was sentenced to 24 years in prison in 2017 after he pleaded guilty to US drug charges.

Prosecutors said the younger Lobo “used his father’s position and his own connections to bring drug traffickers together with corrupt police and government officials.”

President Hernández’s early bids for both the top seat in congress and the presidency were also allegedly funded with drug money. As far back as 2008, Tony Hernández allegedly sought bribes from Amilcar Alexander Ardón Soriano, the National Party mayor of the small town of El Paraíso, along the border with Guatemala. Ardón ran a group that bridged Colombian and Mexican traffickers, and the bribe money was to be given to Tony Hernández for his brother’s congressional re-election campaign in exchange for protection.

Ardón later provided Hernandez’s campaign with $1.5 million in drug proceeds for his 2013 presidential bid as well, according to US prosecutors. The new accusations reveal that President Hernández himself was also allegedly meeting with Fuentes Ramírez at that time.

SEE ALSO: Yet More Accusations Against Honduras President, But Will They Matter?

President Hernández, prosecutors say, was particularly interested in Fuentes Ramírez because of the cocaine lab he operated near Puerto Cortés, a key commercial port on Honduras’ Caribbean coast.

President Hernández allegedly agreed to “use the Honduran armed forces as security” and promised that then-Attorney General Óscar Chinchilla would help protect Fuentes Ramírez’s trafficking activities, according to the court filing. The president also allegedly helped the suspected drug trafficker obtain submachine guns, military uniforms, bulletproof vests and police badges from a high-ranking military commander, which an exclusive Univision report identified as René Orlando Ponce Fonseca.

But President Hernández didn’t want to be the direct intermediary. Instead, he told Fuentes Ramírez to “report directly” to his brother Tony, who was “managing drug trafficking activities in Honduras,” according to the court filing.

During the trial of his brother, President Hernández’s name came up frequently. In one particularly damning remark, prosecutors alleged that former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” had handed Tony a $1 million bribe that was later accepted by the president. Prosecutors repeated this allegation in the recent court filing.

In addition, a detailed ledger documenting cocaine shipments and bribe payments also identified hundreds of thousands of dollars allegedly paid to “JOH and his associates,” presumably signaling the president. Anti-drug officials confiscated the ledger in 2018 from Nery Orlando López Sanabria, an alleged top drug trafficker who was brutally murdered in prison shortly after the trial against Tony Hernández ended.

US prosecutors reportedly have in their possession WhatsApp text and voice messages between Fuentes Ramírez and a Honduran military official identified as “Commissioner Martínez.” The two allegedly discussed President Hernández, corrupt military officials and the trial of the president’s brother, according to the court filing.

Fuentes Ramírez was “excited to have [President Hernández’s] protection and agreed to work with [President Hernández] and his brother to import cocaine into the United States,” prosecutors said.

For the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, the most damaging allegation in the filing — besides the incendiary comments about shoving cocaine up the noses of the gringos — is likely to be that Hernández said he wanted to make the US “Drug Enforcement Administration think that Honduras was fighting drug trafficking.”

Hernández has long been portrayed by US officials as a key ally. As vice president, Biden even met with Hernández in 2015 to review joint efforts to “tackle corruption and target transnational criminal networks.”

The new administration is unlikely to take kindly to the idea that the administration of former President Barack Obama — and by extension then-Vice President Biden — was being duped.

For the new administration, US prosecutors’ parade of accusations of President Hernández’s suspected complicity in drug trafficking could provide it leverage to implement its ambitious anti-corruption agenda in Central America. The administration could also turn its back on Hernández ahead of presidential elections slated for November 2021.

Libya, North Africa Emerge As Cocaine Transit Hubs

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Libya's ongoing conflict has facilitated its transformation into a nascent cocaine transit hub.

Within the span of a week, cocaine was discovered in two separate maritime cargo containers bound for Libya, a strong indication that both the North African country and the broader region are becoming increasingly used cocaine transit routes to Europe and the Middle East.

In December, customs inspectors in Malta seized 612 kilograms of cocaine concealed in oil cooking cargo, a record haul for the Mediterranean island nation, according to a news release. The cargo was shipped from Ecuador and transited Colombia before it arrived at the Malta Freeport.

Three days earlier, authorities at the port of Guayaquil in Ecuador seized 582 kilograms of cocaine hidden in 19 pieces of teak wood bound for Libya and Syria, detaining one person in the process, El Comercio reported.

SEE ALSO: Bolivia Traffickers Supplying Drug Markets in Africa, Lebanon

This is not the first discovery of cocaine being shipped to Libya in recent years, though it is the largest. In May, Brazilian Tax Authorities discovered 128 kilograms of cocaine in two containers bound for Libya at the Port of Itajai. In July 2018, Colombian National Police seized 43 kilograms of cocaine at the port of Buenaventura, hidden within the structure of a container bound for Libya’s port of Benghazi. In 2016, Libyan fishermen found 70 kilograms of cocaine floating off a beach near Tobruk.

Libya’s regional neighbors in North Africa have similarly seen a rising tide in cocaine seizures. In May 2018, Algeria authorities interdicted 701 kilograms of cocaine hidden on a container ship transporting frozen meat from Brazil. In August 2019, three tons of cocaine washed up on a beach in Morocco.  Even the small country of Tunisia broke its drug haul record in 2017, with its largest cocaine seizure of 31 kilograms off a speedboat.

Overall cocaine seizures in Africa have risen, from 1.2 tons in 2015 to 3.3 tons in 2017 and 5.6 tons in 2018, according to the 2020 United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report.

InSight Crime Analysis

Increased counter-narcotics efforts in West Africa, a traditional cocaine transit point, are likely leading cocaine traffickers to rely more heavily on maritime routes through North Africa, as soaring South American cocaine supplies are increasingly smuggled aboard shipping containers to reach both a swelling European market and a nascent Middle Eastern one.

The size of the two shipments to Libya strongly suggests transport to Europe, Matt Herbert, research manager for the North Africa and Sahel Observatory at the Global Initiative, told InSight Crime. For years, concealing drugs in containers aboard cargo ships has been the primary smuggling method for feeding the European cocaine pipeline. Ecuador’s ports, for example, have emerged as key exit points for South American cocaine trafficked to Europe.

More importantly, according to Herbert, is the two seizures provide further evidence of how South American trafficking networks are looking to establish direct transshipment points in the Maghreb countries, primarily in Morocco due to its geographic proximity to Spain but also to a lesser extent in Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.

Such a move is spurred by various political and military changes in West Africa that have led to the relative decline of the “the West Africa-Maghreb-Europe route that [has] predominated since the early 2000s,” Herbert said.

SEE ALSO: Record Cocaine Hauls Confirm Guinea-Bissau’s ‘Narco-State’ Reputation

However, compared to Morocco or even Algeria, Libya is a particularly unusual cocaine transit point, especially through a direct South America-Libya connection. While Libya does have a rapidly growing domestic cocaine market, marijuana resin and opioids are the much more common drugs both for consumption and transit, according to a 2019 report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).

Referring to Malta’s latest seizure, Herbert said the island country was not likely the final destination for the cocaine.

“Drug shipments via container shipping in effect need to blend into the mix and accept the itinerary of the cargo vessel,” he said. “This one happened to call in Malta.”

If it had passed undetected, the cargo could have landed in several ports in eastern or western Libya, such as Misrata, al-Khoms, Benghazi and Tobruk. Cyrenaica’s coastal area is also a major landing spot for drugs en route to Europe and Egypt. From Libya, the cocaine would likely go to southern Italy or the Balkans, with smaller volumes flowing to Turkey and via Egypt to the larger Middle East.

Wilexis Alexander Acevedo Monasterios, alias ‘Wilexis’

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Wilexis Alexander Acevedo Monasterios has led the gang which bears his name since at least 2017. With between 150 and 200 people in its ranks, the Wilexis gang controls the José Félix Ribas neighborhood, the largest of the violent Petare slums in eastern Caracas.

He is wanted by the authorities for extortion, kidnapping, theft and micro-trafficking. Additionally, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro has accused him of working with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for Operation Gedeón, although there is no known evidence supporting this accusation.

History

Wilexis’s criminal career began around 2003 but really began to grow from 2013, when he formed a small gang dedicated to kidnappings, robberies and hired killings. His gang operated in Petare along with a number of other criminal groups. However, a number of his rivals were gradually eliminated by police operations and by 2017, the Wilexis gang started to position itself as the strongest gang in José Félix Ribas.

InSight Crime interviewed a number of residents of José Félix Ribas who said the rise of Wilexis was partially enabled by the local mayor, José Vicente Rangel Ávalos, who was elected in 2017. InSight Crime was not able to independently verify claims of such a relationship.

SEE ALSOThe Hunt for ‘Wilexis’ – Manufactured Mayhem in Petare, Venezuela

Beyond the role of the mayor, other factors allowed the Wilexis gang to assume control of José Felix Ribas, including a lack of police presence. In 2013, when Rangel Ávalos was deputy security minister, he reportedly declared the neighborhood a “Peace Zone” under a government program where security forces would stay out of certain areas as long as local gangs maintained the peace.

The gang’s growing power led to Wilexis usurping state functions, acting as a judge ruling on neighborhood problems, taking a role in local politics and even organizing public events. Residents reported that, in the eyes of many, Wilexis is seen as a “Robin Hood” that brings gifts to children and families in need, delivering government-subsidized food boxes. The group is also responsible for local security, stopping theft and minor crimes against residents, and punishing those who commit these crimes. Although there are no official figures, violence has likely declined overall in the José Félix Ribas neighborhood under Wilexis’ rule.

In fact, the local community has protested alleged extrajudicial killings, as well as other abuses of police power, committed by the National Bolivarian Police’s Special Action Forces unit (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales – FAES) on three occasions in recent years. Arguing that the Wilexis gang has protected them, they urged the authorities to officially designate the neighborhood as a peace zone. However, sources say that the gang has forced residents to hold these protests.

In January 2019, when the president of the National Assembly proclaimed himself interim president, residents of the José Félix Ribas neighborhood held a protest in his favor, an action allowed by the criminal boss. Violence against protesters led to clashes with the Maduro regime and made Wilexis a wanted man.

Between April and May 2020, Wilexis saw the group’s territorial control disputed by a criminal named Christian Rene Tovar Uribe, alias “El Gusano,” who was rumored to have been sent from the Tocorón prison in order to take back control of the neighborhood where he allegedly used to operate. The armed encounters between the two gangs lasted for close to two weeks.

On May 6, amidst the hostilities, President Nicolás Maduro accused Wilexis, without any evidence to support his claims, of having faked the armed confrontations in order to distract from Operation Gedeón, which occurred during this time in collaboration with the DEA and the alleged financing of a drug trafficker named Richard Cammarano. In the same public statement, Maduro called upon his ministers to arrest Wilexis.

Following Maduro’s speech, the media outlet NTN24 received an audio recording of a man who identified himself as Wilexis, denying the president’s accusations and alleging that he did not have contact with the DEA, nor any interest in Maduro’s departure from power. Two days later, the FAES conducted an operation in the José Félix Ribas neighborhood in search of Wilexis, but it ended in the extrajudicial deaths of 13 people.

On May 14, a commission of the Scientific, Criminal and Criminalistic Investigations Corps (Cuerpo de Investigaciones de Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas – Cicpc) killed El Gusano in a confrontation, putting an end to the dispute with Wilexis. While they killed members of the gang in various operations in the suburbs of Caracas, the criminal boss was not found, presumed to be hiding from the authorities.

Wilexis returned to José Félix Ribas in July, where he remained, keeping a low profile, for five months until he was discovered during a FAES operation in November. While he was reportedly injured, he managed to escape once again. Four members of the gang were killed in the incident.

Criminal Activities

The Wilexis gang is involved in kidnapping and extortion schemes, in addition to controlling micro-trafficking in areas under its control. The extortions are demanded of informal merchants in the area, who are required to pay a “vacuna”, as extortion payments are referred to in Venezuela, for providing security.

SEE ALSOCoverage of Megabandas

The kidnapping victims are frequently located in Caracas or neighboring areas and held hostage in the homes of criminals within the neighborhood. While the extortion demands may be equivalent to around $30 per month, the kidnapping ransom fees, while less frequent, can be up to $20,000, according to interviews with local residents.

Geography

Petare is a strategic territory for the gang, densely populated and with a complex labyrinth of staircases and alleyways that facilitate criminals’ escapes to other areas during police operations. The mega-gang is present in approximately 20 different zones within Petare. The group’s greatest area of influence is observed within the José Félix Ribas neighborhood, particularly between zones 6 and 10. It also has a presence in surrounding neighborhoods, such as Maca, Barrio Unión, La Bombilla, Simón Bolívar, and 24 de Marzo.

Members of the Wilexis gang have also sought refuge in the suburbs of Caracas, like Los Teques and Guatire, where police have found gang members.

Allies and Enemies

Now that Wilexis is one of the recent players in Caracas’ criminal panorama, in comparison to other gangs that have controlled territories for longer, the gang has few known alliances.

It is presumed that there is a kind of Pax Mafiosa with José Vicente Rangel Ávalos, the pro-government mayor of the Sucre municipality, who, as the director of the municipal police, has not carried out operations against the criminal.

Despite attempts by community leaders to mediate with the mayor during the May confrontation in favor of the gang, it is unclear whether the alliance continues after government statements and recent operations.

Perspectives

Despite the official narrative against Wilexis, the fact that he remains free may be evidence of the government’s general indifference toward a gang that maintains control over a significant part of the country’s largest and most violent slum, which could be of benefit to the Maduro government.

The battle against El Gusano likely served to cow Wilexis, as a response to his apparent support of the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, during the January 23 protests, when he allowed the community to hold a protest against the Maduro regime and even confronted the security forces who threatened protesters.

And Wilexis and his gang remain under the eye of the FAES, the only security unit to regularly pursue members of the Wilexis gang, albeit without sustained success. much success. The last clash between the FAES and the Wilexis gang, which occurred in November, reaffirmed the will of the group in question to take down the gang.

Wilexis’ eventual arrest or death could result in a power vacuum in Petare that would likely fuel a dispute between small gangs in the area over control of the territory and bring violence back to the neighborhood, a scenario that the Maduro government and the municipal administration of Rangel Ávalos probably want to avoid. Therefore, they might prefer to tolerate the leader and allow him to continue operating like so many other groups in Caracas.

Los Meleán

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Tirso Meleán

For more than 40 years, the Meleán gang has ranked among the leading criminal groups within the criminal landscape of Zulia, a state in western Venezuela.

The group’s criminal heyday was presided over by its long-time leader, Antonio Meleán, who fronted as a successful businessman for several decades in order to cover up the group’s clandestine business dealings.

After his death in 2008, the criminal hegemony that characterized the group for many years was disputed by several local gangs looking for criminal revenue streams in the region. In some cases, the sheer magnitude of these violent disputes has reached such an extent, that neighboring Colombia is starting to feel the side effects.

History

Reminiscent of the Sicilian Mafia, Los Meleán built a criminal enterprise in the state of Zulia, with family roots that have remained in force for more than four decades. Homicides, revenge, corruption and illicit business dealings, are just a few examples on a long list of events that marked the before and after of organized crime in western Venezuela.

The group’s criminal prestige is rooted in the “Santa Barbara Massacre” of the 1970s in Zulia. The murder of Rodolfo Meleán, the brother of Jesús “Chucho” Hernández Meleán, a well-known rancher from Santa Barbará, located in the municipality of Colón, marked the beginning of a family rivalry and vendettas between the Meleán and the Semprún Cedeño family.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela’s Gangs Push Deeper Into Colombia

Los Meleán managed to take ownership of various territories and resources, which gave rise to the consolidation of a criminal structure responsible for numerous cases of extortion and murder across Zulia. Behind this criminal ascent was Antonio Jesús Meleán Vergel, also known as “Antonito” or “El Viejo,” an agricultural producer who became untouchable because of his close relationships with important political figures. His power was such that, in the 1980s and 90s, the governors and local officials needed his approval in order to carry out certain police operations.

Antonio Meleán’s life came to an end in 2008. On December 27 of that year, a day after his birthday, a group of hitmen confronted him in front of a barber’s shop. The local authorities and the Meleán blamed Daniel David Leal Prieto, alias “Danielito,” who was his bodyguard and who Antonito was close to.

The death of the leader of the Meleán represented the emergence of a new organization led by Antonito’s former business partner, José Luis Leal Rangel. Leal decided to articulate a  new criminal structure under his command and challenged the Melean’s power in Zulia. This led to a wave of violence in the municipalities of La Cañada de Urdaneta, Santa Rita, Cabimas, San Francisco and Maracaibo, located in the area surrounding Maracaibo Lake, which continues to this day and has weakened the Meleán considerably.

After Antonito’s death, Nelson, his younger brother, would head the Meleán clan’s business operations. However, his leadership was complicated by an intense confrontation with José Luis Leal, who managed to track him down and kill him in March 2012 in the Colombian city of Santa Marta.

Nelson Melean’s murder in Colombia, paved the way for a new generation to take the helm of the family mafia. Tirso Antonio Meleán Castellanos, alias “Tirsito,” Antonito’s son, was chosen as the heir to take the reigns of what was Zulia’s most-well known criminal clan at the time. His assumption of power represented a substantial shift in los Meleán’s criminal legacy, in which it needs to fight for its survival.

The bulk of the clan’s structure lost men in its dispute with Los Leal, leading to the arrival of new lieutenants that were not part of the immediate family, but that would serve as key pieces in ensuring the strength of the organization. The story of Helí Heberto Fernández Chamut, alias “El Chamut,” a former member of Zulia’s regional police force, is among the most memorable. Fernández joined the ranks of los Meleán as the head of the clan’s hitmen.

In December 2018, Tirso was arrested for arms trafficking in the US state of Texas. Subsequently, his brother, Bernardino Meleán Frontado, known as “Willy Meleán,” assumed leadership. “Willy Meleán” had led the group’s operations on the East Coast of Lake Maracaibo for a period of time and had gained popularity by using social media to intimidate his victims and adversaries. Nevertheless, Willy Meleán was shot dead by Colombian authorities on November 6, 2020 in the municipality of Sabana Torres, in the department of Santander.

Leadership

The head of the Meleán clan during the 1980s and the first decade of the 21st century was Antonito Meleán, who was largely responsible for the infamous status given to the family’s surname and the clan’s reputation in Venezuela. His death not only represented the organization’s most significant loss, but it has also brought about a generational change in which the clan does not enjoy the criminal supremacy of the previous generation.

After the death of their father, Tirso Meleán and his brother, Willy Meleán, assumed leadership of the criminal organization. However, Tirsito has been jailed in the United States since 2018 and Willy was killed by authorities in Colombia in 2020.

The current leader of the organization is Jefferson José Nava Jiménez, known as “Y. Nava” or “Jet Nava,” a former lieutenant of Willy Meleán. He served as a hitman in the past under Albis Saúl Cepeda Casanova, alias “El Puchungo,” a former hitman for the Meleán. Jet Nava frequently appears on social media, showing off his weapons and money, and is now the man at the top of the organization’s pyramid structure.

Geography

Zulia state is the flagship territory where the Meleán have historically operated and where its reputation has transcended time. The beginnings of this organization are related to a family dispute in Santa Bárbara, in the Colón municipality, where the Meleán exercised control for several years. Nevertheless, their territorial hegemony was truncated by the expropriation policies of former president Hugo Chávez Frías, which forced them to move their center of operations to another part of the state.

SEE ALSO: GameChangers 2020: Tren de Aragua and the Exportation of Venezuelan Organized Crime

Over time, the municipality of Santa Rita, located along the eastern coast of the Maracaibo Lake (Costa Oriental de Lago de Maracaibo – COL), consolidated as an operational stronghold. The Meleán also have a presence within this same region in the municipalities of Miranda, Cabimas and Simón Bolívar. Additionally, there are important armed cells operating in the capital, Maracaibo, and in the municipality bordering Colombia, Jesús Enrique Lossada.

The clan’s presence within the border region, guarantees the group the use of illegal corridors that not only serve for the movement of group members, but also for criminal activities on Colombian soil. Colombian authorities have identified criminal activities attributed to the organization in several parts of the country, including Bogotá, Ibagué, Barranquilla, Santa Marta and Cartagena, where the presence of los Meleán is linked to extortion, vendettas, prostitution and microtrafficking.

Allies and Enemies

The balance between alliances and blood feuds maintained by los Meleán over the course of the past few decades leans more towards rivalries than alliances.

The group has maintained its greatest number of feuds with the Los Leal megabanda against whom they are currently disputing control of revenue streams and strategic areas within several municipalities located in the area surrounding Lake Maracaibo.

Evidence of this rivalry is the ongoing conflict with Erick Alberto Parra Mendoza, alias “Yeico Masacre,” an ally of Los Leal with a presence in the municipalities of Santa Rita and Cabimas. Said rivalry has expanded into several territories within Colombia, including Barranquilla, Ibagué, Santa Marta and Bogotá, where authorities have reported at least 12 armed clashes between the two groups.

Additionally, local and national authorities have become enemies of the Meleán. Omar Prieto, elected governor of Zulia state in 2017, has employed the help of regional security forces to directly pursue members of the organization, in a scenario that has directly involved Prieto and Los Leal.

The Tren del Norte gang is also considered to be one of Los Meleán’s criminal rivals. The 2020 murder of Hugo Enrique González Rico, alias Kike, the third leader of the Tren del Norte, in Puerto Colombia, Barranquilla, was the result of an attack orchestrated by los Meleán. Both organizations have been linked to the control of micro-trafficking plazas in Colombia and Venezuela.

Perspectives

The group’s ability to maneuver between the worlds of legality and illegality, which guaranteed the group favorability with local authorities for several decades, was one of the main characteristics of the Meleán family clan under the leadership of Antonito.

However, since his death, this relationship has been turned on its head and the clan has become a primary security objective for local authorities.

While the scenario facing the Meleán is not the most favorable, it is important to remember that the infamous surname and the group’s criminal reputation continues to inflict fear and anxiety among residents of western Venezuela. The extortions, robberies and targeting killings in a large part of the area along the eastern coast of Maracaibo Lake depend on the signoff of the criminal organization, which has endured for several decades in Venezuela.

As Tirso remains in a US prison, the organization’s leadership will be headed up for the first time by a person outside of the Meleán family lineage, which represents a significant void of legitimacy that could lead to an internal dispute for leadership within the clan’s middle ranks.

Rio Militias and Their Complex Empire of Legal Businesses

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Brazilian police shut down pharmacies in Rio de Janeiro, suspected of laundering money for militia groups

As part of a mounting campaign going after criminal finances, police in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro have asked courts to seize control of legal businesses used by militia groups to launder money.

This week, Rio’s anti-money laundering task force filed a request with the city’s judiciary to seize businesses that are legally registered and have paid all their taxes but have been used as fronts by militias, Globo reported. If approved, the companies would be taken over by administrators and continue to operate legally, but any profits would be used for police funding. The police stated this was to avoid any inconvenience to customers.

Last October, police shut down eight pharmacies across Rio de Janeiro for allegedly being used as money laundering fronts.

SEE ALSO: Militias Become Luxury Real Estate Barons in Rio de Janeiro

A week earlier, another raid led to the seizure of the “militia’s pharmacy,” a locale filled with medicine destined to be sold illegally, including controlled substances. The business was reportedly linked to the Nova Iguaçu militia, led by Wellington da Silva Braga, alias “Ecko,” the city’s most wanted man.

But pharmacies are just the tip of the money laundering iceberg. Over the last two months, police operations in Rio de Janeiro have reportedly seized assets worth 800 million reais ($150 million) from militia groups.

Militias have not been the only targets of this strategy. In October, InSight Crime reported that raids across dozens of cities had also sought to dismantle the finances of Brazil’s largest criminal gangs, Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV) and the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC).

The state of Rio de Janeiro’s interim governor, Claudio Castro, stated this week that “the police’s strategy is to arrest these gangs and to asphyxiate them financially, to curb all these money laundering practices.”

InSight Crime Analysis

It is encouraging to see the police make concerted efforts to target the finances of militias, now believed to have taken over from drug gangs as Rio’s largest criminal threat. But shuttering front businesses is just a first step, given the range of money laundering options available to these groups.

Militias — often made up of current and former soldiers, police and firefighters — have developed complex criminal economies throughout the city, such is their level of control. Residents in certain neighborhoods are often forced to rely on the militias to access essential services, including water, electricity, and internet access. The groups oversee real estate transactions, administer car parks and allow businesses to stay open or not, collecting rich extortion proceeds from the lot.

SEE ALSO: Despite Recent Arrests, Rio’s Militias Are Here to Stay

In an investigation dedicated to how the militias conducted business, Brazilian media UOL described militia bosses as current or former public officials “who act like feudal lords and strategize like capitalist executives.”

Their criminal governance faces few restrictions since the militias often find willing partners to collaborate within legal business sectors. “Merchandise warehouses and logistics companies like having the militia around to prevent cargo theft. The legal system makes arrangements with the illegal system,” Alba Zaluar, an anthropology professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (Universidade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro – UERJ), told UOL.

Despite their involvement in a range of illegal activities, militias still enjoy broad impunity. The aforementioned militia boss, da Silva Braga, is Rio’s most-wanted man and facing charges in nine different cases. Yet, according to a profile by Globo, he travels around the city with his own security escort, lives in luxury houses and frequently interacts with police officers and drug traffickers alike.

Counterfeit Money Trade Thrives in Brazil Amid Pandemic

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Brazil seized more counterfeit bills in 2020 than ever before

Brazil has dismantled several large, sophisticated counterfeit cash rings in recent months, indicating that criminal groups with the technological savvy to print fake banknotes are seizing on the economic crisis created by the coronavirus pandemic.

In December, Brazilian websites were found selling fake notes of 50, 100 and 200 reais ($10, $20 and $40), according to an investigation by TecMundo. The websites, which promoted the fake currency as a way to “increase your income,” touted that the counterfeiters had “nine years of experience” and promised that the notes would stand up to counterfeit pen and ultraviolet light testing. The cybercriminals even advertised their services through Google.

Earlier, in November, São Paulo police dismantled a counterfeiting network that had put over 10 million reais (just under $2 million) of counterfeit bills in circulation, UOL reported. Police seized some 500,000 reais (about $100,000) in fake bills during the operation.

SEE ALSO: Rising Dollar, Venezuela Crisis Fuel Colombia’s Counterfeit Currency Trade

The November operation followed a spate of earlier ones throughout Brazil. In early July, federal police shut down a large clandestine counterfeit money shop in São Paulo, confiscating 77,980 fake banknotes that amounted to more than 2 million reais ($400,000), according to a government press release.

A July raid took out a counterfeiting facility in Rio Grande do Sul. And in September, police broke up a counterfeit money operation that had produced over 10 million reais ($2 million) in Minas Gerais.

Brazil’s counterfeit money trade is by no means a new phenomenon. In 2019, Brazilian authorities seized 440,000 fake notes, totaling more than 27 million reais ($5 million), Estadão reported.

InSight Crime Analysis

For criminal groups seeking out new sources of income — particularly as drug trafficking and human trafficking have been severely disrupted by the pandemic — the counterfeit money trade is a relatively low-risk enterprise that offers big profits.

Federal police seized more counterfeit money from January to July 2020 than in all of 2019, according to a Domingo Espetacular report.

One of the country’s leading anti-counterfeiting organizations, the Brazilian Association to Combat Counterfeiting (ABCF – Associação Brasileira de Combate à Falsificação), works with authorities to help identify and seize counterfeit money. The director, Rodolpho Ramazzini, told Brazil news organization R7 in June that sales of counterfeit money had increased by about 20 percent during the pandemic.

SEE ALSO: Peru Makes Largest-Ever Bust of Counterfeit Dollars

One criminal network was selling between 4,000 and 10,000 fake banknotes every week, charging customers about 10 percent of the bill’s face value, according to Domingo Espetacular, which cited exclusive WhatsApp messages from a police investigation into a clandestine shop in Rio Grande do Sul.

Counterfeiters use sophisticated equipment and methods to produce banknotes virtually indistinguishable from real money. In one recent operation in Rio Grande do Sul, police seized offset printers, high-quality paper, special ink and even a machine used to forge watermarks and other security features.

To help citizens identify fake currency, the Central Bank of Brazil launched a smartphone application named Brazilian Money in 2014. Users take a photo of a banknote to verify the bill’s key security features are in order.

Brazil is not the only country in Latin America where counterfeit banknotes are a boon to criminal groups. Peru and Colombia are among the countries that have seen a proliferation in the counterfeiting of US dollars. Counterfeiting in these countries has also been stoked by the demand for dollars in Venezuela, where the dollar has become the defacto currency after the Venezuelan bolívar was rendered practically worthless.