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Indigenous Leaders Slain in Peru Amid Pandemic

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The amazon region of Madre de Dios -- a hotspot for illegal gold mining and the site of a recent murder of an Indigenous environmental activist

Four Indigenous leaders in Peru’s Amazon have been murdered since the government declared a state of emergency over COVID-19, revealing how their opposition to illegal logging, mining and drug trafficking leaves them continuously exposed when focus is elsewhere.

On September 11, the body of Roberto Carlos Pacheco Villanueva was discovered in Madre de Dios, an Amazon forest region where he and his father had long fought vast illegal gold mining. The latest threat on his life came in April, according to a tweet by the account of Peru’s National Coordinator of Human Rights (Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos – CNDDHH), “but authorities did very little to protect him.”

Pacheco’s slaying was the fourth of an Indigenous leader in the seven months since the nation declared a state of emergency and lockdown in March to combat the coronavirus. The government recently prolonged the lockdown until the end of September in some of the worst-affected areas, AFP reported.

SEE ALSO: Peru News and Profile

Lorenzo Wampagkit Yamil, who served for eight years a land defender in the Chayu Nain reserve, was killed in July. Gonzalo Pio Flores, head of the asháninka ethnic group, was murdered in May.

In April, Arbildo Meléndez Grandes, head of the indigenous Unipacuyacu community, was shot dead in Puerto Inca. Meléndez Grandes had long sought the title to tribe’s lands, which borders Ucayali y Huánuco, and fought illegal activity there.

Land in remote areas around Puerto Inca is invaded for the cultivation of illegal coca, said Sandra Jesús Olivera Lara, legal advisor to the Aidesep Ucayali Regional Organization (Organización Regional Aidesep Ucayali – ORAU) on the Meléndez Grandes case.

“The central axis of this case is land trafficking and drug trafficking,” she told environmental news outlet Mongabay.

InSight Crime Analysis

The recent killings of Peru Indigenous leaders raise concerns that the pandemic has left them even more vulnerable to attacks by criminal groups.

Twenty environmental activists have been killed in Peru since 2013, of whom 12 were Indigenous leaders in the Amazon region, according to OjoPúblico, citing data from the CNDDHH.

The last time this many activists were killed in a year was in 2014, when five were murdered. Four were gunned down on their way to a meeting about illegal logging, in a massacre that caused international outrage. During the next five years, just two Indigenous leaders were killed, according to OjoPúblico,

SEE ALSO: Peru Running Out of Ideas to Stop Illegal Mining in Madre de Dios

No convictions have been secured for any of the 12 murders, though prosecutors have charged five men in the timber industry in the 2014 massacre. A key witness in one of the cases was even murdered in 2018.

September’s brazen assassination of Pacheco Villanueva in Madre de Dios indicates that illegal gold mining remains as entrenched as ever there, even after the government’s massive military efforts to drive miners out last year. Miners recently returned to the Amazon region, emboldened by weak controls and soaring gold prices.

The country in Latin America most afflicted by the deaths of social leaders is neighboring Colombia, which saw a staggering 872 killings between January 2016 and September 2019. According to the Bogotá-based Institute of Studies for Development and Peace (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz – INDEPAZ), the nation has already seen approximately 214 social leaders and human rights defenders killed this year alone.

Yucca Cacti Theft Illuminates Mexico’s Hidden Plant Trafficking Problem

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Yucca cactus theft accelerates in Mexico's state of Baja California

Theft of yucca cacti from indigenous communities in Mexico’s northwestern state of Baja California for export is reportedly accelerating, underscoring the silent issue of plant trafficking in the country.

Indigenous communities in the municipality of Ensenada have raised alarm about the continuing theft of yucca, a plant on which they are economically reliant, from reserves, according to El Universal. Representatives of the Kumiai, Cucapás, Kiliwas and Paipai communities met with federal officials to report the systematic plundering of yucca allegedly carried out by armed “mafias” for years and sold illegally in the port of Ensenada at greatly lowered prices.

The Kiliwas chief and representative at the meetings, Elías Espinoza Álvarez, stated that the community sells yucca at $450 a ton for use in a number of industries but that the thieves sell it on at just $100 a ton.

SEE ALSO: Coronavirus Has Not Slowed Looting of Latin America’s Maritime Species

It was announced by federal authorities that a permanent checkpoint would be set up in the area to be manned by National Guard troops and police in order to stop trucks carrying yucca out of the Indigenous reserve. To date, however, this checkpoint has still not been established. Furthermore, the Kiliwas claim their community has set up patrols in the past to no avail, since captured thieves are allegedly quickly released without charge by public prosecutors.

While yucca theft has not been widely reported on in Mexico, it is not a new phenomenon. The Federal Prosecutor’s Office for Environmental Protection (Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente – PROFEPA) has tracked numerous seizures of illegally cut yucca in the municipality of Ensenada over the years. In 2016 alone, it reported a total 71 tons of yucca (28 tons in April, 6 tons and 11 tons in October and 26 tons in December).

But according to Espinoza, the problem has only worsened since 2018, the same year that the legal global trade in medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs) reached a record-high of $3.3 billion, having almost tripled in two decades.

InSight Crime Analysis

The smuggling of Mexican cacti is a multimillion-dollar industry, leading some conservationists to rank cacti “just below drugs and guns as the most popular goods smuggled out of Mexico.”

While this is probably an exaggeration, it does attest to the relative importance of illegal plant trafficking, which is often overlooked in Mexico when compared to the trafficking of wildlife such as totoaba fish, sea cucumbers and crocodiles. But conservationists argue the illicit trade in flora can be just as environmentally harmful as that of fauna.

Most cacti grow extremely slowly and are near-exclusive to the Americas, creating an imbalance between surging global demand and limited regional supply. As with other commodities, this imbalance significantly raises their monetary value, creating an incentive for smugglers.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Environmental Crime

Yet while the smuggling of cacti, including yucca, often seems to be structured, it is unlikely to be the work of sophisticated criminal groups. Dr. Tanya Wyatt, a professor of criminology at Northumbria University in the UK, says Mexico’s illegal wildlife trade displays “limited evidence of widespread involvement of organized crime.” That is not to say, however, that “these groups would not move into trafficking of yucca or other plants when the risk is low and the profits are high,” she told InSight Crime.

This idea has precedent. For example, the Sinaloa Cartel and Juarez Cartel have in recent years become involved in illegal logging in Chihuahua, using their territorial control to profit from a secondary industry besides drug trafficking.

Similarly, the municipality of Ensenada, from where the yucca is stolen and smuggled, serves both as a drug trafficking hub — due to its strategic proximity to Tijuana and the US border, as well as its importance as a maritime nexus — and fertile terrain for poppy and marijuana plantations. As a result, both the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación — CJNG) have a presence in the municipality.

Costa Rica Boosts Plan to Track Vessels, Combat Illegal Fishing

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Costa Rica is providing satellite information on its fleets to combat illegal fishing

By providing satellite data on its fleets, Costa Rica is the latest country in Latin America to take on illegal fishing, which costs billions of dollars and taxes already over-exploited waters.

In July, the Costa Rican Institute for Fisheries and Aquaculture (INCOPESCA) signed an agreement to make its vessel tracking data publicly available through Global Fishing Watch (GFW), a partnership between international conservation group Oceana, satellite technology company SkyTruth, and Google. The process — completed in August — makes Costa Rica fourth the Latin American country to openly share vessel monitoring data with the organization, which tracks vessels on a publicly accessible map. PanamaChile and Peru began sharing information with GFW in 2019. Indonesia was the first nation to do so.

The information, published with a 72-hour delay, aims to reduce illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Data is collected from the government’s Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) and through the Automatic Identification System (AIS), a mandatory navigational system for large boats that relays their locations to nearby vessels and coastal authorities.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Environmental Crime

The data is then used to create a near real-time map of fleets, with the aim of identifying commercial fishing vessels entering protected areas and ships that are carrying out illegal fishing operations.

The effort is not Costa Rica’s first attempt at protecting its waters. In 2015, the country’s National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) and the Turtle Island Restoration Network launched a drone surveillance system to curb poaching and illegal fishing.

Costa Rica’s fisheries agency estimated that between 80 and 100 vessels use large illegal nets in the Pacific’s Gulf of Nicoya, capturing young fish. And the Cocos Island National Park, 550 kilometers from the mainland, has also been a constant target for illegal fishing.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, IUU fishing worldwide represents losses of between $10 to 23 billion each year. Aside from harming the environment and endangering marine species, such fishing also threatens the livelihoods of coastal communities.

InSight Crime Analysis

The latest move by the Costa Rican government to stop illegal fishing will hopefully add momentum to efforts to have other Latin American governments do the same.

An increase in the transparency of ships’ activity at sea can lead to a decline in IUU fishing, according to Mónica Espinoza, Global Fishing Watch’s regional manager for Latin America.

“Since the new monitoring system collects information on the vessel’s movement and activities, and can even distinguish if the monitoring systems have been turned off, it becomes much easier for GFW and authorities to detect illegal fishing activities,” Espinoza told InSight Crime.

SEE ALSO: Illegal Fishing Threatens Food Security in Bolívar, Colombia

At a global level, transparency in fishing operations is crucial. The Environmental Justice Foundation told InSight Crime in an email that “illegal operators are at low risk of capture and sanction by control authorities” because of the “challenges uncovering a vessel’s illegal activities, both current and past.”

While not part of the agreement, several other countries in the region are making headway as well. Countries like Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile publish data about fishing licenses and authorizations.

Earlier this year, Ecuador’s government approved a law increasing surveillance over its waters. Additionally, the Global Initiative against Organized Crime’s IUU Fishing Index lists Belize among the top ten countries with the best practices in combating illegal fishing.

But others have foundered. In Colombia, authorities have continuously failed to stop vessels from entering the Malpelo reserve on its Pacific coast. In Mexico, the fishing of totoaba — a type of drum that is banned from international trade but commonly poached off the Gulf of California —  has driven the vaquita porpoise to the brink of extinction.

Efforts by Latin American countries to combat illegal fishing are also made difficult by foreign fleets — exemplified by the continued presence of 340 Chinese ships near Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.

Brand-Name Coronavirus Drug Appears in Venezuela’s Black Market

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A couple arrested after soldiers found they were smuggling pharmaceuticals, including the coronavirus drug remdesivir

A black market for an antiviral drug used to treat coronavirus has emerged in Venezuela, revealing that even expensive, lifesaving medicines are fuelling the lucrative illegal trade.

Remdesivir — the first drug shown to be effective against COVID-19 — was being sold by a doctor for $800 a vial to patients at Ciudad Hospitalaria Enrique Tejera, a hospital in the city of Valencia, Attorney General Tarek William Saab alleged in a Sept. 9 news conference.

The doctor — a Colombian national — was arrested and charged with soliciting bribes, contraband and illicit association, Globovisión reported.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profile

He allegedly told patients’ family members that while the hospital had no “medical resources,” he could procure them the vials of remdesivir, which the Ministry of Health offers “for free,” Saab said.

The doctor is also accused of working with private pharmacies to sell medicine stolen from the hospital, whose director is also under investigation to determine whether he took part in the scheme, Saab said. Colombia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the arrest of the doctor arbitrary and asked that his physical integrity be respected.

On September 8, in the town of Clarines, about 250 kilometers east of Caracas, soldiers with the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana — GNB)  stopped a pick-up truck, in which two people were smuggling 500 injections of remdesivir, Ultimas Noticias reported.

And three days later, on September 11, Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional – SEBIN) agents raided two pharmacies in which government health officials were allegedly involved in the selling of coronavirus medications, El Pitazo reported.

InSight Crime Analysis

While low-cost, unproven drugs like hydroxychloroquine have been smuggled in Latin America amid the pandemic, remdesivir appears to be the first high-cost, brand-name and likely effective medicine to enter the black market.

Remdesivir — manufactured by US pharmaceutical giant Gilead Sciences and originally produced to treat Ebola — is the only treatment so far shown to speed recovery in severely ill coronavirus patients. Gilead has set the sale price of the drug for governments “of developed countries” at $390 a vial, meaning that a typical five-day treatment of six vials costs $2,340, Gilead Chairman Daniel O’Day said in a statement.

Due to the health crisis, the company has also allowed remdesivir to be manufactured generically and sold to 127 countries, nearly all “low-income or middle-income,” according to a company press release. Venezuela, however, was not among the countries listed in the distribution agreement.

Despite Gilead’s attempt to make the treatment widely available, remdesivir shortages have spurred black market sales.

SEE ALSO: Brazil Smuggles In Hydroxychloroquine Amid Coronavirus Despair

In India, for example, police arrested 14 people who sold locally made doses high above the maximum retail price, Reuters reported. The drug is available generically there for about $64 a vial, according to CNBC. The Mumbai ring involved hospital and pharmacy staff, as well as nurses, according to CBS News, which interviewed a man who paid about $3,200 for a full course of treatment. The remdesivir cost him about $533 for each dose, which his son sought out after doctors had told him to find his own supply because the hospital had run out.

In Latin America, no drug manufacturer is licensed to produce remedisivir. Only Cuba, Guyana, Suriname and several Central American countries are part of the agreement to buy it generically. This means that black market remdisivir is all but guaranteed to be immensely profitable in South American countries that already have thriving contraband and counterfeit medicine trades, such as Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil.

In Venezuela, the country’s failing medical system — which was already struggling prior to the pandemic — has also likely spurred demand for illegal medicine.

According to Argentine news outlet Clarín, patients have thronged hospitals only to not receive care because of a lack of beds. Tests are scarce and can take 20 days to receive results. Gloves, masks and alcohol sanitizer are in short supply, and 90 percent of hospitals are without even soap and water, Douglas León Natera, director of Venezuela’s Medical Federation, told the news outlet La Prensa de Lara.

It is unclear how much the doctor who was selling the Remdesivir for $800 a dose in Venezuela profited from the scheme; the sum is a fortune for average Venezuelans, though within reach of wealthier people.

Human Smugglers Continue to Cash In on Haitian Migrants

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Bolivian police and medical staff attend to Haitian migrants

A sophisticated human smuggling ring that illegally moved migrants from Haiti across a number of Latin American countries into Chile shows that the Caribbean nation’s crisis remains a gold mine for criminal gangs.

In August, Bolivian authorities caught and deported at least 142 Haitian migrants, while at least 22 more were arrested in Chile. In September, both countries initiated an investigation and have since moved against the alleged people smugglers. Bolivian authorities arrested three Haitian nationals with legal residency suspected of partially organizing the scheme, as well as Bolivian drivers who transported the migrants, according to BioBio Chile citing the Attorney General’s Office.

At a September 5 press conference, Bolivian Interior Minister Arturo Murillo said that the network is an “international gang and … we will pass on information to our partners in other countries to get to the bottom of this problem.”

SEE ALSO: Chile News and Profile

The full international dimension of the problem soon became apparent. The Haitians were apparently first crossing into the Dominican Republic, where they were taken on flights to Guyana and then moved through Brazil and Bolivia into Chile, according to the BBC.

The scheme was lucrative. Chilean media reported that the migrants had to pay $3,000 a head just to leave Haiti, with more costs piling up along the way as they moved through different countries.

The number of migrants caught is likely far from the real total. Chile’s former foreign minister, Heraldo Muñoz (2014-2018), stated that the increase in Haitian migrants had been seen for years.

“Companies in Port-au-Prince are dedicated to getting Haitians to sell their house, to sell everything they have, to pay $3,000 dollars in exchange for a job contract in Chile and a plane ticket,” he told the BBC.

InSight Crime Analysis

Despite being the poorest country per capita in the Western Hemisphere, according to the World Bank, Haiti’s political, security and economic crisis has lined the pockets of criminal gangs. And Chile has been a destination of choice, given its friendlier stance on migration and perceived economic opportunities.

In 2018, it was estimated by the country’s border police that as much as one percent of the Haitian population, or 105,000 people, had migrated to Chile. At the time, Chile’s investigative police (Policía de Investigaciones – PDI) stated that human smugglers bringing Haitians to Chile were making 160 million Chilean pesos (over $200,000) a week. To get around a rule requiring them to prove they had the means to support themselves in the country, Haitian migrants showed their bank accounts were well-stocked before emptying them to pay the traffickers once in the country.

But that same year, Chile tightened migration requirements, eliminating a temporary work visa that many migrants from Haiti, Venezuela and other countries had used to enter. Deportations soon followed and the number of migrants staying in the country also fell.

SEE ALSO: Human Trafficking Complaints Rise by 500 Percent in Chile

But this has not stemmed the problem entirely. Migrants continue to pay thousands of dollars to criminal gangs, despite Chile having significantly tightened its migration requirements. And while Bolivia caught 142 migrants in August, its government believes numbers have fallen significantly due to the coronavirus.

“Before the pandemic, it must have been much worse,” Marcel Rivas, Bolivia’s director of migration, told the BBC.

Other criminal economies have also benefited from the flow of people from Haiti, with migrants reportedly being used to carry drugs inside Chile. The Bolivian government has also claimed the Haitian migrants caught in August were connected to sex work and even organ trafficking, but has so far provided no evidence of this.

US Chemicals Help Fuel Mexico Drug Production: Report

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Mexican security forces seize a shipment of precursor chemicals used for drug production

Authorities in Mexico said they will look into the mass-scale diversion of chemicals from US companies to produce drugs that are trafficked over the border to feed consumers in the United States, further evidence crime groups are not reliant on Chinese precursors.

“It doesn’t matter if these are US companies. They can be from any part of the world, but we will not permit this,” Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced during his morning press conference September 7.

The comments followed a Bloomberg investigation published August 26 that uncovered how Mexico’s organized crime groups are sourcing precursor chemicals used to make heroin and the synthetic drug methamphetamine from US companies that supply the country’s legal market.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

A lack of oversight facilitates the problem. While drug-making chemicals are regulated by US and international law, “their reach often ends at the Mexican border for local subsidiaries of American companies,” Bloomberg found.

In one roughly two-year period, Bloomberg reported that thieves thought to be working for the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) stole at least 30,000 liters of monomethylamine — a central component in methamphetamine production — from the Mexican subsidiary of the Dallas-based Celanese Corp.

The Bloomberg report also linked one large May 2019 seizure of acetic anhydride — required alongside the sap from opium poppies to produce heroin — used by the Sinaloa Cartel for heroin production to Avantor Inc., a billion-dollar chemical manufacturing and distribution company headquartered in Pennsylvania.

Under US law, any significant losses must be reported to the Justice Department. Failing to do so is a federal crime. However, those requirements don’t apply to the Mexican subsidiaries of US companies. The supervision of chemicals often diverted for drug production is “effectively unregulated” in Mexico, according to Bloomberg.

Between 2010 and 2018, more than 142,000 people in the United States died from overdoses of both heroin and methamphetamine sourced primarily from Mexico.

InSight Crime Analysis

The United States has sought to thwart the flow of precursor chemicals from China used for drug production in Mexico. The east Asian country is the primary source for the majority of chemicals used to make synthetic drugs, especially fentanyl.

But in response to restrictions brought on by the coronavirus and increased regulations in China, Mexico’s crime groups have sought out alternative routes to obtain the chemicals and invented new chemical compounds entirely to skirt restrictions.

SEE ALSO: Mexico City Fentanyl Seizures May Point to Shifting Trafficking Trends

However, the role of US companies in facilitating drug production in Mexico complicates the situation. The Bloomberg report suggests that criminal groups have been able to count, at least partially, on domestic sourcing for precursor chemicals for years.

In addition to local manufacturers and Chinese and US companies, Mexican authorities have in years past also seized shipments of precursor chemicals sent to the country from South Korea, at times disguised among legal shipments of fertilizer.

Deaths Inside Venezuelan Prisons Doubled During Pandemic

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Inmates riot in Cabimas, Venezuela, in 2019

Inmate deaths have doubled in Venezuela’s jails during the coronavirus pandemic, a crisis that underscores how the country’s anarchic prisons foment violence and spread disease.

Between March and August of 2020, 287 prisoners died in prisons and police holding cells, a jump from the 137 during the same time period in 2019, according to data InSight Crime has been collecting on inmate deaths in Venezuela. The data was based on figures from two Venezuela-based non-governmental prisoners’ rights organizations, A Window to Liberty (Una Ventana a la Libertad – UVL) and the Venezuelan Prison Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones – OVP).

While Venezuela officials have not provided numbers on inmate deaths from coronavirus in prisons or case numbers, A Window to Liberty tallied 109 cases of coronavirus in police detention facilities in six states by early September, according to official numbers provided to the organization. That total is far below the number of cases reported from penitentiary systems in Peru and Colombia. These saw 12,294 and 2,592 cases respectively, in roughly the same time period, though both have larger prison populations than Venezuela.

The jump in the number of deaths in Venezuela’s prisons can’t be completely attributed to COVID-19; many inmates have died from other diseases or been killed in riots. But the arrival of the virus has clearly spurred already overcrowded, squalid prison conditions to deteriorate further, putting inmates health at risk, something which InSight Crime had warned about earlier this year.

Below, InSight Crime examines three key aspects of inmate fatalities during the pandemic.

1. More Deaths in Prisons Than in Police Stations 

While inmate deaths in police holding cells have ticked up when compared to the same period last year, deaths in prisons have skyrocketed.

During the period covered by InSight Crime’s review, 162 inmates have died inside prisons, up from 34 in 2019. In police cells, 125 detainees have died, compared to 103 in 2019.

Nearly a third of the prisoner deaths came in May, when 47 inmates were shot dead, reportedly by members of the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB), at Los Llanos penitentiary in Portuguesa. Inmates had crowded the prison entrance in protest of a lack of food due to pandemic conditions, and some reportedly were trying to escape when soldiers opened fire.

Besides violence, majority of deaths in prisons were attributed to tuberculosis, malnutrition and curable diseases left untreated, Carlos Nieto Palma, coordinator for UVL, which campaigns for prisoners’ rights in Venezuela, told InSight Crime. Deaths from tuberculosis — a bacterial infection that, like COVID-19, affects the lungs and is spread by coughing and sneezing — jumped from eight to 51, according to InSight Crime data. Forty prisoners died from malnutrition and other preventable diseases, when only eight did last year.

SEE ALSO: Coronavirus Unrest Sparks Surge in Riots in Latin America’s Prisons

In police holding cells, most prisoner deaths occurred when prisoners were allegedly attempting to escape. Designed to keep pre-trial detainees for up to 48 hours, police holding cells have become a parallel penitentiary system in Venezuela, holding thousands of people for long periods of time in overcrowded conditions.

Mass escape attempts from police stations amid growing anxiety over the disease have ended in bloodshed.

UVL and OVP recorded escape attempts from police stations in Venezuela every week of the pandemic, and InSight Crime counted 74 prisoners killed in jail breaks from police stations. UVL reported that 16 inmates reportedly died during an escape from one station in the state of Zulia.

“These deaths are clearly executions carried out by police against prisoners who have escaped from their cells,” said Nieto Palma.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela Prison Implodes Under Additional Strain from Coronavirus

2. Families Keep Their Loved Ones Alive

The sudden suspension of family visits left inmates unable to subsist, with a lack of food blamed for major riots.

“Families take care of prisoners in Venezuela. In both prisons and police stations, they are in charge of taking food or medicine when they’re sick. Authorities do absolutely nothing for this,” Nieto Palma said.

While the decision to suspend visits was correct to stop an outbreak, there was no protocol on how to carry it out, Carolina Girón, director of OVP, told InSight Crime.

“Since the State cannot provide enough water, food and sanitary products, relatives must be allowed to bring needed items to the entrance of the prison for the staff to deliver them to the right people,” Girón said.

Meanwhile, families who have managed to deliver food and other goods to the prisons have had to bribe guards, Girón said. Food often doesn’t reach prisoners also. Inmates told Reuters after the massacre in Los Llanos prison that guards were stealing the little food that was making it behind bars.

“Inside the prison, you pay for everything, to live, to eat, to sleep, to drink water. Prisoners often have to pay twice, once to the guards, and once to the gang leaders inside prison,” Girón said.

3. Deaths Vary By Region

The prison riot in which 47 prisoners were shot and 75 others injured turned Los Llanos into the deadliest prison in Venezuela during the pandemic. Portuguesa state, where Los Llanos is located, only had one other death reported in state facilities, when an inmate at a juvenile detention center died at a hospital amid surgery after reporting severe stomach pain.

While it has no prisons, the state of Zulia tallied 45 inmate deaths in five police stations. The central police facility in San Carlos del Zulia accounted for most of these, with 20. Repeated attempts to capture 84 prisoners after a mass breakout from that police facility in March has left 18 prisoners dead. The escape was allegedly ordered by prison bosses after two inmates died of tuberculosis and nutrition.

Carabobo state followed with 37 dead, including 26 of tuberculosis and malnutrition in prisons, and the rest killed in clashes with guards or when allegedly trying to escape.

The state of Lara saw 36 prisoners die, with 26 dying in prison of malnutrition and tuberculosis, while 10 died in police stations.

InSight Crime’s research suggests that when visits were suspended in prisons in April, deaths shot up across the country. It is unknown to what extent the coronavirus has spread inside Venezuelan prisons, but it is unlikely the government would have the means to stop outbreaks, though over 2,000 prisoners have already been released, and there have been attempts to disinfect prisons.

With no plans announced to resume visits by families and no announcements of more supplies for prisons, deaths are likely to continue to mount.

“A malnourished person is more likely to succumb to any disease,” Girón said.

Are Recent Cocaine Busts Evidence of Revived Jamaica-UK Drug Route?

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Cocaine disguised in a vegetable shipment from Jamaica to the UK

Drug mules in Jamaica once made a habit of exploiting weak controls on commercial flights to move cocaine into the United Kingdom before a crackdown significantly deterred such criminal activity. But a string of recent seizures has raised fears of this route’s potential revitalization.

Over the course of three weeks in August, border officers at London’s Gatwick international airport seized three different cocaine loads hidden on incoming flights from Jamaica, the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA) announced in an August 25 press release.

Authorities uncovered the first 22-kilogram cocaine haul on August 11, which was concealed in a vegetable shipment that departed Kingston, Jamaica’s capital. The following week, another 30 kilograms of cocaine were discovered on the same route. A third seizure on another Kingston to Gatwick flight came August 25, when border officials seized three kilograms of cocaine “suspended in a liquid solution,” according to the NCA.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Jamaica

The NCA explained that the seizures highlighted improved coordination between the force and border officials. However, a number of security experts consulted by InSight Crime fear the string of seizures may point to the revitalization of an historic drug trafficking route between the two nations.

InSight Crime Analysis

Although the Pacific is still the preferred route, in recent years the Caribbean has undergone a resurgence as a critical transit zone for transnational criminal groups trafficking cocaine loads to consumers in the United States and Europe.

Mark Shields, Jamaica’s former deputy police commissioner from 2004 to 2009, told InSight Crime he “was not surprised at all” to see the recent cocaine seizures sent to England from Jamaica via plane. 

“If you do not keep the pressure on and resources are channeled elsewhere, drug traffickers using Jamaica as a transshipment point to North America or Europe is going to come back again,” he said.

SEE ALSO: String of Large Drug Seizures Suggests Growth in Caribbean Trafficking

Stopping the flow of Jamaican drug mules crossing the Atlantic has for years been a top priority for both governments. In 2002, officials in the UK and Jamaica launched Operation Airbridge, which posted UK police and customs agents at Jamaican airports to work alongside their counterparts to stop couriers at the source.

Prior to the operation, UK customs officials noticed they had a real problem on their hands after identifying an average of 30 drug mules per flight coming into the UK on three specific flights from Jamaica that were subjected to comprehensive searches, according to Chris Hobbs, a former police officer in London who worked for years in Jamaica as part of the anti-drug initiative between the two countries.

Operation Airbridge helped stem that flow considerably. In its first year, local media reported that the number of mules intercepted by authorities in Jamaica jumped from 82 to 216. Officials across the pond also saw results. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of drug mules from Jamaica detected at UK airports dropped from 1,000 to just three, according to British authorities.

While the agreement is ongoing and close cooperation between local and UK law enforcement in Jamaica continues, Shields said that Jamaican institutions charged with combatting international drug trafficking at the moment are “grossly under-resourced.”

“Until we can get to the stage where security forces are working closely with other agencies that have real teeth, we’re going to see [drug trafficking] increase,” he added. “Without the necessary resources, organized crime will flourish.”

And as state resources are increasingly being utilized to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on the Caribbean island, the latest seizures have raised concerns that traffickers may now be rebuilding the cocaine trafficking bridge between the two countries back up.

“There’s always been a problem, and it’s certainly been something Jamaican narcotics police and customs are well aware of,” Hobbs said.

There is no shortage of local criminal gangs that might be looking to exploit this shift in focus. About 300 separate gangs operate in Jamaica, of which about 50 are very sophisticated networks operating on a large scale, according to Anthony Clayton, a security expert and professor at Jamaica’s University of the West Indies.

“Crime constantly evolves,” Clayton told InSight Crime. “There might have been less cocaine going on flights to the UK for a while, but these groups appear to be trying again now.”

Corruption has likely exacerbated the problem. Jamaican officials earn dismal salaries, making it easy to get a customs or security officer to turn a blind eye, either through intimidation and threats or a simple bribe of a few thousand dollars, Clayton said. 

Catching the poor, desperate people who become drug mules is of little consequence, Clayton said. 

“We are chasing our tail round and round,” he said, “and we always will be until we actually focus on the criminal structures in place and their networks of facilitators.”

Economic Hardship During Pandemic Caused Wildlife Trafficking in Brazil to Soar

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A police officer with parrots found in the trunk of a car during a traffic stop in Minas Gerais

A series of police operations in Brazil have shown that the poaching of exotic species appears to have exploded during the pandemic, as job losses and a lack of government attention have led more people to see the country’s wildlife as a way of making ends meet.

From January to August 2020, traffic stops across Brazil led to the seizure of over 25,000 exotic animals being illegally transported, mostly birds, CBN reported, citing highway police numbers. This represented an almost 500 percent increase over 2019.

In one incident in mid-August, around 200 birds, mostly species of parrots, were found in boxes filling the back seat and trunk of a passenger car in the central state of Minas Gerais. And traffic stops in the northeastern state of Bahia caught hundreds of birds between August 27 and September 2.

SEE ALSO: Songbirds to Raptor Eggs, the Looting of Latin America’s Bird Species

These seizures are just a drop in the ocean. Looking at just one particularly sought-after species, the turquoise-fronted parrot, it is estimated that at least 12,000 hatchlings from this striking bird are smuggled into São Paulo each year, Mongabay revealed in an extensive recent report. And plenty more die on the way, due to being taken from their nests, badly handled and placed in unsafe or unhealthy containers, a researcher from the Projeto Papagaio-verdadeiro (Turquoise-fronted Parrot Project) revealed.

But while birds are the most common target, other species have suffered severe losses. The trafficking of highly venomous snakes has exploded, according to wildlife activists. Jaguars in Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands have been hunted and killed due to the demand for their body parts in traditional Chinese medicine. The list also stretches to lizards, iguanas, monkeys, turtles and sloths.

A recent report by Globo estimated that around 35 million animals are trafficked in Brazil each year.

InSight Crime Analysis

The increase in wildlife trafficking during the pandemic is a confluence of different causes. The federal government has often seemed nonchalant, if not downright negligent, about fighting environmental crimes, such as deforestation and illegal mining in the Amazon. The budget of environment watchdogs has continuously been reduced.

But job losses across the country have also led more people to turn to wildlife trafficking as a means of making ends meet.

“Generally, those who capture (the animals) are people with a lower economic status in Brazil’s poorer regions,” Marcela Pavlenco, president of Brazilian non-governmental organization, SOS Fauna, told CBN.

“Many people have lost their jobs. Many who knew about this type of illegal trade but did not work in it…have now begun to sell these animals,” she added.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Environmental Crime

The economic appeal of wildlife trafficking is easy to understand and benefits more than just the smugglers. As Mongabay reported in the case of turquoise-fronted parrots, plenty of others stand to profit as well. About a month before eggs hatch, traffickers make deals with landowners, those working the land and even squatters to negotiate how the chicks will be extracted and how much will be paid per bird. Those doing the poaching receive between 20-60 reais ($4.5 to $11) per chick. Those birds who survive the trip to São Paulo will then be sold for 200-450 reais ($36 to $82) apiece, according to Mongabay’s research.

Faced with this increase, the government could be cracking down with tougher sentencing for these environmental crimes. This summer, a bill was presented to Brazil’s congress to create new penalties for wildlife trafficking and criminal association with wildlife trafficking.

“Currently, the criminalization of this activity…is insufficient in Brazil. It is not rare to see cases of recurring infractions, (with people) found trafficking dozens of animals along a highway and, then a few days later, they are caught again,” said the bill’s sponsor, deputy Ricardo Izar.

US Hemorrhaging Weapons to Mexico, One at a Time

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A recent UN report shows that traffickers move weapons from the United States to Mexico in small quantities, even a single firearm at a time, in a divergence from global arms trafficking trends.

In its latest report on global firearms trafficking, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) noted that seizure data from 2016 and 2017 indicated that the flow of firearms at the US-Mexico border “appears to occur in smaller individual batches than the general global pattern.”

Exceptionally large seizures — defined as eighteen guns or more — accounted for roughly half of seizures at borders worldwide, whereas seizures of fewer than six firearms accounted for between 60 to 70 percent of all those seized at the US-Mexico border. The largest seizure there was of some 60 weapons. The rest involved fewer than 20 guns, with nearly half of seizures comprising just a single firearm.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of US/Mexico Border

This method of smuggling weapons in small, constant shipments is known as “ant trafficking.” While the individual smugglers appear unaffiliated with a criminal group, the large scale of US-Mexico ant trafficking and evidence that weapons are often bought from a centralized source, then dispersed for transport, indicate that Mexican organized crime groups are involved, according to the report.

An examination of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) news releases from May through July show that seizures of one to two firearms occurred regularly, primarily at the Yuma, Arizona, and Del Rio, Texas, points of entry and exit.

InSight Crime Analysis

The steady movement of small shipments of US-bought weapons into Mexico stems from the ease of buying firearms in southern states and the mass movement of cars and trucks across the border.

According to Eugenio Weigend Vargas, the associate director for Gun Violence Prevention at the Center for American Progress, the US-Mexico border’s status as a trade hub makes it easy for traffickers to conceal small quantities of weapons in vehicles headed south.

“You can very easily cross from the United States to Mexico with no questions asked, sometimes not even showing your passport,” Weigend Vargas told InSight Crime.

Additionally, gun shops are plentiful in the US southwest. There are over 7,000 licensed firearms dealers in Texas alone — while all of Mexico has precisely one.

“Armed groups in other parts of the world where such retail sellers don’t exist must rely on black markets, where sellers are more likely to sell larger quantities,” John Lindsay-Poland, coordinator of the Stop US Arms to Mexico project, told InSight Crime. The laws and culture of the United States make “the ant trade the most feasible method of obtaining these weapons,” he said.

SEE ALSO: Lack of US Gun Control Provokes Record Bloodshed in Mexico

Criminal groups in Mexico often obtain weapons via “straw purchases,” when people  without criminal records are recruited to buy the firearms.

A Houston Chronicle investigation in August 2020 tracked 27 weapons used in a Coahuila cartel shootout to southern Texas, where authorities discovered that one straw purchaser had bought 156 weapons over a six-month period from the same gun shop. In batches, he sold the weapons to traffickers, who smuggled them across the border and resold them to cartels for a three-fold profit.

According to the Center for American Progress, border states have also seen a rise in firearms stolen from licensed gun stores.

Recently, daily US-Mexico border traffic has slowed due to the coronavirus pandemic, which could have a temporary dampening effect on the cross-border movement of weapons. At the same time, in the first six months of 2020, there has been a spike in gun thefts, gun-related suicides, and other gun crimes.

“You do see the problems that are usually associated with higher volumes of gun purchases in the United States,” Weigend Vargas told InSight Crime. “So there’s reason to believe that gun trafficking will increase.”

*Photo: Associated Press

Urabeños Reactivate Montes de María Drug Route in Northern Colombia

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The Urabeños are reportedly trying to activate an old drug trafficking route.

Reports that the Urabeños are re-activating an old drug trafficking route in Montes de María, Colombia, may suggest that it has been pushed to do so due to losing power in other parts of the country.

On September 2, the governor of Sucre, Héctor Olimpo Espinosa, announced plans to support communities and social leaders in Montes de María to avoid rising criminality there.

This was in response to a spike in violence in recent months in the mountain range along Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast, including a number of homicides and displacements of families around the municipality of El Carmen de Bolívar in recent months.

The targeted killings and threats against social leaders have been a constant of late, with one union leader and three land restitution activists having been killed and another community leader forced to flee. In July, houses in the municipality of El Carmen de Bolívar were tagged with graffiti, bearing the initials of the now-defunct United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), a coalition of paramilitary groups from which the Urabeños separated.

SEE ALSO: Urabeños Profile

An increase in violence and extortion in the towns are likely connected to efforts by the Urabeños to expand its influence over Montes de María since 2018, as reported by the Ombudsman’s Office.

In February 2020, an alert from the Ombusdman’s Office stated that armed men belonging to the Urabeños in El Carmen de Bolívar were “safeguarding drug trafficking routes” and had expanded their control there since arriving in 2018.

The municipalities of El Carmen de Bolívar and the nearby municipality of San Onofre are crucial points along a longstanding drug route that connects coca-producing areas controlled by the Urabeños in southern Bolívar and Bajo Cauca, as well as cocaine processing centers in southern Córdoba department and Magdalena Medio to the Gulf of Morrosquillo, a major departure point for cocaine shipments to Central America, the United States and Europe.

In August, a shipment of cocaine seemingly bound for Costa Rica was seized in the Gulf of Morrosquillo, reinforcing concerns the Urabeños are using the mountain range as a major drug transit route.

And their use of Montes de María may drive violence in another way. According to Luis Fernando Trejos, a professor and investigator from the Department of Political Science and International Relations for the Universidad del Norte, local criminal groups are being hired by the Urabeños to carry and traffic drugs in exchange for money and weapons.

InSight Crime Analysis

Urabeños activity in the region would dredge up a lot of historical trauma for the residents of Montes de María. In the early 2000s, the mountain range was a hotbed of paramilitary activity, leaving behind a tragic history of massacres and violence.

Following the demobilization of the AUC, Montes de María was declared “free of the effects of armed conflict.” Since then, the region had seen violence die down.

SEE ALSO: Bojayá: Colombia’s First Violent Flashpoint of 2020

But the Urabeños have been under dramatic pressure elsewhere in the country. A targeted campaign by Colombian armed forces, known as Operation Agamemnon II, has been putting pressure on the Urabeños in their historical backyard of Urabá. In July, 7.5 tons of cocaine, reportedly belonging to the group and with a street value of around $286 million, were seized from a ship sailing from Colombia to Panama, according to the Ministry of Defense.

Meanwhile, in Bajo Cauca, Antioquia and Sur de Córdoba, the group has clashed with the Caparrapos and elements of the ex-FARC Mafia, a conflict that has only intensified in recent months.

The group’s presence in the Pacific has also been affected, due to the rising strength of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and its control of shipment points along the Pacific Coast.

Venezuela’s Baseball Academies Batting Away Extortion Threats

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Venezuela’s AQ Sport Agency baseball academy preps premier talent for the major leagues

With dozens of Venezuelan athletes now playing on Major League Baseball teams in the United States, a powerful gang has begun to extort local academies and scouts in charge of finding, training and developing them in their home country.

In late August, heavily armed men in north-central Aragua state appeared in a video in which they threatened scout Alexis Quiroz, who owns the AQ Sport Agency baseball academy, El Pitazo reported.

Weeks earlier, two of Quiroz’s bodyguards were shot at in the state capital of Maracay. Gunmen also shot up Quiroz’s home prior to the attack on his bodyguards, according to El Pitazo. The attack was allegedly carried out by members of the Tren de Aragua, a powerful “megabanda,” or gang of more than 100 members.

SEE ALSO: Tren de Aragua Profile

In the video threat, the armed gunmen warned Quiroz that his family, staff and players will “suffer the consequences” if he “did not come to his senses.”

“Look at what happened to the two bodyguards,” they added.

Quiroz and the AQ Sport Agency responded to the recent threats in a September 1 press release. “Criminal gangs try to sow terror and attack our staff and facilities. Faced with this situation, our organization denounced and appealed to the competent security authorities,” the statement read in part.

InSight Crime Analysis

Major League Baseball (MLB) contracts are worth millions of dollars, so it comes as little surprise that criminal groups might think targeting the scouts tasked with helping star players secure those contracts in the United States would lead to a big payday.

However, these academies are not flush with money, suffering from the same economic insecurity as the rest of the country. In recent years, several MLB teams’ academies in Venezuela have been shuttered entirely, unable to maintain their facilities or provide food and other services to their prospects.

More than a quarter of MLB players in 2020 were born outside the United States. After the Dominican Republic, Venezuela ranked second with 75 players featured on opening day rosters this year, according to league data.

The salaries of Venezuelan baseball players are astronomical when compared to the average Venezuelan, who likely earns around or even less than $4 a day, the country’s minimum wage in 2020. In July 2019, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed 16-year-old outfielder Luis Rodriguez — the fourth-ranked international prospect at the time — to a contract worth almost $2.7 million.

Baseball academies like the one run by Quiroz in Aragua are a crucial part of premier players securing MLB contracts. The AQ Sport Agency is part of an official partnership between MLB and dozens of independent trainers in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Venezuela designed to “help develop international baseball.” In Venezuela alone, MLB works with 30 trainers like Quiroz.

SEE ALSO: Trump-Cuba Curveball May Boost Baseball Smuggling Networks

The Venezuelan state of Aragua has produced some of Major League Baseball’s most impressive players. José Altuve, who won the World Series with the Houston Astros in 2017, was born in Maracay, Aragua’s capital city near the northern Caribbean coast. Detroit Tigers infielder Miguel Cabrera, a seven-time all-star and World Series champion who is almost certain to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame when his career ends, according to analysts, was also born in Aragua.

This trend of top-level talent coming from the state continues today. The MLB’s second-most touted international prospect, 16-year-old phenom Wilman Diaz, is from Aragua and trains with Quiroz at AQ Sport Agency.

The state also serves as the Tren de Aragua’s stronghold, where it runs extortion, car theft and kidnapping rings. The megabanda — known for extreme violence — now has tentacles stretching across Venezuela and into nearby countries.