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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.

3 Dirty Secrets Revealed by the El Salvador Gang ‘Negotiations’

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The current government in El Salvador wouldn't be the first to negotiate with gangs

The El Faro media group reported that the El Salvador government is “negotiating” with street gangs to keep homicide levels low, which may come as a surprise to most except other politicians, who also negotiate with gangs.

The report – which was published on September 3 and is based on jailhouse intelligence reports, prison logbooks and interviews – says the administration of President Nayib Bukele has been engaged in talks with the gangs inside prisons since at least October 2019.

Specifically, the logbooks note 12 visits by Osiris Luna, El Salvador’s director of prisons, to two prisons where he met with gang leaders, mostly from the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) but also from the Barrio 18 Sureños. On three occasions, he was accompanied by Carlos Marroquín, the head of the government’s Social Fabric Reconstruction Unit (Unidad de Reconstrucción del Tejido Social), a government body designed to implement social, educational and economic programs in marginalized neighborhoods.

On several visits, according to the intelligence reports and logbooks, Luna instructed that penitentiary officials not to write down the full names of the visitors who accompanied him. And on other occasions, some visitors were wearing ski masks to protect their identities. El Faro says that in some cases these unidentified individuals were gang leaders from the street.

What they talked about in these meetings is not known, but El Faro says the gangs have been given more control over concession sales inside the jails, a return to segregated jail cells whereby gangs are separated by gang affiliation, and the promise of social and economic programs inside and outside prisons.

In return, the gang leaders keep the violence to a minimum and “support” Bukele’s party, Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas), in its efforts to seize control of congress and numerous important city halls in elections set for February 2021.

SEE ALSO: MS13 Gang Truce: Social vs. Criminal Capital

The arrangement appears to only apply for the moment to the MS13, since the meetings in the jails were with leaders of that group. But El Faro notes there was at least one meeting between authorities and several leaders of the Barrio 18 Sureños, one of two powerful Barrio 18 factions in the country.

The new “negotiation,” as El Faro terms it, comes about a decade after similar talks with jail-bound gang leaders culminated in a 2012 “truce” between the country’s three main gangs: the MS13, Barrio 18 Sureños and the Barrio 18 Revolucionarios (Revolutionaries). That truce fizzled out, and its progenitors have had to face down criminal charges related to the secret negotiations and the various quid pro quo involved.

However, this second round is in some ways more revealing, since it illustrates three dirty secrets about how El Salvador really deals with its gangs.

1) President Nayib Bukele has long negotiated with gangs this way. When Bukele was a candidate for mayor in San Salvador in 2015, El Faro reported that he sent Marroquín and others into gang-held neighborhoods to open space for his campaign. After winning the election by a slim margin, Bukele used the newly created Tejido Social unit, headed by Marroquín, to negotiate the redevelopment of the city center.

Crucial in these talks was the work Tejido Social and others on the team did with the informal vendors’ associations and, by extension, the gangs. The two sides, the informal vendors and the gangs, have a symbiotic relationship. And the Tejido team understood that only by negotiating with the gangs would they be able to resettle the informal vendors and thus reform the city center, which had been clogged by the vendors in the streets.

As InSight Crime will write in a series of articles to be published in the coming days regarding these revitalization efforts in the city, the plan worked. What’s more, Bukele burnished his image as someone who could get things done, even in complicated spaces like the city center. It may have won him the presidency.

After Bukele took power, he shifted his rhetoric and announced a seven-point, hardline plan to corral the gangs. The so-called Territorial Control Plan includes increased military and police presence in hard-hit areas. But it also includes outreach programs run by Marroquín and his Tejido Social team.

2) All the political parties have negotiated with gangs. While opposition parties and critics will surely vilify this administration for talking with the gangs, political negotiations with the gangs go back at least a decade. Such talks have been channeled with non-governmental and religious organizations, as well as through governmental bodies that mostly go unrecognized. This gives the central government plausible deniability when the talks are revealed and public opinion turns against them.

The previous truce, for example, went through an ad hoc organization deemed La Mesa (The Roundtable). It included representatives of the police and the security ministry, and it worked closely with a team from the police that helped it with intelligence and counter-intelligence to keep the truce on track.

A similar system appears to be in place for the current negotiations, with parts of the government being siphoned to keep track of dissidents and to pass messages to and from those inside and outside of prison.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador’s Gang Truce: Positives And Negatives

Negotiations between the gangs and political parties expanded after the 2012 truce got underway, as 14 municipalities with mayors of all stripes became so-called Peace Zones in order to facilitate social and economic programs. And during the 2014 presidential campaign, the two main political parties, ARENA and the FMLN, sat down with gang representatives and promised them social and economic programs, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars, in return for their support.

That support, specifically that of the MS13, may have determined the winner. The FMLN candidate won by a mere 6,000 votes over the ARENA candidate. Ernesto Muyshondt, one of the ARENA representatives who sat down with the gangs during that presidential election, is now the mayor of San Salvador, trying to continue the work Bukele started in the city center.

3) The gangs are a political force. Try as the government might to diminish their importance via forceful rhetoric and nationwide plans to incarcerate them en masse, the gangs continue to illustrate they have political and social capital. Part of this, of course, comes from their keen understanding that homicides, public opinion polls and foreign direct investment are intimately linked.

To be sure, in late April, homicides ballooned. The government reacted by a round of restrictions inside the prisons, but as El Faro points out in its report, the negotiations continued shortly thereafter. The threat of gang violence was also used to spark the 2012 truce, and other gang protests have included armed strikes to cut off public transportation, which moves 80 percent of the population.

It is this same threat that makes these negotiations – indeed any negotiations – with the gangs so tenuous and, in the long-term, dangerous. While the government has touted its Territorial Control Plan as the reason why homicides are down 60 percent since Bukele entered office, the gangs may be the ones holding the sword.

Peru in Familiar Stalemate With Shining Path Rebels

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Peruvian troops stand in front of some 80 kilograms of cocaine seized from a Shining Path guerrilla cell

Yet again, Peruvian security forces are seeking to force Shining Path guerrillas out a jungle region that produces most of the country’s cocaine, but military operations have long failed to stamp out what remains of the rebel group.

A late August battle between troops and a Shining Path cell in the Valley of the Apurímac, Ene and Mantaro Rivers (Valle de los Ríos Apurímac, Ene y Mantaro – VRAEM) left four rebel fighters dead, including alias “Cirilo,” a local leader. Two soldiers were also killed, the Ministry of the Interior stated in a news release.

The firefight occurred after troops discovered armed guerrillas safeguarding cocaine in in Chachaspata, a town in the department of Ayacucho in the southwestern part of the country. A second conflict took place later in the Mar providence of the same department, El Comercio reported.

SEE ALSO: Peru News and Profile

The military attack also led to the seizure of weapons, explosives and 79 kilograms of cocaine.

The Shining Path faction of the VRAEM supports itself through drug trafficking, though its role is limited to providing armed escorts of drug shipments passing through the area, Pedro Yaranga, a Peruvian security expert, told InSight Crime. He added that the group’s presence has been reduced to a narrow corridor between the departments of Junín, Ayacucho and Huancavelica.

The remote jungle region accounted for nearly 70 percent of some 50,000 coca crops in the country in 2017, the last time the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) was able to conduct a survey, according to its latest World Drug Report.

InSight Crime Analysis

An overwhelming military presence in the region — the VRAEM currently has 52 bases and between 8,000 to 10,000 troops — has been unable to root out the rebel group, which has kept itself going by securing shipments of cocaine.

Some 450 members of the Shining Path continue to control several strategic drug trafficking territories in the region, according to information provided to InSight Crime by Peru’s Counter-Terrorism Directorate (Dirección Contra el Terrorismo – DIRCOTE).

The stalemate is likely to hold, though the guerrilla group has become a shadow of its former self when the group terrorized Peru with assassinations, bombings, beheadings and massacres.

The government is also considering new ways of dealing with the legacy of the Shining Path conflict, having agreed on September 3 to pay compensations to victims of the violence and their relatives.

SEE ALSO: Peru’s Shining Path Plots Unlikely Return to Power

Founded in the 1970s, the Shining Path reached its apex in the early 1990s, when then-President Alberto Fujimori responded with a repressive campaign.

In 1992, authorities captured Abimael Guzmán, the group’s founder and principal leader. His second-in-command, Florindo Eleuterio Flores, alias “Comandante Artemio,” was taken down a decade later all but ending the bloody civil war, which took some 70,000 lives and lasted for two decades, from the 1980s to the early 2000s.

Currently under the leadership of brothers Víctor and Jorge Quispe Palomino, the group has tried to reinvent itself as the Militarized Communist Party of Peru (Militarizado Partido Comunista del Perú – MPCP), in an effort to gain the support of rural farming communities within the VRAEM that were victimized by the Shining Path.

Criminal Governance Under Coronavirus: How Colombian Groups Seized the Day

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The coronavirus pandemic sparked a shift in Colombia as criminal actors nationwide sought to profit from the sudden change in conditions, the refocusing of state priorities and distracted security forces.

Five months into quarantine, the country’s criminal landscape has evolved, although the long-term consequences are difficult to predict.

As across the region, armed groups often imposed their own coronavirus measures, forcing local populations to play by their rules and not those of the government. From pamphlets enforcing lockdowns and curfews, illegal detentions and killings of those who broke the rules, to communities being displaced by violence, the consequences have been wide-ranging.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Coronavirus and Organized Crime

Human Rights Watch registered such measures imposed in at least 11 Colombian departments, especially in the country’s more rural areas.

But the gangs did not just seek to extend their power by substituting the state. In the country’s most frequent violent hotspots, such as Nariño, Cauca and Norte de Santander, the pandemic saw longstanding criminal disputes play out, with shifts in power and territorial control perhaps happening faster than before.

InSight Crime carried out extensive research across 14 departments to see what forms of criminal governance have taken shape across Colombia, and what this might mean for the future.

Northern Colombia

Unsurprisingly, the departments of Antioquia, Bolívar and Córdoba all saw active operations by criminal groups during the lockdown given the large number of actors operating there.

The Urabeños, elements of the ex-FARC Mafia, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN) and Caparrapos all contest this territory, often through a shifting web of alliances, while the presence of emissaries of Mexican cartels has also been detected.

In Antioquia’s subregion of Urabá — from where the group takes its name — the Urabeños stamped their authority early. From April, they sent WhatsApp messages to residents in the municipalities of Turbo, Apartadó, Carepa and Chigorodó, telling people to respect the lockdown and warning them not to leave their homes without reasonable cause. And according to the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the group also circulated pamphlets in the municipality of Caucasia ordering people to obey the lockdown.

This trend of enforcing the lockdown was also followed by the ex-FARC mafia’s 18th Front Román Ruíz, a group that was once part of the now demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC).

SEE ALSO: How Colombia’s Lockdown Created Ideal Conditions for Child Recruitment

Starting in late March, the 18th Front distributed a signed pamphlet in Ituango and rural parts of the Bajo Cauca region, warning that they would be forced to “act and sanction those who did not follow the established norms.”

But the Urabeños and ex-FARC Mafia were likely moved by more than purely civic intentions. In particular, Ituango is a strategic area for drugs moving between the departments of Antioquia and Córdoba. It is currently a stronghold for the 18th Front, but with the Urabeños seeking to strengthen themselves in the area since early 2020, securing the cooperation of local populations will prove useful if the two groups clash and resisting government incursions.

In southern Córdoba, the Urabeños and Caparrapos have been engaged in a similar struggle. As they did in Antioquia, the Urabeños threatened to kill any who violated their lockdown since April. According to Verdad Abierta, the group summoned community leaders to meetings, demanding that checkpoints be set up and to be warned if any unknown people entered the area.

This would serve to counter the Caparrapos in the area, which the Urabeños have been battling. This group has acted similarly, especially around the town of Montelibano, telling residents by WhatsApp to stay off the streets due to “military objectives.”

And in southern Bolívar, where the ELN has been the main criminal actor since the FARC demobilized, residents received threats in the municipalities of Simití, Cantagallo, San Pablo and Santa Rosa del Sur, along the Rio Magdalena river. Control over these towns and the river is crucial to the ELN’s criminal operations. The area has a large amount of coca crops, is home to the San Lucas mountain range that is rife with illegal mining, and offers access to drug routes connecting Colombia with Panama and Venezuela.

Pacific Coast

The department of Chocó, on the border with Panama and which sees a lot of drug trafficking and human smuggling, is home to a prolonged feud between the ELN and the Urabeños. And both groups have used the pandemic to try and consolidate their control there.

In early April, the ELN distributed pamphlets in the municipalities of Tadó, Litoral de San Juan, San José del Palmar and Atrato that presented a range of regulations linked to the coronavirus emergency. This included the closure of certain roads, curfews, a ban on events and meetings, and required everyone to stay isolated.

On the other hand, the Urabeños appear to have sown particular terror among the Emberá Indigenous communities in the department. Authorities revealed that communities complained about being forced to stay in their homes and being subject to curfews from March onward. Additionally, both groups were linked to the forced recruitment of children in Chocó, including from Emberá communities.

SEE ALSOColombia’s High Commissioner for Peace Lays Out New Appeal to Armed Groups

The violent clashes between the two did not stop in March, with the ELN gaining steadily more ground in northern Chocó against the Urabeños. One former government investigator, who spoke to InSight Crime anonymously due to security concerns, stated that while the Urabeños may be losing the war, the communities are afraid of both sides.

In southern Cauca, the ELN and the ex-FARC Mafia’s Carlos Patiño Front have clashed. But this fighting has gone beyond armed conflict and has seen both groups try to assert control over people in key municipalities. This has especially been the case in Argelia and El Tambo, part of one of Colombia’s main cocaine production enclaves, where the two groups have also fought the army, according to a July report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Demobilized FARC fighters have been particularly targeted, with gunmen killing several out in the open in Cauca seemingly with impunity during the pandemic.

Threatening pamphlets also circulated in March from the Jaime Martínez Front of the ex-FARC Mafia, which established strict hours for shops and businesses to open in northern Cauca.

In Argelia, the Carlos Patiño Front threatened to kill anyone who did not comply with the enforced quarantine, while the Dagoberto Ramos Front forced shops to comply with their chosen prevention measures and painted menacing graffiti on shops and vehicles in their areas of influence, including around the municipality of Totoró in eastern Cauca.

A source from Cauca’s Indigenous Regional Council (Consejo Regional Indígena) told InSight Crime that, at the height of the pandemic, the department had over 380 checkpoints set up by the ex-FARC Mafia. Some have now been removed since then.

The department of Nariño, on Colombia’s southern border with Ecuador, has come under particular pressure with the presence of the ex-FARC Mafia, ELN and Urabeños, all of which have made separate threats and established restrictions on movement. In some cases, those suffering from COVID-19 have been threatened directly, as was the case when armed groups reportedly forced the family of a 13-year-old patient to leave town in Cumbitara.

Yet most of the violence in the Pacific appears rooted in longstanding territorial disputes. In July and August, the Urabeños and the ex-FARC Mafia’s Carlos Patiño Front battled for control of Leiva and El Rosario in Cauca. In Nariño, over 20 people were killed in the span of a week in late August, reportedly due to escalating tensions between the ELN, former FARC groups and the Urabeños.

Southern Colombia

In the department of Guaviare, the ex-FARC Mafia’s 1st and 7th fronts established very tight controls over populations under their command. According to witness statements gathered by Human Rights Watch and backed up by InSight Crime sources on the ground, people were not allowed out of their houses, checkpoints were set up and communities were pressured to control the entry of unknown people into the area.

According to an army report published by Caracol Radio in August, the 1st and 7th fronts have used the pandemic to bolster their ranks in part by forcibly recruiting minors. The group’s members have even attended community meetings to identify potential targets.

In May in southwest Caquetá department, ex-FARC Mafia groups took control of community lockdowns and asked locals to set up checkpoints, according to La Silla Vacía.

SEE ALSO: Resurgence of Coca in Putumayo Reflects Colombia’s Failed Strategy

A similar situation happened in Putumayo department, where at the end of March, an alliance between La Constru and the 48th Front calling itself “La Mafia” set up illegal checkpoints in the municipalities of Puerto Asís, Orito, Valle del Guamuez and San Miguel. These two groups have maintained impressive cohesion in Putumayo, despite the deaths of key leaders on both sides. These checkpoints are part of their territorial control over fertile coca production grounds.

Putumayo has also seen cases of people reportedly being killed for not following the rules. However, this has essentially provided a convenient excuse for criminal actors to murder opponents. This was the case of Edison León Pérez, a community leader killed in June after he had sent a letter to authorities decrying that residents had been forced to set up checkpoints, interrogate those passing through and test them for COVID-19 symptoms.

Central Colombia

In early May, authorities reported pamphlets surfacing in the municipalities of Algeciras, Rivera and Campoalegre in the department of Huila. The messages were signed by Hermes Suárez, then head of the Oscar Mondragón Front, allied with the Segunda Marquetalia, a group of former FARC rebels lead by one of its most influential former leaders. However, this may have brought unwanted attention to Suárez, who was arrested in July in a targeted army operation.

In the department of Meta, the Ombudsman’s Office issued a June alert warning that armed groups were “taking measures very similar to those decreed by the state” in the municipalities of Mesetas and Uribe. The alert stated that these unidentified groups were seeking to gain legitimacy with the population as “protectors and guarantors of sanitary security” by imposing curfews and controlling movement. Pamphlets found in these municipalities indicated the ex-FARC Mafia’s 40th Front was behind these orders.

And in the municipality of La Macarena, the 7th Front reportedly forced residents to set up a number of checkpoints, according to data from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Venezuelan Border

The region of Catatumbo in Norte de Santander has been hotly contested in recent years. In particular, the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación — EPL) have been engaged in a bloody struggle for control, with the EPL consistently being pushed back.

The coronavirus lockdown solidified the ELN’s dominance over Catatumbo as it used the opportunity to increase its control and ramp up threats and violence against social leaders. In June, the group was linked to forced recruitment of minors through a “census of children in rural families,” which was used to identify potential targets to join their ranks. The ELN also allegedly organized parties and broadcast them on social media, inviting young people to attend and encouraging them to join.

SEE ALSO: Between Contraband and Coronavirus: Migration Dynamics at the Venezuela-Colombia Border

The ELN also used the lockdown to renew their longstanding feud with the Rastrojos, a criminal gang that controls much of the migrant trafficking and contraband trafficking that takes place along Norte de Santander’s border with Venezuela. In March, InSight Crime reported that the ELN appeared to be working alongside Venezuelan state forces to drive the Rastrojos out. This has only gotten worse. The war has driven up violence in the important border city of Cúcuta and provoked a number of homicides and displacements in Catatumbo over the summer.

And despite being on its heels, the EPL also called on the people of Norte de Santander to comply with coronavirus containment measures and said its troops would “contribute to controlling the population.” The ex-FARC Mafia’s 33rd Front also congratulated communities for resisting the propagation of the virus, despite allegedly being “abandoned by the state.”

Finally, the ELN also appears to have adopted more direct ways of gaining popularity. In the village of Teorama in Norte de Santander, a video showed ELN members distributing goods and informing locals about preventive measures to take against COVID-19. In its research, this was the only example InSight Crime found of a Colombian group distributing aid, as was more commonly seen in Mexico.

Peru Hospital Staff Extort Families to Identify Coronavirus Victims

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Medical workers move a coronavirus patient to a mobile hospital in Lima, Peru

Amidst Peru’s coronavirus crisis, hospital workers are demanding bribes from relatives to confirm deceased victims’ identities and arrange illegal funerals, revealing yet more opportunities for criminal profit made possible by the pandemic.

In August, Panorama reported that hospitals in Lima had seen staff charge relatives up to 300 soles ($84) to positively identify their deceased loved ones. In exchange for this, the workers would open the body bags of coronavirus victims and take a photo to send to family members, in blatant violation of hospital protocol.

And since Peru has mandated that coronavirus victims cannot receive ordinary burials, workers also charged up to 4,300 soles (US$ 1,200) to illegally divert bodies to their relatives’ houses for clandestine funerals.

SEE ALSO: Coronavirus and Organized Crime

“We can take the body out in the afternoon and take it to your home, privately. We leave the body there, you can bury it at night,” one worker told Panorama.

Profits were also made from the living since security camera footage showed how security guards took bribes from families to bring cellphones and other personal items to COVID-19 patients undergoing treatment.

The matter is being investigated by the government. Alicia Abanto, a spokesman for the Ombudsman’s Office, denounced these moves as “acts of corruption.”

“In the context of losing a relative, families are desperate to ascertain if it is their loved one. And when the healthcare facilities do not inform them, the funeral homes or some bad workers take advantage of this by collecting bribes,” she told RPP Noticias.

According to Abanto, Peru has established strict rules for families to see bodies of relatives. Under these rules, hospitals must arrange a viewing of the body in a designated area of the hospital, with the families staying at least two meters away. But she added that the country’s healthcare system is facing serious challenges during the pandemic, including a lack of information given to relatives of coronavirus patients.

InSight Crime Analysis

Corruption within healthcare systems is a well-established criminal enterprise in Latin America but the exploitation of the grief and despair caused by the pandemic is particularly appalling.

Peru has already seen similar attempts. One group cloned a medical supply company’s web page and charged ailing individuals for oxygen tanks that would never arrive. In June, officials dismantled a criminal organization that produced counterfeit drugs used to treat coronavirus symptoms and sold them to pharmacies and individuals at markups of over 1,000 percent.

SEE ALSO: Peru News and Profile

And this has spread throughout the region. At the height of Ecuador’s own coronavirus crisis, with hundreds of deaths a day, manufacturers dramatically hiked up the prices of body bags for public hospitals in Guayaquil. Meanwhile, in Mexico, criminals charged relatives of deceased COVID-19 patients up to 15,000 pesos ($677) for fake death certificates. Doctors sold forged documents to the gang, claiming patients had died of other unrelated illnesses, allowing families to retrieve their bodies.

As of August 29, Peru had over 630,000 cases of COVID-19 and over 28,400 deaths, as well as having the fourth-highest mortality rate in the world, according to Johns Hopkins data.

Sophisticated Schemes Revealed in Costa Rica Gold Ring

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Miners have been exploiting half-built infrastructure in Crucitas since 2011.

Raids across Costa Rica have exposed a web of front companies filtering illegally mined gold to the United States, in the kind of multimillion-dollar laundering scheme not typically associated with the Central American country.

In late August, Costa Rican authorities carried out 32 raids and arrested 27 people connected to the illegal mining and gold laundering ring, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Police also recovered gold bars, drugs, cash, and falsified export documents.

Walter Espinoza, the general director of Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Department (Organismo de Investigación Judicial — OIJ), said the investigation into the mining ring began in April 2019 after authorities at San José’s Juan Santamaría International Airport noticed an unprecedented amount of gold listed in export documents.

SEE ALSO: Costa Rica News and Profile

The investigation eventually uncovered a multi-level extraction and export operation, with different teams responsible for mining, molding, transporting, exporting, and laundering the gold. In total, the ring finalized at least $60 million in international gold sales, according to Espinoza, citing seized export documents.

The gold — illegally mined in Crucitas de Cutris along the northeast Nicaraguan border, and Corcovado in western Costa Rica — was moved to the United States through companies involved in foreign trade, authorities said.

The ring’s breakup comes just months after a government ecological impact report found that illegal miners in Crucitas de Cutris had taken over another 70 hectares of land between 2018 and 2019, representing an increase of 156 percent in total exploited territory.

The study also noted that the expansion of illegal gold mining in the region had polluted 35 local bodies of water, with the report’s authors estimating that miners extracted about $200 million worth of gold from the region between 2017 and 2018.

InSight Crime Analysis

Illegal mining in Costa Rica’s Crucitas de Cutris has been going on for years, but the recent investigation reveals that the sophisticated financing and laundering schemes normally associated with gold-rich South American countries have made their way to Costa Rica.

Costa Rica first granted a mining concession in Crucitas de Cutris to the Canadian company Infinito Gold Ltd in 2000. Environmental groups opposed the project, leading to various construction stops and restarts in the coming decade before the Costa Rican government permanently canceled Infinito Gold Ltd’s concession in 2011.

The half-built infrastructure was quickly appropriated by illegal miners — particularly Nicaraguans crossing a border just three miles away — looking to extract the remaining reserves through rudimentary and often environmentally unsafe practices.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Illegal Mining

The latest operation, however, shows that prosecutors are going after not only the miners but also the criminals who used front companies to launder the illegal gold and to deposit proceeds from its sale.  According to the OIJ, members falsified documents in order to export the gold bullion to cities such as Miami, Los Angeles, and Houston. The group also recruited at least one official in the ministry of finance to provide advice and cover for the group’s laundering operations. Prosecutors say that other state officials might also have been involved.

Prosecutors, after seizing drugs and cash during the August 20 raids, have opened a parallel investigation to see if the mining ring might have been involved in drug trafficking, according to CR Hoy. Criminal groups in other Latin American countries like Venezuela are known to be simultaneously involved in the trafficking of gold and drugs.

As InSight Crime highlighted in its GameChangers 2019 series, illegal mining has come to rival the drug trade for profits over the last decade, growing swiftly in places like Peru and Ecuador. And in Venezuela, state forces are believed to be coordinating with guerrilla groups to operate illegal mines in the state of Bolívar, with the gold finding its way into the coffers of President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

What’s more, the high international price of gold, which hit an all-time record on August 6 of 2020, will only fuel further demand for illegally sourced gold.

The Sicilianization of Mexican Drug Cartels

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Avocado growers are among the many businesses that are extorted in Mexico

Extortion can be defined as the action through which one individual obtains a resource from another through intimidation or threat of violence. This criminal activity has been used by organized crime groups since early modern human civilization.

In fact, it has been the most common and reliable practice for criminals since it involves few risks and low costs, and can provide significant revenue if applied to the correct segment of the population. Mexico has not been an exception.

In fact, extortion has formed part of the daily Mexican life since the second half of the 20th century. The rampant political, administrative and police/armed forces corruption has created a system of thousands of individuals who make a living out of obtaining money from others by threatening them with the use of force if they refuse to make the payment. Nowadays, extortion in Mexico is manifested in many forms, including derecho/cobro de piso (“user rights”), where the business owners are asked to pay criminals periodically in order to be able to work.

*This article was originally published by Borderland Beat. This is a shortened and edited version, republished with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the complete original here.

In this report, Borderland Beat will analyze derecho/cobro de piso and its effect on Mexico’s private sector, ranging from the humble street vendor in Mexico City to the transnational avocado industry in Michoacán. This is a very vast topic that cannot be addressed purely on the basis of economic theory. Thus, Borderland Beat developed its own field research. We interviewed several business owners in Tamaulipas and Nuevo León for this report, and asked them a range of questions about their experience. We designed this report according to their answers.

Types of Extortion Used by Mexican Criminal Groups

When talking about the extortion rackets used by organized crime, like the derecho/cobro de piso, we cannot study it as a monolithic practice. In fact, the derecho/cobro de piso can manifest itself in different forms. We can classify the different forms of derecho/cobro de piso according to the relationship between the extortionist and the victim.

The most common relationship is parasitic. In this kind of relationship, the extortionist asks its victim for several payments over a long period of time and threatens to hurt the victim if the demands are not paid. This is the most common type of extortion used in Mexico since it is easy to perform and brings revenues at a minimal cost. The victim is badly damaged by this kind of extortion since they do not obtain anything from the relationship and lose money.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Extortion

The second relationship is predatory. In this example, the extortionist demands a single or one-time payment for a large amount of money. This kind of extortion is mostly connected to the kidnapping industry and is not part of the derecho/cobro de piso industry except for exceptions that are not very relevant for this study.

The third kind of relationship is symbiotic. In this case, the extortionist demands seasonal payments from the victim but at the same time offers them their resources to achieve some kind of mutually-benefited relationship. This kind of extortion is very common in areas where organized crime has a strong presence. For example, in Italy, the Sicilian Cosa Nostra exerted this kind of extortion. It demanded money from local businesses but at the same time, providing them with security, contacts to further their business operations, and the reassurance that their commercial deals would work. In this kind of relationship, the extortion is mutually beneficial for both the extortionist and the victim.

Many criminal groups conduct their extortions in a mechanical way: not showing special interest in the maintenance of the businesses they extort.

Although this kind of extortion requires a highly developed protection market with stable businesses and trustworthy criminal groups, we can find evidence of this symbiotic relationship happening in Mexico. For instance, one of the businessmen consulted for the report stated that when he was approached by extortionists, they told him they were available if he or his business “needed anything”. The extortionists presented themselves as protectors against robbers and debt collectors in case anyone owed the business any money.

Nevertheless, other Latin American countries with high levels of organized crime violence like Brazil offer an excellent example of how this protection is provided. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, criminal militias are well known for demanding monthly payments from any kind of business (legal or informal) in the favelas. They conduct violent campaigns against petty criminals who rob or assault local businesses they extort.

In Mexico, drug cartel members have claimed to have killed suspected looters and robbers (often displaying their corpses in public with a written message). This could mean that incidents like the ones seen in Brazil apply to Mexico as well and that, in some cases, protection is provided by certain groups to local businesses.

The Resources of the Extortion Industry

One of the main reasons why Mexican criminal groups get involved in extorting businesses is because of its low barriers of entry (i.e. few resources needed to perform the activity) and its low costs.

Contrary to other criminal activities such as drug trafficking, which requires multiple and sophisticated resources ranging from cultivation fields to refining laboratories, extortion requires three basic elements: intelligence gathering, reputation and workforce.

The Mexican criminal groups involved in the extortion businesses might appear as entities charging money randomly to any kind of business operating in the areas under their control. Although this is partially true, most criminal groups behave like rational economic individuals who use the information at their disposal to classify businesses accordingly. According to our research, cartels consider factors like a business’s industry and income range to apply a quota.

Criminal groups try to rely on intelligence gathering in order to discover, classify and charge the businesses. In fact, Mexican criminal groups can be so sophisticated in areas which are firmly under their control that they might even use government office’s data for calculating the range of payment that must be addressed by each type of business.

For example, some of the people interviewed for this report expressed their suspicions about Mexico’s Tax Administration Service (Servicio de Administración Tributaria – SAT), the equivalent of the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS). They said that some employees from this government agency had colluded with the Gulf Cartel and provided them with information about the different types of businesses that might be targeted for extortion in Tamaulipas.

SEE ALSO: Mexico’s Cartels Fighting It Out for Control of Avocado Business

Another real-life example of how sophisticated the market for extortion might become in Mexico is the case of the Michoacán avocado plantations. Michoacán is the world’s leading avocado producer, accounting for 90 percent of the country’s production. In an area less than 150,000 hectares, there are at least 25,000 avocado producers, with businesses of all sizes. This area covers 22 municipalities, including the major avocado-producing ones like Uruapan, Tancítaro, Zitácuaro, Tacámbaro, Peribán, Tingambato, Los Reyes, and Paracho.

A market of such importance could not escape from the Michoacán-based Knight Templar Cartel’s extortion activities. In order to obtain information about the avocado businesses in the area, the Knights Templar Cartel obtained information from the Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (Secretaría de Agricultura, Ganadería, Desarrollo Rural, Pesca y Alimentación – SAGARPA). Specifically, cartel members looked for the local permits issued by the Local Plant Health Councils to locate every avocado farmer in order to extort them.

The use of economic information obtained through the government might indicate why several criminal organizations demand extortion quotas that are usually proportionate to the business’s size.

For instance, according to business owners interviewed for this report, the Gulf Cartel extorted business of the same size and charged them more or less the same amount range. However, large businesses in the area, like the maquilas operating in Matamoros, were forced to pay higher quotas.

This indicates that extortionists can operate in a rational way by dividing businesses depending on their size/revenue and demanding lower or higher payments depending on these factors.

The second resource for a successful extortion campaign is the reputation of the extorting group. In Mexico, most extortion demands are accompanied by threats. Thus, the victim will be compelled to meet the extortionist’s demands if the extortionist presents himself as a member of a criminal group known for its ruthless reprisals against those who oppose it. For example, when a person is killed inside a business that was extorted, the extorting group might be setting an example in an attempt to discourage potential clients who are reluctant to pay. In conclusion, if a criminal group is violent, victims are more likely to pay.

The last factor is the workforce. This represents the people who contact the business owners and demand extortion payments. According to a business owner interviewed for the report, the extortionists directly went to the business site to demand the payment every month. In other cases, the contact was made indirectly.

In Guanajuato, for example, we know that certain businesses are contacted through a letter or note containing a name and phone number. The victim must make contact by phone and negotiate the payment with the extortionist remotely.

To summarize, the extortion business is cheap and easy to perform because the resources needed are basic and easy to deploy. Extortionists can do face-to-face extortion, but our research shows that they do not have to be physically present to successfully run this activity. Criminal groups simply need people, a violent reputation and victims who fear them.

Characteristics of the Mexican Extortion Industry

Since the extortion market is an illegal environment, it does not operate unilaterally and different situations may often arise. In Michoacan, for example, the quotas demanded from the avocado producers were fixed for everyone in the production chain. Regardless of their size, non-exporting producers paid 1,500 Mexican pesos (about $70) for every hectare cultivated each year. On the other hand, exporting producers paid 3,000 Mexican pesos (about $140) for every hectare on a yearly basis.

When the Knight Templars started suffering from increasing competition from rival organizations and local self-defense groups, they made their extortion demands even more stringent. They began asking for 10 cents more for each kilo of avocado (10 pesos for every 100 kilograms or 100 pesos for every ton.)

One of the businessmen interviewed for this report stated that the criminal group who extorted him (the Gulf Cartel) allowed them to extend their payment date if necessary. However, in doing so, the business suffered a 10% post-maturity interest.It is not exactly clear to what extent criminal groups facilitate extortion payments. Italian criminal organizations, for example, are known to apply a rationalistic method to their demands by offering some sort of deferred payment for the businesses that are unable to pay them. The use of accrued interests is common and we have discovered that in certain parts of Mexico this is used.

There are also cases where the extortionist group does not allow any kind of late payment and react violently if their demands are not met on time. We cannot establish with absolute certainty why some organizations are minimally open to negotiation while others are not, but the fact that the same groups happen to behave in both ways at the same point in time while in different areas might suggest that their behavior is dependent on the control degree they exert over a certain area. The presence of rival criminal groups plays a role in their behavior.

It is also important to determine when criminal organizations become involved in extortion in the areas they operate in. Based on our studies, turfs where rival criminal groups compete lead to higher extortion levels. Having two or more rival groups in a turf hinders the possibility of conducting the most lucrative activity: drug trafficking. To meet their daily expenses, criminal groups in these situations start looking around for easy and quick means of making money. Extortion is usually among the first options.

Mexican drug cartels not only get involved in extortion during ongoing violence. They can get involved to affirm dominion over a certain area before violence erupts in order to secure incoming revenue and cover potential losses in the future.

One of the biggest problems that victims could face is the possibility of multilateral extortion. This happens when an area is contested by two or more rival organizations that are constantly fighting over resources. There is a chance that a certain business begins to be extorted by several groups at the same time. For example, the state of Guanajuato is currently the epicenter of a violent war between the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel (CSRL) over local illicit markets, mainly oil theft and drug distribution at the retail level.

SEE ALSO: Mexico’s Oil Thieves Have Moved Into Extortion in Guanajuato

Both organizations have started extorting local businesses in order to find resources to finance their cells and gain territorial control. In some cases, the contested zones are small and businesses get extorted by both criminal groups. Most of the time, when a criminal group contacts a business for extortion purposes, they introduce themselves and say which cartel they represent and the local boss they work for.

For example, the business owners interviewed for this report were told very clearly who they were paying to and were also advised not to pay to any other group. Some of them told Borderland Beat that they knew of other businesses that had been extorted by Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel concurrently. Some of these business owners were kidnapped or killed for refusing to pay and for paying a rival group. Others, the interviewees said, closed down their businesses overnight and fled. Multilateral extortion damages the victim twofold: business owners have to endure greater economic losses while at the same time risk retribution for paying a rival gang.

The Effects of Extortion in Mexico

The effects of extortion in Mexican businesses vary greatly since there is not a unique extortion practice being applied uniformly in the country. One of the main effects of the extortion suffered by certain businesses in Mexico is the possibility of the quotas being so high that the business is unable to meet the requirements, and in order not to suffer retribution, they are forced to close down. This has happened in fiercely contested zones where each rival drug group is constantly looking around for resources and tries to drain the maximum possible from each extorted business.

In August 2019 in Guanajuato, tortilla markers in the town of Celaya went on strike demanding local authorities for protection against extortionists, particularly the CSRL. By this year, the CSRL was suffering losses in its war with the CJNG, and their leader José Antonio Yépez Ortiz (“El Marro”) began increasing the extortion rates to make up for them.

Tortilleros were forced to pay an initial fee ranging between 3,000 to 500,000 Mexican pesos (about $140 to $22,000) plus monthly quotas ranging from 3,000 to 50,000 Mexican pesos (about US$1400 to $2,200). Two days after the strike, three women were gunned down at the La Indita tortilla factory in Celaya. One of them had participated in the strikes.

The following month, a Ford Motors shop in Celaya was attacked by gunmen for failing to pay an extortion. The shop closed down a few days later under fears of future attacks. Over 80 employees lost their jobs overnight.

We must take into account that these dramatic results (e.g. businesses shutting down) do not always play out in this manner. As a matter of fact, certain industries can adapt very quickly and efficiently to organized crime extortion rackets. One of the best examples is the avocado industry in Michoacan. The avocado industry in Michoacan has suffered extortion since the 2000s but the industry has not declined as a result of it. In fact, avocado production has continued to grow every year since 2010 despite the violent turf wars between the CJNG and their rival groups in the area like Los Viagras, the Nueva Familia Michoacana and the Tepalcatepec Cartel.

One common observation in extortion studies is that extortion quotas lead to an increase in the prices of the products and services of the extorted businesses. Although this might be true in the case of small and medium-sized businesses, who may need to increase prices to cover for the extortion losses, this observation was not applicable to the avocado industry. The steady price of Mexican avocado shows that extortion does not necessarily affect the price of a product or service.

For example, when the self-defense (autodefensa) groups in Michoacan started fighting the Knights Templar in 2013, the cartel increased its quota on avocado companies from $1,300 to nearly $2,800 per ton. Avocado prices fluctuated for years with no significant spikes or surges. In early 2016, avocado prices decreased to its original 2013 price. However, in mid-2016, the prices went up again and declined later that year. This occurred again between 2017 and 2019.

The fluctuation of avocado prices shows that the classical “cost theory” of extortion – which assumes that extortion increases the prices of products and services of extorted business – is not necessarily factual. Avocado prices go up and down according to very well defined price cycles and are determined by factors like foreign demand and not local extortion rates.

For the avocado industry, extortion rates represent only a small portion of their fixed costs and were an “affordable” expense. For example, in 2013, the Knights Templar Cartel received an estimated $119 million pesos (approximately $5.2 million) from avocado extortions. This represents only 0.5 percent of the total value of avocado production that year. The available data also shows that the percentage of extortion money paid in relation to the avocado production growth actually decreased over time. In other words, the quotas demanded by extortionists were not fast enough to keep up with the industry’s growth.

*This article was originally published by Borderland Beat. This is a shortened and edited version, republished with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the complete original here.

Colombia-Mexico Links Alleged in Narco-Sub Caught in Pacific

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Colombian authorities with more than one ton of cocaine seized from a semi-submersible vessel

Authorities say a submarine intercepted off Colombia’s Pacific Coast was carrying more than a ton of cocaine bound for Mexico’s Jalisco Cartel, though the details are scant and the route is heavily trafficked. 

Using police intelligence, Colombia’s armed forces captured the semi-submersible vessel traveling more than 80 kilometers off the coast of Nariño department, in southwest Colombia. Three Ecuadorean nationals were arrested onboard, according to a military press release.

The submarine — valued at more than $1 million — was outfitted with a satellite navigation system and able to hold more than three tons of cocaine, according to Colombia’s National Police.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

The vessel was routed for Costa Careyes in Mexico’s western Jalisco state — the home base of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) — where it was supposed to land during the first week of September, the National Police said.

Police Chief Oscar Atehortúa Duque said that a cell of former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC), known as the 30th Front and reportedly led by alias “Mahecha,” was behind the shipment. The group is among many ex-FARC cells that have come to be known collectively as the ex-FARC Mafia.

A remote cocaine production facility was also dismantled in an August 24 raid in the Río Colorado sector of Nariño. Seized from the facility — which had the capacity to produce up to one ton of cocaine per week — was almost a ton and a half of cocaine hydrochloride, 658 kilograms of coca paste and other materials used to process and package the drug, officials said.

Another ex-FARC mafia group, the Oliver Sinisterra Front (Frente Oliver Sinisterra — FOS), allegedly operated the facility.

The Oliver Sinisterra Front is believed to operate in the municipality of Tumaco, Nariño’s second-biggest city and Colombia’s second most important Pacific port behind Buenaventura just to the north. The 30th Front is active in the municipalities of Mosquera, Magüí Payán, Olaya Herrera and La Tola in Nariño, according to authorities.

InSight Crime Analysis

While the suspected links between organized crime groups in Colombia and Mexico regarding the seized submarine are not yet proven, the intercept has again highlighted traffickers’ preferred use of the Pacific route.

Colombian authorities offered no evidence to back up the claim that the CJNG was the recipient of the cocaine payload, and it’s unlikely the three Ecuadorean men on board would have had that information to provide. Crews tend to be local fishermen occupying some of the lowest rungs of the drug trafficking chain.

What’s more, the majority of Colombian cocaine smuggled by boat moves north via Pacific waters to transshipment points in Central America or to Mexico directly before entering the United States, the United Nations noted in its 2020 World Drug Report.

SEE ALSO: Pacific Drug Routes From South America More Popular Than Atlantic

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) found in its 2019 National Drug Threat Assessment that 90 percent of cocaine seized in the United States was sourced to Colombia.

(Graphic c/o UN 2020 World Drug Report)

Colombian traffickers have also increasingly moved across the southern border into Ecuador to exploit the Pacific route. InSight Crime’s in-depth 2019 investigation into trafficking dynamics there found that the Pacific route out of Ecuador is “largely supplied by cocaine produced in Nariño.”

The department is home to almost 37,000 hectares of coca crops, the second most in Colombia, according to coca crop monitoring data for 2019 from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).